I love seeing kids take up a sport, and I can remember the first time I went to a basketball practice. It terrified me and I had never felt so awful in my life. I never went back. I showed up, and the coach had us run shuttle sprints. For someone who had never run anything remotely close to a sprint, it was torture.
One minute in, and I never knew I could feel this way! The funny thing is that I played basketball on my own all the time. I actually wasn’t half bad. I spent hours dribbling on the courts, and when the coach saw me playing, he suggested I try out. After that one practice, I was done. Yeah, I wimped out, and left the school soon after anyways.
But of the main reason I wimped out is because I had no idea what to expect, and no idea what was happening to my body. When I played, I liked it. When I had to run sprints I was a floppy gasping nobody. When I work with kids, I frequently remind myself what it felt like to be a aimless, gutless teenager (not all of them are of course, but the majority are not highly focused and determined individuals).
Training Guidance to Teenagers
My mindset at the time is still very clear to me, and I try to think “What would have helped me at that time. What kind of guidance would I have needed? What would have made the difference in making me stick to my sport and get better?” I can’t sit down and analyze every kid and come up with a highly personalized plan because of sheer numbers and fluctuations in attendance.
But I do try to make sure that I am not just throwing information at them and telling them to do it “because” I said so. What’s because? Why? Why should someone do something without a good reason? I am only in their life for a short time, and in that short time I want to impact their future physically and athletically for the rest of their life. I want to give them information that will help them help themselves on the days I am not around.
Motivation through education
I am a big believer in motivation through education. If you don’t know why you are doing something and what it’s good for, it’s a lot harder to stick to it when it gets hard, and tiring. Teenagers have a short attention span, so I have to constantly come up with creative yet correct ways to condense information and get the point across fast to motivate them to do what they need to do. I’ve invented some highly unorthodox coaching cues, that nonetheless work (and which others who overhear laugh at).
Combine that with having anywhere from 5-20 kids at a time screaming questions at you, while trying to maintain some integrity and address Jonny over there who is squatting sloppy again, while lecturing Phil on why tracking his weight increases is helpful for me and him, while being asked “Did you see my deadlift, did you see it?? Is it right, is it right??”. I love it, I love every minute of it, but it does make me cut the frills.
Start with simple
So in order to make sure that every kid gets a good base, I have my arsenal of basics. I set up a simple basic strength program, with pictures on a board and short directions that I refer kids to. The kids who are willing to go there, read the info, and then come back for more, get more. To the best of my ability, I like to give each kid as much personal attention as I can, and answer their questions as relevantly and helpfully as possible. Course this isn’t always possible to the extent I would like.
When I first started, I had a little trickle of kids. I would get to spend a good hour or more with only 2-3 kids a day. Those ones got the full treatment and lots of individual help. Now, I have less time and more kids (my hours got cut down to accommodate school), and I am required to split my attention more and more. Yet, I cannot in good conscience send a kid off to squat unless I know that he understands WHY he needs to be doing it this way and WHAT its going to do and WHERE we can then take him from there.
Teenagers are in the middle of growing awareness, logic, experience, etc etc. Some days its great, everything is spot on, and the next day they’ll come in and remember nothing. The other day one kid came in and forgot what an overhead press was even though he’s done it for the last month. I was like “HUH?”. I get some REAL beginners. I mean REAL beginners. You know, the soft squishy type with no body awareness, no understanding of movement, no base in any kind of knowledge at all (why would they? They are 14.).
This is great for me! Because it is a trait you see in a big majority of the training population, and though my “client” base is mostly limited to teenage athletes, I also get plenty of experience that crosses over into other training populations. When I worked as a personal trainer at another gym quite awhile ago, I had much less understanding of what it takes to bring someone from rank beginner to normal beginner.
What’s the difference?
A rank beginner IMO has no background in exercise at all. Period. They are not a weekend warrior. They have never tried a pushup. They are not even a cardio machine junkie. They don’t know what quadriceps are (COME ON, everyone knows quads!). A regular beginner I categorize as someone who has possibly been working out for years, perhaps reads fitness magazines, has used weight machines etc, but has had no introduction to proper strength training. Their “body” is a beginner.
