Youth Strength Training: Beyond the Weightroom
For which developmental age range does supervised strength training become appropriate?
Is lifting weights going to stunt my child’s growth? Is lifting weights going to make my child slow and stiff? Is strength training going to actually help my child be a better athlete?
Parents Often Ask
We get these questions posed by parents on a consistent basis. The response is always ... there is a range of when children are ready for supervised strength training, but the benefits go well beyond the strength. Also, it will not stunt a child's growth or make them slow and stiff. But it WILL make them a better athlete. Confidence and various other character traits can all be cultivated through supervised strength training. The biggest benefits lie behind the lines of strength training and are found in the depths of the psyche.
Youth athletes (ages 8-12) are at a very odd point of their life. They are just about to hit puberty, they are just about to start to figure out who they are and what is the tipping point for them? They can grow significantly through the awkward years of puberty and still maintain confidence OR they enter puberty with minimal self-esteem, minimal self-awareness and a mental focus that is lacking which in turn could spark a miserable 5-7 years of being a teen.
What are those “unseen” benefits of strength training? Do they exist? Is a young child truly able to mature mentally and socially just by being in an environment of iron? Can they really “grow” and establish their personality through the physical culture of the barbell?
Absolutely! Let’s dive deep into the various positive attributes of strength training and the role they play on personal development.
1. Work/reward functionality (work ethic)
For over a decade I have worked with individuals from the age of seven, all the way through the age of 78. I have seen young children grow into hulking machines that have received Division 1 scholarships, they have accomplished goals they could have never believed possible, I have seen them travel the world, learn new things and embrace various cultures they otherwise may have never engaged, all because of the fruits of strength training. But one of the most important aspects lies inside the work/reward functionality.
Young athletes who engage in strength training are surrounded by work and reward. These athletes walk into Garage Strength and are surrounded by a community where showing up to train is expected and positive results occur daily. If it’s not themselves succeeding from the fruits of their labor, it is someone they know or see in the gym on a regular basis.
Show up to the gym 3 days a week as a young athlete and within a matter of 3-4 weeks, new weights are achieved. New movements are learned, new confidence blossoms and a spark is triggered. Even if it isn’t 3-4 weeks, it could be 6-7 weeks but the main lesson? Do your work and do your work effectively and reap the benefit of your hard work. This is a lesson that many adults struggle to understand. When a child learns the work/reward system at a young age of 9 or 10 years old, they are ahead of the game!
2. Personal Responsibility
Mom cleans up the toys after the kids leave a mess, Dad does their dirty dishes, Mom makes them breakfast while Dad packs their lunch. This is the easy way out. Every parent is guilty of doing “things” for their child that in reality, they don’t NEED to do. Their child can learn that responsibility but as a parent, it’s just easier to do specific tasks for them (trust me, I am guilty of this with my own four children!).
"Clearly Dane never learned to clean his dang room! "
Where the heck does this come into play with the gym? As a strength coach, nothing makes me happier than watching an 8 or 9 year old learn how to put their own weights on the bar. At Garage Strength it might be as simple as, “Dan, put 5’s on each side of the bar,” or even “Dan, grab the 15lb dumbbells and walk over here and then sit there for 30 seconds waiting for me.” These simple tasks may not seem like much but it’s a clear means of growth. The child learns how to handle instruction, they learn how to take care of themselves. The best part of this? “Dan, put your weights away.”
That may seem trivial BUT one of our biggest victories ever at Garage Strength was precisely that. A father walked into the gym about three years ago and simply said, “Somehow, I am not sure how, but you got my son to start putting his clothes away.” This particular kid struggled for a while to put his weights away, to put his dumbbells away, to put his shoes away at the front. I would hound him about not putting his stuff away, I would use the line, “Mommy and Daddy aren’t here to put everything away for you. This isn’t your bedroom!!!”
Over the next 3-4 months, this kid grew tremendously. He learned how to put his stuff away, he learned how to do his homework without being prompted. Was it easy? Absolutely not, but it was a lesson that has improved his own life AND the life of his parents!
