There is a prevailing idea that strength training, and more specifically squats, will stunt your growth and make you shorter. I’ve always heard this idea floating around the strength training community and didn’t give it much thought until one of my athletes asked me if it was true. As a result, I dug into the research to find out exactly what the science says.
Do squats make you shorter? Squatting does not make you shorter or stunt your growth. However, Just like how someone’s bodyweight will fluctuate throughout the day, so will one’s height. Squatting has shown to cause up to 3.59mm of spinal shrinkage, but this is no different than the spinal shrinkage that occurs while walking, and any height effect is restored to normal after a night’s sleep.
Let’s dive into the research more to understand the science around squatting and its impact on your growth potential.
Where Did The “Squats Make You Shorter” Myth Come From?
In the 1960s in Japan, a team of researchers noticed that children who perform heavy labor tended to be short in stature.
They hypothesized that the hours these children spent lifting heavier weights were responsible for their stunt in growth. The mechanism proposed was that excessive external loading would cause damage to the growth plates at the ends of the long bones.
What Are Growth Plates?
Growth plates are the areas in which new bone growth takes place at the ends of the bone. They’re made up of cartilage, and when kids are done growing, these growth plates harden into solid bone.
Is the myth true that lifting heavy weight make you shorter?
No, the myth is not true. The scientists studying the Japanese children found correlating factors to why they were short in stature.
In any scientific study, there is a difference between ‘correlation’ and ‘causation’.
Correlation implies that one event is related to another event or variable, but not directly responsible.
Causation implies that one event is the direct result of some other event or variable.
In the case of the Japanese children, it was found that children who were forced to do heavy labor were also underfed. This means that heavy labor wasn’t the direct cause but only a correlating factor in why these children grew up to be shorter in stature.
Unfortunately, the myth that heavy external loading negatively impacted height was popularized before it was debunked.
It took several decades before the international community reached a consensus that squatting and heavy lifting don’t affect growth plates or growth potential.
What Does The Science Say On Squatting, Spinal Health, Growth Plates, & Height
While researchers in the 1960s may have thought heavy loading impacted growth potential, the current scientific community now believes that squatting and heavy lifting does not negatively impact height.
Lifting Weights Has An Osteogenic Effect
Lifting weights has been shown to have an osteogenic effect (Quatman et al., 2009).
What is an osteogenic Effect?
An osteogenic effect refers to assisting the normal development of any tissue related to bone growth or repair.
Therefore, so long as squats are performed safely such as breathing correctly, implementing an effective warm-up, and picking the right stance width, then it can actually contribute to your overall growth potential.
Benefits of Squatting and Heavy Weight Training
In 2014, an international consensus was reached among the Strength and Conditioning Association that so long as weight training, such as the squat and other strength-based movements, were performed under the supervision of a qualified professional, that it can have significant benefits.
The broad benefits of heavy strength training range from:
- Improved body composition
- Improved cardiac functions
- Improved muscular strength and power
- Improved motor performance
- Enhanced bone mineral density and skeletal health
What Are The Effects On Bone Health?
Several major organizations, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association, have denounced the idea that heavy weight lifting causes negative height implications.
Fears that resistance training injure growth plates…are not supported by scientific reports or clinical observations, which indicate that the mechanical stress placed on growth plates from weightlifting may be benficial for bone formation and growth.Lloyd RS, Fiagenbaum AD, Stone MH et al. (2014)
So not only are squats safe, they can actually have a positive impact on allowing someone to reach their bone growth potential.
What Are The Effects Of Squatting & Strength Training On Youth?
The same organizations above suggest that it’s even more critical to be lifting weights as a youth in order to maximize your growth potential.
A study on children showed that physical activity prior to the pubertal growth spurt stimulates greater bone growth than compared with non-physically active children.
It was specifically recommended that children engage in high load weight-bearing activities like gymnastics, football, and weightlifting so long as they are supervised by qualified trainers and coaches.
Your Growth Plates Are Only Affected If…
Your growth potential is at risk if you fracture your bone plates. This risk is amplified as a teenager going through pubertal growth spurts.
