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Is Powerlifting safe for youngsters

Bob Strauss

“Is Powerlifting safe for my young son or daughter”? The question has also been asked at what age can my child begin powerlifting? How should my child train? “Will it stunt my child’s growth”? Where can I get more information on this subject? In this article I will answer these questions and more. I am no medical professional and will not even quote directly and medical professionals. Instead I will present the facts in a logical manner without medical terminology. If anyone reading this article wishes to research this, the best information is found under the topics of sports medicine and weight training for young athletes. Pediatrics is not a good source for information as very few pediatricians have any experience in weight training.


Question: ” Is Powerlifting safe for my child” ?
Answer: No and Yes

No: Powerlifting can be unsafe for young bodies when the lifts are not done properly! Almost every kid who lifts weights will be asked “How much can you bench”? The kid will then go into the weight room and keep trying to record a progressively higher lift. As the weights get heavier the kids will “cheat” more and more to lift more weight. To do this they bounce the weight off their chest ever harder. This can cause damage to the rib cage and shoulders. Kids will attempt higher weights than they could otherwise lift and that can cause sudden failure and a serious injury. High School weight training programs use the powerlifts to improve athletic performance. Many or most of these use improper techniques and the coaches use “maxing out” to constantly test their athletes. In many circumstances, youngsters will try to lift weights up to 50-200 lbs more than they otherwise lift in a correct powerlift. This can certainly cause injury and permanent damage. In one school in Charlotte N.C., students were routinely encouraged to attempt partial squats of 500-600 lbs, when their actual maximum is only about 300 lbs!!! This can cause permanent back injuries. Students were encouraged to use improper techniques to add 50-75 lbs or more to their bench press weights. Holding such a weight over one’s chest and face can be extremely dangerous. The routines used are often improper. Proper nutrition is almost never taught to the students and is often frowned upon as ” performance enhancing substances”. This is certainly hypocritical when students are asked to lift too heavy a weight by using improper techniques.

Powerlifting can be also dangerous or unhealthy when kids try to do it on their own. The risks here when kids use improper form to lift more weight and improper or incomplete routines. Powerlifting is a sport in which specified routines are used to achieve athletic performance in a safe and orderly manner. It is not a sport that a kid can just do without any guidance. Youngsters need to do not only the three powerlifts , but many conditioning exercises as well. Practicing the three powerlifts alone can lead to future injuries . Young lifters need a coach who can evaluate each person individually and perscribe an individual routine. If a young person does not have an actual coach, a source of information such as the NCAAU website will certainly be helpful. Proper form and proper routines are only to be obtained from real powerlifting coaches that have done their time on the platform, or someone who has specific training.

Yes: Powerlifting is safe for a child at any age as long as the child is able to perform the lift with proper form and motor skills. Powerlifting is definately safer than foofball, basketball, baseball, and wrestling, and most other activities that children do.

Proper form is important to distribute the weight properly on the tendons, ligaments, muscles and skeletal structure . Proper motor skills are gradually practiced as learning to ride a bike. As long as proper form and motor skills are obtained, powerlifting is still much safer than most sports that kids will do. Powerlifting is much safer than football as the forces incurred while being tackled or tackling someone are much greater than any lift a young person can do. A young person has a much greater chance being injured in football as momentum = mass times velocity and a barbell is moving at very slow velocity compared to a person hitting someone on the football field. Football injuries such as torn cartilage, torn ligaments, separated shoulders are just not found in youth powerlifting. Basketball is actually much harder on kids than powerlifting. The constant jumping up and landing can overload the spine and knees and has caused many of sprained ankles. Falling on a hard court has caused many sprained wrists. These injuries are never found in powerlifting. Baseball can be hard on kids. Repeated throwing a ball at young ages can permanently damage shoulders and elbows and sliding into bases has caused many injuries, including broken legs, injuries which are just not found in powerlifting. High School wrestling can be harmful on kids for two reasons. First, many joint injuries are a direct result of the sport, and the author has witnessed a young man who broke his neck and died as a result of a wrestling accident. Secondly many young wrestlers loose weight to get into lower weight classes. When they do this, they often loose almost all their bodyfat and a young body will just now grow under those conditions. Often when a youth is dropping weight at puberty, the processes of puberty are delayed. Young powerlifters will often gain through several weight classes in a year as they will gain weight.

