The World Health Organisation, American Academy of Pediatrics and the Australian government all agree muscle-strengthening physical activities are important for the health and well-being of young people. In fact, government guidelines explicitly recommend young people (aged five to 18 years) participate in muscle- and bone-strengthening activities at least three days a week.
These recommendations are based on a large body of evidence demonstrating the unique benefits of strength training. In a review of prior research, we found stronger kids have a healthier heart, lower body fat, stronger bones and higher self-esteem.
Importantly, the evidence seems to suggest the healthiest youngsters will be those who participate in a variety of activities, targeting not just the heart and lungs, but also the muscles, joints and bones.
So children and adolescents can and should “lift weights”, as long as it’s done properly. Experts recommend beginners start with body weight exercises and add weight only when they are competent at the movements. If using external weights, training should be supervised by a qualified instructor. Exercises should be matched to the age and experience level of the individual.
Maximal lifts before reaching physical maturity (usually around 16 years) are still not recommended. The focus during childhood and early adolescence should be on developing movement skills and building strength endurance (the ability for muscles to work repeatedly). This will provide the right foundation for improving maximal strength in later years, when individuals have the competence, confidence and experience to perform the lifts safely.
Simple and effective body weight exercises young people can start with include push-ups, squats, lunges, planks (holding body horizontal to the ground, with weight resting on your hands/forearms and toes to strengthen the core), bear crawls (crawling on hands and feet to work out the whole body), mountain climbers (in plank position, bring one knee at a time up to your chest to strengthen core) and the superman (lie flat on stomach with arms extended overhead and lift arms and legs off the floor to strengthen lower back).