Kids in the Weight Room?
Several years ago one of my clients brought her daughter to a training session. At 12 years old, she was a tall girl, almost my height, but was slouched over, stared at the floor, and just looked miserable.
My client told me that her daughter was having a rough week. Her soccer coach kicked her off the team, and not for any disciplinary issues, but because he didn’t think she was any good.
Think about that for a minute. A preteen girl, told she wasn’t good enough and that she couldn’t play soccer anymore. This just broke my heart.
I had to do something to help restore this young girl’s confidence and to show her that she could be an athlete. I worked with her throughout the summer and we discovered something important:
This 12-year-old girl LOVES to lift weights!
I taught her the basic barbell lifts and as she got stronger, I moved her on to the snatch and the clean and jerk. As she got stronger, her coordination and confidence grew such that within a year I took her to her first weightlifting meet. Over the next three years she went on to compete twice at USAW Youth Nationals and became one of the most highly ranked high school pole vaulters in the state on her high school track and field team.
Ever since that experience, I have been a huge advocate of strength training for kids. I have trained my own three children to compete in powerlifting, and I designed a strength class that I teach at their elementary school.
When I work with kids I see their attitudes change, self-confidence skyrocket, and their physical strength go from non-existent to impressive. This shift is especially great to see in those kids who are used to being inactive or who are overweight.
Teaching children to lift weight gives them an athletic skill, confidence, improved physical health, and it inspires them to be more active.
In spite of the positive experiences I have had with kids and strength training, the idea of giving kids weights to lift makes people nervous. Parents have some valid questions:
“Is it safe for kids to do weightlifting?”
“What if my kid gets hurt?”
“Is strength really necessary for a kid?”
I think it is necessary. There are a lot of reasons to get your child into strength training, and even competitive weightlifting.
Why Children Can and Should Work on Strength
Most kids are simply not strong enough in this day and age. They are less physically active than ever before. You can see this lack of strength and activity in how kids slouch at their desks or over their mobile devices. Whenever you see poor posture, you are seeing a weak body.
A child that cannot support proper posture does not have adequate muscle strength, has poor balance, lacks coordination, and has overall bad muscle endurance.
“In the last 20 years of practice, the prevalence of forward head posture/anterior head carry in both youth and adults has exploded. What used to be on occasional postural finding has now become sadly the norm. Computer use, Video games, lap top computer use, smart phones, tablets and general inactivity have been the drivers of this postural distortion. The head becomes flexed forward to view the screens, this creates a shortening of the anterior neck flexors and a weakening of the neck extensors. For every inch the head moves off the midline it adds ten pounds of weight as far as the supportive muscles are concerned. This increased muscle tension leads to all kinds of health ailments including: neck pain, upper back pain, spasms, headaches, TMJ pain, muscle weakness and decreased vital lung capacity to name a few”. –Dr. Allen Ashforth, D.C., C.C.W.P
Now, you may be asking, but can’t my child just get adequate strength from playing outside more?
It’s true that there is no substitute for both the joy and the health benefits of active play, but for some kids, taking the extra step to build strength can make a world of difference. Strength training has tremendous benefits for children, the primary one being to build postural strength as well as trunk and joint stability. In other words, the ability to support the spine and joints under load and through movement. Strength training also improves coordination, helps prevent injuries, and contributes to improvements in power, speed, and endurance.
(its not just small and weak children, its all kids. I train big strong kids who are chronically injured from strength imbalances)
Strength training can reverse these negative effects and give a child the ability to sit, walk, and engage in all other kinds of movements correctly and in ways that prevent injury, pain, and future health problems.
More importantly than anything else, a youth training program can inspire a child to live an active and healthy lifestyle. This is the primary goal of any type of athletic or training program for kids, including weightlifting and strength training.
Here are just a few of the most important benefits of strength training for kids1:
- Improve cardiovascular fitness and body composition
- Stimulate bone mineralization and improve bone mineral density
- Strengthen connective tissue
- Improve blood lipid profiles
- Improve mental health and self-confidence
- Recent studies have shown some benefit to increased strength, overall function, and mental well-being in children with cerebral palsy.
- Rehabilitation can help prevent injuries, particularly the shoulders and knees.
Special Rules for Special Clients
Kids are not the same as adults. To teach children lifting, I follow special guidelines. The ultimate priority is to keep them safe while giving them all the benefits of strength training.
