I've spent most of my professional life working with kids. I've worked with kids ranging from 3-15 years of age in a variety of academic and athletic settings. I enjoy watching them learn and grow, and the energy they bring to whatever they do. At True Fitness and Nutrition, I've had the opportunity to train kids ages 5-12 in both one-on-one and small group settings. Is training kids much different than training adults? Absolutely. While the principles of fitness are uniform, there are some major differences when working with kids, ranging from training goals to programming and motivation. I'd like to share with you what I feel are the ingredients for a successful youth training program.
What Are the Primary Goals When Training Youth?
First and foremost, you want any child involved in a training program to have fun. The fun aspect should be a goal for every training client, but adult clients also have particular goals (lose weight, build muscle, etc.) that will motivate them to work hard. Most kids will not be tying their activity to a future goal, they will want to do it because it is enjoyable. The second main goal is to teach proper movement and technique during activity. Again, not much different from adult clients, but kids will need more coaching in this area (they haven't been moving as long) and will gain much of their athletic improvement from better technique.
What Does a Youth Training Session Look Like?
I choose activities for training sessions that satisfy at least one (and often both) of the above goals. In terms of movement, teaching and reinforcing running technique, jumping technique, and change of direction skills will be the primary focus. The general idea is to teach the technique and then program activities where the technique can be reinforced. An example of this would be teaching the beginning phase of a sprint, then setting up a relay race to practice the technique.
Making the activity fun often involves adding a challenge component. With speed and agility drills, I might set up an obstacle course and time each run, prompting every kid to beat his or her own previous times. Team activities can also make an exercise more exciting. It gives the participants a chance to root for and encourage each other while adding some healthy competition to the session.
A typical session would start with some type of dynamic warm-up. Examples of warm-up movements are jumping jacks, skips, line hops, and leg swings. Next comes speed and agility drills. Usually one or two components are emphasized (arm action in a sprint, athletic position during lateral movement) and reinforced in a few activities (10 yd sprints, box drills).
The second half of the session begins with strength work. For the strength component, technique is key and body weight movements are often the mode of exercise. Because their bodies have not yet fully developed physically and hormonally, kids have a low ceiling for strength improvement. Because of this, weighted exercises will not be very useful until the participant reaches high school. Squats, push-ups, planks, and other body weight movements will be the best choices for preadolescents.
The session finishes with conditioning. Conditioning means high intensity cardiovascular activity. In other words, get the participant to work hard. Just about any exercise can be turned into a conditioning drill, and this is a time where creativity and fun fit in quite well. Body weight circuits, sled pushing and pulling, cone drills, and relay races are some examples of conditioning activities that kids will enjoy. Some static stretching or basic mobility work serve as a good cool-down to complete the session.
Progression & Improvement
The primary goal for almost every child in a training program is to improve athleticism for sports. Before puberty, large increases in strength and power will likely not occur. The athletic improvement will come from increases in neuromuscular coordination through the repetition of appropriate technique. In simpler terms, teach kids how to move properly and then have them practice with a variety of engaging activities. Not only will this make them better athletes now, it will build a solid foundation for future years as their bodies change and mature.
Some Final Thoughts
As a Personal Trainer, there are a lot of positives to training kids. As I mentioned earlier, they have a lot of energy and will be excited about training with you. Because of their age, improvements for kids will come quickly and it is exciting to watch them get better. The session should be fun, not just for the kids but for the trainer. The most important point is that you should shape their initial thoughts about physical activity and wellness. Providing a child with a positive experience may motivate them to develop a lifelong passion for exercise....which hopefully leads to a healthier (and happier) life.
Max Berkheimer, Certified Personal Trainer, True Fitness and Nutrition's Youth Strength and Conditioning Program