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Training Kids & Adolescents

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

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.
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
If you find the child ready to participate, tailor the program to
his or her age, size, experience, chosen sport(s) and goals.
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
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

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
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
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.

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.
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.
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.
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
“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!
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 [email protected]
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 2001. Committee
on Sports Medicine and Fitness. 2001. Strength training by children and
adolescents. Pediatrics, 107
(6), 1470–72.
retrieved Feb. 27, 2006.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). 1998.
Current comment: Youth strength training. www.acsm.org/pdf/YSTRNGTH.pdf;
retrieved Jan. 13, 2006.
Benjamin, H., & Glow, K. 2003. Strength training
for children and adolescents: What can physicians recommend? The Physician and Sportsmedicine,
(9). www.physsportsmed.com/issues/2003/0903/benjamin.htm; 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).
www.physsportsmed.com/issues/2003/0903/ben_pa.htm; 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,
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.

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
• 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
• 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
Source: Benjamin, Glow &
Mees 2003.

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

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.

Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

"Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician and obesity medicine physician, registered dietitian and health coach. She practices general pediatrics with a focus on healthy family routines, nutrition, physical activity and behavior change in North County, San Diego. She also serves as the senior advisor for healthcare solutions at the American Council on Exercise. Natalie is the author of five books and is committed to helping every child and family thrive. She is a strong advocate for systems and communities that support prevention and wellness across the lifespan, beginning at 9 months of age."

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