Guide to Youth Fitness Programming
Too often schools are cutting their physical education classes while video games and television are taking over the youth experience, and the number of overweight and deconditioned kids is skyrocketing!
Physical activity should start in infancy and progress into adulthood to promote motor control, balance, healthy growth, bone strength, and cardiovascular health. The simple practice of balance will help an infant learn to walk. Running, jumping, and skipping will help a toddler with coordination. As they move into teenage years, cardiovascular fitness and increasing strength will help an adolescent refine their motor skills and strength as their body undergoes physical and hormonal changes. This is all without mentioning the benefit of a healthy body composition and sound habits a child will take with them into their adult years!
In this guide for youth fitness programming, we will explore the reasons we need to work with youth, the different age ranges in a youth fitness program for an ISSA Certified Fitness Trainer to consider, ways to encourage activity, and some programming considerations.
What Can They Do at What Age?
Depending on whom you ask, the general ages for programming progression will vary. For the health and wellbeing of a child, their physical activity begins as an infant and turns into exercise and athletic performance as they age. The child’s age and goals will determine whether they should be in a youth fitness class, on a sports team, or 1-on-1 with a personal trainer or coach.
Loose, general guidelines are as follows:
- Age 2-6 - The focus is motor control, neural/brain activation (which never stops!), balance, coordination, and building strong bones.
- Age 7-12 - Now, a child can begin to focus on refining motor control, athletic skills, increasing strength, and weight bearing exercises.
- Age 13-17 - As puberty begins for an adolescent, they can begin to work on endurance, cardiovascular strength, and can begin resistance training.
Where’s The Fun At?!
The most commonly agreed upon sentiment for youth training is that, no matter what the age of the child or children, the programming must be fun and engaging! Research shows that games and using the imagination is vital to youth brain development and we don’t lose the need for play as we age! Exciting, varied, and engaging play and exercise, team sports, and competition prevents boredom and increases program retention.
A solid youth fitness program will focus on teambuilding, participation, free play, proper form, and inclusivity. As the trainer, keep in mind there is a lot more than organized sports for older kids as well. Consider swim, martial arts, dance, group exercise, or just playing on a playground as ways to keep active. We have a social responsibility to help children find and foster their passions.
With this in mind, we want to teach parents how to stay active with their kids as the health, wellness, and nutrition decisions at home start with the adults. Kids are more likely to maintain a healthy lifestyle if they are surrounded by it and can do it with friends AND family.
We cannot expect kids of any age to move and respond like adults. Their bodies are smaller and much different than an adult’s body.
Age and Ability
This should be among first things any trainer considers when programming for youth. How old are they? Have they had any training before? Do they have any developmental concerns—physical or otherwise? These simple questions will help you begin to pull the correct tools from the toolbox.
For example, a “normal” two-year-old would start with simply walking, climbing, free play, and coordination, whereas a 13-year-old in their third year of organized soccer will be working on speed, cardiovascular endurance, and sport specific skills.
Space and Equipment Available
If you train in a gym, you’ll typically have a variety of equipment available from free weights, cardio equipment (treadmill, elliptical, etc.), and weight machines if applicable. Tumbling gyms are becoming more commonplace and often have a variety of gymnastics focused equipment and basic mats, foam pits, balance beams, and soft surfaces. Home gyms or a backyard may have a soccer goal or a swing set to use. A park can have a sport court, a large grassy area, or a jungle gym. Get creative! There are no rules when you work with kids and all this equipment is fair game!
You can also introduce outside equipment to these types of spaces. Things like cones, hurdles, balls, sports equipment, and ropes. These items are light-weight, easy to transport, and useful for sport-specific skills, agility, and simple games and movements depending on the age group you have.
If working with more than one child, the programming should ensure that all are engaged and active for a majority of the time, allow for breaks and rest, and there should be enough certified adults present to actively engage with, monitor, and assist everyone. Proper form is always a focus, so, for example, one adult for a group of 20 kids is not an ideal ratio. This is often why sports teams have a head and assistant coach (youth football teams can have up to seven coaches—that’s one adult to every five kids) or why many youth exercise classes limit their attendance each session.
The size of the group also determines the size of the ideal space, format, and amount and type of equipment needed. You will need less equipment if your participants rotate through stations than if they are all working together. If you are working on speed and footwork, you will need more space for more kids so they don’t run into each other. Similarly, a small group of toddlers climbing and playing may need less space and more padding to keep them contained than a group of ten 7-year-olds working on a gymnastics tumbling skill.
Vary the Basics
Of course, you’ll start with basic concepts. Basics like balance, a push-up, or running on a treadmill depending on age and ability. However, to keep their attention and drive progress, you will vary the basics to make them increasingly more challenging much like you would in adult programming.
For a toddler working on balance, place them on a balance beam sitting on or just above the floor and have them walk the length. For older kids, vary the width of the hands on a push-up or turn it into a load bearing floor chest press to engage the chest and challenge the movement.
Also, vary the incline, speed, or duration on the treadmill to challenge the cardiovascular fitness.
When adding resistance for older, more coordinated youth, consider that their growth plates are most likely not closed and their bodies are still growing. There is no true consensus on what age to start strength training, but there are many factors to consider. Supervised strength training with age-appropriate exercises, proper progression, and sufficient rest between sets is required.
Focus On Form
This should be the number one consideration in youth fitness programming. Their motor skills and neural connections are still forming and changing, so teaching and reinforcing proper movement patterns is vital.
Break down new movements visually and in a verbal way that the kids can understand. Use proper and consistent cue words to explain the requirements of the skill or movement. Keep your corrections quick, positive, and encouraging—never be afraid to stop a child and correct their form!
Warm Up and Cool Down
Even kids need to warm up and ensure they are stretching and cooling down. Their muscle tissue responds to exercise in the same way adult tissue does. They fatigue, they get sore, and they are open to injury if they skip these steps.
Anything to elevate their heart rate and warm their muscles before a training session is appropriate. Again, get creative and start engaging with the kids! The warm-up will set the tone for what you are about to work on. The same applies for the cool down. Make a game out of the toe reach to stretch their posterior chain. You may be shocked by the number of kids these days that cannot touch their own toes! The more strenuous the workout or session, the more focused and detailed the cool down should be to promote recovery and prevent injury.
If you’ve read this far, you’re definitely interested in working with kids! Complement your ISSA CFT and become a Certified Youth Fitness professional and begin to take advantage of the growing need for underage health and fitness trainers!