3. Goal Setting and Motivation
Goal setting is an abstract concept, it’s difficult for a young athlete to fully comprehend how to relate a BIG picture goal to a small daily goal. This skill is difficult for business owners to master, it’s difficult for adults to master, but why? It’s hard to master because it is a skill that must be practiced! Going throughout your day aimlessly is fun for children. They have minimal worries, they have minimal care and that is what makes being a child so fun. As kids age, they struggle with finding motivation and they struggle with striving toward a specific task or goal because they have never learned how to pinpoint what it is that actually makes them happy.
That’s where strength training comes into play. Is it all about the weight on the bar? Not really. It’s more about finding a purpose in their daily work. They know they have to go to school, they know they have to exercise, they know they have to spend time with their family. When young athletes come into Garage Strength, we love helping them learn the value of goal setting from the first day.
By challenging them to think as small as, “How many reps do you want to try and get on this set?” Or by pushing them to think, “Let’s set a goal to bench press the 45’s within six months,” we have found that kids respond very well to that type of structure. It is simple, we write it down on a board and the athlete is reminded of those goals on a daily basis. When they hit the goal, it’s partially about hitting the weight on the bar but it’s even MORE about the fact that they found a purpose in their training and they worked toward that purpose and they accomplished that task that provided purpose. It’s a game of understanding motivation, it’s a value of accomplishing something and being proud, it’s a means of creating a work/reward system based around specific motivations and then learning to hold themselves responsible to achieve those goals!
4. Communication with Adults
We hear all the complaints about “this generation.” The old-heads love to blame kids for not communicating properly, they love to blame kids for not working hard and they love to blame kids for constantly being on their electronic devices. Something we have learned is that all of these habits or short-term traits are all learned habits and they can all be broken quickly with positive reinforcement.
Communicating with adults is no different! Communication is KEY to any successful relationship. It’s challenging to communicate with adults even when you are an adult! I still struggle to manage and communicate optimally with my employees and that is why it’s so important for kids to learn to engage adults at an early age.
We have had HUNDREDS of kids walk through our doors and feel intimidated. Weights are banging, trainers are yelling, athletes are grunting. Our gym is raw, our gym is loud and there is a lot of pressure inside the four walls at Garage Strength. But a big factor at Garage Strength is the community. Part of that community is watching the youth GROW. Watching a young kid barely look trainers and adults in their eyes to 5 weeks later they are laughing and joking with that bald headed 35 year old lunatic (me).
This starts with the adults. Proper coaching entails positive communication and understanding. It’s important to ask, “How are you feeling today? Are you sore? What are your goals today? Did you watch the Eagles lose again?” These questions may seem menial, but in the big picture of life, it teaches young kids how to communicate, how to conquer their fear AND most importantly, how to communicate their motivation and feelings in a positive manner to another human being who has like-minded goals!
5. Personal Accountability
“Yo, just wanted to let you know. I went downstairs and my 12 year old daughter was putting protein in her milk while making her own three egg omelet because you told her she needed to eat more protein to stay healthy and get stronger.”
That’s a real life story. That happens ALL THE TIME at Garage Strength. It may seem small, but those are the text messages and emails that bring tears to my eyes. As kids workout and grow from the age of 8 or 9 to 12 or 13 and then later into their teens, they start to grasp personal accountability. They learn what proper nutrition means. They feel less sore, they see their results growing significantly, they notice they have more and more energy because they are making better nutritional choices, they are going to sleep on time and they are learning how to manage their time!
Personal accountability is INCREDIBLY difficult to learn. It’s easy to blame other people. It’s easy to push responsibility on outsiders but when a young kid learns that they are responsible for their food, they are responsible for their nutrition, for their sleep, for their homework, for their lifting, for their sports, they become a tremendous contributor to society.
