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Training Kids & Adolescents

by Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD on May 01, 2006

If you have a passion for promoting fun and fitness in children and teens, the time may be right to break into the burgeoning youth market.

From Dallas to Montreal, from Chicago to Los Angeles, youth-based personal training and group classes are hot. The burst in popularity may be due to growing concern about the epidemic of childhood inactivity and obesity, a stronger push to groom athletes from a young age, greater scientific acceptance of resistance training for children, or other motivations—and pressures—to get kids and teens moving. Whatever the reasons, youth training and coaching have evolved into a $4 billion industry reaching thousands of youngsters (McWilliams 2004). If you are thinking about starting—or growing—a youth-based personal training business, read on for a primer on this emerging trend.

Why Work With Kids and Teens?

The benefits of affecting a child’s or teen’s life are innumerable. With 9 million overweight youth in the United States and the number increasing each year (Lobstein, Baur & Uauy 2004), personal fitness trainers (PFTs) specializing in youth fitness have a major task ahead of them. But experts say the rewards make the effort worthwhile.

“Working toward reversing negative health concerns facing our youth is a very noble and fulfilling practice,” says Brian Grasso, executive director of the International Youth Conditioning Association and director of athlete development for Sports Academy Northwest in suburban Chicago.
Trainers committed to making a difference in children’s lives have taken the plunge into youth fitness and developed programs and businesses to meet kids’ needs. But training this population is not for everyone, advises Avery Faigenbaum, EdD, pediatric exercise scientist and associate professor of health and exercise science at the College of New Jersey. Training children and teens is very different from training adults, he says, and many fabulous adult trainers have not developed the charisma, the willingness to listen and the enthusiasm needed to work successfully with children. Faigenbaum suggests that PFTs critically evaluate their goals and motivations before jumping into youth-based personal training.
What Do These Clients Need and Want?

With any business, the key to success is understanding potential clients’ expectations and providing a service that exceeds those expectations. With youth-based personal training, there is an extra twist: You have to satisfy two sets of clients with very different needs and wants. One set consists of the true clients—the children, and the other of the bankrollers—the parents or guardians.

Often, the children’s goals are not the same as the parents’ goals. Parents tend to enroll their children in personal training because they want them either to excel in a sport or to lose weight. In short, parents tend to be results-oriented, says Peter Churchill, Montreal-based personal trainer and co-owner of Studio A Dance Studios and High Performance Centers. Kids, on the other hand—especially preadolescents—may just want to have fun. While trainers have different methods of coping with this challenge, all agree that the priority in each case is to meet the needs of the child.
“I keep the parent[s] involved in the sessions, but I rarely talk ... in front of the client,” says Mary Eggers, owner of Rochester, New York–based Train-This!, an online multisport coaching company. Eggers usually communicates with parents through e-mail, keeping the discussion general. In this way, she is able to meet their need to be involved, the child’s need to be the focus of the training, and her own need to be a trustworthy role model and coach for her young client.
Justin Price, owner of San Diego–based The BioMechanics, encourages parents not to nag their children to exercise, but rather to provide positive reinforcement and encouragement. When developing a training program for a youngster, Price draws primarily on the child’s input.
The Special Considerations of Teens. Teens hire trainers for a variety of reasons, including improved performance and injury prevention for sports, weight loss, general fitness, and instruction on the proper use of strength training equipment. Because teens are less likely than younger children to be forced by their parents to see a trainer, they are more apt to be self-motivated and have their own specific goals.
Nikki Perry of Collierville, Tennessee, recognized a need for a teen-based program in her community after teaching cycling classes for teens at a local community center. To do her part in preventing and curbing obesity and to help prepare teens for healthy lives, Perry opened SWEAT fitness center, which aims to inspire teens to fitness through fun, noncompetitive group classes led by energetic instructor role models.
Ethical Concerns

While personal training can turn children and teens on to fitness and physical activity, it is not the best answer for all youth. The rising popularity of youth personal training has many concerned that children may be pushed too hard to lose weight or to excel at sports. As a trainer, you need to be aware of these possibilities and avoid contributing to an unhealthy frenzy.

