When weightlifting was popularized in the mid-1900s, little was known about its effects on the body. Exercise science was still in its infancy, and many rumors started about weightlifting without studies to challenge them. One such rumor is that lifting weights stunts your growth, which studies have shown is simply a myth.
Lifting weights when you're young won't stunt growth, but proper supervision is necessary because there is a risk of injury.
Growth Plate Damage Myths
From birth, you grow until your late teens to early 20s. Your skeleton keeps growing until you hit your natural limit. Along with your skeleton, the rest of your body is constantly morphing and stretching to accommodate the growth of the skeleton.
At the end of your long limb bones, you have a thin layer called the growth plate, which is made out of cartilage. The cartilage slowly turns into bone as blood vessels enter and deposit minerals like calcium to create bone, according to an article from Penn State University. That hardens and the cartilage keeps growing, laying down more bone. Eventually the cartilage itself calcifies and the bone stops growing.
Low Chance of Damage
According to an article from OrthoInfo, your growth plates are particularly prone to injury. If you fracture a growth plate and the injury is severe, the growth plate might not heal properly and allow the bone to grow normally. However, with proper medical care, the chance of abnormal growth is low.
There's a general fear that high-impact sports, like gymnastics, can damage a child's growth plates. Gymnastics tends to attract short athletes and there are plenty of high-flying movements that can damage a growing athlete's bones.
However, even in gymnastics, there's little evidence that the sport can actually stunt growth. A 2013 study published in Sports Medicine shows that there's no correlation between gymnastics training and stunted growth. If the jarring impact of gymnastics doesn't stunt growth by damaging growth plates, then weightlifting won't either.
Adolescents Need Resistance Exercise
Another myth is that building up your muscles and tendons at a young age will stunt your growth. Despite all the myths about weightlifting and growth, none hold any weight. Research is very clear that weightlifting doesn't interfere with growth. In fact, it can even strengthen your skeleton and help prevent injuries, according to a 2016 study in Sports Endocrinology.
According to an article from Sport Health, Australia's Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior Guidelines specifically recommend three days per week of muscle and bone strengthening exercises for children and adolescents. They say that training can help children stay at a healthy weight and gain confidence. It can even help them perform better in school.
In 2016, a study published in Psychology and Health showed that for overweight children, resistance exercise was an excellent way to get them moving. As opposed to simply focusing on reducing weight, the scientists argue that learning resistance exercises is a better way to convince kids to exercise.
They found that it was easier to motivate the subjects to do resistance exercises than traditional cardio. In turn, they lost more weight and gained confidence. With an ever-growing epidemic of childhood obesity, saying "no" to resistance exercise at a young age is doing more harm than good.
Strength Training for Kids
Early exposure to proper training is important for adolescents and young adults. It can steer them in the right direction to set them up for a lifetime of fitness. A qualified professional can design a program that children enjoy, making them more likely to continue exercising in the future. However, if they have a bad experience, like an injury, it can discourage them from exercising.
Injuries From Weightlifting
A paper published in Austin Sports Medicine reviewed several studies about youth weightlifting. Researchers found that, instead of hurting young athletes, it improved their coordination and psychological well-being. The paper doesn't ask if weight training should be implemented. Instead, it asks how. They point out that if a proper weightlifting program isn't followed, it can lead to injuries.
A paper from the Annals of Kinesiology in 2016 showed that there is a slight risk of injury in younger athletes who lift weights. While generally safe, weightlifting requires discipline and focus. It's possible that children and young adults don't have the focus required to properly execute weightlifting movements.
Coordination isn't fully developed at a young age, which is another risk factor for injury. Children and young adults simply don't have as much body awareness as an adult. That makes some complex weightlifting movements dangerous.
Female Athlete Risks
For younger female athletes, there's no evidence that weightlifting interferes with growth, according to an article from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. However, the authors also say that specializing in a sport can interfere with growth. Specialization, not weight training, is dangerous.
According to the article, specializing in a sport from an early age, which means that the young female only participates in one sport, can lead to injuries or burnout. For some sports, they risk suffering from the female athlete triad. Weight-sensitive sports like figure skating and gymnastics can lead to eating disorders in self-conscious athletes.
If a female athlete doesn't eat enough while training for her sport, she can lose too much weight. That can throw off the menstrual cycle, which can lead to skeletal problems among other things. It's important for female athletes to eat enough to sustain their training and to vary their activities to avoid specializing.
What Causes Stunted Growth
A child who is two standard deviations below the average height for that age is considered to be growing abnormally slow. If you think your child isn't growing normally, consult with a doctor. Sometimes the problem is that the pituitary gland isn't producing enough human growth hormone. If that's the case, it can be treated with supplementary growth hormone, according to an article from MedlinePlus.
- Personal PSU: Bone Growth
- OrthoInfo: Growth Plate Fractures
- Sports Medicine: Role of Intensive Training in the Growth and Maturation of Artistic Gymnasts
- Sports Endocrinology: Endocrine Responses to Exercise in the Developing Child and Adolescent
- Austin Sports Medicine: Strength Training in Youth: No Doubt, It's Beneficial
- Annales Kinesiologiae: Resistance Training for Youth: Myths and Facts
- NSCA: NSCA Coach Volume 5
- Sport Health: Overcoming Resistance: The Case for Strength Training in Children and Adolescents
- Psychology & Health: A New Direction in Psychology and Health: Resistance Exercise Training for Obese Children and Adolescents
- World Health Organization: Stunting in a Nutshell
- MedlinePlus: Growth Disorders