While scrolling through my Instagram feed recently, I came across a video of a youth athlete performing Barbell Squats with knee valgus, low back flexion and hip shifting. It also appeared there was no strength coach correcting these unsafe errors, which was a huge concern.
My other concern, beyond the health of said athlete, was that other parents would see this video and want their child to follow suit. You know, so their kids "don't fall behind." With the amount of youth strength and conditioning shenanigans online, it is easy for parents to fall into the mindset that if their kid isn't lifting, and lifting hard, they're losing ground. Alas, what they fail to realize is that youth training done wrong exacerbates faulty movement patterns and can have disastrous consequences down the line.
This isn't to say kids shouldn't strength train—not at all. The benefits can be tremendous, but it's crucial to approach the experience with care and the help of a qualified strength coach who values gradual progression and long-term physical development.
So how do you know when your kid is ready for strength training? A multitude of factors are at play here, such as age and maturity, movement capability and mental readiness. Let's dive deeper into these components.
According to the Mayo Clinic, kids even as young as age 7 or 8 can begin strength training with little risk.
"As early as age 7 or 8, however, strength training can become a valuable part of an overall fitness plan—as long as the child is mature enough to follow directions and practice proper technique and form," the Mayo Clinic Staff writes. "Kids can safely lift adult-size weights, as long as the weight is light enough. In most cases, one or two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions is all it takes. The resistance doesn't have to come from weights, either. Resistance tubing and bodyweight exercises such as Push-Ups are other effective options."
Should parents feel like their kids have to start strength training this early? Certainly not. But if both the parent and the child has an interest, it's a possibility. However, children that young rarely have the maturity and desire to experience significant benefit from strength training. In my experience, most kids are ready to strength train by their middle school years, with some cases being the end of the elementary school years. I strongly recommend working with a qualified strength coach no matter how early or late a child starts lifting.
You may wonder if strength training as a child or pre-teen is dangerous. No, it is not. Given kids are supervised by a qualified strength coach, they are in good hands in the weight room. Research has found activities like contact football, cheerleading, baseball, soccer and gymnastics are far more dangerous at that age than weight training.
One thing that will help aid parents' fear of weight training for kids is knowing that it means more than just barbell and dumbbell training. Bodyweight movements are perhaps the best way to start off in strength training, and resistance bands are a very low-risk tool. These might not be the first movements that come to mind when you think of lifting weights, but for kids, they probably should be.
As an example of a move that can help balance and coordination, I like this bodyweight exercise:
To progress, you can add in a resistance band:
And then the ultimate progression is with weight:
This is just one example of how to begin with bodyweight mastery then up the ante with external load from bands and weights. One thing to remember: There is no rush when it comes to youth physical development. Bodyweight training is beneficial for several months to a year to reinforce motor skill learning. Youth strength and conditioning, to that end, is a process that takes time. Do not be in a hurry.
2. Movement Capability
Too often, I see parents enrolling their children in CrossFit-style classes that have them performing a high volume of Barbell Squats, Box Jumps and Deadlifts. Nothing against CrossFit, as there are some stellar coaches out there, but if a child has not mastered these movements, form will inevitably wane as the amount of volume and fatigue increases.
How does your kid move? Put simply, can they squat, hinge, pull, push and plank with good form?
Check out these teaching videos that instruct you on what to look out for with the fundamental movements.
What's amazing here is when they master these basic movements, other weight training
progressions become easier for several reasons:
- kids master spatial awareness
- kids improve balance
- kids increase core stability
- kids improve hip mobility
- kids improve posture
- kids improve upper and lower body strength
3. Mental Readiness
This rehashes some of what we covered in point one, but this is the most underrated aspect of a youth athlete's readiness to enter a gym setting. Even if they are physically mature at age 11, this does not mean they are eager for formal weight training.
It bodes well to not force strength and conditioning upon the youth athlete. If they wait a few years until they turn 13, I promise they will not fall behind forever. More often than not, parents see other kids training with fervor and intensity, and feel that if their child is not doing the same, this will ruin their child's chances of going professional. This could not be further from the truth, so do not fall under the trap of competing with other kids.
Your child will develop nicely even if they wait a little longer to join their friends. It's really all about the approach and focus they bring when they do start lifting. A mentally ready youth athlete is one who will give his all to a strength and conditioning program and be more capable of learning from his strength coach.
So what do you do if they are not ready to get into the gym? There are plenty of ways to help them continue their physical development that have nothing to do with sets and reps. Here are several
- Take them to the playground to climb monkey bars (upper-body strength)
- Take them to the park to climb trees (upper-body strength)
- Play pick-up sports with them (variety of movements and free play)
- Tone down the use of video games (generally means more physical activity)
Funny enough, if kids went outside more, they would already be "ahead" in their athletic development, since free play exposes children to a variety of basic motor skills and feats of strength.
As an example, remember being exhausted after a game of tag? Yeah. You tapped into your anaerobic energy system, honed agility and change of direction, and worked on reactive ability. Ever been tired after a game of dodgeball? Yeah. You worked on your rotational power and agility.
I hope this sheds a positive light on youth strength and conditioning. Strength training is tremendously beneficial for kids, but your kid doesn't have to be bench pressing by age 8 to reap the benefits. Strength training is a lot more broad than many parents realize, and simply guiding your kid towards the types of training they're physically and mentally prepared for at that given time is a great approach.
Also, remember that kids should fall in love with training, so the mental piece is one of the most paramount. After all, we want to instill good habits in them for a lifetime, especially when it comes to being physically active and healthy beyond organized sports. If you force them to get inside the weight room early and they truly don't feel like being there, you risk turning them off of it forever.
Photo Credit: Ranta Images/iStock
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