Kids and Strength Training: When Can They Start?
Yes, kids can handle - and even benefit from - weightlifting and plyometrics. But if you get a pit in your stomach when you see a nine year old walk into your gym, read this to learn how you can help kids strength-train safely.
As a trainer, as a parent, or as both, you may hear questions and statements like these:
“Kids can’t do strength training; they’ll get injured.”
“Won’t too much fitness training stunt my kid’s growth?”
“How can I safely help my kid train to be better at soccer?”
Yes, while strength training can be dangerous for children if not done properly, here’s the truth:
Kids can strength train.
And they can benefit from it.
Don’t stop reading this article until you’ve seen the science and learned the techniques to keep kids safe when you’re training them.
(At end of article, you can also share the infographic of 12 exercises for kids as a starting point toward strength training).
Fitness is important, but it also needs to be age-appropriate. The latest research tells us that strength training is not only NOT dangerous for kids, it’s actually good for them if done properly.
But wait, you can’t start a five-year-old out with a twenty-pound clean and press, right?
Training for kids is only safe and beneficial when it’s age-appropriate, when it’s progressive, and when they’re taught and monitored for correct form.
With childhood obesity on the rise, youth training programs have become increasingly widespread and popular. You need to know what to recommend to parents who want to get their kids started in fitness or conditioned for a sports team.
Where Does a Trainer Start With Children?
Just as adults need to build a foundation for strength training with exercises in balance and proper form and movement, children also require practice and strategies that match their age and fitness levels.
A 2015 study by Lloyd et al describes a plan known as the Composite Youth Model, which provides an appropriate progression of skills specific to foundational motor skills, muscular strength, psychomotor ability, and sport specific skills for kids beginning at age two.
Phase 1: Ages 2 to 4
In this earliest phase, children are just learning fundamental motor skills and building the neuromuscular pathways they need to coordinate movements.
The simplest exercises are appropriate at this age, for example, bouncing a balloon from one hand to the next.
Also important at this age is making movement and exercise a positive and social experience.
Phase 2: Ages 5 to 12
During the middle phase, children should be introduced to multiple sports and activities.
Placing emphasis on just one might be tempting, but it can lead to burnout, boredom, and repetitive motion injuries. This is the time to teach kids fundamental skills for movement, agility, strength, endurance, and hypertrophy, as well as specific sports skills.
This is when you can start basic strength training.
Phase 3: Ages 13 to 20
In the third phase, teens can get into more advanced strength and conditioning training, but focus should also be placed on socializing, building self-esteem, and developing a regular and consistent workout or sports routine.
Emphasizing the importance of regular activity develops an attitude that will carry over into adulthood and prepare teens to live active and healthy lifestyles. It is crucial to remember that a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be used with children because in any age group there will be different talents, abilities and maturation rates.
Really? Strength training at age 5?
Here’s what the experts say.
Kids don’t need to be lifting weights or learning any complicated moves before age 5.
But during Phase 2, you can start to introduce strength training and other more targeted exercises to improve conditioning, movement, and overall fitness.
Studies support this...
Study 1: Children training like Olympians?
In one study, researchers introduced boys between the ages of 10 and 12 to progressive, Olympic-style lifting, including clean and snatch, as well as basic plyometric exercises. A control group of boys did more traditional resistance training like bench pressing and squats. They were given fitness tests before starting the experimental exercises and several weeks after.
What they found:
The boys who did lifting and plyometric exercises showed significant improvement in fitness tests such as a countermovement jump, horizontal jump, balance, and 20-meter sprint, as compared to those who did resistance training only.
Study 2: Can kids benefit from more than striker clinics?
In a second study, a group of eight- and nine-year-old soccer players were put through strength training and high-intensity conditioning a couple times a week in addition to soccer practice; this included squat jumps, weighted jumps, and sprints. The control group added more training, too - but their additional training was just more time spent on their usual soccer-specific training.
What they found:
All of the boys were tested before starting the new routine and several weeks after. Those doing weights and intense conditioning showed significant improvement compared to the control group. They were more flexible, could jump higher, had increased power, and showed greater endurance.
IMPORTANT: Strength training, weight lifting, intense conditioning, and plyometric exercises can benefit children, but it must be done progressively and with proper instruction. The children in these studies were taught proper form, started out lifting light bars only, and were always monitored.
Reps and sets: Do you know how much kids can handle?
Kids can’t and shouldn’t do the same workouts full-grown adults do.
The primary goal is to keep the repetitions higher and sets lower to first create muscle memory.
This ensures that kids develop proper form.
Only when a child has the form down should you add weight and additional sets.
When you have a child lifting with good form, you can determine an appropriate weight by testing increasing weights with ten repetitions.
When the child starts to lose form or can’t complete ten reps, you have gone too high and need to step down to a lower weight.
In study 1, described above, the children were given small increases in weight for ten reps. Once they mastered ten reps, they moved on to two sets of ten reps. Next they were given a varied set and rep scheme, up to three total sets.
That pattern proved to be safe and slowly progressive.
Why Should We Put Kids Through Strength Training at All?
Research has proven kids can train safely and that doing so improves certain fitness measures.
But do we really need to train kids this way?
Why not just stick with playing sports and having fun?
Yes, it will take more time and effort to teach a child to properly do Olympic-style lifts and plyometric moves, but the benefits are worth it. Here are just 4 of them:
- More complex exercises put more emphasis on multiple joints, flexibility, and complicated muscle coordination, which is powerful for growing bodies.
- Strength training improves many measures of fitness that are important to sports like soccer, basketball and volleyball.
- Strength training and plyometrics can be fun too. It’s all about attitude. Make it fun for kids, and they’ll have fun while being healthy - even if there’s no game involved.
- This kind of training sets kids up for making a lifelong habit of strength training and good fitness.
Intense training can make kids better at sports, but that’s not the only reason to do it.
Weight lifting, plyometrics and conditioning are good for adults and kids alike. It makes us fitter and healthier.
Never fear a client with a child again!
Here Are the Moves You Can Train Kids On Right Now
So the word is in: You can and should do strength training and more complicated workouts with kids.
Whether it’s your own children or your young clients, you can now bring better, more focused fitness into their lives.
Just remember to do it safely.
As a start, learn and print out or show these plyometrics, Olympic-style weightlifting, and resistance training moves as well as the seven tips for safely strength-training children, pre-teen and teen clients.
If you're interested in learning more about youth fitness, check out the ISSA’s certification program.
Click HERE to download this handout and share with your clients!
Lloyd, Rhodri., Oliver, Jon., Faigenbaum, Avery., Howard., Rick, De Ste Croix, Mark., Williams, Craig., Best, Thomas., Alvar, Brent., Micheli, Lyle., Thomas, Phillip., Hatfield, Disa., Cronin, John., Myer, Gregory. “Long-Term Athletic Development-Part 1: A Pathway for All Youth.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 29.5 (2015): p1439-1450
Chaouachi, Anis.,Hammami, Raouf., Kaabi, Sofiene., Chamari, Karim. Drinkwater, Eric.,Behm, David. “Olympic Weightlifting and Plyometric Training With Children Provides Similar or Greater Performance Improvements Than Traditional Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 28.6 (2014): p 1483-1496
Ferrete, Carlos. Requena, Bernardo.,Arrones, Luis., Villarreal, Eduardo. “Effect of Strength and High-Intensity Training on Jumping, Sprinting and Intermittent Endurance Performance in Prebertal Soccer Players.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 28.2 (2014): p 413-422