In a previous article, we discussed strategies for increasing the physical activity levels of our youth. One suggested strategy was to include strength training.
I’d like to focus more on that specific point today, as the topic of strength training for kids can be unnecessarily controversial or confusing, depending upon who’s doing the talking.
Right out of the gate let’s answer this question with a resounding “YES”! Part of the confusion stems from the fact that some conflate the act of getting stronger with utilizing heavy weights, body building or other forms of high intensity weight training. While such methodologies may eventually have a place, the goal with strength training for a younger child (e.g. 9-13) is to develop quality movement patterns and facilitate motor learning. We don’t need heavy weights to accomplish this goal. Bodyweight or light weight is sufficient, because as I’ve said before, technique matters.
Once kids have developed quality movement patterns and coordination, we should add greater amounts of external load to continue strength gains. You might hear some individuals express concern that the growth plates are in danger as external loads increase. However, this fear is completely unfounded. When kids run and jump during play they create roughly 6 times their bodyweight in ground reaction forces. A controlled strength training environment pales by comparison. If we’re going to cite growth plate concerns when discussing strength training for kids, we might as well wrap them in bubble wrap and call it a day.
While strength training is a perfectly acceptable mode of exercise for children, issues can still arise if we aren’t smart in our approach. Here are 5 things you can do to ensure that strength training for your child is safe and effective:
1. Provide Structure: Kids react well to structure and routine. As you introduce kids to strength training, you have the advantage of creating a controlled environment. If you have a plan, you’ll make each session more productive and keep kids focused on the task at hand. If not, you’ll wind up herding cats, leading to frustration on your part and non-compliance on theirs.
2. Focus on foundational movements: Squats, hip hinging, pull-ups, push-ups and planks form the foundation of any good strength training program. This holds especially true for kids who are just learning to explore and improve their movement quality. Help them to master these movements, and their strength, coordination and confidence will skyrocket.
3. Emphasize proper technique: As we mentioned above, growth plate concerns aren’t an issue. Accordingly, the initial stage of your child’s strength training development should be solely devoted to improving movement quality. Heavier weights will come once they are earned. This is an especially hard conversation to have with a high school athlete who wasn’t taught proper technique, but whose sole goal is to load the bar up as much as possible. Master technique upfront, and you will make things easier later on down the line for all involved.
4. Keep it fun: I cannot stress the importance of the “fun factor” enough. While kids need structure, they also need to play (or at least think that they’re playing). Overzealous adults (both parents and coaches) can and will zap the fun right out of just about anything. There’ll be plenty of time to “grind” later on – let’s avoid the temptation to train our 10-year old like as if they’re a pro athlete.
5. Hire a coach: Just like a sport coach, strength coaches offer expertise and a different voice from mom and dad. Just make sure you know what you’re getting. I've seen incredibly knowledgeable strength coaches in various school systems who I would shadow in an instant. I've also seen sport coaches masquerading as a strength coach. The same holds true for private coaches - some really good ones interspersed with some really bad ones. My advice to kids/parents is simple: If you have a really good strength coach at your school, utilize him or her. If not, find someone private, but buyer beware - do your research!
With youth strength training our goal is help children develop quality movement patterns, improve coordination and become more confident. To that end, we should to create scenarios that emphasize structure, foundational movements, proper form and, most importantly, fun.
I’m here to help! If you’d like to learn more about my coaching and training philosophy for young athletes or have questions please contact me to discuss. If you’re in the Atlanta area and are interested in strength training for your child, I’m currently accepting clients at Excellence in Exercise, the private training studio where I coach out of.