Can Children Safely Lift Weights?

Short Answer: Yes.

If supervised and performed correctly it is perfectly safe for children to work out with weights or, preferably, resistance equipment. Many parents would love to work out with their children and resistance or weight training is an excellent way to share a special bond. That being said, please don’t allow young children to play with free weights. Not only could they drop them on their little feet, they could drop them on your big toe. Below, I have several fun child/parent activities that can safely incorporate resistance training into your family workout regime. Not a single traditional weight is required.

Long Answer: In the past, many doctors advised against having young children weight lift as they feared that this could damage the epiphyseal cartilage of young children. As young bones grow, the epiphyseal cartilage eventually becomes dense bone tissue. However, a severe trauma to the young cartilage could result in a bone that cannot grow any longer. These fears were dispelled when further research showed that this damage can only occur if young preteens consistently over train and lift at maximal capacity.

In plain English, this means that if a father pushes his eight year old son to lift 200 lbs, this eight year old son could end up being very short later in life. Most parents, and all certified trainers are going to know this is NOT a good idea. So I wouldn’t worry about that. Also damage can occur to the young growing bones in other ways besides weight lifting. (Ever hear of a sport called football?…) So exercise should always be about having fun while staying safe.

Authorities such as the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine have stated that if young athletes follow certain guidelines, weight training can not only be safe, but lead to denser, stronger bones later in life. A guideline that will help parents is that children should not lift a weight that is heavier than what they can handle in six reps. So if 10 year old Jessica can easily perform a 10 rep set with a 5 lb dumbbell, Dad has nothing to worry about. If, however, he hands her a 10 lb dumbbell (please see my earlier warning about your toes) and Jessica can barely lift it four times, then Dad should back off.

As young children and especially teens are highly impressionable, take this time to stress good form and don’t use this time to criticize. Always praise children for being safe, for being active, and for properly fueling their bodies before and after a workout. If parents and coaches are pushing children too hard during a workout, children may come to dread this time and could develop negative self images. Also, it should be explained to girls that weight lifting will not give them bulky muscles, but will rather help them have toned, lean bodies. It should also be explained to boys that hypertrophy (muscle bulking) will not occur for them until their late teens. So no trying to lift excessively heavy weights in an effort to get bigger!!!! Rather than help them get bigger, they could, in fact, damage their growth plates (epiphyseal cartilage) and stunt their growth.

5 Fun Resistance Exercises for Children

I developed these exercises with parents and children in mind. But, of course, if you are a school coach, or a married couple that would like to work out together, these exercises are fun and a great way to build strength.

1) Exercise Ball Wars

This exercise requires an exercise ball. If you have smaller children, experiment with the size of the ball. Bigger balls can be harder for you as an adult to control, but easier for the child to push against. Smaller exercise balls will require more concentration on the part of the child.

First, establish safety! This exercise can be done outside in warm weather. But it should be done on grass or another forgiving surface. Inside, if done in a basement or hardwood floor, the exercise should be performed on a mat. This is because if a child falls, they could hurt their face on a hard surface.

Next, with painters tape, mark a line. With the exercise ball in your hands, stand right in front of this line. Move your left foot forward a full step and take a firm stance. Then have your child try and push you and the exercise ball over the tape. Repeat with your right foot forward.

Depending on the age, size, strength, and mental fortitude of your child there are many variations to this game. For example, if your child is small, stand on one foot and see how long you can go before having to put your foot down…literally. If your child is a teenager…show no mercy. HAH, HAH!!

As a parent, this is a great workout for you because it helps you to develop core and arm strength. If you do one legged versions, you develop balance. Your child will develop upper body strength and a stronger back.

2) Towel Pushups

Getting a long towel or sheet, have your child lay face down on ground. Wrap the towel gently around your child’s waist. Then have them do pushups. Watch your child’s form carefully. If their body starts to sag in the middle, gently using both your arms, lift on the ends of the towel. If they start to look like they are doing a downward dog, direct them to lower themselves more into the towel and help them out. As your child’s upper body and core strength increase, you can eventually stop using the towel and start doing pushups with them. Then it’s pushup contest time!

3) “Band” Its

This exercise involves the use of exercise bands. This is rubber tubing with handles attached to the ends. Different colors signify stronger density of the rubber making it harder. Yellow oftentimes is the easiest color, while black or blue will often be the thickest. Parents and coaches, please consider getting safety sleeve tubing! This greatly increases the safety of the tubes in case they snap, which happens quite often when bands get a lot of use. 

Using two exercise bands of the same color, grab hold of each one at their handles. Have your child grab hold of the other ends. Then stand at a distance that is band length apart from each other. First, lift your right legs. Standing on just your left legs try and get the other to go off balance. Time for 1 minute. Then standing on just your left legs, try and get the other to go off balance. Time for 1 minute. Each time a foot touches the ground, the other person scores a point. You can try pulling on the bands, shaking them vigorously up and down, or my personal favorite, being as still as a statue and letting the other person do themselves in. At the end of each leg (hah, hah get it, leg not round. No. OK, I’ll try not to be so corny) add up points and appoint a winner. Wanna really weird your kid out? After doing the left and right leg, tell them round 3 is a tiebreaker and now you have to lift both legs. The look on their faces is always priceless.

4) Tug of War

Using the towels from pushups, have a good old fashioned tug of war. Using the painters tape already set up from the Exercise ball War routine, tug and pull until someone gets pulled over the line. Let your kids win sometimes, but don’t think they have to win all the time. This will teach children qualities such as dedication, hard work, and persistence. Also, you could do timed tug of war. So, for example, if you let them pull you over the line in 30 seconds the first time, tell them you want to try and go for 40 seconds the next. This will increase their endurance. Or tell them they have to go faster, (be careful on this one, you don’t want young children pulling out their shoulder sockets!) and this will help increase their explosive power.

5) Ball Squats

Ball squats will help both you and your children develop good squatting form. It also burns and tones like crazy so I think you will like this one. Using a good sturdy wall (or fence if you are outside), have you and your child place an exercise ball behind the back. If your child is too small for the smallest exercise ball, consider those kids balls found in food stores during the summer. You know the ones in the wire baskets that sell for $1.99. OR, you and your child could use a Bender Ball. (Benderball.com) With your feet out in front of you, lean back against the ball and slowly sink into a squat. You will know you and your child have proper form if your knees are directly above your feet.

Once you have made adjustments, so you have proper form, here comes the fun part. Trying to get back up. Keeping your back pressed against the ball, so it doesn’t drop to the ground, slowly raise yourselves again. After you’ve worked your way up to 8 squats without cheating, try 30 second holds. After you can stay squatting for 30 seconds, try 60 seconds. As your strength and endurance increase, try adding medicine balls to your laps. For your child instead of weights that can hurt the feet, they can add a cushioned medicine ball. I recommend Dynamax. (medicineballs.com)