You've heard of growth plates. You likely know they are something that kids have, but what are they and why are they important? And is the combination of still developing growth plates and weight lifting dangerous?
What exactly are Growth Plates
According to the National Institute of Health, the growth plate is the area of growing tissue near the ends of the long bones in children and adolescents. Each long bone has at least two growth plates: one at each end. The growth plate determines the future length and shape of the mature bone. When growth is complete—sometime during adolescence—the growth plates close and are replaced by solid bone.
These areas of the bone are soft and allow the bone to grow longer as a child grows through puberty. The middle of a bones length hardens first, and then moves toward the ends over the years.
Common Damage to Growth Plates
There are several ways in which growth plates are commonly damaged. These include:
Child abuse where physical abuse damages this soft bone tissue
Extreme cold where frost bite shortens the development of fingers and can create early onset arthritis
Exposure to Radiation and some Medications
Genetics where inherited disorders appear
Metabolic Diseases such as kidney disease and hormone disorders
Most growth plate injuries heal without lasting effects. However, in younger children, Doctors watch more closely as there is more growth expected and any retarding of growth will be more noticeable.
Does Lifting Weight Negatively Impact Growth Plate Development?
All the way through the 1990's, medical experts tended to believe that weight training was bad for the development of pre-pubescent youth and could cause damage to growth plates. The once common belief that kids were harmed more than helped by weight training is being dispelled with empirical evidence these days.
According to the CrossFit Journal, Dr. Avery Faigenbaum (et al.), one of the foremost experts on strength training with kids, has published numerous articles that "have revealed significant increases in muscle strength and mass in preadolescent boys and girls", and similar findings were reported by other researchers as early as the mid-1980's.
According to the Mayo Clinic, weight lifting in pre-adolescents could be concerning. This is particularly true in their findings where the training is not taking place under the watchful eye of a qualified trainer that is ensuring that movements are performed properly.
The best training for middle school and high school athletes
There's no simple answer here. We have had 11 year old boys that could deadlift 185# without creating an undo strain on their system. And we've seen 14 year old boys for which a deadlift of 95# presented plenty of challenge.
Every athlete is different. What is best, is to start out all athletes with great care, precision of coaching proper mechanics, and slowly work into heavier loads as the athletes demonstrates proper proficiency and ability.
By high school, most (but not all) athletes have reached puberty and their growth plates are in their final stages of closing. According to ZocDoc, most growth plates close between the ages of 16 & 21, with the greatest number of closers at 18-19 for males.
Work for Increased Strength, but Work with Care
All of this information leads me to the conclusion that proper, supervised training is the way to go to keep young athletes safe while gaining strength. Allowing adolescence to "work out with their friends" is not a good way to go. There's little chance that they know the proper techniques for strength training, and there is even less chance that, working with friends, they will stay within their abilities and not attempt weights that push beyond their limits.
Bad form and excessive weight is a horrible combination.
At St. Louis Youth Fitness, we have highly qualified and experienced coaches that teach, monitor and supervise youth development. Do you have an athlete that is looking to get stronger but you are concerned that they do it in a safe and supervised way? Contact us and we will be happy to talk with you about your athlete. We will also give you a free session with our coaches to see just what we do.