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Does Lifting Weights REALLY Stunt Growth in Children and Teens?

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Weightlifting is one of the most popular forms of exercise out there. In fact, according to a report in 2016 published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8.9% of Americans were participating in weightlifting.


That was the second most popular form of exercise (after walking), even ahead of running!


Young boy doing weightlifting on beach with heavy bar and pumped tires

And the fitness industry is only going to continue growing. It's getting larger and larger every year, meaning more and more people are taking up healthier, more active lifestyles.


While it's getting more popular among adults, more teens and children are starting to participate in regular weightlifting as well. Some intermediate schools for children around 12 years old are starting to introduce fully dedicated gyms for lifting weights!


Is this really safe?


We've all heard that weightlifting at a young age leads to stunted growth and causes children to end up shorter than they otherwise would have. If you asked around the general public, you'd likely get conflicting answers.


Some will tell you that it does stunt your growth and causes damage to your joints and bones, and others will tell you that it's completely safe and even healthy for them to be doing so.


We're here to address that in this post, looking into the science behind it, some reasoning behind both sides of the argument, and helping you make sense of it all.




First of All: Where Did This Notion Come From?


The notion or idea that weightlifting at a young age stunts growth most likely came from the fact that injuring a growth plate in a bone that's not yet fully developed or mature can actually lead to stunted growth.


That's right. Injuring yourself under (relatively) heavy pressure or placing too much stress on them can actually lead to stunted growth.


You can sort of see why this idea became popular. Placing your body under relatively large loads doesn't exactly sound like a good thing for young bodies that are nowhere near fully developed.


That's probably where this idea originated from.


So Does This mean That Weightlifting at a Young Age is Bad?


Well, not exactly. You see, while it may sound like lifting weights places the body under a large amount of stress, what many well meaning and caring parents fail to realize is that weightlifting actually places significantly less pressure and stress on the joints and bones than many of the other popular sports and activities that they DO allow their children to participate in do.


For example, take running. It's one of the most popular forms of exercise all across the world, and is one that most parents are willing to allow their children to participate in.


Group of children doing running on an athletics track and getting fit together

Many studies have collectively gathered varied results, but most of them say that running could place as much as 3-8 times a person's bodyweight through the knee joint with every single step. Most agree that 4 times bodyweight is appropriate and likely accurate.


So if your child weighs 40 kilograms or 88lb, he or she could be placing anywhere between 120-320kg (264-704lb) onto their knee joints with every single step that they take.


And unless your child is strong enough to be lifting that kind of weight in the gym (which is highly, highly unlikely), running is placing more stress on his or her joints than weightlifting would.


Or take rugby for another example. Heavy contact sport. According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the average impact felt during a shoulder tackle in rugby is 1660N, equivalent to approximately 169kg (372lb) of force into the body. For children that weigh less and aren't as experienced, this number may be slightly lower.


However it's still clear that rugby involves huge impacts that weightlifting at a young age would almost never match.


And once again, rugby is a common sport that many parents do allow their children to participate in, at school or for a local club.


So in terms of pressure on the bones and joints, weightlifting at a young age is not that bad. In fact, it can actually lead to STRONGER and healthier bones in children.


A study conducted by Katherine Stabenow Dahab concluded that: "Youth—athletes and nonathletes alike—can successfully and safely improve their strength and overall health by participating in a well-supervised program."


They also found that "Children can improve strength by 30% to 50% after just 8 to 12 weeks of a well-designed strength training program."


And another study conducted by Gregory D. Myer found that weightlifting can actually help to REDUCE injury rates in youth. They stated that: "Thus, there is evidence that indicates that resistance training is not only a relatively safe activity for young athletes but that it may also be useful to reduce injuries during competitive play".


To directly answer the question, a review of several studies conducted by Bareket Falk concluded that "Scientific evidence indicates that resistance training results in increased serum IGF-I and that there is no detrimental effect on linear growth."


So there's now science that actually supports lifting weights at a young age, research that shows weightlifting does not directly stunt growth, and research that actually suggests weightlifting is a safer form of exercise in younger athletes than many of the other recreational and competitive sports that parents do allow their children to participate in.


Done correctly, weightlifting isn't going to stunt growth in your children, and is actually one of the safest forms of exercise you could allow your child to participate in.


But what about form breakdown?


What would happen if a child was to lose technique under heavy loads? Well, in this case, yes. Lifting weights could cause injury and could stunt growth if the growth plates were to be affected.


According to pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ballock at the Cleveland Health Clinic, "But without treatment, kids will have more pain and a higher risk of more severe, possibly growth-stunting damage.”


But don't immediately think that weightlifting is too risky to perform. Sure, form could break down and your child could suffer some serious injuries. But this can happen pretty much anywhere else. It's not just in the weight room.


The Cleveland Health Clinic also suggested limiting the time spent doing risky recreational activities, including a very popular one that many parents encourage their children to do.


Young girl and boy jumping on trampoline for physical activity and placing lots of stress on joints

"Jumping on a trampoline is a common risky activity, especially if more than one child is on the trampoline, and accounts for many bone fractures in children."


And injuries in rugby, running, basketball, or almost any other sport can lead to growth plate damage and stunted growth in children.


Weightlifting is incredibly safe for children to be participating in if done under experienced adult supervision, and with sensible loading.


As long as your child takes the time to learn proper form and lifting technique, and is carefully supervised by experienced adults, lifting weights is not only going to be safe for your child, but also beneficial.


So It's Completely Safe for My Child to Lift Weights?


No. There are still risks involved. Remember, form breakdown under heavy pressure can lead to spinal injuries, bone damage, and much more.


But those risks are present and exist whether you choose to allow your child to lit weights, run around the neighborhood, compete on the court, compete on the sports field, and so on.


Weightlifting is not any more risky than the other sports and activities that you're likely already allowing your child to participate in.


And you also have to make sure that your child is able to understand the risks involved with weightlifting and exercise in general.


The Australian Strength and Conditioning Association stated that: "“The youngest a child should commence resistance training is at 6 years of age provided they have the maturity to follow clear instructions and an appreciation of the dangers present when training.”


Pretty much, as long as your child is able to follow clear instructions and is capable of keeping the risks involved in mind, it is going to be safe for your child to lift weights.


Young boy doing barbell bench press with light weights and being safe

Again, you have to be sensible with your loading. Don't allow your child to jump into heavy loads immediately. That would be like getting your 10 year old rugby player to try and tackle a 100kg pro player, or even worse, the other way around. It is going to lead to injury.


Weightlifting at a young age is safe, and will not stunt growth provided your child is able to learn proper lifting technique and is under experienced adult supervision.


Conclusion


Weightlifting certainly doesn't deserve the bad rap that it gets from well-meaning parents when it comes to safety and stunted growth among young athletes.


It is just as, if not less dangerous than many other sports and physical activities that parents are already allowing their children to participate in.


Provided it's done safely and under supervision, weightlifting at a young age can actually be beneficial and is a great choice of exercise for most healthy children over the age of 6. There is lots of science supporting these ideas.


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