By: Nicholas Soleyn, SSC
Lifting form is the most important aspect of training children. This is true for safety reasons and for their improvement as lifters. They will grow bone, muscle, and tissue just by growing up. But most children do not know how to control their bodies to exert force. They are “noodley.” They will crash into the bottom of a squat, lose control of a bar or weight as they press it overhead, and lift deadlifts looking like Slinky from Toy Story. More than that, they do not understand internal cues (descriptions of how to move their limbs) the way that most adults do.
Coaching and Cues for Kids
Today, I get to brag to you all about my daughter.
This is Selah. She’s 8 years old, and she just competed in her very first powerlifting meet. She made eight of her nine lifts, being red-lighted on her second deadlift for a stutter step at the top which, she told me, was because “it was too light!” And two of those eight lifts were actually PRs.
Now, unlike training adults or appropriately-aged teenagers, the goal when you are training kids is NOT the PR. At least not in the basic, weight-on-the-bar sense. With kids, you still celebrate every PR, but you don’t train for them. You don’t invoke the same stress-recovery-adaptation process with an increasing amount of stress over time to force their bodies to get stronger. Kids get stronger just by existing and being active. Instead, the PR comes as the natural result of two things: Their improvements in form and the enjoyment of the training.
Selah loves lifting weights. I started CrossFit a week before she was born, and before she could walk, our cars were exhumed from our garage to make a place for racks and bars, weights, atlas stones, an AirDyne, a sled, and kettlebells. Through most of her toddlerhood, I coached people out of that garage as a Starting Strength Coach. Now, our small barbell gym in downtown Albuquerque is her gym too. Her bar is there and her shoes are lined up along with everyone else’s.
When you have children there is an intrinsic value to lifting that has nothing to do with your own strength. You are demonstrating the value of strength and hard work. My wife and I have never pushed our children to train. Yet, Selah and her siblings have an understanding of the value of strength and the necessity of training, simply from watching us. When we learned that the United States Powerlifting Federation has Youth Divisions starting at 8 years old, Selah insisted on entering in the next local meet. If I accomplish nothing else as a lifter or coach, that fact will make every training day worth it.
You can probably tell by the smile in these pictures that Selah’s enjoyment of training has never been an issue. When we’ve allowed her to try for a new PR there’s no trepidation or anxiety about it. She’s never approached a lift that she didn’t know she could complete. In fact, we’ve had to reign in her enthusiasm at times so that we can focus on her form.
Lifting form is the most important aspect of training children. This is true for safety reasons and for their improvement as lifters. They will grow bone, muscle, and tissue just by growing up. But most children do not know how to control their bodies to exert force. They are “noodley.” They will crash into the bottom of a squat, lose control of a bar or weight as they press it overhead, and lift deadlifts looking like Slinky from Toy Story. More than that, they do not understand internal cues (descriptions of how to move their limbs) the way that most adults do. So, you have to get creative with teaching and cues for kids.
Slow Down: Teach them Body Control
The first rule when teaching young children is to slow everything way down, particularly during the eccentric (or downward) portion of every lift. Selah pretty much does negative work on each of her lifts. I try to make it take 2 or 3 seconds for her to reach the bottom of the squat, and if she speeds up or crashes down at the bottom we keep working on the speed of her descent. The same goes for the bench press and the downward portions of the press and deadlift. This simple act of body control means they can start to handle weight safely, while maintaining an efficient bar path. The weight on the bar will increase as a natural result.
Creative Cues: Give them a Task
Cueing kids can be fun. They typically have no idea what it means to “set” their backs. And often can’t do simple things like shove their “knees out” when you add the confounding factor of a barbell. Apart from slowing everything down, getting creative with your cues is one of the more important parts of coaching children.
Most of the cues we tend to use with adults concern body parts. For kids, that kind of internal focus just doesn’t work without some way for them to interpret the cue. Better cues for kids are “tasks,” externally focused cues. For example, when my kids first started deadlifting, I had them mime a gorilla first, and made them walk around the gym with a “gorilla back,” complete with gorilla sounds and chest thumping. Then, when they walk up to the deadlift bar, instead of getting them to set their back, it was “gorilla back.”
At the meet with Selah, I used “Iron Man” as a cue. During the warm-up, she was getting noodley, and the bar was squashing her down like a marshmallow. So I reminded her of the cues we use to help her keep a strong “chest up” position while also bending over enough to squat with the correct low-bar form: Iron Man. To her, this means to put on her armor (get strong and take a big breath), show off the “unibeam” laser on her chest, and then to point her laser at the floor when she squats. She got a lot of compliments on her squat form from the judges and competitors.
Non-Specific Training: Let them do Other Things
The last part of working with kids is that exercise, athletics, and broad non-specific activities (not consistency) are king. Selah spent two months training once or twice a week on a schedule to get ready for this meet. Now we are taking a break. There’s no schedule for her training. If she asks to go to the gym, we will make time and take her. But she also loves gymnastics and jiu-jitsu and wants to take time exploring other activities. Our goal for her is the same as it is for my wife and me–to make training a constant part of her life and help her value the strength and potential that is uniquely hers.
If you have questions or stories about training with your children, send them our way.