Children are not adults in miniature. They have a developing physiology and therefore, different capabilities for exercise. Can children train? Absolutely, but young athlete training programmes should not just be scaled-down versions of adult training. Rather, they should be highly individualised. The key is to know when, how and how much a child should train.
Make it fun
The purpose of training for young athletes should be to provide them with the skills that will let them undertake training programmes later in life with greater ease instead of starting from scratch during adulthood. A lot of general motor skills are learnt while kicking, throwing or catching a ball, climbing a tree or jumping into a sand pit. Kids should not have to forfeit these activities for a couple of dumbbells. This is exactly where coaches need to be creative when designing programmes for kids, ensuring they are safe and fun.
Children from 8 to 12 years respond well to games, so their programmes should be structured around a prize that will be awarded for their efforts. So whether it be through turning a skill (i.e. dribbling a soccer ball between poles) into a race or rewarding the kid who completed the skill the fastest, or the one who completed it with the least mistakes, or the one who persevered and tried the most, kids will always perform their best when there’s something at stake. Make them work in a team; they’ll try their hardest then.
Another good training programme for this age group would be “circuit” training — a course made up of different exercises (like squats, push-ups, pull-ups) at different points. This is usually used to help young sportsmen develop general ball skills for soccer, cricket and hockey. Wheelbarrow races (in which two kids partner up — one is in a push up position with his feet held by his partner and has to “walk” a prescribed distance on his hands; then they swap, go back, and tag their next teammates) and 30 m races with kids running backwards are great for balance.
The child should get 2-3 minutes rest after the circuit is complete, drink lots of water to stay hydrated, and go through the circuit twice or thrice more, depending on his or her fitness level.
Jungle gyms, with monkey bars, ropes to climb and sand pits to jump into are other fun things for kids. The onus is on the coach to be creative and ensure kids’ safety comes first.
To prescribe an exact age for kids to start resistance training is very difficult. Children develop emotionally, physically and mentally at differing rates; therefore a seven-year-old who follows instructions and is disciplined may be just as ready to start resistance training as a 13-year-old. Obviously, they will be at varying stages of physical development and this is where a qualified professional comes in, tailoring the programme to provide the right type and intensity of training for each child.
Strength training from puberty onwards is highly beneficial for boys in particular. Puberty provides a great window of opportunity for them to develop strength because of the increasing testosterone levels. If regular training is maintained, the large possible gains at this time can last into adulthood. Teaching (willing) kids correct lifting technique with light loads (i.e. an empty barbell or body weight exercises) at a young age, puts them in good stead for greater future development.
Deciding how often kids should exercise is also difficult, since their training should change depending in part on the games they play. Kids playing tennis, for example, would train differently from those who cycle. The aim should be to use 2-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions, depending on the weight the child can lift safely and effectively. At least 48 hours to 72 hours should pass between resistance training sessions . This gives time for repair and recovery and ensures that no neural fatigue is carried into the next session.
Although girls will not make the same advances as boys in this regard, due to the lack of natural testosterone present, strength training can be highly beneficial for them as well. This is due to the positive neurological adaptations that take place resulting in more efficient recruitment of muscle fibres and muscle groups, thus enabling the individual to produce more force.
For 4 to 8 year olds
Prepubescent strength training is the foundation of future proficiency in this discipline. The coach should use prepubescent strength training to introduce the child to the activity and from the outset, ensure strict parameters of correct technique and lifting posture are adhered to. Light loads should be used at this time and progression should come in the form of gradual increases in the number of sets of an exercise and frequency as opposed to heavier loads that may hinder technique.
The main focus should be fun. Piggy back rides, wheel barrow races, frog hop races, and one leg races are great for building neural perception, leg strength and balance. Climbing ropes, monkey bars and squats i.e. general body weight stuff with guidance given on form, are some of the exercises this age group can do with ease.
Not many kids will be mentally and emotionally mature enough at the age of 4-8 years to train in a gym using weights or to work towards specific goals like Olympic weight lifting. However, there are kids who will fall into this category and teaching them the basics from a young age is of paramount importance.
Glyn is a physiotherapist with Elite Athlete Performance and trains children.
Next week, we’ll talk about the diet necessary for an active child, and recommended exercise regime for an 11-year-old athlete.