A Rant on Youth Lifting
A few weeks ago, ESPN and it's affiliate ESPNW shared a video of a five year old doing some deadlifts in a gym with what was likely her parent's and parent's friends. Like many videos of children lifting weights, the comments section was a bit ridiculous. Normally, I would let it be and slide by, but I had a few followers whose comments got pulled to the top and it was apparent it may be time to step in to shed some light.
This rant, which was shared on my Instagram story, was my response to the comments of some of those who follow me and needed some additional insight into the safety, efficacy, and implementation of Youth Strength Training.
"Look through the comments on that video, and it's clear we have a huge misunderstanding on appropriate training for kids and what is safe and what is risky. And knowing there were several people I follow and who follow me (your comments get pulled to the top so I see them) who commented on this video. I specialize in training kids. I've got a master's degree in Physical Education and have been published on multiple blogs with thoughts on training kids (and foolishly passed up working with a professor to be academically published during grad school 🤦🏻♂️). I've worked almost exclusively with kids between the ages of 5-18 for the last 5 years. Needless to say, I'm not a genius, but a know a little about a little when it comes to Training and Exercise for kids.
First, let's address that the "2 Plates" in the video equates to a rough total of 40lbs. We don't know how much this young lady weighs, but we can assume this is somewhere within a bodyweight ballpark for a 5 year old. And if she is as active as a 5 year old should be, she's going to experience far greater force expressions when running, jumping, and landing during play than she did in pulling her bodyweight off the ground for a few reps. Simply jumping off a swing or jumping on a trampoline would expose her to forces in the 2-3x bodyweight range. Hate to tell you who think this is highly risky, but it's far less risky from a force exposure than jumping on a trampoline is going to be.
Second, many comments fall in line with the age old narrative of "lifting weights stunts growth," or how this young one is going to have stunted growth due to the lifting. If you actually go through the literature on resistance training, and even general "eye tests" on lifting weights and height, you find that there's correlation between those who excel in lifting sports and their height. But correlation and causation are not the same. Shorter individuals often have greater opportunity for lifting heavier weights due to center of mass placement and biomechanical levers. Lifting as a child isn't actually proven to stunt growth.
Third, we cannot forget physical literacy and the role of cultural values and how they impact chosen activities in children. Pushing and pulling are primary locomotive skills, of which a deadlift could (technically speaking) fit within those two categories. And then to consider that there would appear to be cultural influences which would lead this young one to being in a weight room and lifting with a pretty solid Deadlift technique. Kids mimic and repeat actions and behaviors modeled for them by adults. From language to movement, behaviors in a complex environment are often created based on the behaviors of mature adults within the same environment. I have athletes whose uncoached lifting style is highly reflective of the high level powerlifters they're around. This young lady seems to be no different. The culture she's in seems to value resistance training, and her movement and even dress attire is a small mimicry of this.
To say the video was irresponsible, or to make comments about kids only doing bodyweight exercises, or to call her parents bad influences is in itself an unfounded reaction to the reality of what the video was: a child seemingly enjoying an activity which is a cultural norm and within reasonable limits of tolerable and adaptable force expressions. Is there a limit to what she could do and a point to which she would be at risk? Surely. But is the act, as demonstrated and with as limited context as it had, and inherent risk to the child's wellbeing and safety? Absolutely not."