According to the article on OrthoInfo, because growth plates determine the future length of the mature bone, then fracturing your growth plate requires prompt attention. As a teenager, approximately 15-30% of all fractures are growth plate fractures.
However, just because you fracture your growth plates doesn’t necessarily mean your height will be affected. If treated properly, most growth plate fractures heal without complications. Serious problems where growth potential is affected is rare.
Can Squatting Cause Growth Plate Fractures?
According to research by Hamill (1994), the injury rate of weightlifters is lower than other forms of physical activity and sports in general.
Furthermore, the types of injuries seen while squatting and lifting weights are muscular sprains and strains caused by overuse, not bone fractures.
The incidence of bone fractures while squatting is very low, and it’s been said that most injuries in the weight room are related to not being surprised by qualified individuals (Lloyd RS, Faigenbaum AD, Stone MH, et al., 2014).
Therefore, as long as you have a training program designed by a qualified professional and you understand the proper lifting technique, there is a very low risk of fracturing a growth plate while squatting and weight training in general.
In fact, it’s been shown that people who lift weights will have fewer injuries overall in other activities, and if these people do get injured, they spend less time spent in rehabilitation.
Height Fluctuates Day-to-Day Just Like Your Bodyweight
One thing to note is that height, just like body-weight, will fluctuate on a day to day basis.
According to Watson et al. (2012), spinal shrinkage can occur during everyday activities, such as walking. Studies have shown between 3-12mm of spinal shrinkage throughout the day is normal — even in young healthy males.
Does Spinal Shrinkage Occur During Squats?
In a study by Bournet and Reilly (1991), it was shown that squats will cause 3.59mm of spinal shrinkage. Interestingly, there was slightly less spinal shrinkage with participants who used a weightlifting belt — only 2.87mm.
With that said, when studies have compared walking/running to weight training, they have shown that spinal shrinkage was not significantly different between weight training groups and those who ran 6km (Leatt et al., 1986).
Therefore, spinal shrinkage is no more occurring through squatting than other daily activities.
Is Spinal Shrinkage Normal? What Causes It?
Spinal shrinkage during these activities is part of a normal process where approximately 1% of total stature loss occurs throughout the day. These losses are a result of height reductions in the intervertebral discs.
Any spinal shrinkage that occurs during the day will return to normal after a night’s sleep.
Practical Applications For Your Training
Here are my practical recommendations for your squat training:
- Understand proper squatting technique and don’t sacrifice form over load.
- Get a training program from a qualified professional who understands your individual differences and goals
- Wear a lifting belt as it seems to prevent spinal shrinkage when compared with no lifting belt (2.87mm compared with 3.59mm).
- Practice yoga or stretching after your lifting session in order to lengthen the spine and increase your range of mobility.
- Get a good night’s rest as your height will be restored after your spine naturally decompresses.
Squatting is a safe exercise that doesn’t negatively impact your height. While you will experience temporary spinal shrinkage, it’s not any more than other daily activities, and it will return to normal after a night’s sleep.
Feature image from @born_to_lift_ransilu
Lloyd, R., Faigenbaum, A., Stone. 2014. Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 international consensus. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 48(7): 498-505.
Hamill B. 1994. Relative safety of weightlifting and weight training. J Strength Cond Research. 8:53–7
Leatt, P., Reilly, T., Troup, G. 1986. Spinal Loading During Circuit Weight Training And Running. 1986. British Journal of Sport Medicine, 119-134.
Quatman, C., Myers, G., Khoury, J., Wall, E., Hewett, T. 2009. Sex Differences in weightlifting injuries presenting to United States emergency rooms. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 10(7): 2061-2067.
Vincent-Rodriguez, G. 2006. How does exercise affect bone development during growth? Sports Medicine. 36(7), 561-569.
Watson, H., Simpson, A., Riches, P. 2012. The effects of upper limb loading on spinal shrinkage during treadmill walking. European Spine Journal. 21(12): 2688-2692).