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Exercise and Fitness

Weight Lifting



My son will be 13 in May. He plays football and they want to start weight lifting classes. When is it safe for him to start weight lifting and how much weight for that specific age?


In the past, resistance training has not been recommended for children due to the assumption that children would not respond with an increase in muscular strength, endurance, or hypertrophy.  Recent research, however, has dispelled this myth and shown that children can significantly increase muscular strength and endurance with resistance training, although their ability to increase muscle size through hypertrophy is somewhat limited.  The increase in strength is thought to occur primarily through neural factors instead of an increase in muscular cross sectional area.

Recommendations for strength training in children are numerous and fairly consistent across multiple sources.  The American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all propose that strength training can be safely performed by children.  However, children should first be required to undergo a physical examination prior to beginning a resistance training program.  Once medical clearance has been given, a program with realistic goals should be established.

Two concerns are inherent with strength training equipment:  1)  Most strength training machines are large and made for adult use.  It is therefore critical to adjust the machine to properly fit the child by adding a pad behind the back, or altering the machine's range of motion.  If a piece of equipment cannot be modified to fit the child, it should not be used.  2)  Machines are typically designed with large increments in weight (10-15 lbs.).  If a child is to use a particular machine, external weights need to be added in small increments (2.5-5 lbs.) to alleviate overuse injuries.

Strength training programs for children should be characterized by:  1)  Close, continuous, trained supervision, 2)  Adequate warm-up, 3)  High repetitions per set (no less than 6 to 8 reps per set), 4)  Adequate recovery between sessions (train no more than 2-3 days per week), 5)  Emphasis on proper form, and 6)  Inclusion of flexibility exercises (especially during adolescent growth spurts).

An emphasis should be placed on proper technique, not on the use of an external load.  Once a student has developed a moderate amount of strength with gradual progression, external loads may be added gradually.  In addition, children should only participate in resistance training if they demonstrate an interest in this activity.  An unmotivated child is not likely to adequately follow directions, which can lead to injuries.  Finally, as with any activity, exercise should be fun, not a chore.


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Response by:

Carolyn   Nickol, RD, MEd Carolyn Nickol, RD, MEd
Fitness Center at CARE\Crawley
University of Cincinnati