“The child should see training as something positive . . . not [simply] be acquiescing to please a parent,” says Janet Weller, owner of Weller Bodies in Closter, New Jersey. “A good health and fitness assessment should be able to find red flags [signaling] that the parent is pushing the child, or that the goal is sports glory rather than increasing the health of the child.” One red flag is a child who participates in one sport only and does so all year round, Weller says.
“Each trainer should weigh each situation individually and ask whether he or she will help or hurt the child,” Weller suggests.
Assessing Readiness

The Child. To ensure that your services will provide more help and motivation than harm and disinterest, you can take a few steps before agreeing to train a preadolescent client.

First, assess whether the child is prepared—both physiologically and psychologically—to participate in an organized resistance training and activity program. To assess physical readiness, Guy and Micheli (2001) suggest requiring a preparticipation physical (working with the parents to minimize the pressure to “perform”). To assess psychological readiness, ask questions to determine whether the child understands what strength training is and what the goals of the program are. Without this understanding, the child will be at an increased risk of injury and could become turned off to fitness.
Next, find out if the child can accept and follow directions. A Position Stand from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) points out that 7- and 8-year-olds have benefited from resistance training programs and suggests that there is no reason that young kids who can follow directions couldn’t benefit from an age-appropriate program that includes exercises such as push-ups and sit-ups. In fact, as a general rule, ACSM says a child who is ready for organized sports or activities such as Little League baseball, soccer or gymnastics is also ready for some type of supervised strength training (ACSM 1998).
If you find the child ready to participate, tailor the program to his or her age, size, experience, chosen sport(s) and goals.
The Teen. The first step to working with a teenager is to understand the client’s goals. For example, an overweight teen who aims to lose weight before high-school graduation poses different challenges and coaching opportunities than an elite athlete striving to win an athletic scholarship for college. Help the client clearly identify—and achieve—desired goals by encouraging the setting of SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) goals.
The second step is to assess the teen’s level of commitment to making the lifestyle changes necessary to reach the stated goals. Does the client plan to increase physical activity outside your training sessions? Is he willing to make healthier nutrition choices? Is she truly committed to the stated goal, or is there some other reason she has sought out your services (e.g., parental pressure, social opportunity, etc.)?
Finally, assess your own degree of comfort and preparedness for helping the client in this quest. Some trainers may not have the passion or expertise needed to train an elite athlete. Others may feel uncomfortable helping a teen use physical activity to lose weight. Before taking on a teen as a client, carefully consider how you can best help her achieve her goals—whether by designing an extraordinary exercise program or by referring her to another fitness professional who may be more qualified to help.
Program Design Considerations

When training youth, rule #1 is that, above all else, activities must be fun. Rule #2 is that programs should be geared to helping clients become successful independent exercisers. Finally, rule #3 is that you must always remember that children are not “mini-adults” and should not be trained as if they were. They will not fit into the mold of the traditional exercise program for adults, because they have different needs.

Carla Botelho Sottovia, 2005 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, suggests that trainers expose children and teens to a variety of enjoyable activities designed to improve cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, body composition and flexibility. Of course, activities must be properly instructed and safe as well as fun.
In their boot camp workouts for preteens, Jodi Stokes and Annette Allen of Valencia, California, have not only incorporated the various components of fitness but also created fun activities based on kids’ favorite television shows. For example, as part of an Amazing Race activity, two teams of kids race to find clues hidden throughout the facility. After finding each clue, the children have to complete a series of physical activities before reaching the next clue. The Fear Factor activity comes next. Only after walking on step boards with a blindfold, crawling under ropes while avoiding plastic snakes, and jumping into a pool to unbuckle a teddy bear from a stroller can the kids move on to the next challenge.
The Science and Safety of Resistance Training

Clearly, resistance training is only one piece of a well-rounded physical activity program for children and teens. Historically, however, it has been the most controversial and thus warrants special consideration when integrated into a youth fitness program.

