My son has just turned 13. He is entering his first year of bantam hockey. Although he is very skilled, it is his size and strength that have contributed to him being less competitive then in years past. I am not one of those fathers who push their kids beyond their abilities; however, he has approached me about suggestions for improvement in these areas. I have read articles about the right age to start weight training, and most have contradicted each other. Some say 12 years old. Others say don't touch a weight until they turn 16 years old. What do you say? -- Concerned hockey dad.

This is a subject I have written about before but I still get this question A LOT!

I would like to try to explain my answer in a way that makes the most sense, so that when you hear people discussing this subject you will have your own feelings.

The notion that lifting weights at a young age is not a good thing stems from a couple of theories. One, the belief that weights can cause damage to the joints and to growth plates, is simply not accurate. Growth plates usually do not close until the age of 18. The chances of your joints or growth plates being damaged via proper lifting methods is minute.

Some people say there are studies that prove this, including one done years and years ago in concentration camps where kids were forced to do heavy labor that, in turn, affected their ability to grow at a normal rate. The problem with that school of thought is that there was very little rest and very poor nutrition in those camps.

I assume your son performs pushups. Let’s say he weighs 110 pounds. Every time he does a pushup, he is pushing up, maybe, 50-60 pounds. If it’s okay for him to do this, why is it not okay for him to perform a bench press with 50-60 pounds on the barbell? If your child plays baseball or soccer or basketball, or engages in a game outdoors with his friends, he jumps. Jumping puts excess stress on his knee and ankle joints; yet, no one would think of telling him not to play these games.

Any specialist in strength and conditioning will agree with me. In fact, the National Strength and Conditioning Association has stated that there is no harm in allowing children to lift weights.

The other issue that needs to be addressed is maturity. Some coaches at the NHL and minor league levels will tell you that kids should not start weight training at an early age for that reason.

I recently attended a symposium at which an NHL strength coach discussed some of these issues. He was against younger kids lifting weights but for different reasons. His contended that kids 12 and 13 years old of age ought to be having fun instead of getting serious about training. I agree, but I also feel that some athletes in their early teens are serious and want to improve.

It is also important to consider the type of training the young athlete should undertake. I believe strongly in functional training -- training movements, not muscles. For example, many of the kids I work with love to push the truck for resisted sprints. In that case, they are not only working several muscles groups at one time but they are also working on a specific movement. Plus, kids  have fun pushing a truck across a parking lot. Tire flipping is another exercise we have the kids perform that works a ton of different muscles while allowing them to have fun.

I hope this gives you some insight about where people are coming from when they say kids at younger ages should not be lifting weights. My bottom line is that your 12-year-old should be lifting weights if he wants to. Just make sure that the program is based on his age and is a functional training program rather than a bodybuilding one. This will help him develop as an athlete.

Dr. Steele is the founder and CEO of Better Hockey and TOP DOG Athletic Training. He has trained hundreds of hockey players – youngsters to NHLers --  from the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Japan. He currently is the strength coach of the Lewiston Maineiacs of the QMJHL. Better Hockey is the world’s largest hockey-specific training Website and magazine. To learn more about them, Dr. Steel’s 150-plus other products and his other programs, log on to www.betterhockey.com or e-mail Dr. Steele at info@betterhockey.com

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