Is Weightlifting Safe for Children?

My 13 year-old son recently took off his shirt for a scoliosis screening at school.  The examining nurse commented, “Wow, you are really muscular.  You must be a wrestler.”  When my son stated that he was not a wrestler, but rather an Olympic weightlifter, the nurse’s look of approval turned to one of concern.  “Weightlifting?  At your age?  You’re too young for that.”

The nurse’s ill-advised comments are all too familiar for parents of youth weightlifters.  Many adults assume that weightlifting is harmful for young athletes, but recent studies seem to suggest otherwise.

Notwithstanding some parents’ beliefs that children have no business lifting weights, especially in a competitive setting, weightlifting is currently one of the fastest growing sports for children around the world.  In the United States alone, between 2012 and 2016, USAW (which is Team USA’s Olympic weightlifting arm) experienced an unprecedented 181% growth in membership among youth athletes.1  According to Brad Suchorski, USAW Membership Manager, as of January 2017, there were over 2,500 weightlifters under the age of 18 in the United States.   This represented a 27% increase in membership for male athletes and a 49% increase in membership for female athletes in a single year!

However, just because masses of parents are signing their kids up for the sport . . . is it safe for our children?

This article examines the two most common objections to youth weightlifting: first, that lifting heavy weights can stunt a child’s growth; and second, that weightlifting is a dangerous sport.

Objection 1: Lifting Heavy Weights Stunts Growth in Children

A child’s bones are subject to a unique injury not experienced by adults – growth plate fractures.

Children and teenagers have a piece of cartilage called an epiphyseal plate, or growth plate, near the end of their long bones.  This cartilage constantly produces new cells which later harden (or ossify) and create new bone tissue that becomes part of the long bone.  Complete ossification of the bone occurs after a child reaches maturity, usually between ages 13 and 15 for girls and 15 and 17 for boys.2

As shown in the figure above, long bones have two growth plates – one on the top and one on the bottom.  As such, these long bones do not grow from the center out, instead, they grow from each end at the growth plates.

When a growth plate is injured, there is potential for arthritis or even deformities in the affected bone.  Growth plate injuries, however, are rare.3, 6  About 85% of the time, growth plate injuries heal with no lasting effects.3   And, those that do occur are typically successfully treated without long term problems.2

So, what causes growth plate injuries?

Growth plate fractures are most often caused by a single event, such as a car accident or serious fall.  These types of injuries can be caused by a myriad of things that gradually result in repetitive stress on bones such as: repeated impact to the bone, long hours spent on activities (e.g. a pitcher perfecting a curve ball), running, and so on.4

As noted, by and large, over 50% of growth plate injuries result from a fall.5  Approximately 30% of growth plate injuries occur during participation in competitive sports such as football, basketball or gymnastics.  And, the last 20% of growth plate injuries occur during participation in recreational activities such as biking, sledding, skiing, or skateboarding.6

It is also noteworthy to mention that boys are more at risk for growth plate injuries, as girls mature faster than the boys.6

What are typical signs of growth plate injuries?

Symptoms of a growth plate injury in children are the same as those for a broken bone, and include:

  • inability to put weight or pressure on the limb,
  • pain or discomfort,
  • swelling or tenderness in the area of the bone, near the joint, and
  • inability to move the limb.3, 6

I’m sure this goes without saying, but if you suspect your child has a bone injury, get immediate care with your pediatrician, orthopedic surgeon or your local emergency room.

Can weightlifting cause a growth plate injury?  

Absolutely—but so can baseball, gymnastics, football, running, skiing, falling out of a tree or just being a kid.

The real question is: Is there a higher incidence of growth plate injuries in children who participate in weightlifting?

No.  There is not a higher incidence of growth plate injuries in children who participate in weightlifting as opposed to other sports.

One of the most comprehensive study of youth resistance training was conducted by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).7  The most recent study, conducted in 2014, published its results in “Position Statement on Youth Resistance Training: the 2014 International Consensus.”8  That article, and its findings, were widely endorsed, including by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM), the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), and the Chief Medical Officer, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

The NSCA undertook the study because of the growing interest among researchers, clinicians and practitioners in children and adolescents participation in various forms of resistance training (i.e., the use of body weight, weight machines, free weights (barbells and dumbbells), elastic bands and medicine balls). The NSCA found that there was a “compelling body of scientific evidence that supports regular participation in youth resistance training to reinforce positive health and fitness adaptations and sports performance enhancement,” provided that the programs are supervised by qualified professionals.

From a health perspective, evidence indicates that resistance training can make positive alterations in overall body composition, reduce body fat, improve insulin-sensitivity in adolescents who are overweight and enhance cardiac function in children who are obese.

Importantly, it has also been demonstrated that regular participation in an appropriately designed exercise program inclusive of resistance training, can … likely reduce sports-related injury risk in young athletes. This would appear to be an important consideration given that approximately 3.5 million sports-related injuries in youth require a medical visit each year in the USA.

Additionally, muscular strength and resistance training have been associated with positive psychological health and well-being in children and adolescents.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health agencies now include resistance training as part of their physical activity guidelines for children and adolescents.

