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: Can kids benefit from more than striker clinics?
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..
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.