By the time our children are in elementary school, it is appropriate to begin considering teaching them, from this early age, how to properly lift, run, sprint and how to safely and effectively utilize exercise equipment. Now that does not mean that we necessarily encourage those under the age of 13 years to be “lifting” in the traditional sense with external resistance. However, it does mean that we want to begin introducing how to move the body, create appropriate movement patterns, including how to properly lift objects functionally and how to identify what is safe/effective and what should be avoided intuitively. The value in these teaching components is to begin providing youth with a clear picture of what exercise is so that they experience a lifetime of success with their health and fitness programs.
In general, we avoid placing external resistance into the hands of youth under the age of 13; however, we also consider the size and strength of that specific individual. Particularly during the years of puberty there may be vast differences between children in terms of height, body weight, strength, endurance, and emotional maturity.
Consequently, all of these individual factors are considered when we decide as fitness professionals that an individual child is ready for external resistance. We also know that motor development and growth in height, muscular mass, etc. may be different for boys and girls. Girls, may continue growing in height for example, until approximately the age of 16 years. However, boys, may continue growing in height until they are 26 years of age! This may dictate a different training approach considering gender at these ages. That does not mean that we are not training females as intensely as males; however, depending upon the individual, we may train them differently.
A good example is the actual structural differences between most males and females which may appear earlier in some youth than others (i.e. narrower pelvis in males/wider pelvis in females). While we still consider each youth individually, regardless of gender, these gender-specific structural differences are aspects to training youth (as well as adults) that we must consider when designing training programs.
Another example of possible differences between males and females is when they are approximately 7-10 years of age, the female may be able to perform a pull up or climb a rope when a male of the same age cannot. While there are many physiological/structural developmental reasons for this situation, and this difference may disappear in a male beyond puberty, it is important to educate and encourage young males, understanding, over time, they may be able to effectively push/pull their body weight.
As we do with adults, we require the youth to master the foundational exercise, skill or drill prior to any progression in intensity. And, because we all progress at different levels, in a youth strength and conditioning program environment, the program needs to be flexible enough to address their individual needs while providing an excellent program experience.
Lastly, all youth strength and conditioning training programs should include a fun element throughout. We need to encourage play; however, this may be accomplished by introducing our youth to healthy and fit lifestyles, not just through sports, but through exercise.