With childhood obesity on the rise, there has been an increase in programs being created with the goal of helping lead our children to a healthier future. While most of these programs have good intentions, they often involve programming that is not developmentally appropriate for its participants.
Children are not little adults. Coaches and trainers are quick to put kids through the latest NFL workout they saw on YouTube or a couple of rounds of P90x. We need to keep in mind that the children we are working with are growing and their bodies are not ready for adult programming. This article will discuss training considerations for elementary school, middle school, and high school children in order to provide them with workouts and activities that are developmentally appropriate, ensuring that they have a positive fitness experience.
The age range for elementary school children ranges from 5 to 11 years old. This is the time where we want to begin building a strong base of fundamental movements and skills. The key word to keep in mind is “discovery” – these kids are discovering how to use their bodies and need to be provided with a wide variety of activities that will allow them to do so.
As a trainer, coach, or even parent, it is important to guide them with gentle cues but also to ensure that we are not over-coaching. Trying to fine tune every movement or skill they perform will be too much information for them to handle and their performance may suffer because of it. Their movement patterns may not always look perfect, but don’t worry: they will discover what feels right through repetition.
Planning a routine for elementary-aged children should be centered on fun. Game play, obstacle courses, and relay races are all activities that work on various aspects of fitness while simultaneously having a great time. Tag variations are great for improving cardiovascular fitness, crawling variations and basic bodyweight exercises will build strength, and relay races are perfect for practicing motor movements (skipping, side shuffling, etc.).
Middle School-Aged Children
Assuming they have built a good foundation in their elementary years, middle school-aged children (11 to 13 years old) will be ready for the introduction of more form-based coaching. Here is where we can begin to clean up technique on basic bodyweight exercises, such as the squat and push-up, and begin to introduce other forms of resistance like resistance bands, medicine balls, and intermediate-level bodyweight exercises. We can also begin to teach more complex movement patterns that require a higher degree of coordination (i.e. skipping while doing arm circles), as well as bar skills by teaching technique for barbell exercises through the use of a wooden dowel or PVC pipe.
As kids in this age group are growing at a rapid pace, we may want to consider adding two key activities to their workouts: mobility exercises and foam rolling. Because their bones are growing faster than their muscles, a good amount of tightness will occur that cannot be resolved with simple stretching exercises. Mobility work will improve their range of motion around the joints (hips, shoulders, etc.) and foam rolling will work out any knots that may be forming within deep muscle tissue.
Program design for middle school children can begin to be a bit more set and repetition-based, but do not forget that the fun factor must still be present! You can maintain a high level of motivation and involvement by incorporating games and other fun activities throughout your sessions. Activities mentioned above for elementary children will have the same benefits for middle school children as well.
High School-Aged Children
Last but not least, we come to our high school children, which range from 14 to 18 years old. We will continue to assume that they have been building upon the skills they have learned in the earlier years. This would include the ability to perform basic motor movements and the ability to smoothly handle their own bodyweight and other forms of resistance. If they possess these abilities, then they are likely ready to move on to performing strength training exercises with free weights.
Since many of these children will not have had much – or any – experience with weight training, it is important that we do not get overzealous by adding weight too quickly. The primary focus should be on technique, as well as training the nervous system to smoothly go through the movements.
Workouts can begin to take the shape of traditional strength training routines, using sets and repetitions, with a variety of exercises that use a wide range of equipment. Smart progression of weight and exercise selection, while emphasizing proper form, will ensure they stay injury free and see the best results. Continue to incorporate foam rolling and mobility work, as they are not only still growing, but the long days spent sitting in a desk at school can be tough on their joints. And finally, keep in mind that just because some of your high school clients – or son or daughter! – may be as old as 18, they are not too old to have fun. Add a game to the conclusion of your sessions and end them on a good note.
A Final Note on Youth Fitness
Now that we have covered basic training considerations for elementary, middle, and high school children, I want to note that these guidelines are not set in stone. Some children will be ready for some types of training before others. For example, a middle school-aged child who has matured early may be ready to begin working with free weights before a high school-aged child who has only recently been introduced to exercise and physical activity.
The main thing to keep in mind is to provide children with exercises, activities, and games that are appropriate for their developmental and fitness levels. Putting a child through a difficult workout that they are not ready for will have a negative impact and could potentially drive them away from fitness altogether. Regularly assess children to ensure that they are given what they need, and always remember to make things fun and exciting for them. This will have them coming back for more and, as they keep returning to work with us, they can reach the goal of developing a lifestyle that they will continue for the rest of their lives.