I am not trying to scare people away from other sports, no sport is 100% safe, not even powerlifting. With any sport , there are dangers, but organized, competitive powerlifting is one of the safest sports that a young person can do. If any parent thinks that powerlifting is too dangerous for their son or daughter, there are very few sports that are safer. Swimming is probably one of the few safer sports.

Organized, competitive powerlifting builds up the athlete to take the stresses of not only the sport but from most other activities kids do. With proper coaching and training, all the dangers of lifting weights are eliminated. Athletes are conditioned before lifting maximum weights. Maximum weights are lifted under only controlled conditions. Spotters are used to assist the lifter when they can not lift the weight. Weight belts and other supportive equipment is used to protect the athlete.

Of over 30 years observing , and coaching over 100 young powerlifters, I have never seen any injury to a youngster other than a pulled muscle and they were indeed few. Ask any orthopaedic surgeon where the most injuries come from and even though they may mention weight related injuries from random lifting, organized, competitive powerlifting injuries will be almost non-existant .Powerlifting is one of the safest sports simply because the weight moves at such a slow rate, there is very little momentum, and no contact. If anyone still has doubts, consider this: A young person misses a weight in the squat equal to double bodyweight while a baseball player slides into a base at 10-15 mph (one time bodyweight). Which has the potential to cause more injury? The baseball player has a much greater chance of injury due to the momentum, even though there is only bodyweight as the powerlifter has very little momentum with the weight. It is the momentum of an object that causes most sports injuries. In Powerlifting, when practiced right, there is very little momentum with the weight.

Question: At what age can my child begin powerlifting? How should my child train?

Answer: Powerlifting is safe for a child at any age as long as the child is able to perform the lift with proper form and motor skills. Proper form is important to distribute the weight properly on the tendons, ligaments, muscles and skeletal structure .Some young people require extra work on flexibility due to stiff ankles and /or hips. There may actually be some who have such a body structure as to prohibit practicing the actual lifts . Proper motor skills are gradually practiced as learning to ride a bike. As long as proper form and motor skills are obtained, powerlifting can be practiced with kids younger than 10. At ages 6-12; however, form, motor skills, and general conditioning should be the focus. At those ages the child ; whether, boy or girl should not have a workout that in any way resembles an adult workout. The rep focus is on higher reps with a light weight to develop motor skills and conditioning. Singles are performed only to practice form on a heavier weight, not to check progress. One interesting fact is that a child of that age lacks the muscle strength to lift enough weight to injure oneself. If there are any injuries at that age, it would be from dropping a plate on a foot! Children at that age should only train two to three days a week up to 30-45 min. Any longer is not beneficial as they lack the hormones needed to grow more muscle. Children at that age will benefit from the conditioning, motor skills, and any strength gain is attributed to improving muscle quality and motor skills rather than quantity.

Probably the best age to begin powerlifting is at the onset of puberty (10-13 for girls and 11-14 for boys). It is at that age where the benefits of a powerlifting program will prove most beneficial. This is the age of the fastest development of connective tissues and bones. Now a shift in workout programs will start to take place. The main focus is still on conditioning as motor skills are learned rather quickly. It is now at this stage in which a good training program can make the biggest difference. Reps should be in the higher rep range (8-12) most of the time. Single attempts should be done rarely. Training time can be up to 3-4 days per week and up to 45 min at a time. Coaches should carefully take into consideration and other activities the child does as to not overload the athlete. For example distance running can interfere with the progress of strength gains. Children of that age are not miniature adults, and should not be treated as such. Training programs that center around 3-5 reps should be avoided as they place too much load on the growing body. Coaches also need to carefully evaluate a lifter during a growth spurt. During a growth spurt a lifter has more stress on the body and gains will not come as fast and strength may even diminish due to the body’s change in leverage. There will be certain times in which gains slow for a few months during a growth spurt. Coaches need to know this and lower the overall work load during a growth spurt if necessary.

