Recently I was asked a question, should I start training and lifting before puberty?
It has long been thought that lifting weights early in childhood can stunt growth, and a lot of people have shied away from training kids at younger age levels. Pre-pubescent youth will not experience the same rate of muscle growth as that of their older counter parts due to decreased amounts of human growth hormone and testosterone, but is lifting weights actually bad for them?
The answer is NO. Lifting weights and training is beneficial, and I would go as far to say necessary, for pre-pubescent children. Recently researchers published a review titled "How Young is 'Too Young' to Start Training?" and obviously this caught my attention because I think I get asked this question about once per week. I want to take a deeper look at some of the things in the review.
The first thing that is mentioned is integrative neuromuscular training (INT). It is a conceptual training model that is operationally defined in this review as a training program that incorporates general (e.g., fundamental movements) and specific (e.g., exercises prescribed to target motor control deficits) strength and conditioning activities including resistance training, dynamic stability exercises, core focused training, plyometric drills and agility training that are specifically designed to enhance health and skill-related components of physical fitness. These movements are the type that you would see in most common strength and conditioning programs.
What the researchers found is that those who started INT pre-adolescence saw more neuromuscular potential realized. Interestingly, starting to train earlier can aid in developing proper movement patterns and preventing injuries. A well designed strength and conditioning program should enhance muscular strength expression within other key movement patterns such as jumping, pushing, pulling, acceleration/deceleration, unilateral, and bilateral movements. Childhood sports injuries have been on the rise in recent years, and most adolescent sport science researchers believe there is a possible link between declining physical education and higher screen time among children in the United States. Strength and conditioning programs are an excellent way to combat these issues and ensure that children are forming the proper foundation of movements.
This is a figure from the paper, detailing the neuromuscular performance relationship with when strength and conditioning programs were initiated. As you can see, when the program is administered pre-adolescence, a greater performance potential is realized.
If we can develop proper motor patterns early, our performance potential will be higher and our injury rates will be lower. That sounds like a great outcome, but be aware of what is a proper strength and conditioning program based on your chronological age, but also your training age. Your chronological age is how old you are based on date of birth (my birthday is July 11, 1994; so my age as of right now is 23). Training age is the amount of time you have spent in training programs (I started strength training when I was 13, therefore my training age is 10). To ensure that you are being prescribed a proper training plan, do research on who you are hiring for training, and make sure they have appropriate education and credentials. I wrote a post on what to look for. You can find that here.
To be honest, I wish I had started training sooner, but I will say that I did play outside every single day during my childhood, which most kids cannot say these days. I also played basketball, football, and dabbled in track (I am saving a rant on early sport specialization for another post) and know for a fact that helped my athletic development as a whole. Yes, kids can and should train pre-adolescence, but make sure kids are doing age appropriate work and are not getting burned out. In addition, never EVER underestimate the power of playing outside. If you doubt that your child is getting enough physical activity pre-adolescence, it's a good idea to take them to a strength and conditioning coach.