No, Strength Training Won’t Stunt Your Child’s Growth
As an uncle, it’s always been important that my young nieces and nephews don’t see exercise as a chore, but as a fun and essential part of daily life. As a physiotherapist, it’s also important to me that I correct some of the mistakes that parents make when it comes to getting their children fit.
Let’s start with strength training. Most adults are aware of the benefits of strength training, but a bizarre myth has created an obstacle to children and adolescents sharing them. The myth is that strength training – especially weight-bearing exercises such as squats – stunts growth, resulting in many parents (and gym staff) not letting children go to a gym until they’re around 16.
So how did this myth start? With, as with many things, a misunderstanding of the science. The belief is that if, say, a 12-year-old does a weight-bearing exercise, there would be too much compression through their growth plates (the area of growing tissue in long bones) which would prevent the bones from growing to their optimal length.
The good news is that there isn’t a grain of truth to this myth. Strength training doesn’t impede growth at all, and it is in fact the ideal way to prevent the injuries that children and adolescents are more vulnerable to, which you can read about here. It’s strongly recommended that sporty adolescents in particular have regular strength training to improve their performance and reduce their risk of acute injury, though, as always, at a very gradual pace and not before learning the technique from a professional.
In addition to the short-term benefits, people who exercise earlier in life are also much more likely to continue that habit into adulthood, while also helping to prevent postural and movement pattern problems that can develop as a result of unconditioned and/or imbalanced muscles and tendons when they transition into the often desk-based world of adult life.
The bad news is that a lot of people still believe it, so I strongly encourage you to share this knowledge with any parents you know. You’d be doing their children and us physiotherapists a massive favour.
Early Specialising Doesn’t Work
While we’re busting myths, I may as well address the issue of over-specialisation.
When a child shows interest or aptitude in a certain sport, their parents or teachers may push them to focus solely on that sport to maximise their proficiency, perhaps with the hope that they may one day play it at a top level. Their intentions are good and seem to make sense: surely the best way to get good at something is to spend as much time doing it as possible?
Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Early specialisation doesn’t provide any benefits over engaging in a wide variety of activities, and some evidence actually suggests it has the opposite effect. Remember, children aren’t just getting fitter when they play a sport, they’re also learning how to use their body, so the wider variety of activities they do, the more physically versatile and capable they’ll become.
Early specialisation also increases the risk of injury by overloading parts of the body associated with that sport, for example, upper body injuries in tennis or lower body injuries in football. Imposing dogmatic training routines on a child also risks burning them out on that sport prematurely, turning something fun that could have developed into an independent passion into a chore that’s imposed on them.
So, if you think there’s a budding athlete in your child, encourage them to do as many different sports and activities as they want. Just make sure that they don’t overdo it, but, if they do, bring them to see us.
Musculoskeletal and Sports Physiotherapist, Research Lead at West London Physiotherapy
For any other questions regarding this topic please do not hesitate to contact West London Physio on 0207 937 1628 or email David at david.wynne@westlondonphysio.