Until recently it was thought that resistance training was unsafe and ineffective for children. Early research suggested that young boys did not develop strength gains, and in 1983 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a Position Statement saying that resistance training for children was essentially useless (Benjamin & Glow 2003). Other myths circulated, suggesting, for example, that resistance training would stunt a child’s growth and worsen cardiovascular health and the flexibility and range of motion necessary to excel in sports (AAP 2001; Guy & Micheli 2001).
Today we know that children and teens who participate in resistance training experience a variety of physical benefits, such as increased strength, decreased risk of injury, improved long-term health and enhanced sports performance (AAP 2001). In addition, resistance training can increase children’s self-esteem and confidence (Faigenbaum et al. 1999). AAP, ACSM, the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine have all released Position Statements emphasizing the benefits of resistance training for children and adolescents. The benefits are further enhanced and the risks reduced when youth are under the supervision and instruction of a competent adult, such as a personal trainer.
Though each organization has developed its own specific resistance training recommendations, all are similar. Following are some of the basic principles from the AAP Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness (2001) for designing a resistance training program for children and adolescents:
• Get a physician’s clearance before beginning the exercise program.
• Always start with a warm-up and end with a cool-down.
• Begin with 1 set of 8–15 repetitions and enough exercises to include all major muscle groups. Work young clients through their full range of motion. To achieve strength gains, the workout should be at least 20–30 minutes long 2–3 times per week, and resistance should be added as strength improves. Children should rest at least 1 day between sessions. There is no additional benefit to lifting more than 4 days per week.
• Increase resistance once a young client can successfully perform 10 repetitions for three consecutive sessions.
• Realize that a client whose goal is to improve sports performance will benefit more from practicing and perfecting the skills of the sport than from participating in resistance training.
Although these recommendations may sound a bit like a child’s version of an adult program, remember that both teens and children have unique needs.
The Unique Needs of Youth

Although youth may benefit from fitness programs that resemble those designed for adults—the typical warm-up followed by aerobic conditioning, resistance training and a cool-down, for example—youth’s wants and needs are different. “Trainers need to understand how children move,” says Faigenbaum. “Kids like intervals and short bursts of exercise.” A continuous program, or moving from one machine to the next for 20 minutes, will not be successful with kids.

In addition, overweight teens should be trained differently than overweight adults. “Personal trainers need to appreciate the bigger challenge with an overweight child,” Faigenbaum advises. “This kid hates PE, gets made fun of and hasn’t succeeded. With an adult, we focus on the physiology. For [the child], we need to change behavior first and then worry about physiology.” In other words, finding physical activities that the client is good at to make exercise fun and encourage lifelong healthy habits is more important than focusing on weight loss or improved fitness.
Growing Your Kid-Focused Personal Training Business

If you’re sold on kids’ fitness and want to grow your youthful personal training clientele, here are some tips to help you develop a thriving business.