Don’t start too young
“Because balance and postural control skills mature to adult levels by 7 to 8 years of age, it seems logical that strength programs need not start before achievement of those skills.” 1
Every child is different, but there is such a thing as too young to start weightlifting, no matter how carefully they are guided by a professional.
Teach good posture first
The most important part of correct, safe lifting is good posture. This is the first skill a child needs to learn. Once they get it, you can put proper posture into the context of a squat, a press, a pull, a pushup, or any other lifting maneuver. Teaching safe form is easier and more effective when exercises are all based on the same model of good posture.
Teach strength as a skill
Strength is a skill.
Teaching lifting and strength training should be approached as a skill that needs to be practiced. Size of weights, number of reps, these are all secondary to good form, a learned skill.
When I teach kids, I emphasize the beauty of the movement, not the number on the weights or the rep list.
Every child is an individual
Individuals have different limb lengths, trunk lengths, and come in different heights and weights. Ideal form for a particular exercise may be completely different for two different individuals.
If a child is having a hard time performing an exercise, a stance, posture, or range of motion adjustment may be all that is needed.
Form before Weight
If a child cannot consistently use good form during a set of repetitions, the weight is too much, period. I reduce the weights until form is perfect and only then do we continue.
Perfect the Squat
After posture, a proper squat is the most important skill in lifting. It is a foundational move that builds a strong core and hips. Children know how to squat, but not correctly under load (This is the important part). This needs to be taught early for good form, strength, and safe movements.
Keep it simple
Trying to introduce too many exercises is counterproductive. Younger children, in particular, only have so much attention to devote to one activity. A squat, a pushup, and an assisted pullup or row is just enough for one session.
As children get older, this doesn’t change much; good quality work on fewer exercises keeps them mentally engaged and focused on good form.
Kids are in no rush and their trainer shouldn’t be either. It takes a long time to develop the good form that becomes second nature to experienced lifters.
Sometimes, due to biomechanics, you may have a child who needs to do pushups from their knees, can’t squat below parallel, or can’t do a pull-up.
And that’s fine. This is skill development, not a race to get to a certain number.
Supervise always, no exceptions
This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway:
Lack of proper supervision is the biggest cause of injuries in the weight room.
Eyeballs should be on kids weightlifting at all times. If this means a group class needs more than one trainer, then assistants should be brought in to help.
Strength is not enough
As with adults, strength isn’t everything. Children need cardiovascular exercise too. This is where natural play is perfect.
Running around with friends, riding bikes, or just going for a walk as a family, these are the fun, social activities that should accompany any kind of strength training.
Kids’ Strength Training Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated
Not all kids who try strength training need to get as into it as my children do. They don’t need to become powerlifters or compete. There are fun, easy ways to get kids involved in lifting, and they should always be led by experienced trainers.
Elementary School Strength Club
To get children involved in strength training I started a club at my children’s school. For the first meeting we do some basics as I introduce them to good posture, squat form, and give a little lesson on anatomy.
At each subsequent meeting I lead the kids in fun warm up, agility, and cardio moves. Then, we work on basic strength training moves, with an emphasis on form:
- Push ups
- Light deadlifts
Each meeting ends with free play. We play games like dodgeball or capture the flag to emphasize that being active is fun.
The final class, we warm up and then I let the children deadlift with a rising bar until they pull a relatively heavy single with good form. We’re not looking to max out here, just see how much weight they can pull with good form without the bar slowing down. All the children in my program have been able to lift at least their own bodyweight. If form changes or they look like they are straining, they are done.
Basic Powerlifting for Kids
For a more focused group of children, I like to introduce powerlifting, as I did with my own kids. In kids’ powerlifting we still do some of the agility and basic resistance moves like plyo jumps, pushups, and core work, but we really focus on lifts. We spend more time on the three basics:
- Bench presses
Powerlifting with kids is all about working on form and the basic lifts. Just two sessions per week is fun, not too taxing, and provides great benefits.
From basic powerlifting, kids who love to do it can choose to train for competitions.
Whether you are a trainer or a parent, don’t be afraid of strength training and lifting for kids. They can do it, if guided by a trainer, and they can have fun and get stronger at the same time.
For some more guidelines regarding working with youth, see our other blog articles on training young people or learn more about ISSA Youth Fitness Certification
1. There is no substitute for play. Strength Training by Children and Adolescents, PEDIATRICS Vol. 121 No. 4 April 1, 2008, pp. 835 -840