The Art and Science of Fitness | Is resistance training bad for kids?
Most parents, teachers, coaches, trainers and even health professionals think that resistance training during childhood and adolescence is unsafe, ineffective and unnecessary. This false narrative must change.
The reaction of most doctors, when asked about resistance training in children, is to frown and discourage them from doing it. Apparently, resistance training is unsafe for them, stunts bone growth, makes girls bulky, and is not needed for non-athletes. But is that so?
However, this response is wrong and unacceptable because, as health care professionals, the buck on such topics stops with us. Some could argue that doctors are meant only to focus on illness and sickness, and not on promoting good health among the non-sick. But then, prevention doesn’t sell, even though it's an important component of health care. Doctors need to stop behaving like the policemen who wait for you to jump the traffic signal so they can give you a fine, and should rather be at the traffic signal only to prevent such actions by us.
It will surprise you that the role of resistance training in children and young people is mentioned in the opening of the 2022 edition of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, a gold standard textbook of medicine that doctors the world over are familiar with. It mentions, in no unclear terms, that children from the age of six should be doing muscle-strengthening physical activities, which includes resistance training, at least three days a week. This should be combined with about an hour of aerobic exercise daily. Unfortunately, less than 20% of European adolescents and less than 5% of Colombian adolescents meet these recommendations.
Of course, some health situations need consultations from my medical colleagues before getting started. But for that, they need to understand the role of resistance training. Nowadays, doctors are becoming more aware of the importance of this form of training.
The biggest misconception is that resistance training is limited to lifting weights and dumbbells. It is not. Different kinds of body weight movements can be put into action from a young age, in a “play” format, encouraging children to be active throughout the day.
Another big myth is that girls get bulkier with this training. However, strength gained by resistance training in children is mostly due to neuromuscular adaptations, ie more nerve cells are activated that are part of the pathway along which impulses pass from the brain or spinal cord to the muscle. And contrary to popular belief, resistance training does not reduce aerobic performance, because it helps strengthen our muscles that in turn helps move our joints and thereby makes us better at endurance sports.
Of course, there is bodybuilding, where weight lifting is done with the specific goal of increasing muscle size, symmetry, and definition. And then there is powerlifting, a competitive sport that involves maximum lifting ability. We aren’t recommending bodybuilding or powerlifting for children and adolescents, unless they want to compete.
The very first resistance training that we all do is when we take that first gasp of air, without which we wouldn’t be alive. Our lungs need to expand against the surrounding environment to let the air in. That’s exactly what happens when infants cry right after being born. And if they aren’t crying, the midwife goes ahead with the very first corporal punishment: The child is to receive slams on the backside, and more often than not, the baby sucks in the air before letting it out along with a very high pitch note that would put even the best of opera singers to shame.
Soon after that first breath, there are new resistance training milestones that babies accomplish. In the very first month, while being on the tummy, babies lift their heads. In the second month, they can hold their heads and lift both their heads and shoulders. Later, they may be able to bring their hands — and some, even get their feet — to their mouths. And by the third month, some major landmarks are reached: Babies can proudly hold their heads steady as they start to do a cycle-like movement with their hands and feet. And more importantly, when on their tummies, they do their first push-ups. And for some reason as adults, we struggle to do this basic movement.
Paediatricians and parents get excited about all these milestones, but surprisingly, when it comes to children doing resistance training, they become the biggest resistance. All these movements are resistance exercises because the baby is resisting gravity and moving against it, which is crucial for healthy growth and development.
Resistance training is often suggested to be held back till teenage years or after school, but that is illogical. When children can follow instructions, they are ready to get on safely by doing resistance training, which most children are all set for by 5-7 years. Having already been encouraged to be active, all new movements in resistance training come naturally to them. When instructions are followed and resistance training sessions are done under supervision, it not only markedly reduces the chances of injuries while exercising, but also prevents injuries from happening while playing sport at any level.
Children who engage in resistance training have fewer chances of suffering from neck, back, and knee pains that many of their parents are probably experiencing. Also, as we age, for quality of life, strength is far more important even though walking, or nowadays running, is treated like the only thing that’s needed to get fit.
The benefits of resistance training during childhood and adolescence are not only limited to obvious muscular fitness and improving fundamental movements, but it also makes bones stronger. And no, it doesn’t stunt height — one of the biggest myths. It also improves cardiac and metabolic health, making the child’s body more fuel efficient and increasing metabolic rate, which further keeps the body weight under check and reduces the risk of sports injuries. All this helps them to perform at their optimum level and as the posture improves, they become a lot more confident for life, hence, not only important for athletes but all the children out there.
When resistance training is not done, the gap between the weaker and stronger children widens. Here I’ve built a case for why resistance training is important and safe for children and adolescents. Next week, I’ll discuss how one should go about it.
Keep miling and smiling.
Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days
He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.
The views expressed are personal