Training children, either one-to-one or in groups, can be very rewarding. And with a few simple considerations you can ensure safe and effective outcomes, says Kelly Sumich.
Designing training programs for children isn’t a case of simply reducing the weight and intensity of the same exercises you prescribe to adult clients. However, the prospect of training kids needn’t be a daunting one. By taking the following points into consideration you will have the foundations upon which to build safe and effective training sessions for younger clients.
1. Design a training program to prevent growth plate injuries
Bones do not fully fuse until we are in our late teens or early twenties. This can create concern about whether exercise will impact on a child’s bone growth and whether children are at higher risk of injury.
Instead of a fully fused bone, children have a growth plate at either end of their long bones. This is made up of growing tissue as opposed to strong, solid bone and the softness of the growth plate can place children at risk of injury1,2.
Weight-bearing exercise in which children carry their own bodyweight, such as running or doing push ups, has a positive impact on a child’s bone development. Boreham and McKay’s research findings3 support the concept that moderate to vigorous physical exercise, and a short bout of high-impact activity, such as jumping, promote bone growth in children.
You should avoid prescribing repetitious, high-impact activities to children. Although jumping exercises are good for children’s bone growth, constant repetition of these activities will place strain on their growth plates.
As a trainer you can promote healthy bone growth and minimise a child’s risk of growth plate injury by:
- varying training intensities by programming low, moderate and vigorous intensity exercises
- ensuring training sessions have a variety of activities that use different muscles and body parts (e.g. give children a skipping or jumping type exercise but then move them to an upper body exercise).
If you suspect a child has sustained a bone injury it is important they see a doctor. If injuries are not treated properly, the bone may be prone to curvature or growth resulting in abnormal bone length. Boys are more likely to sustain growth plate injuries than girls, as their growth plates usually fuse at a later age.
According to one study4, most growth plate injuries are sustained by children between the ages of 13 and 17 years, and recovery outcomes are generally positive, with no long-term damage.
2. Design a weight training program suitable for children
The use of weight training as a method to develop muscle strength in children is frequently debated: however, the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association5, Australian Sports Commission (n.d.)6 and others7, 8,9 support the use of weight training for children if:
- a qualified trainer designs and/or instructs the sessions
- the child is aged eight years or over
- only low weights are used, e.g. 1 to 3kg dumbbells
- proper technique is taught and continually monitored
- repetitions are between 8 to 15, with two sets
- non-explosive weight techniques are employed, i.e. avoid deadlifts and clean and jerk lifts until the child is much older and more experienced with weight training
- the exercises are kept simple (lunges, squats, shoulder presses) so that basic techniques can be learnt and performed safely.
Prior to puberty, girls and boys do not develop significant muscle bulk from weight training. Children experience increases in strength from an increase in muscle coordination and motor unit activation, which contributes to a more efficient signal being sent to the muscle, creating movement and improving strength10. Once puberty is reached, boys may start to notice increased muscle bulk, which in turn can create increased muscle power and strength greater than that achieved by girls.
While children aged eight or older can participate in weight training, as a trainer you can also access other types of training to improve their strength. You can prescribe exercises in which children use their own bodyweight, such as push ups, handstands, cartwheels, sit ups and the plank. Children can also participate in plyometric exercises such as jumping over low obstacles, skipping and bounding.
Faigenbaum and Chu11 explain that plyometric training can be a safe, fun and effective way of enhancing speed of movement and improving power production. As with all strength and conditioning activities, ensure the intensity and volume is within the child’s abilities to minimise the risk of injury8,12.
It is recommended when including strength and conditioning training that:
- a warm up and ten minutes of general fitness training be conducted before the strength and conditioning section to assist injury prevention
- when a muscle group is strengthened, the opposing muscle group is also strengthened in order to ensure muscle imbalance does not occur (e.g. if the child performs core abdominals exercises it is important to also strengthen their lower back muscles).
3. Design a training program that appreciates children’s reduced aerobic and anaerobic capacity
Children have a significantly lower aerobic and anaerobic training capacity than adults13,14. Children are generally suited to, and have a preference for, intermittent training13.
Ratel et al15 found that giving children 10 intervals of 10 seconds at just above maximal aerobic speed (approximately 8 to 9 out of 10 work effort) during their training session increased their aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels. Children also recovered more quickly from these higher intensity intervals than adults. So, while children have lower aerobic and anaerobic training capacities than adults, they are suited to short bouts of high intensity intermittent exercise. It is advisable to combine this type of training with foundation motor skill development, such as hopping, jumping, skipping and throwing in a fun game-like play environment.
As a rough guide, a child aged around 11 years can manage about one-third of the training load of an adult. You should plan to incorporate a mixture of aerobic and anaerobic exercise in children’s training, with the volume of each being dependent on their training goals. The duration for training children should be 30 minutes per session, building up to 45 minutes as they become older.
4. Know when to refer an injured child to a doctor or physiotherapist
Harris and Anderson16 suggest referring a child to a doctor, hospital or physiotherapist if the child:
- says they are experiencing severe pain
- appears to have a joint injury such as a dislocation, or the joint is very unstable
- has loss of movement (e.g. they are unable to walk because of a twisted ankle or injured knee)
- initially seems to have suffered a minor injury, yet it has not healed within two weeks
- seems to have an injury which has become infected.
Medical decisions reside with the child’s caregiver, but if you are at all concerned about the nature of an injury, you should suggest that the child is referred to a professional for medical treatment and then follow up (see Injury & Rehab: managing injuries in younger clients). To assist child clients’ caregivers, it is useful – and professional – to build a network of suitable physiotherapists and medical professionals. If medical treatment is not sought, injuries can worsen and potentially prevent the child from exercising for a long period of time.
5. Protect yourself
As a trainer, you should ensure that you have written consent from the caregiver to train the child and a full health history form completed and signed. If you are employed by a fitness facility or other organisation, you will also need to check whether it has a policy on training children. If you start training children on a regular basis, it is advisable to complete a short course in this field (see box above).
Kelly is author of Coaching Children: Sports Science Essentials, available from https://shop.acer.edu.au/acer-shop/product/A5264BK, and is the director of the Sports Science Education Institute. She teaches the Level 1 in Coaching Children (Sports Science) course available at www.sportsscienceeducation.com.au. Kelly can be contacted on 0435 499 504 or by email at email@example.com.