Do Kids Need a Personal Trainer?

Every time I visit a prep message board I see advertisements for the newest and best personal trainers. I make a living as a personal trainer for basketball players, so I know there is a big market. However, do kids really need personal trainers?

I ask because I am concerned. Do parents understand what they want for their child? Are they pushing the child, or helping the child achieve his goals? At the gym today, I watched a personal trainer “train” a twelve year old soccer player (well, he was wearing a shirt with his soccer team’s name on it). He was an average twelve year old. The athlete did no warm-up; the trainer never asked why he was training. He started on a leg press machine, moved to a leg curl machine and then to a leg extension machine-the typical workout novice trainers give clients. The trainer has a certification from an organized with which I am unfamiliar. After the leg machines, he did a seated chest press machine, some bicep curls (the only free weight used) and assisted pull-ups (the only functional exercise).

I was once employed as a personal trainer at a fitness club, and this is very similar to the workout the owner wanted me to use with children. It is a liability issue; the perception is machines are safer than free weights because it is hard to make a mistake when the machine controls the range of motion. However, weight lifting has a lower injury rate than almost any other sport, and lifting weights properly is nearly 100% safe.

The problem with personal trainers is most would give this child the same program; it is a very standard beginning program. However, it is useless for a child (well, an adult too). However, most personal trainers train predominantly adults and most train adults who need to lose weight. Training for weight loss and training for injury prevention and performance enhancement are two distinct protocols. Unfortunately, most trainers come in one size fits all.

What should the trainer have done? First, ask the child his goals. For training to work it needs a purpose; to have a purpose, the athlete must know why he is training. Otherwise, there is no standard and no way to evaluate its effectiveness, which leads to a loss of motivation. Second, the athlete should warm-up to prepare his muscles for the work. Third, the athlete should avoid machines; there are better ways to train. Fourth, some sort of assessment is needed.

Without an assessment, there is no way to know if the athlete lacks flexibility, strength, etc. At minimum, the basic assessment is an overhead squat, as it gives the trainer an idea of flexibility in the ankles, knees, hips and shoulders. From there, a trainer can develop a more effective training program.

To train effectively, especially for a young athlete, build strength from the inside-out. This means training the core. Core training is often translated to more sit-ups and crunches, but this is as out-dated as the machine workout. Core training builds strength through the erector spinae, transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, glutes, obliques, etc: all the muscles of the mid-section, not just the ones that show (rctus abdominis).

In Paul Check’s Movement that Matters, he identifies six Primal Patterns; these are the basic movements people use: twist pattern, pull pattern, lunge pattern, push pattern, bend pattern and squat pattern. These movements comprise human movement, whether in daily life or in sports.

Knowing these six patterns, and understanding the importance of the core, one can develop his own routine. In all exercises, the goal is to be functional; since most sports activities (and daily activities) occur on one’s feet, we want the athlete to be on his feet as much as possible. Rather than a leg press, leg extension and leg curl, the athlete should incorporate a squat (squat pattern), lunge (lunge pattern) and straight-leg dead lift (bend pattern). A young athlete starts with body weight, learning the correct form and progresses to more difficult exercises, which may or may not include weight. For instance, the lunge progression might go: front lunge; reverse lunge; front-to-back lunge; back lunge off a step; 45-degree lunge; 45-degree back lunge; walking lunge holding a weight plate overhead. The progression might last 3-12 months, depending on strength and movement patterns.

The difference between a lunge, squat and SDL and the machine exercises is the functional exercises replicate movements used every day. When I train basketball players, I am astonished at how many athletes cannot squat properly, regardless of age and ability. The inability to squat puts the athlete at-risk for an injury and decreases performance because one cannot play optimally without proper balance, and the squat movement pattern is essential for attaining optimal balance.

After incorporating the squat, lunge and SDL, the athlete trains the upper body, emphasizing the push, pull and twist patterns. The pull pattern is the assisted pull-up, the one exercise the trainer in question got right. The athlete may also do chin-ups or reverse push-ups. The push pattern is a push-up; why work on a seated chest press when a push-up is an essential movement. The seated chest press stabilizes the body because of the seat; a push-up forces the core to work to stabilize the body so he can do the push-up. The core is also at work doing a squat, lunge or SDL. For the twist movement, the athlete can do a diagonal plate raise; take a weight plate or medicine ball (an appropriate weight) and lift the weight from the left knee to above the right shoulder, keeping the elbows straight. Work both sides.

To add additional core work, practice a bridge and side bridge: in the bridge, the athlete rests on his elbows and toes and stabilizes his body in a straight line, pulling his belly button to his spine. A side bridge uses only one elbow and foot, and the athlete is perpendicular to the floor.

Sample Workout:
Stiff-leg Dead Lift
Diagonal Plate Raise
Side Bridge

This sample workout provides an excellent starting point for a young child, athlete or not. As the athlete progresses, and needs new exercises or stimuli, I suggest buying Functional Training for Sports by Michael Boyle. The book features more knowledge than most personal trainers, and excellent illustrations and progressions for athletes for less than the cost of one personal training session.

Not all personal trainers are bad. There are certainly a multitude of great trainers. However, before using a trainer, ask for credentials (NSCA, NASM and ACSM are best, especially for sports training) and try to watch a workout with another client if possible. If the trainer merely puts athletes on machines, stay away and investigate other options. If the trainer appears to look good but lacks credentials, be careful: standard education isn’t everything, but I have seen trainers doing plyometrics with 8 year olds without any understanding of foot touches or even an idea of why to use plyometrics (his reason was to make athletes tired, which is a dangerous formula).

Good trainers certainly have value and can provide unique insight for your child and yourself. However, make sure the trainer is good, not just another guy (girl) with a job at a gym (97% of trainers I see).

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