Does Weightlifting Stunt Your Child's Growth

Image by Sara Jensen

We all love what powerlifting does for us and our bodies. I know for myself I wish my parents introduced me to training and lifting early in life. I love seeing videos of young girls training with their mom or dad but  many parents ask "Does weightlifting stunt your child's growth?" 

Where does the Myth Come From

Back in the 1970s, researchers in Japan studied child laborers and discovered that, among their many misfortunes, the juvenile workers tended to be abnormally short. Physical labor, the researchers concluded, with its hours of lifting and moving heavy weights, had stunted the children’s growth. Somewhat improbably, from that scientific finding and other similar reports, as well as from anecdotes and accreting myth, many people came to believe “that children and adolescents should not” practice weight training, said Avery Faigenbaum, a professor of exercise science at the College of New Jersey. That idea retains a sturdy hold in the popular imagination. 

Children & adolescents have growth plates at the end of most bones. Growth plates regulates the length & shape of bones. Bone grows around growth plates, not from the center outward. Growth plate is the last part of bones to harden. This makes it more vulnerable to fractures which can cause problems like unequal bone length. Weight lifting can stunt your growth if you damage the growth plate.

Dismissing the Myths

You don’t get hit on your ankles & knees during weight lifting like with Soccer. You don’t get collisions like in Football. The only way you can fracture your bones is by letting weights fall on you.

According to Dr. Avery Faigenbaum, concerns about weight lifting stunting the growth of children and adolescents are outdated and misleading. Instead, he suggests that eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly allow you to achieve your maximal height, with inactive, unhealthy eaters more likely to have stunted growth. Betsy Keller of Ithaca College suggests that this myth exists because some researchers focus only on specific groups of athletes. In a 2008 review of the literature, she suggests that evidence for weightlifting's negative impact on growth arises solely from sports that are well-suited for shorter people, such as women's gymnastics and competitive dancing.

Check out this meta-analysis of Resistance Training effects on children published in Pediatrics

In the Pediatrics review, researchers with the Institute of Training Science and Sports Informatics in Cologne, Germany, analyzed 60 years’ worth of studies of children and weightlifting. The studies covered boys and girls from age 6 to 18. The researchers found that, almost without exception, children and adolescents benefited from weight training. They grew stronger. Older children, particularly teenagers, tended to add more strength than younger ones, as would be expected, but the difference was not enormous. Overall, strength gains were “linear,” the researchers found. They didn’t spike wildly after puberty for boys or girls, even though boys at that age are awash in testosterone, the sex hormone known to increase muscle mass in adults. That was something of a surprise. On the other hand, a reliable if predictable factor was consistency. Young people of any age who participated in resistance training at least twice a week for a month or more showed greater strength gains than those who worked out only once a week or for shorter periods.

Overall, the researchers concluded, “regardless of maturational age, children generally seem to be capable of increasing muscular strength.”

Conclusion

“We are urban dwellers stuck in hunter-gatherer bodies,” said Lyle Micheli, M.D., the director of sports medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston and professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard University, as well as a co-author, with Dr. Faigenbaum, of the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s 2009 position paper about children and resistance training. “That’s true for children as well as adults. There was a time when children ‘weight trained’ by carrying milk pails and helping around the farm. Now few children, even young athletes, get sufficient activity” to fully strengthen their muscles, tendons and other tissues. “If a kid sits in class or in front of a screen for hours and then you throw them out onto the soccer field or basketball court, they don’t have the tissue strength to withstand the forces involved in their sports. That can contribute to injury.”

In contrast with suggestions of stunted growth among young weightlifters, Betsy Keller points out that weightlifting may be more effective than other forms of exercise in promoting bone growth and density among adolescents. 

With both direct and indirect evidence suggesting that weightlifting may increase bone length and density, it seems as though this myth is untrue. Rather than stunt your growth, weightlifting when you are young, may allow you to grow taller than you would without such exercise.

Weight lifting recommendations for youth

  • Supervision. All exercises must be done with proper technique. Stop bad technique immediately & discourage it.
  • Warm-up. Warm muscles are harder to injure than cold ones. Always start with an empty barbell & do plenty of warm up sets.
  • Technique. You can’t put any weight on the barbell until you can do your exercises correctly. This will act motivating.
  • Stay Away From Failure. Technique deteriorates with heavy attempts. No 1 rep max. Start with an empty barbell, add weight each workout.

Sources & Further Reading

Strength Training by Children, National Library of Medicine, Weight Train in Youth - Growth,  Benefits of Weight Training For Kids , Live Strong , Does Weightlifting Stunt your Growth  , Misconception of Youth Training , Elite FTS Strength Training for Youth 


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