The question on when should I start strength training gets asked by a lot by young folks who are eager to get into strength training. The confusion is understandable, as there are a lot of myths associated with strength training for children and adolescents. If you talk with Moms about strength training for their kid, most will snub the idea with the reasoning that strength training will destroy their child’s growth plates and stunt their growth. Others will be scared that their child will get injured. There are some who will suggest that strength training will affect a child’s brain growth and will limit their intelligence. Considering all this, a lot of children are discouraged from strength training early on. If you are such a kid or a parent whose kid wants to strength train, then read on, as I will try to clarify all this confusion.
When we think about strength training or lifting weights, muscular bodybuilders immediately come to our mind. However, strength training is much broader then just bodybuilding. Bodybuilding is just one aspect of strength training. Strength training is the whole process of strengthening your muscles, so that you can perform your physical activities with ease and without any injuries. Bodybuilding on the other hand is a specific strength training, which is focused on increasing the size of your muscles. A lot of individuals perform strength training, without bodybuilding in mind; examples include athletes, dancers and performers, who focus on performance rather than size.
With the difference between strength training and bodybuilding clarified, let me now get to the question of what is the good age to start strength training. The answer in broad terms is as soon as possible, however if you are thinking in terms of bodybuilding, which is a common reason for strength training, then it is slightly complicated and I will come to that later. Let me first clarify the general strength training, as it will help me answer the bodybuilding question later.
When we think about athletics everybody agrees that the earlier you start the better. We generally start sending kids to tennis or gymnastic academies by the age of 3 or 4. The rationale is that the earlier we start the easier it is for the kids to learn the skills. In sports academies kids not only learn the skills for the sport, but they also perform strength exercises to improve their sport performance. As an example in gymnastics, kids perform handstands, hanging leg raises and pull-ups pretty early on. These are pretty serious strength training exercises, and kids perform them with no serious side effects on their growth or intelligence.
I grew up in rural parts of India and as kids we used to help out our elders in the farm. Some of the activities such as lifting husk bundles on our head or operating manually operated chaff cutting machine were pretty intense workouts. These were pretty much strength-training exercises disguised as daily chores. As opposed to being bad for our body, these activities were actually very good for us as they made us more active and strong. Kids who grew up in rural areas were always much better in terms of strength and endurance then the inactive city kids. These benefits actually then propagated to our adulthood. As we were more active in our childhood, on growing up and moving to cities, we still maintained that active lifestyle. The active lifestyle got engrained in our overall existence and became an integral part of our life. The earlier you start the better it is to turn the active lifestyle into a habit for an individual.
Some might ask, what about gym exercises such as bench press, squats and deadlifts can kids perform such exercises? I would say, yes they can perform them if they are willing to perform them and can perform them correctly under adult supervision. After all kids do push things and lift objects from the ground. These movements are the same as the exercises mentioned above. However, you cannot expect kids to start building muscles like adults or expect small kids to lift a lot of weight and see a rapid increase in their strength. Kids should perform these exercises with functional performance in mind. A kid who is able to bench press can also push better than an untrained kid. Moreover, if a kid strength trains, then his chance of getting injured decreases. A kid with stronger muscles will be injured less while playing sports, as opposed to a kid with weaker muscles. Now of course the assumption here is that your kid is performing all the exercises correctly. Performing exercises incorrectly will increase the chance of injury.
Coming to the question of what is an ideal age to start performing strength training for bodybuilding. Going strictly by science the ideal age will be to start at about 14-15 years. This is the age by when boys start to make testosterone in their body. This is the age by when you will start to see your muscles grow and an increase in your overall strength. You will be able to lift more and more weight. Generally, this is also the time for growth spurt in boys and some may worry about stunted growth. Don’t worry about that though, Arnold started serious weight lifting at the age of 15 and he grew up to be 6 feet 2 inches.
My personal opinion is that waiting till the age of 14-15 to strength train will be too late. I think that kids should start strength training as soon as they can. That being said, I do believe that early in the age strength-training exercises should be fun activities, such as rough and tumble play or fun functional movements as opposed to a strict predefined regimen. Such fun activities will show kids the limitations of their bodies and engrain active lifestyle as a habit. Moreover, we cannot expect little kids to develop the discipline to follow a strict strength-training regimen, especially when they will only see minimal results from such activities. After kids reach the age of 14-15 they can then start a strict strength-training regimen. They are old enough to follow a program and will see great results, which will motivate them to follow it through. As far as other concerns are considered such as growth plate destruction, injuries or retarded mental growth just disregard them, they are all myths.