Have Fun, Get Strong!

At almost seven years old, Patrick fancies himself
a big strong guy.

To say I’m working on a couple of projects right now is an understatement.  I have a tendency to stretch myself a bit thin with my training and teaching projects, but only because I have so much fun doing this stuff.  One of my most recent projects is designing a strength program for one of the “specials” classes at my children’s elementary school.  It will be challenging, but I’m really looking forward to seeing if I can get these kids excited about getting stronger and most importantly, having fun doing it.  I’ve been working on designing a sixteen week program for third and fourth graders and I’ll post some of the programs as I figure out what works and what doesn’t.

That aside, I’ve been training two of my kids and a few other students for a power lifting meet on September 22nd.  I think its a good thing to introduce strength training to kids as soon as it is safe and possible and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

Kids can lift relatively heavy, but attention to form is

First things first, its not worth training kids if they aren’t listening and trying their best to have good form.    Their bodies are constantly growing and changing and so they naturally revert back to floppy and twisted ways of moving.  I’ve seen children being trained in a number of environments:  One-on-one, group strength and conditioning, and team sports.  The one thing I’m constantly disappointed by is trainers and coaches who let children strength train with inconsistent and bad form.  In my mind, its a waste of time and can lead to injury down the road.  There is no reason one cannot teach children to move correctly, with good posture, through a full range of motion.  Doing so with consistency builds strength they can use as a foundation for all movement.

So, what are the strength benefits for children?  Building postural stability, strength, and endurance by strengthening the muscles that support the spine ensures that they can maintain appropriate posture for daily living, sports, and play.  Posture isn’t just important for charm school, good posture allows one to maintain a consistent center of mass therefore moving with balance and coordination.  You can imagine how this can help to prevent falls and injuries that may occur as these postural muscles fatigue with activity.  Hip strength and mobility also helps to support the posture and drive lower and full body movements.  Core strength also supports the posture and helps to coordinate upper and lower body movements into full body movements.  The other essential part of good posture are the muscles of the chest and upper back.  Creating balanced strength and flexibility between these two areas prevents the all too familiar “slouching” that makes some of us cringe.  Lastly, strengthening the entire body serves as valuable “pre-hab”, preparing muscles to accommodate forces from multiple directions and preventing injuries.  It doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t even have to take a lot of time, but its worth taking the time to do it right.

I have been known to dismiss my own children from lifting
practice.  If they can’t pay attention, its just a waste of time.

So, that being said, I have learned a few things working with my kids and with larger groups of children with the Carolina Elite track and field club.  The first and most important thing is you must have their full attention.  This can be difficult, particularly with 11 and 12 year olds, but using the right cues such as “why don’t you go sit with your mom and we’ll talk about why you can’t squat with her after practice” or “how many pushups would you like to do right now?” work pretty well.  I’m not particularly mean, but I don’t allow the children I’m training to fool around and not listen.

Secondly, if you want everyone to do the exercise and do it correctly, keep it simple.  I typically don’t have the children perform more than four exercises in a single strength training session.  If some children require more of a challenge, I can give them some weight, or if I don’t have any equipment with me, we’ll utilize pauses in the lifts such as holding a plank at the top of the pushup or hold an active position at the bottom of the squat.

A kettlebell deadlift that begins between the
instep (or the stars on Patrick’s shoes) ensures
 that the lift is primarily driven from the
posterior chain  instead of the quads
and low back.

Lastly, you must make the exercise appropriate for the individual.  Generally speaking, children reach postural maturity by ages 7 or 8.  This is the age recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for beginning resistance training.  However, long before then, children are already getting stronger by running, jumping, climbing, and lifting up their friends.  When we formalize weight training, however, we need to start with technique and keep weight on the back burner.  Good form should be taught first before adding significant weight to any movement.   Take into account the child’s limb length, height, weight, and leverages when choosing exercises.  I am a fan of deadlifts for kids, but if the child cannot keep their own center of gravity behind the bar, a kettlebell sumo deadlift is much better for teaching them to drive the movement with their hips and legs rather than their low back.

Teaching kids can be very rewarding and they deserve the attention to detail that we give our adult clients and athletes.  For their exercises to be effective, they need to be appropriate, consistent and performed with good form.  They also need to be relatively simple.  Kids can make a lot of progress with a short list of good exercises and that leaves them plenty of time to just have fun and play.

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