Does PE Help or Hurt Kids?

by Daniel Rodriguez PhD | March 29, 2022

teen barbell training deadlift

Public opinions on children and barbells are rarely dispassionate. Some have the mistaken, unscientific view that barbells and children should never mix for fear of stunting a child’s growth. Those of us who are informed on the topic know that there is not one piece of evidence that supports this fear.

In American public schools, children are usually introduced to barbells in the 7th or 8th grade, the same time they can start competing in school sports. The strength training community knows that strength is healthy for kids, but there is not a consensus on how children and teenagers should be trained. Some coaches consider efficiency as the highest value in training adolescent athletes, the way they would train adults. But coaching young people adds ethical issues that generally are not considered in the public discourse.

This article is not about the right age to start lifting with your kid, nor about why public schools should use the Blue Book as a textbook (which they should). This article is about good and bad – and kids. Critical thinking is good for kids. Body dysmorphia is bad for kids. Which is your child getting from their PE program?

Starting Strength has two core features of its method that make it ethically sound for the training of young people: 1) the focus on an explainable method rather than a parroted tradition, and 2) the focus on performance over aesthetics. These two values can offer something to everyone, but for teenagers, these places of focus can provide the foundation for decades of future training and a healthy mental life.

The first value is obvious: ethics. It is the honesty of the program. As we have learned, “Because I Said So” is not a real answer to any question. But often that is the level of understanding kids are given during their introduction to barbells in PE. When I was a junior high student, a coach taught me (and everyone else in my grade) to bench press incorrectly, straight down to a position of shoulder impingement, and that every time we lift we must find a new 1-rep max. Why? Because that’s how he had done it – because he said so. While this answer might be (or used to be) a common phenomenon in weight rooms, this was still in a school – the place where kids are supposed to ask questions and receive real answers. Instead, we were given personal history instead of reasoning. In this way, my PE coach taught me that critical thinking didn’t apply to the weight room like it did in Math or English class.

Coaches must be critical thinkers too, like other teachers are supposed to be, so that critical thinking in kids doesn’t only happen at a desk. Most kids think PE class is a time to turn off the academic brain and do their sport or play games. But it could be a time of learning about movement patterns, mechanics, and physiology. We want our kids to read Orwell in school so they can learn to think for themselves. Likewise, we want our kids to learn how to use their bodies in ways that will make them successful in life. Unfortunately, PE coaches are limited by the requirements of their state education boards and their own lack of understanding, and often cannot do what is best.

Perhaps enthusiastic parents will petition local school districts to include strength training using the Starting Strength method in their approved external PE programs for middle school and high school students. Many school districts allow for students to obtain their PE credit through their jiu jitsu or rock-climbing gyms, for example. When your child is due for the weight room introduction at their school, consider instead bringing them to a Starting Strength gym. They will get a more useful education.

Secondly, the program values performance over aesthetics, which allows coaches to engage young lifters in ways that help with self-perception problems, rather than add to them. The mental health struggles of Western teenagers are well known, and documenting them is beyond the purpose of this article. Suffice it to say: growing up is hard, and it's often accompanied by psychological struggle. The prevalence of social media in the lives of young people worsens this already unhealthy situation – in fact, Facebook has a study that proves this, demonstrating the effects of Instagram on young women.

Starting Strength can combat body dysmorphia for everyone who tries the program, but especially for young people. The method gives us a way to teach teenagers about moving their bodies under a load without focusing on how body parts look. As a fat kid in the weight room, I was taught, from a bodybuilding perspective, that I should take my shirt off in front of the mirror after each workout to gauge my progress. I tried this for a few weeks as a 14-year-old, but quickly left the weight room altogether. I decided then that strength wasn’t important and didn’t touch a weight again until my early 30s.

Bodybuilding types of training can be acceptable – although less productive – choices for adults. However, adults should think twice before pushing that way of training on young people. The body dysmorphia that many young people suffer is sometimes accompanied by a sexualization of younger kids in the wider culture. Adults inadvertently participate in cultivating this sexualization by teaching kids to become obsessed with their body image. Exercise programs that gauge physical progress by aesthetics are inherently inappropriate for young people because they potentially contribute to sexualizing minors and furthering body dysmorphia.

Simply put: they are bad – not just wrong, but bad for kids. Focusing on how body parts look is fine for adults concerned with aesthetics. It’s fine for adults to want to look sexy. But it is inappropriate for a coach to teach young people that they should want to look sexy. Whether or not a coach means to do it, that is what happens when young people are given exercise programs and outcome paradigms that prioritize aesthetics over strength and performance.

PE for kids can and should be a part of their maturation into critical thinkers. Aside from unhealthy body composition status, any consideration of aesthetics is inappropriate coming from a coach to young athlete. Kids already think about how they look without adults helping. From the perspective of one apprentice coach, these two foundations (method and performance) are useful for everyone.

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