For decades, strength training was considered unwise for children because it could lead to injury or stunted growth, but times have changed. Children’s strength training steadily gained acceptance through the years, especially after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans advised children to do muscle-strengthening activities three times per week.
Children and teens represent a growing market in the health club industry. Gym memberships for 6- to 11-year-olds have increased by 20 percent during the last five years, and teen memberships have increased by almost 3 percent annually, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). Now, fitness facility operators are adding children’s strength training programs to attract families and increase revenue while improving the health of a generation that has become sedentary and overweight. But developing programs for children at health clubs is no easy feat.
“Health clubs blow it when they take their adult programs and try to apply them to children,” says Avery Faigenbaum, an exercise science professor at the College of New Jersey who studies youth resistance training.
Children are not miniature adults, he says. Their motivation for exercising is simply to have fun, whereas adults might work out to improve their health.
“If you take the fun out of physical activity, you take the children out of it,” he says.
To create a program that is both fun and effective, Faigenbaum recommends explaining exercises as games and making tasks specific enough to challenge kids without being too difficult for them to complete successfully. Age and skill level also should be taken into consideration, since younger children will have different physical needs and enjoy different activities.
“Grouping them into age-appropriate and ability-appropriate programs is certainly a concern,” says Phil Norton, operations manager at Cincinnati Sports Club. His facility offers weekly group exercise classes and personal training sessions for kids.
Norton says that children who train at his club often fall into one of two groups: kids who come to seriously train and improve on some aspect of their physical performance (usually relating to a sport) and children who are forced into exercising by parents who feel guilty about their children’s unhealthy habits. Keeping the groups separated makes it easier for both kinds of kids to reach their goals, Norton says. A child who is less enthusiastic about fitness will see better results working with a trainer who can provide motivation and make sure the exercise goals are reachable, whereas athletic kids might benefit from the competition of a class and not need the extra motivation of a trainer.
Although Cincinnati Sports Club charges for some of its youth programs and occasionally markets to soccer clubs, most classes are included in memberships and do not bring in a lot of money, Norton says. Their value is in helping attract and retain families and adding value to memberships.
The Kishwaukee Family YMCA, Sycamore, IL, offers fitness programs for toddlers through teens. Kim Jass-Ramirez, community outreach director, says the Y’s strength classes for children do not require the facility to purchase additional insurance, cost little to run and are well attended, so a profit could easily be made even though that is not the Y’s goal. She adds that the equipment is particularly affordable since most of it is already in the facility for adults.
To successfully cater to such a wide range of ages, the facility adjusts the activities and equipment used to make sure they are appealing and appropriate for specific groups, Jass-Ramirez says. Younger children might be too small or too easily distracted to safely use adult weights. Instead, they get better results using medicine balls and doing exercises that use their own body weight.
Older kids who can use adult equipment correctly may find working out in the grown-ups’ room an added incentive, although children between 12 and 15 years old must complete special training to use the equipment without supervision, Jass-Ramirez says. Different age groups also have different attitudes. Younger kids find working out inherently fun and rewarding, whereas teens enjoy it because they can socialize and use electronic training partners, she adds.
Both Jass-Ramirez and Norton say that parents rarely express concern about their children’s involvement in strength training programs, which are different than the kids’ power lifting and body building programs that have been the subject of recent controversy.
At Fitwize 4 Kids, Coral Springs, FL, the strength-training equipment is designed specifically for children. The machines allow for multi-joint, closed kinetic chain movements, which reduce the likelihood of damaging growth plates and maximum compression forces that increase bone density in adolescents and pre-adolescents, says CEO Alex Duran.
Although using the appropriate equipment is important, the instructor is what truly determines if a program is successful.
“You need an instructor that absolutely loves working with children,” Faigenbaum says.
A trainer who can draw a packed class of adults might fail when faced with a younger audience. Good instructors for children often have backgrounds in physical education and classroom management, since a roomful of kids can get rowdy without necessary guidance, he says.
Beyond being a good addition to youth programming, strength training provides an opportunity to improve more than the physical health of a child.
“Without a doubt, strength training for children builds confidence,” Jass- Ramirez says. “While our programs are open to all youth, we especially encourage those young people who may not enjoy sports or have not been successful with other types of exercise. Children who are overweight can usually lift a good amount of weight, and it’s motivating for them to experience that success.”