All kids should be involved in a fitness or exercise program. Although many kids participate in sports, their practices and games do not guarantee that they are exercising for the recommended 60 minutes a day. According to American College of Sports Medicine, kids should be working out at a moderate to high intensity on a daily basis. To develop a well-rounded young athlete they should be performing the following during their workout sessions:
- conditioning drills (i.e. running, jumping rope)
- strength training (i.e. push-ups, squats, planks)
- flexibility/balance training (i.e. dynamic stretching and single leg drills)
Most parents and coaches agree that America’s youth needs to participate in more fitness conditioning. Surprisingly, youth strength training is still considered controversial. It is a myth that strength/weight training is unsafe or dangerous for kids. Strength training is another great way to improve your child’s overall sports performance, build their confidence and mitigate injuries.
For so many decades, it has been believed that children 7 years and older should not partake in traditional strength training programs. However, push-ups, burpees and jump training are a big part of most competitive youth athletic programs. These basic total body exercises will enhance a kid’s overall fitness level and even develop some strength; but a structured strength training program is far more likely to improve a child’s overall muscular development, coordination and fitness level. Despite this widespread myth, there is tremendous research and support from the sports sciences community encouraging parents to enroll their children in some form of a strength and conditioning program. If your kids are dedicated athletes and/or playing their sport for the majority of the year, strength and conditioning classes can have a positive impact on athletic development and help to mitigate injuries.
It is a myth that strength training will damage a child’s growth plates. It was originally thought that the gravitational pressure of weights would lead to damage of the soft growth plates located at the end of the bones. This damage would occur after the bones healed, leading to pre-mature fusing, which in turn would stunt growth. This is not true.
How does a kid’s body develop strength?
The body’s muscles can not differentiate between resistance that is being applied by a dumbbell or stress applied from aggressive playing, manual labor or sport specific movements like pull-ups, rope climbs, leaping and landing off the monkey bars. A child’s body in many ways is more amazing than an adult’s. While it is growing it is constantly adapting. In fact, the muscles will contract and create force to counter the weight it is experiencing in an effort to enhance strength. It becomes stronger because it is forced to adapt. Consistent and regular strength training will increase the strength of a child’s muscles and joints. Other benefits include improving the neuromuscular connection between the body and the brain – essentially enhancing the neuro-mechanical coordination. The brain and the body communicate by sending signals. The goal is that the signals sent tell the appropriate muscles to fire or contract. When the body experiences structured strength training it recognizes how to recruit and contract these muscles more efficiently and when it is then needed to respond to a dynamic or explosive movement (i.e. sports movements).
10 Guidelines for Youth Strength Training
- Do not confuse power lifting and Olympic lifting with basic strength training. Just as with an adult who is attending a strength class for their first time, kids should follow a beginner strength-training program. A qualified coach should teach the mechanical skills to be able to do various weight lifting movements like medicine ball throwing, squatting, dead lifts, pressing and pulling.
- Slowly progressing the load for children is the smartest way to increase the intensity. As a general guide, if you have concerns over choosing the most appropriate weight, increase loads no more than 10% per training session. Despite this recommendation, it is always going to be relative to the child’s ability to control the weighted tool you have chosen (dumb bells, med ball, etc..).
- There are many great ways to bracket a child’s strength training program. Many of the recommendations say 6-15 reps at 1-3 sets. My favorite bracket with kids of all ages is 5 reps and 5 sets per exercise. I find that kids need two sets to focus and ‘tell their body’ how to control the weight. I use the first two sets to give guiding cues. It also gives them a chance to learn how to self-correct body mechanics. A 5 set series provides the youth client time to adjust the weight by set 3 so it is appropriately challenging. Additionally, 5 sets of anything will offer great total body conditioning. Rest periods are given at the completion of the sequences (unless more is needed). One of my goals is to increase the work capacity of my youth clients. I do not believe performing 1-2 sets has tremendous value, unless the goal of the set is to just practice the skill of the movement (i.e. introducing a deadlift).
- It is hard to say the best age to start a child in strength & conditioning classes. I will advise that any age child can do body weight exercises and they should be encouraged (i.e. monkey bars, hand stands, jumping, push ups, etc..). The maturity and self-control of a child is a better indicator than their precise age. I have a 5 year old that pushes a sled and stacks weighted sand bells. I have also told a parent of a 9 year old, that their child was not ready for my strength training class because they were not able to follow the instructions.
- Supervision should go without saying. Like an adult strength training class, you must be attentive to teaching and reinforcing technique. There are so many amazing class formats. If a class includes a kettle bell squat and I can only supervise two kids at a time, the other children will be assigned exercises that they can perform independently, like plank holds, bosu bounding or even bar hangs. It is important that youth strength training classes have a scalable program. Class must be able to honestly build the strength and technique of the youth clients.
- All strength-training classes should focus on the big picture. It should be dialed into the realistic abilities of the children taking class. Avoid using Instagram and youtube videos to write your program. Social media posts should be used as inspiration.
- Ultimately the exercises included in a youth strength training class should not include more than 1-3 movements that are considered highly skilled. Children lose focus very easily. To avoid injury and provide the right motivation, combine high-skilled movements (squat, row, dead lift, press, step up, etc..) with fun exercises.
- The warm up phase for a strength-training program should be long. We call them active dynamic warm ups and last 13-15 minutes. This first phase of training should resemble a mini-gym class. Include running, jump rope, hurdles, agility runs, bear crawls, plank walking and even racing. The goal is to fully activate all the muscles in the body. Although kids are ‘super-bendy’ and it seems like they are the most sustainable little beings; their bodies need proper athletic training no different than an adult.
- Always end your strength training session with a warm-down. Cool down is not an accurate way to view this phase of the workout. The body should not become cold. This is a great opportunity to work on dynamic flexibility (i.e. stretch kicks), yoga poses and balance challenges. Avoid making this phase of the workout end by stopping, sitting and static stretching. Although many do core work at this time (I prefer to do it during our main strength series), you do not have to come to a complete stop. Toe touches, single-leg dead lift (un-weighted dead lift ), side lunges along with basic static stretching is a great way to wrap up your workout.
- Gamify your class as often as you can. Kids love games. Every minute of the class does not need to be a game, but make sure you give them an opportunity to associate exercise with fun. My favorite games are simple:
- AMRAP – As many round as possible, uses a simple circuit in a 4-6 minute period. Include lots of body weight exercises. This should be done twice, so they can see if they beat the first number of rounds.
- OMRT - One minute rep test, is a great way to increase conditioning. It is easiest with jump rope revolutions, jump jacks, air squats, etc.. Make sure you define the rules of each rep.
- Dice Game – Write your workout on a board and then allow each kid in class to roll the dice to determine the number of reps for each exercise and then the number of sets.