The idea that strength training is dangerous for kids is one of the most incorrect statements that I hear on a regular basis. Everything we do in life has risk, but it is how we mitigate risk is what is most important. Strength training, when done properly is one of the safest forms of exercise. I cannot tell you how many times I see people the gym throwing weight around with terrible form. It makes me cringe when I see someone with incorrect form or too much weight.
Children can begin learning how to strength train as early as adolescent years. Yes, there is some validity to the concern of damaging growth plates, but therefore the training needs to be appropriate for the individuals who are training. It is a matter of intent and choosing appropriate exercises that is the key to keeping them safe and setting up the building blocks of increasing strength and muscle development. Depending on a child’s age, it will determine what I focus on for their training. We will diver deeper into the different age groups and what should be the appropriate training modalities they can begin working one in their young strength training journey.
With these little guys you are probably thinking, “Woah Chris! That is way too young for someone to start lifting weights.” Now you may be right about lifting weights, but this is a perfect time for kids to start becoming aware of how their body moves. I focus on making these sessions educational, but quite frankly, it is important to make them fun. This means games that are all designed to help get them to improve balance, stability, and coordination. This comes in the form of balancing competitions, seeing how long they can hold a plank, hanging from a bar, or catching a ball with one or both hands. You maybe thing, “How does this help with strength training?” Well, I am glad you asked because balance, stability, and coordination are the foundations of having perfect form when lifting weights appropriately. This is a great place to begin working on body weight exercises such as squats, lunges, pushups, and pull-ups as well. When done properly, all of these exercises can achieve improvements in balance, stability, and coordination while building tremendous amounts of strength.
It is important to note that these training sessions should only last about 20-30 minutes because it is traditionally hard for kids in this age group to keep their attention or interest. Short but engaging training sessions are the best way to go for the 5-10 year old age group.
This is the age group where I begin taking children into the gym. I always start this part of the adventure with teaching gym educate and safety practices. Yes, this is the boring part of the journey, but we can all agree that it important to teach so your child is respectful of others and the equipment while as being safe lifting weights. We all know how children love to show off for their friends and lifting weights without perfect form can be disastrous.
This is also the most important age group to begin learning how to strength train because of the hormonal changes that are occurring in their bodies. For young ladies, strength training can inadvertently help strengthen their bones. When muscles contract, they pull on the bones creating a signal for the bones to strengthen as well. This will help them maintain higher bone densities while they age because women are the most likely to experience osteopenia and then eventually osteoporosis.
For young men, they have a flurry of testosterone being pumped into their bodies which acts as a natural steroid. This means that lifting weight properly can result in tremendous muscle gain from the smallest amounts of strength training. Now with these young men, it is important to stress safety. As we know they love to show off for their friends and ego lift to see who is the most macho and can lift the most weight. This is a sure-fire way to end up in injury or worse.
As actual strength training goes, I like this age group to focus on the compound lifts. These are squats, deadlifts, lunges, presses (bench and overhead), and pulls (rows and pull-ups). They are the most bang for your buck exercises because they move multiple joints and work multiple muscles. I begin with using little to no weight (using a PVC pipe as a barbell) and go with mentality of practicing skills, not just doing exercises. This will allow them to learn all the little nuances of the lifts and develop perfect form. By having perfect form, not only will they be safer while strength training, but they will get ten times the number of results from the lifts. Once perfect form and connection to the lifts are achieved, I will begin adding weight little by little.
Before wrapping up, there are a few important notes to make when training the children. First, these sessions must be tailored to the individuals being trained. This means that your information must be relevant to the individual. I would not try to explain to a seven-year-old that squats and deadlifts are the best builders of the glutes and hamstrings because they move them through the fullest range of motion. Instead, I would say, “It is important to learn how to squat because they help you be able to jump higher in basketball.”
Second, training youth clients is not about how much weight that can be moved but how well the different lifts can be performed. This is true for everyone for that matter. Strength training exercises are skills and must be treated as such. Other than squatting, none of the traditional lifts are innate and must be learned. Not only does perfect form lead to safer lifts, but you will simply get many more results from them. You will learn how to connect to individual muscles and be able to coordinate them with accuracy.
Finally, make it fun! We have all been motivated to work out from time to time, but motivation like happiness, sadness, and anger, is an emotion. It comes and goes. This is why it is important to help children connect to exercise as something that is enjoyable and understand that it will translate to many other aspects of life. Therefore, it is important to design workouts around games and competition for the younger children.