Make Sure You Understand Kids. “You need to know how kids think, what music they like, what is of interest to them, without trying to be one of them,” says Churchill. The experts recommend getting your feet wet by learning about kids outside of the trainer role. Faigenbaum suggests finding the best school-based or YMCA program in your area and asking to volunteer or to shadow the instructor. Don’t just check out the games and activities; study the interactions between the instructor and the children. How does the instructor structure the session, reinforce the rules and discipline the children when they break the rules? How does he or she encourage and motivate?
Price recommends seeking an advanced certification in training special populations such as children. Learn about the growth stages and the exercises that are contraindicated at each stage. Take continuing education courses to learn about behavior management and child psychology.
Whichever method you use to prepare yourself to have a successful youth-based training business, it’s essential to understand your clients. You must know how to keep those clients (and their parents) satisfied. In youth training, as in other businesses, positive word of mouth is priceless.
Network. In the business world, the vast majority of jobs are never advertised. Instead they are filled by networking. The same holds true for personal training. Develop your network of family, friends, colleagues, existing clients, conference contacts (such as the people you meet at IDEA events) and neighbors. Create a sample one-time youth program and ask your contacts to invite their children and their friends’ children to check it out. Let everyone know that you are committed to helping kids get fit and have fun.
Also develop a network of healthcare professionals, such as pediatricians and dietitians, for support and referrals.
Serve the Community.As the adage states, actions speak louder than words. Show your passion for helping children and teens by getting actively involved in the community. Volunteer to help train high-school athletes. Lead a free workshop, or assist with an existing program for a nearby YMCA or parks and recreation department. Offer to talk at a local school. Develop relationships with the children, teens and parents in your community. Once you have won their confidence, they may be more likely to invest in your services. Being involved in the community also provides an extraordinary opportunity to help at-risk children who could not afford the services of a personal trainer.
Aim for Independent Exercisers. You should be trying to work yourself out of a job, according to Faigenbaum, especially when working with teens. The ultimate goal in youth fitness is to create independent exercisers—to provide enough education, encouragement and confidence so that clients no longer need your services. While this policy may sound bad for the bottom line, the fact is that it gives you time to work with more overweight and sedentary children, Faigenbaum says. After all, isn’t empowering youth to be active the ultimate objective?
“We should judge our success by how well we change behaviors,” Faigenbaum says. As Price explains, most people cannot pay a trainer three times a week for 60–70 years. At $50–$60 a session, that could be more than $500,000 in a lifetime!
Provide Group Programs. Not all personal training has to be one-on-one. In fact, group programs offer children and teens many benefits, such as an enhanced fun factor and social bonding. In addition, joining a group program may feel less threatening to kids than hiring their own trainer, says Price. Faigenbaum finds that when he combines elite athletes with overweight children and emphasizes each child’s strengths, the peer interactions are often more powerful than anything he could say or do. When a skinny kid comes up to an overweight child and says, “I can’t believe how strong you are,” it is gold for that heavier child, he says.
Outlook for the Future

Once upon a time, most health clubs and personal trainers catered to adults only. A young child’s experience at a fitness center was often limited to the confines of the club-sponsored baby-sitting service. Teens, though often welcome to participate in the facility’s many adult-driven activities, had access to few programs tailored just for them.

Times have changed. Today, fitness facilities and their trainers have evolved into a valued resource for children with needs outside of after-school programs and organized sports, and competent trainers with an expertise in working with children and teens are in high demand. Now may be the time to grow your youth-based business and help move America’s children one rep closer to a healthier future.
Natalie Digate Muth, MPH, RD, CSCS, is an ACE master trainer, a dietitian and a medical student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She can be reached at
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 2001. Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. 2001. Strength training by children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 107 (6), 1470–72.;107/6/1470; retrieved Feb. 27, 2006.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). 1998. Current comment: Youth strength training.; retrieved Jan. 13, 2006.
Benjamin, H., & Glow, K. 2003. Strength training for children and adolescents: What can physicians recommend? The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 31 (9).; retrieved Jan. 13, 2006.
Benjamin, H., Glow, K., & Mees, P. 2003. Patient adviser: Choosing a strength training program for kids. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 31 (9).; retrieved Jan. 13, 2006.
Faigenbaum, A., et al. 1999. The effects of different resistance training protocols on muscular strength and endurance development in children. Pediatrics, 104 (1), e5.
Guy, J., & Micheli, L. 2001. Strength training for children and adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, 9, 29–36.
Lobstein, T., Baur, L., & Uauy, R. 2004. Obesity in children and young people: A crisis in public health. Obesity Reviews, 5 (1, Suppl.), 4–85.
McWilliams, G. 2004. Now grade-schoolers use trainers. Wall Street Journal (July 20), D–4.

