Brian Grasso, CEO for the International Youth Conditioning Association, travels extensively throughout the world as a guest lecturer on the topic of youth athletic development and fitness. You can find dozens of free articles, sample programs and resources on his Web site: www.DevelopingAthletics.com.
Youth fitness continues to be the presumptive favorite for becoming the largest and highest grossing niche in the entire fitness industry. Countless children and teenagers are overweight and unfit while countless more are searching for the competitive edge that can make them the fastest and strongest on the field in their sport of choice.
There is certainly no shortage of prospective clients for the ambitious personal trainer or facility owner willing to break rank from the standard service offering of adult fitness and work to provide top-quality programs for a younger demographic.
And the reality is that these programs do exist. They’re just not terribly popular.
In IDEA’s 2006 survey on equipment and programs, more than 65 percent of the respondents said they offer youth fitness programs at their facilities. However, less than 10 percent indicated that they actually had enrollment of members under the age of 18.
So, what gives? We see a demographic in desperate need of help and an industry clearly trying to accommodate that. But why aren’t youth fitness programs both popular and flourishing?
Well, the answer is something you may not want to hear. Folks, it’s not about video games attached to a bike or dancing machines hooked up to a television. It’s not about aerobic classes and yoga for kids, either. The biggest mistake we are making is in not understanding that kids have unique needs when it comes to fitness -- and right now, we’re not fulfilling them.
Here’s a look at the four most important things you need to understand about training children and teens:
1. Movement is king. The important thing to remember when providing training programs for children that are both high quality and loads of fun is that kids must have the opportunity to move. Free movement is not only the single most important part of nervous system development, but it is also something that all children inherently love to do when placed in the right circumstances. Movement must be free-based and experienced under the pretense of a training style known as guided discovery, where kids are able to move freely within the boundaries of certain games but aren’t judged for how well they are moving. Create obstacle courses or play a game of one-legged tag. Let kids move, let them play and let them discover.
2. It’s not about “at least.” “At least the kids are doing something, Brian,” they always tell me. I concede, and you win. Putting a child on a stationary piece of machinery truly is better than nothing when it comes to physical activity. But let me ask you this: How did you grow to love physical fitness, so much so that you made it your career and passionately share it with your clients, friends and family? I’ll be willing to bet that your love affair with fitness started when you were a kid, playing soccer in the sunshine, going for summer swims at the lake or maybe playing a game of hopscotch with your pals during recess. I’d also be willing to bet that your guilty indulgence of fitness did not come from a treadmill or dance machine, either. Video game fitness may be fun for kids now, but it won’t develop a lifelong love for physical activity -- and that’s what we need to do.
3. Get off those machines. Refer back to my first tip. When strength training with kids, machines are not to be considered a viable solution. The mobility and stability uniqueness of the human body is such that as we contract muscles to produce movement, we correspondingly (and subconsciously) contract other muscles to provide stability. This inherent ability of the human body is developed and honed when we are young and should not be tampered with. Incorporate free motion activities into your strength training work with kids with items such as medicine balls, light barbells and dumbbells, tubing, and pulleys.
4. Don’t treat the sneeze. Yes, youth obesity is scary and horrible. But we can’t treat it like a sneeze. When someone gets ill, you don’t treat the symptoms, you work to remedy the cause. In our industry, we have become very glib in our attempt to make people believe that “in 10 weeks, you will lose 10 dress sizes.” With kids, we simply can’t use this kind of thinking. Don’t over-concentrate on trying to eliminate the child’s fitness and weight concerns in one fell swoop of six-week glory. Take your time, and remember that they are kids. It’s not a battle against the fat. It’s a battle to get them to enjoy exercise forever.