Rank beginners are beginners in both body and mind. Its entirely new. Maybe you recognize yourself in one of those categories. Rank beginners get my “basic moves”. These are exercises that can be done with minimal one-on-one instruction, are hard to screw up, and are easy to progress in. They also set up a good base in the right areas for them to progress onto harder variations.
As I’ve said before, more and more people are realizing that the answer to a lot of their body, weight loss, fat loss, aesthetic issues is weight training! I want to make weight training the default “cardio”. Instead of hopping on a treadmill, I want someone to start learning how to squat. One of my professional goals is to help make this mainstream. Not relegated to a secondary role. I want the value of strength training to be someone’s first resort when they think of “fitness”, “losing fat”, “looking good”. So no kid gets sent to the cardio room.
If I want to affect a kid’s performance I need to influence how he chooses to spend his time training. Granted, I am often working against outdated coaching methods or recommendations (moooooar “cardio” everyone), but I always try to empower a kid with the why. And the good “why’s” make sense and most people recognize good sense.
The easiest setup I start with (remember that some of these kids are REALLY small and weak): start with 8 reps for 3 sets. Build up to 12-15 reps and then add weight except for the bodyweight exercises. If someone can get 12 good pushups with good form, they are doing good. If you can box squat 15 reps with good form with a 15lb kettlebell on your chest, I can start you barbell squatting.
Read also: Training With Equipment: Easier or Harder?
Couple considerations for teenagers
Put the reps too high, and the time too long, and they will break down in attention, motivation and form especially without supervision. I got to get them thinking about their movements, but keeping that attention is REALLY hard. They lose focus fast. I think beginners need much more time under tension to ingrain the proper movement patterns down, BUT with teenagers, once they lose focus and get sloppy, its working against them and I just can’t pay attention to everyone at once!
I also am not always around when they are following a program I have given them. I used to put the rep range higher, and encourage more sets, but I found this to be counterproductive. Even now, I stop myself from recommending exercises that I can afford to cut out in the beginning because it will just be a distraction to them, and require too much instruction time.
I have yet to see someone (not just kids) walk in with a great posterior chain. This goes for the more experienced athletes as well. So the majority of these beginner exercises focus on getting those muscles working along with the basic “movements” of push, pull, thrust, squat. I found even movements like stepups, and lunges required me to cue them constantly, which was not practical.
After a good base in their hips, it so much easier to get them working in a balanced way because the base of good stability and center of gravity is established. For teenagers “Mirror Syndrome” (working what you can see) I feel, is exaggerated because of their still-developing levels of personal awareness.
-Try to be funny and not take yourself too seriously, and have patience with the quirks of adolescence.
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Onto the exercises:
Two Most Basic Positioning Principles
Everyone gets a mini lecture, no matter what. I feel this basic positioning “lecture” is the basis for good form and protecting shoulders and knees (which are the joints that take the most beating and load in weight training and sports. Ankles too, but they are the mercy of leg strength and stability to a great deal). This sets them up for proper hip hinging and correct lower body strengthening so they can start on those glutes and hams firing.
Stand like a gorilla (kinda. Did you think of big butt sticking out and a proud chest?)
Everyone has to learn how to stick their butt out, chest up, stomach tight, soft knees and has to answer; “Where do you feel your weight in your feet?” You’d be surprised how much of a challenge it is to learn how to stick your butt out properly (without locking the knees, sagging the low back, rounding the shoulders). This is also called:
The athletic stance
In the conditioning camps I run before the spring and fall seasons, I emphasize this principle OVER and OVER and OVER not only for injury prevention, but for building better strength, power and speed!! Everyone wants a fast athlete. No one knows how to make one (I seriously need to learn way more).
The Y in YMCA for positioning your upper body
Shoulder problems can be greatly avoided with proper understanding of how to keep your shoulder complex safe. I found this is easier to teach making them aware of their elbow position. I turn their focus to their elbow angle. I find that this solves a lot of problems with trying to explain how the shoulder works. It teaches good position without over complicating the learning process.