In its review, the NSCA determined:

Fears that resistance training injures the growth plates of youth are not supported by scientific reports or clinical observations.

Rather, the literature suggests that childhood and adolescence are key developmental periods for increasing bone-mineral density, and that failure to participate in moderate-to-vigorous weight-bearing physical activity during these stages of growth may predispose individuals to long-term bone-health implications.

No scientific evidence indicates that resistance training will have an adverse effect on linear growth during childhood or adolescence or reduce eventual height in adulthood.

And, specifically with regard to weightlifting for young athletes, the NSCA found that “participation in the sport of weightlifting and the performance of weightlifting movements as part of a strength and conditioning program can be safe, effective and enjoyable for children and adolescents provided qualified supervision and instruction are available and progression is based on the technical performance of each lift … If training and competition are properly supervised and sensibly progressed, then the performance of weightlifting exercises may provide a safe and effective stimulus for enhancing strength and power performance in school-age youth.”

Objection 2: Weightlifting is a Dangerous Sport

The sport of weightlifting involves lifting maximal effort weight overhead in the snatch or the clean and jerk.  Naturally, heavy weights have the potential to harm the individual lifting them, but do they at higher rates than other sports?

Not so much, as compared to other youth sports.  Studies of sports-related injuries in school-aged youth have shown weightlifting to be one of the safest sports.9

Although the data comparing the relative safety of resistance training, weightlifting, and other sports are limited, one evaluation of injury rates in adolescents revealed that resistance training and weightlifting were markedly safer than many other sports and activities (with the overall injury rate per 100 participant hours was 0.8000 for rugby and 0.0120 and 0.0013 for resistance training and weightlifting, respectively).

Another study which evaluating the incidence of sports-related injuries in school-aged youth had similar findings:

Over a one-year period, resistance training resulted in 0.7% of 1576 injuries whereas football, basketball, and soccer resulted in approximately 19%, 15%, and 2%, respectively, of all injuries. When the data were evaluated in terms of injury to participant ratio in school team sports, football (28%), wrestling (16.4%) and gymnastics (13%) were at the top of the list.

The generally accepted explanation for this is the fact that the sport of weightlifting is typically characterized by well-informed coaches and a gradual progression of training loads which are required to effectively learn the technique of advanced multipoint lifts.

In support of these observations, others have evaluated the incidence of injury in young weightlifters and concluded that competitive weightlifting can be a relatively safe sport for children and adolescents provided that age-appropriate training guidelines are followed and qualified coaching is available. Since weightlifting movements involve more complex neural activation patterns than other resistance exercises, childhood may be the ideal time to develop the coordination and skill technique to perform these lifts correctly. To date, no scientific evidence indicates that properly performed and sensibly progressed weightlifting movements performed during practice or competition are riskier than other sports and activities in which youth regularly participate. Nevertheless, due to the potential for injury during the performance of multi-joint free weight exercises, youth coaches should be aware of the considerable amount of time it takes to teach these lifts and should be knowledgeable of the progression from basic exercises (e.g., front squat), to skill transfer exercises (e.g., overhead squat), and finally to the competitive lifts (snatch and clean and jerk).

Not only have studies shown that athletes who incorporate resistance training, such as weightlifting, in their programs suffer fewer injuries and less time in rehabilitation than team-mates who do not participate in resistance training, but the studies also find numerous benefits to such training.

In conclusion, weightlifting is safe for kids.  Like all sports, weightlifting carries with it some risk of injury.  However, the risk of injury while weightlifting can be minimized by qualified supervision, appropriate program design, sensible progression, allowing for adequate recovery between training sessions and listening to the athlete’s questions and concerns.

So, find a good coach, respect the equipment, and enjoy the sport!

 

____________________________________________________________________________

References:

(1) Farley, K. (2016, Winter). The Quad that Was. USA Weightlifting.org, 13.

(2) “Growth Plate Injuries.” KidsHealth. September 2016. Accessed March 29, 2017.

(3) Lueder, Rani, and Valerie J. Berg. Rice. Ergonomics for children: designing products and places for toddler to teens. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2008, 218.

(4) What Are Growth Plate Injuries? Fast Facts: An Easy-to-Read Series of Publications for the Public. (2014, November).

(5) Lueder, Rani, and Valerie J. Berg. Rice. Ergonomics for children: designing products and places for toddler to teens. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2008, 217.

(6) “Growth Plate Fractures-OrthoInfo – AAOS.” Growth Plate Fractures-OrthoInfo – AAOS. October 01, 2014. Accessed March 29, 2017.

(7) Previous reviews also were conducted by the NSCA in 1985, 1996, and 2009.

(8) Feigenbaum, Avery. “Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus.” National Strength and Conditioning Journal, September 20, 2013, 3-4. Accessed March 29, 2017.

(9) Feigenbaum, Avery . “Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper.” National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal, January 9, 2009, 4. Accessed March 29, 2017.

By | 2017-11-06T20:07:46+00:00 April 21st, 2017|Parent Resources|

About the Author:

Susan Friend is a weightlifter, coach, and weightlifting enthusiast. Susan has participated in both the U.S. and German weightlifting systems, along with her son, Hutch, who holds four U.S. Youth National Championship titles and one German Youth National Championship title.

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