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Strength training in childhood: Is it safe?

Is strength training safe for children?

Despite historical concerns around the safety of strength training in children, research and recent international position statements now agree that "participation in a supervised resistance training program can be a safe, effective, and worthwhile method of conditioning for children and adolescents” (Faigenbaum and McFarland, 2016).

It is important to note that we are referring to strength-building activities delivered at an age and developmentally appropriate level and not necessarily kids participating in heavy weight lifting or signing up to the local gym!

Benefits of strength training for children include:

✔︎ Increased muscle strength - primarily through improved coordination and ability to use muscles during movement

✔︎ Improved health including mental well-being, fitness, body composition and cardiovascular risk profile

✔︎ Improved motor or movement skills performance and may contribute to improved sport performance and prevent injury

✔︎ Help promote and develop exercise habits

Whilst general physical activity recommendations are often quantity (i.e. time) based, all children should be participating in activities that incorporate a variety of strength-building and skill-enhancing movements for optimal growth and development.

Do all kids need to be doing ‘strength’ training?

Although research supports the safety and benefits of resistance training for children, it is not necessary or appropriate for every child. All children should be provided access to enriched environments that provide the opportunities to regularly engage in physical activities that enhance muscular strength and fundamental motor skill ability. For example, monkey bars, skipping and active playgrounds provide plenty of opportunities for children to engage in ‘strength-building’ activities, but these are complex tasks that require a base level of strength and coordination in order to participate.

Many children, potentially as a result of developmental or medical conditions, face significant challenges to participation due to low levels of motor skill competence, and poor strength and/or fitness. An appropriately tailored strength training program can assist these children to build some strength and confidence around movement skills that should then be transferred into age-appropriate activities.

Where do families start?

1. Find an appropriate instructor:

In order to determine safety and design an appropriate program an instructor must have knowledge across paediatrics and strength training e.g. Accredited Exercise Scientist (AES) and/or Strength & Conditioning Coach.

For children with higher needs (for example, medical or developmental concerns) an allied health professional with knowledge in paediatric exercise and strength training is recommended e.g. Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP), or Physiotherapist.

If in doubt ask the instructor about their experience and qualifications!

2. Individual Supervision or Programs:

Finding a specialised program or supervisor with experience across paediatric exercise and strength training is crucial as the prescription should be based according to training age, motor skill competency, technical proficiency and existing strength levels.

Experience in adults, or adult-programs should not simply be applied to children

There should be a focus on proper technique and the continual transfer of skill across to age-appropriate activities.

3. Keep it fun

Strength-training should be designed to maximise enjoyment, foster socialisation, and spark an ongoing interest in daily physical activities.