This goes right along with missing a day of training. I have had parents send me videos of their kids doing push ups and bodyweight squats on snow days from school, I have had parents tell me their child is furious that they couldn’t get to a workout because the family schedule simply did not work out for them. That doesn’t mean it’s ok to throw a temper tantrum. Instead, the child learns how to channel that energy and hold themselves accountable to do something to make up for that missed workout. When I get these messages from parents, I know their children will be special!
6. Handling Discomfort
It was 1999, I was fifteen years old and working part time at a local turkey farm. The first time the farmer asked me to catch turkeys, he told me it would only take about an hour. I thought about it for a minute. “Man, I am only going to make $5 to catch turkeys for an hour.” That was my first thought. Then I figured I might as well ride my bike over and work for an hour. What else would I be doing on a Monday evening in the summertime?
We started herding the turkeys together. I learned the technique behind catching their legs, flipping them upside down and putting them inside the cages on the trucks. These turkeys were ranging free so they were a bit quick and definitely strong and heavy. About halfway through the turkey catching, my arms were killing me, my lower back was lit and my hamstrings were on fire. I still remember how much pain my forearms felt from grabbing and holding onto the turkey legs. 300 turkeys later and about 70 minutes of work and we caught all the birds. Farmer Heffner came over and handed me a twenty dollar bill. I looked at him with disbelief. As I stared at him, he pulled out another five dollar bill. “Here is $25 bucks. You worked well, come back next Monday when you get home from wrestling camp.”
I couldn’t believe it. I never made that much money that fast. My traps, forearms, biceps and back were sore for 3 days. I didn’t care. I made $25 in a little over an hour. But what the hell does this have to do with strength training?
I learned how to handle discomfort at a very early age. I was fortunate to have a mom and dad that pushed me to lift weights and exercise early on. Watching my dad lift weights as a role model, learning how to feel discomfort and then learning how to EMBRACE discomfort was a key skill that I carried with me that day catching turkeys.
Not many 15 year old kids will catch turkeys on a regular basis BUT there is always a lesson to be learned in handling discomfort. Discomfort makes EVERYONE (not just kids) vulnerable. As humans, when we are vulnerable we tend to learn the most about ourselves, we inform ourselves of who we are and we GROW as individuals. Children must learn to embrace discomfort and parents must learn to allow that to happen. It is difficult but it leads to tremendous improvements in the young individuals existence.
7. Mental Focus Improvement
“Dane, my daughter went from having C’s and B’s to having straight A’s. I can’t thank you enough.”
I am a baby. I am sitting here, eyes tearing up thinking about this specific discussion. The growth of the young girl, the proud response of her parents, the proud look on their daughters face, the change in her attitude and focus, it was incredible. But why? How? What the heck happened?
Kids get distracted. Sometimes kids don’t like school, sometimes kids don’t respond well to negative leadership. Heck, EVERYONE crumbles when they have negative leadership putting significant pressure on them to accomplish a difficult task. This is where strength training comes into play.
Have you ever watched an athlete gather themselves just prior to a lift? They are standing their, focusing, maybe they are saying their mantra, they are blocking out all the distractions in the surroundings and they are focusing on the very precise movement and effort they are about to display. This is a skill. A skill that bodes well for people who may need to speak in a public forum, a skill that transfers well to taking tests, a skill that teaches young people that pressure is OK and they can handle it!
Think about the young girl, she prepared for a test at school but she struggles with distractions. Now, think of that same girl after a year of strength training and learning how to block out distractions, learning how to embrace pressure and PERFORM! That is incredible to watch, a transformation like no other.
Deeper Than Strength
Strength training is deeper than just lifting weights, it’s more fulfilling than just hitting PR’s, it’s a long term focus on the development of the individual. This is what makes the iron game so attractive, that’s what makes it so addictive and ultimately why it is such a positive aspect of life. As kids age, parents struggle to teach these lessons, life gets in the way, a busy schedule happens and in reality, it’s positive for children to learn from people other than their parents. Engaging in any form of physical fitness or skill will lead to a positive benefit in life lessons!
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