Ever see the “Winged-head-bobber”. You, know, elbows out at 90 degrees with their head jerking up and down between their hands like they are bobbing for apples? They tell me that’s a pushup. I tell them to do the Y in YMCA (I usually sing the the little part and put my arms up). Then I tell them to look up. Almost without exception, their arms are going to be as wide as is natural and healthy for their shoulder width. Another way, is to kneel down and “fall forward” onto your hands. No thinking about it, just do it.
Most of them will “catch themselves” with the width that is natural to them. I don’t want the excessively wide (which coaches let them get away with CONSTANTLY and then wonder why half the football team is walking around with their shoulders wrapped) or too narrow (they won’t actually get full ROM, because their triceps aren’t nearly strong enough, they kinda bob up and down with hips sagging).
This position translates into db chest presses, lat pulldowns and the elbow angle also translates into dips, and the rack position for cleans. Once they have their hands down and understand the angle, usually that results in their CHEST not their HEAD coming down in a pushup. They are on their way to upper body strength!
Course, this is highly simplified, but I have found focusing on those two factors is what makes the biggest difference in how they move. And I reinforce those over and over and over. ALL the time. If anything, they come away knowing how to stick the butt out and squeeze it back in, and what good posture should look like.
Anyone at any level can practice these exercises below for 6-8 weeks building up in reps (you can go higher on reps if you don’t have weight) and walk into a gym with a decent base to start the serious stuff you hear all the cool people do.
Onto the exercises:
1. Box Squat (the box means any lowish surface. Try to pick something thats no higher than your knees)
– Everyone starts here. It gives them the confidence to push the butt out, and gives them a depth point of reference. Once they can sit back, they work on just “kissing” the bench with their butt and not releasing their weight.
2. Hip Thrust (all you need is a floor)
– I found that teaching kettlebell swings was not very productive or convenient. Without fail, most kids did not understand the “thrust” movement from the hips. It just didn’t translate well, and I would end up having to spend tons of time JUST coaching the swing. Once they built up the “thrust” understanding, teaching the swing was ten times easier. So they all lay down and learn to “hump the air”.
I of course cue squeezing the booty to raise the hips, pause at the top, and not much else moves. Easy exercise to load safely and they can poke their butt to feel a contraction. One legged ones are great, they can progress onto shoulders on a bench, shoulders and feet on a bench etc. and you get great results in booty strength without having to load heavily. (Go to Bret Contreras’ blog for all things related to super glutes, hammies and lower body strength and mechanics). Below is a one legged example:
3. Kettlebell RDL – both leg or single leg (use anything that weighs something!)
– I start them off with a VERY SMALL ROM, because most will hyperextend their low back, round their upper back or bend their knees instead of hinging at the hip. I emphasize that the kb travels straight down between the knees, and STICK THAT butt out and pull it in like its no ones business! Also great to have them stand in the mirror and practice this. They can see the “hump” movement well. I also say you should feel tension in your hammies NOT bend your knees to get lower.
4. Back Lunge or Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
I don’t like front lunges much for beginners. Too much forward lean, instability and potential for shitty form. But back lunging puts the focus BACK, and is a much more stable lunge version, I find. Remember I am always making them think about where their weight is in their feet (I make most of them workout in their socks if possible).
1. 1-2 Pushup
Pushups are easy to cheat on. I found myself cheating the other day. Get your body STRAIGHT (no saggy hips, no shoulders near the ears), and start with standing pushups against a wall, or on your knees. ALWAYS. Arms should make a straight angle from your shoulder to your wrist, and your chest comes between your hands.
Get down low enough to kiss the floor (I’ve had kids take this literally by accident). The 1-2 is to count to two on the down and the up so they are forced to go slow and don’t get to go sloppy. Slow > smooth > fast.
2. Body rows
Best use of the Smith machine. You are mimicking a chin up (chin up position first IMO), except your legs are chopped off. Dead and paralyzed to the floor. That’s the analogy I use. The most common problem is people pushing too much with their feet, so their hips are coming up with their upper body. So hips down, PULL the bar towards your chest and get your elbows back .
Eyes up, chest out! You can use a higher bar to make it easier, and lower to make it harder. Than you can move on to assisted chin ups with a stretchy band. I usually start with a supinated chin up grip first and then progress to a wider pronated pull up grip. I find good posture is easier to maintain with the chin up grip first. Pronated example below: