Strength Training and its Effect on a Youth’s Physique

In between sets of back squats with my old history professor yesterday, he mentioned a term to me that I had not previously heard before: Autodidact. Autodidacticism is “self-education or self-directed learning. In a sense, autodidacticism is “learning on your own” or “by yourself”, and an autodidact is a person who teaches him or herself something” (Wikipedia).

Now this by itself is not a bad thing, however my professor used it in a way that describes someone who is self-taught without any discipline. Disciplines such as analysis of information, objectivity, and researching case studies for errors, flaws, seeing the physical results, etc…

I think autodidacticism contributes to many of the blatantly incorrect “facts” that we constantly hear in the weight lifting world, usually repeated by those who have no real idea what they are saying. One of the biggest incorrect mantras that is repeated is that strength training is detrimental to a child’s growth and development.

The Myth

This myth has its roots in the 1970’s. Researchers in Japan studied child laborers and discovered that, among their many misfortunes, the juvenile workers tended to be abnormally short. The researchers concluded that physical labor that involved heavy lifting had stunted the children’s growth. Combined with anecdotal stories and myths, many came to believe that all children and adolescents should avoid strength training.

The myth is still very much alive. Parents, coaches, and pediatricians remained convinced (with no real proof or evidence to back up what they are saying) that strength training will cause short stature and cause a lack of strength in later years due to a lack of testosterone.

The Truth

A major new review published in Pediatrics offers proof that not only does strength training prove to be safe for young people when in a safe, coached environment, it can be beneficial and even essential to a child’s growth. Without exception, their 60 year study of children from 6 to 18 benefited from weight training and grew stronger without a loss of height. Naturally the older they got, the more strength they added. Curiously, the research also showed that while strength gains were linear, they didn’t spike wildly after puberty when hormones begin to rage in teenagers’ bodies.

Over all, the researchers concluded, “regardless of maturational age, children generally seem to be capable of increasing muscular strength.”

Interestingly enough, young people do not pack on bulk like most adults do when engaging in strength training. This fact was one of the reasons why researchers used to think that children did not get stronger. With adults, they tend to increase their muscle mass while strength training. Children simply lack the testosterone needed to pack on mass. Linear strength gains are still made however, regardless of no visible changes in mass.

Another interesting note is that children who have had strength training tend to have more neurological changes than other children–with their muscles and nervous system interacting more efficiently. “So, in essence, strength training in children seems to liberate the innate strength of the muscle, to activate the power that has been in abeyance, unused.” (NYT)

Many researchers have begun to reverse their old way of thinking, stating that instead of causing injury in children, strength training can actually help reverse it. If a child is sitting in front of a TV or is playing video games all day, that will leave him or her much more susceptible to injury because they don’t have the connective tissue strength to withstand injury.

In closing, I am not saying that you should send your toddler down to the basement to work with some 200lb stones. I definitely don’t recommend that. I am stating that starting your child on a simple program of pullups, pushups, air squats, medicine ball throws etc., will set them on a path for a healthy life.

The research suggests that magic age seems to be from 7-12, when their nervous systems are most eager to adapt to new growth. It is an ideal time to hard-wire strength training into your child’s life. If you make it fun, it won’t even seem like strength training at all.

Don’t be an autodidact. Do your own research and use your own observations. Don’t regurgitate hearsay from someone about a subject you know nothing about, it will just further disperse the myth.


1. New York Times


2. Queensland Weightlifting Association


3. The Mayo Clinic


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