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Strength Training for Teens

“Doctor, he is just 16 years old and wants to start gymming for building his body. Please tell him he will stop growing if he lifts weights at this age!” an exasperated Mrs. Rupali Sinha said to me, as soon as she entered my cabin. I turned to her son who sheepishly gave me a weak smile. Should teenagers do body-building? Is weight training for teens a complete no-no? Do teenagers stop growing if they lift weights? The answer is not a simple yes / no. Here’s what I told Mrs. Sinha:

Strength Training versus Body Building – Know the difference.

Power lifting, body building, weight lifting, strength training… they’re all the same right? No. Strength training is beneficial for teenagers as it boosts bone density and strengthens tendons.

Body building, power lifting, deadlifting and weight lifting, on the other hand, are sports that involve high intensity training. Herniated discs in the back, bone fractures, growth plate injuries, cartilage damage and muscle strains and tears are injuries that may occur in unsupervised and improper high intensity training. Heavy weight lifting is not advisable until your child has finished his/her Adolescent Growth Spurt.

What is Adolescent Growth Spurt?

Around the ages of 12 to 13 years (for girls) and 14 to 15 years (for boys), teenagers have a period of rapid growth in which their bones and muscles suddenly grow, fuelled by their hormones. This continues for a few years. Girls finish their growth spurt by 18 to 20 years and boys finish theirs by the ages of 20 to 22. Children’s growth plates are weakest during this Adolescent Growth Spurt.

What is a Growth Plate?

Growth plates are one of the ways in which children’s bones differ from adult bones. It is a piece of cartilage at the ends of their bones which helps their bones to grow. As they turn into adults, these growth plates turn into bone which marks an end to the growth of their bones. As aforementioned, this delicate growth plate is the weakest during the Adolescent Growth Spurt.

This means that the growth plate is likely to get injured either due to a fall or blow to the limb or from overuse or repetitive stress. Repetitive stress is seen in young athletes who do the same high intensity movement for many hours each week over and over without any variation. Your young athlete’s supervisor is well aware of this and will structure their workouts accordingly. So as long as your teenagers’ activities are being done under proper supervision, there is no cause for worry! This may be a possible reason for the myth that kids stop growing if they do strength training.

How to go about Strength Training for your Teen?

  • Firstly, look for a strength training instructor who understands that until your child has finished their adolescent growth spurt, s/he should stay away from heavy adult weight lifting programs.
  • Light weights can be used for thirty second intervals interspersed by breaks. This should be preceded by a calisthenics and stretching warm up and followed by a stretching cool down.
  • Your teenager should never feel any pain in their joints. If any pain is felt, it means that the weight or repetitions need to be reduced.
  • Different muscle groups should be focused on different days (eg. chest and back, arms, legs, core). Two sets of eight to twelve repetitions is an ideal number for each exercise.
  • Begin slowly with higher repetitions of lighter weights and build it up gradually.
  • Have a word with your teenager on why s/he wishes to take up strength training. Bulking up by lifting excessively heavy weights or consuming steroids, pushing oneself to lift heavier weights just to compete with someone else should be discouraged at least until they have passed puberty. Motivate them to track their own progress instead.

When done correctly, strength training is highly beneficial for your teenager’s bones and muscles (apart from other known benefits of exercises). Proper strength training has been proven to increase bone strength index, reduce the risk of fractures, develop speed, coordination, balance, control and off course improve their confidence. The next time your teenager expresses an interest in training, encourage him wholeheartedly (with the above precautions too!).

Dr. Mandar Agashe (MS Ortho) is a Paediatric Orthopaedic Surgeon in Mumbai. He is available for consultation at Agashe Hospital. To book an appointment with Dr. Agashe for your child’s bone needs, call 9867539883 today.