When should a kid start lifting weights?

Is there too much pressure on young athletes to bulk up?

Published February 17, 2006

The face of, or in this case, body of, sports has changed over the past 20 years.

The evolution of the human body may partly explain the modern athlete, but weight training and the emphasis on a bigger, stronger physique are why our children's sports idols look more like the He-Man superheroes found on toy store shelves.

But does that mean we should raise children any differently when it comes to their participation in competitive athletics?

Preteens and teens are impressionable. If professional athletes wear their shorts a certain way, kids emulate it. If they style their hair a particular way, kids want theirs cut that way. So when young athletes see their sports heroes bulking up, it's only natural that they feel the desire to do the same.

All those muscles aren't just for show. They increase power, stamina and performance. When you combine the pressure of simply making a sports team with the incentives of scholarships and multimillion-dollar professional contracts down the road, it's no wonder children and parents alike are asking, When is it okay to start lifting?

"It's hard to say. It's purely an individual thing," says Dr. Louis Theriot, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. Theriot has penned several articles about preteens and weightlifting and was the doctor for his son's high school football team.

Genetics have a lot to do with how well equipped a teen is to handle exercise. Some kids mature faster than others. Children can begin strength training when they "possess adequate balance and postural skills," but he recommends beginning preteens with exercises that concentrate on toning and flexibility more than heavy weight-bearing ones that increase bulk.

As a trainer, I often am asked if lifting weights will stunt a child's growth. "If the exercises are done properly, there should not be a concern with a stunt in growth," Theriot says.

Still, proceed with caution. "Impact exercises like squats should not affect high school athletes," he said, but "if growth plates are not fully developed and still cartilaginous, they could be susceptible to tremendous forces and could cause problems with ligaments or fractures.

"In terms of overall impairment of bone growth, my inclination would be to say it would not directly cause shortness of bones."

A good rule of thumb is that the child should be able to complete three sets of 10 repetitions without difficulty. Hold off on "forced repetitions," or reps requiring a spotter, until skeletal maturity. That time, again, will vary. To be sure, ask your child's physician.

Raphael Ruiz, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who works with athletes in the Tampa area from Little League to the National Football League, has had clients as young as 8. He agrees, saying there is no research that shows a well-designed strength training program hurts bone growth.

For Ruiz, what matters most is mental maturity.

"I've had an 8-year-old baseball client who was very focused, and he definitely understood what we were trying to accomplish," Ruiz said. "On the other end of the spectrum, I've worked with collegiate and pro athletes who just have no desire to work hard."

Clients are seeking Ruiz out at a much earlier age than five or 10 years ago, he said. Rarely, if ever, does he turn away a client because of age. But the one rule both he and Theriot professed was that the decision to begin a strength training regimen should be solely that of the athlete - not that of overzealous parents or coaches.

"Coaches and parents hear about another kid or athlete's success, and they come to me," he said. "I'll ask the parents to wait outside because I have to sit down and talk and feel the kid out. If it comes down to making money or letting the kid go, I'll let him or her go first.

"I can't turn your son into Deion Sanders. I can't make him run a 4.2 40 time. But what I will do is make little Billy the best Billy he can be."

Unlike many personal trainers, who focus on building muscle and cardiovascular fitness, Ruiz specializes in the development of athletes in sport-specific training. His program is based on principles of biodynamics: posture, balance, movements between muscles and joints. He wants athletes not simply to learn exercises but to understand why they are performing the movement. He teaches what he calls "primal movements": squats, lunges, step-ups, upper body pulls and upper body pushes, performed at first without weights. These exercises "carry over onto the field," he says.

In working with young kids, he prefers to set goal-oriented tasks and typically works with small groups, girls and boys combined. He admits to getting excited when he encounters that gifted "one-in-a-million" athlete. But for the most part, he says he is in it to build good kids who reach their potential.

"Most kids won't reach the elite level of pro sports," Ruiz said, "but sometimes a little confidence can make a child excel. My No. 1 goal is injury prevention and helping that kid learn the proper way to do things. As long as their goals are realistic, it's typically a good experience."

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? To the weight room; that's where.

The 6-foot-2, 193-pound slugger who led the New York Yankees to 10 World Series, winning nine of them over his 13-year career, was the quintessential example of the word "athlete" for a generation now watching their grandchildren step up to the plate at Little League ballparks around the country.

Two generations later the Yankee Clipper's most comparable equivalent might be St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols. Just one inch taller, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player weighs in at a bulky 225, 32 pounds more than DiMaggio did at the same age.

Lifting is just the way it is now, says Gaither High School baseball coach Frank Permuy. A legend in Hillsborough County, Permuy led Tampa Catholic to the Class 3A state title in 1982 before moving on to coach the Cowboys. He doesn't mind referring to himself as "old school" and remembers a time when lifting weights was taboo in the baseball community.

"Twenty years ago when I first started (coaching), there was very little lifting," he said. "It was never heard of when I played. But now we look at major leaguers, and they may be relatively the same height as the players when I grew up, but now they are 50 pounds heavier. Definitely bigger and stronger."

Baseball is a year-round sport for kids with dreams of making it to the big leagues. Permuy has accepted and embraced lifting routines and has a personal trainer working with players in the weight room. The team lifts three days a week but concentrates heavily on core or middle abdominal areas. The impact the weights have on his players, he says, is evident. And if they want to get to the next level, it's a necessity, not an option, in his opinion.

"I think kids realize they have to lift. Sometimes I feel there is too much of an emphasis on it, but if you don't, some parents or kids ask, "Why aren't we?' " Permuy said.

"To get to the next level, it's become a must."