In coaching lifters who are in puberty(both boys and girls) coaches will have the best chance to mold the future athlete. This is the age in which moderate lifting will have the greatest effect on strengthening connective tissues for the future. The human body at that age has the highest concentrations of human growth hormones, and the high testosterone in boys makes this time the best to begin moderate training. Muscle growth is the fastest. This time is critical in which to have proper training. Coaches should incorporate a lot of “core” conditioning, that is abdominal, hip, and lower back training. Compound exercises, that is exercises that incorporate multiple muscle groups, should be the main focus. For example an athlete should do squats rather than leg presses to build legs as squats not only build the legs , but incorporate the hips and back as well and connect the major muscle groups. Exercises that work one muscle at a time have little value for overall strength. Form is important. Proper form is very important at this time as the way the musculature develops during this time will last a lifetime. Any of the powerlifting movements performed (bench press, squat , or deadlift) should only be performed properly and under the guidance of a qualified professional such as an experienced powerlifter or a strength coach. Many High Schools lack such professionals. Some High Schools are now hiring strength coaches or using outside resources to properly train their students.

During puberty, the leverage of the human body changes dramatically and coaches need to be aware of this. Hip and ankle flexability is very important as to not overload knees and back. Squat and deadlift form may have to change often as the legs, and then the trunk of an athlete lengthen. For example, most kids are evenly proportioned before puberty. Then the legs lengthen to change the leverage, followed by 1-3 years of lengthening of the trunk. Coaches need to be able to handle this.

To summarize, athletes should begin moderate weight training and powerlifting at the onset of puberty, as this is the age the human body develops. Proper training methods under the guidance of a strength coach or experienced powerlifter is required. There are many advantages to starting at this age, an age at which the body is molded for life. The author has seen more aches and minor injuries in lifters who started powerlifting at a later age.

Question: Will powerlifting stunt my child’s growth?

Answer: NO Powerlifting will not stunt a child’s growth !!! This is an old wives’ tale and there is no clinical evidence to ever support this. Never has, Never will stunt growth !! This terrible misconception often occurs when someone with very little understanding of the sport sees lifters as short as a stocky build is best for powerlifting. The author is 245-250 lbs at 5′ 7″ . Actually a person’s height is pre-determined at conception, and very few things with the exception of mal-nutrition can effect this. Some people often question powerlifting before the “bones close”. Powerlifting is much safer on the growing zones of the bones as most other sports, especially contact sports in which many times the forces found in powerlifting are incurred due to momentum, the leading cause of sports injuries. Long term studies have confirmed this. Probably the best long term study was found in the ruins of Pompeii . When Mt. Vesuvius blew and covered the city in ash, it froze the entire civilization in time for us to study. Skeletons of the youth of Pompeii were studied and the skeletons of the young slaves who toiled and lifted heavy objects differed from the aristocratic youth , who never lifted heavy objects by one main difference. That difference was that the slaves’ skeletons were thicker and more well built and that the muscle attachments were stronger. Their general height was similar if the nutrition was adequate. In such studies, including skeletons found in Egypt, genetics, and nutrition were found to affect height and growth. Lifting objects does not. To add to this, the author has coached over 100 teens in over 30 years, many of them during growth spurts, and almost all of them ended up taller than the 5′7″ author.

Question :What are the best sources of information on youth training?

Answer : There are various experts in the field who publish information regularly including Mark Harris, Dr. Fred hatfield, Disa Hatfield, and many more. There are a great many books out with good training information on training for young athletes. Any bookstore will have them. If one is wanting to research the subject more, the best information is found by researching under sports medicine and physical development. Sports physicians are also a reliable source. Pediatricians were found not to be a reliable source as they have little or no experience in physical training. It is recommended that any youth entering into a powerlifting program have a physical if there are any questions on the physical fitness of the individual. The only factors which would limit a youngster from becoming involved in a powerlifting program would be poor physical health, pre-existing injuries, or if the child was very obese or extremely thin. With the correct information, and training program, training in powerlifting can occur just as long as the child has the leverage and motor skills. There are a great many powerlifters who spend time training youth. They are often the best source of information.

By: Bob Strauss

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