Is weightlifting safe for young athletes?

Dr. Theresa Willis, pediatrician and powerlifter, weighs in on weightlifting and young athletes.

Many of us are accustomed to the image of college football players working out in the weight room. We’re even familiar and comfortable with the idea of the varsity high school kids lifting weights as part of their workouts. But what about tennis players or swimmers? And what about the kids in middle school? Should they lift weights? Is there any benefit to a female volleyball player or a 7th grade boy? Is it safe?

Good questions. And the answer is, yes. Yes, girls benefit from weightlifting. Yes, pre-adolescent boys benefit from weight lifting. And in a properly structured and supervised environment, weightlifting is actually safer than football and soccer!

Research studies in the 1990’s showed strength gains in the range of 30-50 percent in pre-adolescents. These gains were above and beyond the normal gains associated with growth and development and they occurred in both boys and girls.

A few decades ago, there was concern in the medical community that weight lifting might damage growth plates in the bones or negatively affect linear growth (height). However, there has been no report of epiphyseal (growth plate) damage and it has been shown that weight lifting is safer than contact sports.

What does weightlifting do for my child?

Weightlifting is a form of strength training. Strength training improves the obvious, strength. It also improves body composition by increasing lean body mass, increases bone density, helps to prevent injuries, increases sports performance (more strength translates to faster sprint times, greater force production and an higher vertical leap) and increased self-esteem.

What is a properly structured and supervised environment?

Properly structured environments include safe, well-maintained equipment, educated coaches, good technique and knowing the proper weights and loads for each individual student.

Coaches should be present at all times when students are lifting and proper spotting technique should always be used, especially with lifts such as the squat and the bench press.

Coaches and trainers should be certified by organizations such as the American Council on Exercise, National Strength and Conditioning Association, or the American College of Sports Medicine.

If you have specific questions or concerns about whether your child should be lifting weights, please talk to his or her doctor. We’re here to help.

Stay well!