Special thanks to Ally Berenter, Kelli Davis, Ani Dumas, Cindy Fjeldheim, Kyle Fjeldheim, Jeff Gleiberman, Ryan Halvorson, Lauren Lass and Rali Schwartz for their participation as models for these photographs. Sincere thanks also to The Bridges Club for providing the shoot location.

Many fabulous adult trainers have not developed the charisma, the willingness to listen and the enthusiasm needed to work successfully with children.

Make Your Youth Training Program Stand Out

Whether they are for kids or adults, personal training programs are not all created equal. To make your youth program stand out, follow these suggestions from The Physician and Sportsmedicine:
• Offer group training, but work with no more than 10 children or teens at a time. Group training is ideal for children because it allows greater opportunities to incorporate a fun factor into the program and highlight each child’s strengths. It helps teens develop relationships and social support so they can continue exercising outside the training session. However, too many clients make appropriate supervision difficult.
• Use kid- and teen-friendly equipment and weights available in 1- to 5-pound increments.
• Begin with simple, one-joint movements, such as leg extensions and biceps curls, before progressing to exercises requiring coordination, such as squats.
• Teach coordination before introducing power movements like jumping and throwing.
• Build up to free weights and/or weight machines by starting with elastic tubing, resistance balls, medicine balls or a bar without added weight.
• Emphasize proper form.
• Offer a lot of variety, and focus on keeping the
program fun.
Source: Benjamin, Glow & Mees 2003.

With youth-based personal training, you have to satisfy two sets of clients with very different needs and wants.

Checklist for Parents Hiring a Trainer for Their Child

A parent should be able to answer yes to most of these questions:
1. Does the trainer have a personal trainer certification from a nationally recognized organization and/or a bachelor’s degree in a fitness-related field?
2. Does the trainer have experience working with children/teens? Has he or she studied child development?
3. If your child is requesting training involving sports, does the trainer have experience with that particular sport?
4. Is the trainer certified in CPR/first aid?
5. Does the trainer have a network of allied health professionals, such as physicians, dietitians, physical therapists and others?
6. Will the trainer ask you to sign a waiver/release for your child?
7. Does the trainer/facility have an emergency plan in place that ensures that events are handled in a safe and effective manner?
8. Will the trainer require a health screening or physician’s release before working with your child? Does the trainer also provide a goal sheet for your child?
9. Does the trainer keep your child’s emergency information—including information about allergies (drug or food), current medications and emergency contacts—readily on file?
10. Does the trainer have a parent procedures policy for parents who want to observe the session rather than simply drop off their child?
11. Can the trainer provide references to other parents you can call?
12. Will the trainer keep track of your child’s workouts and chart his/her progress?
13. Are the costs and cancellation policies clearly stated?
14. Does the trainer have a personality that you think your child will like?
15. Is the trainer aware of the guidelines for children’s fitness programs from the Academy of Pediatrics and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine?

Until recently it was thought that resistance training was unsafe and ineffective for children.

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About the Author

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD IDEA Author/Presenter

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD is a board-certified pediatrician, registered dietitian, and ACE Health Coach. She is committed to providing evidence-based nutrition and fitness information to health professionals and consumers alike in a way that is logical, practical and directly applicable to readers’ lives. She has authored over 100 publications and book chapters, all which are based on the latest scientific evidence and presented in a manner that is easy-to-understand and apply. She is Director of Healthcare Solutions for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) having written the nutrition chapters for each of ACE’s textbooks, the ACE Fitness Nutrition Manual and Specialty Certification, and recorded several Webinars and online courses. Furthermore, as a spokesperson for ACE, the largest fitness certifying and advocacy organization in the country, she informs broadcast and print media outlets throughout the U.S. on pertinent nutrition and fitness issues. She is author '"Eat Your Vegetables!" and other mistakes parents make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters'. She presented a similar topic at IDEA World 2009; the video is available for purchase through IDEA. Certifications: ACE, ACSM and NSCA