Fitness

Ask a Swole Woman: Am I Too Young to Lift Weights?

Hey Casey,

I'm 16 years old and recently I started to make a major life-shift to trying to make healthier choices. I've started to pay attention to what I'm eating and I'm definitely feeling a lot better than I did: less sluggish, more energy, better skin, etc.

So as far as exercise goes, for about three years now, I've done mostly bodyweight workouts in the comfort of my bedroom, but this year, I decided I'd like to start lifting. My neighborhood offers a free membership at our gym, along with a personal trainer. It’s been a month now, and I'm absolutely loving it. I've never felt this confident in my body before. But all the same, I was just wondering whether it's safe to start so early.

How young is too young to start? I've seen a lot of articles online that say that it's absolutely fine as long as you're practicing proper form but there are other that strictly advise against it. Personally, I'm doing great. Any advice?

Thanks a lot,
Natalie

The thing that leaps to my mind immediately here is that, by your age, there are innumerable dudes (and women!) who have been strength training for at least a couple of years in hopes of having a shot at a professional athletic career, or at least making it to a college athletic scholarship, or even just to stay on their high school sports teams. For many decades, no one has batted an eye at this, especially for young men. On that count alone, it seems like it’d be unfair to discourage you, a young and still developing but relatively physically mature woman, from lifting. And to that end, there are no real limitations to who can lift weights. Old people do it; young people do it; Ruth Bader Ginsburg does it; Michelle Obama does it; people of all abilities, weights, appearances, and from all walks of life do it. Lifting is for everyone, and never let the demographics of any weight room you might walk into tell you that it is not for you. You just need to make sure you’re doing it right!

In the interest of scientific rigor, I reached out to a few experts to get more insight on this point. The Cliffs Notes here are that your age shouldn’t be a limiting factor—there is no “age limit” for when someone can start strength training—but there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you’re approaching this amazing hobby safely and thoughtfully. Basically:

  • Only lift under qualified supervision—that means with a fitness professional coaching you, which it sounds like you’ve got covered.
  • Progress sensibly and incrementally, and never before you’re fully ready.
  • Choose your training equipment carefully.
  • Rest adequately between sessions.
  • Limit the number of heavy lifts you try per workout.

The experts I talked to drilled down a bit on some of these points. Carol Ewing Garber, Ph.D., chair of the Biobehavioral Sciences department at the Teachers College of Columbia University, had this to say: “[A 16-year-old young woman] is likely old enough to try lifting heavy weights as long as she has been lifting for a while and is proficient with lower weight and will be well supervised.” She noted that the final stage of physical maturation in kids occurs around age 15, at which point they would be safe to start trying for one-rep maxes given they are trained, so if you were to want to go all the way to heavy-lifting competition, that door is open for you now (again, with appropriate supervision and slow and steady and intentional progress).

And Todd Miller, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D, an associate professor at the department of exercise and nutrition sciences at George Washington University, focused on the importance of emotional maturity as well as physical. “Whether one is ready to start weightlifting is based on their maturational age, not their chronological age,” he said in an email. “One 10-year-old might be mature enough to train, while another 10-year-old may not, even if the second person is larger, stronger, and appears to be more physically prepared to train. In this case, the more mature person can be safely trained, while the second kid should not.”

Miller also pointed me to a position statement published in 2009 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which notes that in the past, professionals recommended against resistance training (lifting weights) for young people, but that recommendation was based on its reputation for a “high risk of injury” that turned out to be a result of bad technique, inappropriate loading, poorly designed equipment, and lack of qualified adult supervision. Now, the paper states, “Current findings from prospective resistance training studies indicate a low risk of injury in children and adolescents who follow age-appropriate training guidelines…in a retrospective evaluation of injury rates in adolescents it was revealed that resistance training and weightlifting were markedly safer than many other sports and activities.” That is to say, while lifting weights carries some risk, so does everything, and when you do it sensibly and under appropriate supervision and guidance, it carries even less risk than many other things young people already do without this level of scrutiny. There are competitive children in lots of sports, for instance, as the published paper above states; why weight-lifting should be any different from, say, gymnastics, I’m not really sure. I’m inclined to chalk it up to weird prejudice. As Miller wrote to me, “the International Weightlifting Federation defines their ‘youth’ age bracket as 13-17 years of age. Clearly a kid who is weightlifting competitively would need to start training before 13 years old. For a 16-year-old girl—she [can] absolutely be lifting weights.”

