Strength training often is marketed to adults and seniors in health clubs, but today's teenagers are in hot pursuit of stronger, buffer bodies, which may offer a new market for this type of programming within clubs.
A report published in the November issue of Pediatrics found that 91 percent of boys and 81 percent of girls among the 2,793 middle and high school-aged children surveyed were exercising more to get a more toned body. Sixty-eight percent of boys and 62 percent of girls had changed their eating habits, and 35 percent of boys and 21 percent of girls had used protein powders or shakes in pursuit of more muscles. Six percent of boys and 5 percent of girls had used steroids.
"Youth programming is one of the fastest-growing trends in the strength industry," says Avery Faigenbaum, a professor of exercise science at The College of New Jersey.
In the past, health club owners have typically focused their teen programs on sports-specific training, but to capitalize on revenue opportunities within this pursuit of more muscles, the health club industry should focus on teens not interested in sports and those who are overweight, say some exercise scientists.
"Obese or nonathletic children often do not like cardio-based activities," says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist and vice president of educational services for the American Council on Exercise. These two groups have been more successful using weights, he adds.
"They're able to experience a 'win' for themselves and feel strong," he says. "It can then serve as a basis for them to do other kinds of activities."
By drawing in these two groups of teens, club operators can earn a new client—or a whole family of clients—for life, all without a great deal of sophisticated equipment or investment.
Just a couple of decades ago, the pervasive opinion was that children and teens should not practice weight exercises, but Bryant says the modern approach has shifted from age-based recommendations into those based on maturity level, motor skills and ability to follow instruction.
"More recently, as we've looked at data, weight training is one of the best ways for them to keep fit, with far fewer injuries than sports," Bryant says, though some club owners still harbor the misperception that weight-lifting teens may suffer premature closing of growth plates or stunted growth. These views grew out of misleading 1960s-era studies examining the impact of children's stressful work in Asian sweatshops, he says. Nowadays, even the U.S. government endorses physical activity for these age groups.
Promotion of these programs to teenagers must stress a safe progression in weight based on the technical mastery of a lift with good coaches differentiating between good and bad technique, Faigenbaum says.
"When I observe a class at the YMCA," he says, "I'll see a kid lower the weight when they recognize their limit. This is something they've taught the child, and it always impresses me."
Most of a teen's success with weight-training can be traced back to the instructor, he says, adding that club owners need to find people with the educational background to work with youth and then an ability to connect with teens.
Too often, club owners are instead concerned with what equipment to buy or what color to paint the walls, when the only critical variable is the person leading the teen strength-training program. (Faigenbaum recommends they have a background in pediatric science.)
Liability issues for club owners come down to proper supervision on the workout floor, says Karen Peterson, senior director of health and well-being at the YMCA in Quincy, MA. Her club keeps two to three staffers in the weight-lifting area at all times "to intervene when necessary," she says.
Adequately trained personnel on the exercise floor should discourage teens from competing with anyone other than themselves, Bryant says, citing gym programs such as The 200-Pound Bench Press Club as part of the problem. A recent study conducted by the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, OH, concluded that 47 percent of weight training-related injuries occurred in people aged 13 to 24.
"Make sure they master the movements," Bryant says. That means using a controlled manner, lifting rather than throwing, no fast or jerky movements and an appropriate range of motion.
An "inclusive philosophy" on the YMCA workout floor helps encourage teens to participate in strength-training exercises, Peterson says.And although Peterson says memberships still make up the bulk of the YMCA's revenue stream, the clubs open their doors to even younger children—supervised by a parent—with the goal of teaching proper weightlifting form before they reach the teen years.
"The boys especially are looking for free-weight programs," she says. "Personal or small group training could be a revenue stream for that age group as well."
At Peterson's branch, the free weight area is for ages 13 and older, but younger children 7 to 12 can be trained on specific equipment so long as a parent is with them at all times. Once they are trained, however, the children no longer require parental supervision.
From resistance bands to cones, stability balls and bodyweight activities, beginning a resistance-based program for teens does not have to mean a huge investment. Perhaps the biggest monetary investment should instead be paying a trainer with a degree in pediatric science to head up a teen-specific weight-training program, Faigenbaum says.
Someone well-versed in the needs of children and teens will help keep any liability and injury issues at bay, too. Regardless of how today's bulked-up teens may look, their musculoskeletal systems are still developing, and adequate rest, plenty of hydration and healthy eating are crucial, Faigenbaum says, as well as education about the dangers of trying to find an easy solution to a more muscular body.
"They want to pop a supplement, but they're having a burger for lunch, no breakfast, Red Bulls, sleeping only six or seven hours a night," Faigenbaum says. A program leader who can talk with teens about these dangers is worth the cost.
But these programs should not focus solely on serious issues. Perhaps most important to keeping teens on track with strength training is to remember that "if it starts to smell like exercise, they lose interest," Faigenbaum says, so club owners should keep these types of programs fun.
"Trying to sell weight training to teens in order to prevent heart disease or lower cholesterol are losing propositions," Faigenbaum says. "It should be: have fun, make friends, learn something new. If you take the fun out, you take the kids out."