What is the proper age to start lifting weights? This question has been a debate in the strength training community for a long time now.
Before tackling this question, know that there is a difference between strength training and lifting weights. Strength training simply implies doing exercises to get stronger. It doesn’t mean require lifting weights to achieve that goal.
Body weight is a good form of resistance that is generally safe and effective, especially for young kids. However, for some muscle groups, body weight resistance is only temporary.
When body weight is no longer enough of a challenge for the body to continue to get stronger, the introduction of weights is necessary to continue strength gains.
So how do I know when my athlete is ready for weights?
An exact number in years is neither appropriate nor advised. Because of the large differences in growth rate and development between each child, it is more suitable to make the decision based on biological age rather than chronological age. Puberty can help assist us in making that decision.
For females, puberty can range anywhere from age 8 to 13 years old. For boys, puberty usually begins later, from 9 to 15 years old. Maturity of secondary sex characteristics during this time frame – such as pubic hair in both sexes; menstruation and breast development in females; and facial hair or voice deepening in males – can indicate a safe time to start.
Children younger than this biological stage can participate in weight lifting as long as the weight is very light with a primary focus on technique. Benefits in balance, stability, bone density and neuromuscular motor unit coordination expressed as strength can still be achieved.
As with younger children, the amount of weight being lifted remains important for individuals still in or just coming out of puberty because of peak height velocity, which typically takes place around the age of 12 in females and 14 in males.
During this stage of rapid growth, bones can become weaker along with imbalances in tendon tightness and muscular strength. It is important to monitor growth spurts and adjust the training protocol on weight-bearing exercises accordingly, particularly when loading the axial skeleton with movements like the squat and deadlift. The ages of 15 to 16 years old in both males and females is a widely accepted range to begin lifting at or near maximal effort in most exercises when executed correctly.
David Williams is a certified strength and conditioning coach at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis.
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