If there is any real caveat here, it’s that most of the sources I spoke with warned about the specific competitive nature of lifting, because they worry about taking away from both the enjoyment of the activity and the relationship with oneself that can blossom from learning to enjoy training for training’s sake. The physiological concerns are everything I’ve already covered above regarding proper progression and supervision and the like.

Now that that’s out of the way, I want to point out that there are many people, including young women, who are trying out lifting and really enjoying it. I say this not to make anyone feel like they will never be good at lifting because they didn’t start at these extremely young ages, but to point out that lifting is something people of many different backgrounds and experience levels can do. Also, that these kids are forking adorable and I simultaneously wish I was them and admire the crap out of them.

Please enjoy some of my favorite accounts to follow, some of whom are better at lifting than I will probably ever be:

Luma is 6 years old, and she’s squatting!

Elle here mostly does Olympic weightlifting and gymnastics, but she is 13 and can deadlift twice her bodyweight!

Addy is 10 and she's out here bench pressing!

That said, I want for you to be getting into working out for the right reasons, too, and it sounds like you are: you like you how feel, you notice a big difference in your confidence. When I was a kid—which I swear to god wasn’t that long ago, but things are changing fast—dietary guidelines did not substantially address children’s weight and health, nor did they emphasize the importance of physical activity as they did in later years. Nevertheless, there was still enough screamingly loud body image marketing for us to internalize without anyone having to explicitly tell us to do anything. No one ever made the slightest mention of putting me on a diet, but it didn’t stop me from thinking I was fat (and believing that was a bad thing) at the age of like, 14.

Things are different now, and messaging to kids tends to be proactive rather than reactive: encouraging everyone to eat vegetables and balanced diets, and governmental recommendations for exercise for kids, all kids, regardless of weight or health status, are an hour of moderate activity a day (I think in the past everyone just presumed kids went out and played when they were bored, but now we have the internet and iPhones and it’s very easy to just never move). It really sounds like the generation growing up now stands a better chance than ever of having constructive relationships to their own health and exercising and body image, of appreciating themselves for what they can do and not what they look like, and for recognizing the benefits in taking care of themselves every day, benefits that have little or nothing to do with appearances.

This is all to say, I know that in a lot of ways, pressure can be higher than ever on young girls to look a certain way and project a certain image; there are infinite fitspo echo chambers out there that can make you think a nice set of #morningabs are all you need to be happy and successful in the world, and it can be really, really hard for anyone of any age to step back and realize that that’s not true (and further, that it’s easier than ever for anyone in the entire world to spend 90 seconds manipulating a picture in a photo editing app to yet again raise the stakes for an “ideal” body).

Because of that, I’d love to end this column by recommending some role models whom I love and cherish who work out, and more specifically lift heavy weights, and are proud of themselves for what they can do and not what they look like.

Maddy Forberg is hella strong, setting records, and only 21, I love her:

Amanda Kohatsu is just crushing it in the gym all the time and is brutally honest about what it takes to be as strong as she is, namely, food and loving yourself:

Cynthia Leu is a former Marine who can frequently be found crushing her lifts at the Facebook campus gym, and is always open about her history of struggling with food and body image:

Bonica Brown is wildly strong and competes in all manner of events, including recently a Strongwoman 425lb tire flip:

Daniella Melo is only 20 and already an IPF World champion (the most competitive global lifting event in the world) and she is a b e a s t:

Most of these women are among the strongest ones I follow, and that doesn’t mean you have to be as good as they are to do this; they’ve put in years and years of time and effort to reach this level of performance. I admire them because lifting weights for them is not a fairweather trend, like for some influencers; it holds meaning and gives them a window of insight into themselves and how they live their lives, and most importantly, what they are capable of when they manage to transcend what other people expect.


Casey Johnston is the editor of the Future section at The Outline and a competitive powerlifter with a degree in applied physics. She writes the column Ask a Swole Woman for SELF. You can find her on Twitter: @caseyjohnston.


Letters to AASW are edited for length and context, and the content of each AASW column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.

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