Too Fat to Get Fit?: Addressing the Physical Development Needs of Today’s Youth

TAGS: strength developmet, kilka, youth, young athletes, physical training, coach, weight loss, strength coach, training

It isn’t pretty, but it’s a reality. Our youth are getting fatter and unhealthier by the day. Physical education classes are either gone or absolutely minimized in our educational curriculum. The classes that are still intact are ill-suited for the new generation.

As trainers working with youth, many of us do a poor job of adapting our programs to the needs of these kids. This oversight decreases the impact that we’re able to have on them, both in the short term and in the long term. This article will discuss some common issues when working with overweight youth and how to modify programs so that their needs are more appropriately met.

I work with large numbers of kids. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to work with over 1000 kids while at the NFL experience in Tampa, Florida. One of our sponsors had set up a large “football combine” simulation with a variety of “test” stations including ones for pull-ups, push-ups, agility ladders, and broad jumps as well as the 40-yard dash. The ages of the kids varied from 8-years-old to 18-years-old, but most were in the 9–13-years-old range. I can
honestly say that out of the over 1000 kids I saw in four days, I can remember a handful who could do one pull-up. About half could do one legitimate push-up and about the same number could do an actual lunge. Furthermore, these kids had to put down their soda and churros to do the drills!

I remembered back to when I was in grade school. I wasn’t a strong kid. I was a little chubby, actually. I did everything that kids are supposed to do, but my mom was a great cook, and I was a late bloomer. I remember being so embarrassed in my sixth grade physical education class because I was one of two boys who couldn’t do a pull-up. Two kids out of 20 couldn’t do a body weight pull-up. At the NFL event, I observed about 985 kids out of 1000 who couldn’t do a pull-up!

The inactivity of our youth has affected them in the sense that they observe a large decrease in strength to weight ratios. Maintaining a favorable strength to weight ratio is essential for athletic performance as well as the accomplishment of functional daily tasks as you get older. A good
assessment of strength to weight ratio is how well one can do body weight activities including pull-ups, push-ups, jumps, and sprints. The strength and coordination for these activities used to be developed throughout youth as kids ran around, threw snowballs, climbed trees, dug holes, and did chores. As we know, kids don’t do these things anymore. These general body weight
activities are essential for developing functional strength to reinforce more specific movement patterns like running, jumping, pulling, pushing, throwing, kicking, and grasping, as well as a host of other motor tasks.

If youth don’t perform a volume of these general tasks, they can be at a functional detriment for the rest of their lives. In addition, modern society, with an abundance of crap food and lack of parental supervision, has left this young generation with an inability to put down the junk food. Compound the lack of movement for calorie burning and strength development with a near intravenous supply of processed fat and sugar and you get a generation that is obese because they don’t exercise. Then, it’s harder for them to exercise because they’re obese!
As I said before, it isn’t pretty, but it’s a fact. We have to now “own up” to the problem. Our current curriculum for working with kids is outdated. It is designed and implemented on the assumption that kids are still capable of doing the things that kids did 20 or 30 years ago. When this curriculum is implemented with groups of kids, whether it’s in physical education classes, sports, teams, camps, or even personal training groups, you’ll see that less than 10 percent of the kids can actually accomplish the given tasks. Ninety percent of the group is failing, yet the apathetic instructor moves on. It’s like physical education has become akin to law school. However, instead of getting people out of parking tickets for a living, you have a heart attack at age 25 if you aren’t in the top 10 percent.

To be proactive, we need to start viewing body weight activities with our youth as “skills” instead of “exercises.” In the good old days, kids developed many physical skills on their own through general daily activity. When an instructor would have them do a push-up, the summation of their daily tasks would allow for the strength and stability to do so. Pushing their body weight away from the ground was a demonstration of their coordination and strength. They didn’t really need to practice it much because of their active, adaptive neural systems. In those days, you could just throw “exercises” out at the kids and they could do them pretty well with some basic coaching. It doesn’t work that way anymore.

With the inactivity problem, there is hardly any strength and coordination to “showcase” in an exercise. A push-up has to be a learned skill. It has to be adapted, progressed, and practiced. Even general movement tasks like bear crawls, crab walks, and skips have to be acquired as a skill.

Consider this example. Let’s say you’ve taken Latin for ten years. You decide you want to learn Spanish. Your years of Latin will help you pick up the Latin-based language pretty quickly because you have an understanding of the basic phonetic structure. The Spanish language just narrows the focus of your Latin language skill set and introduces some new structure. Now, let’s say you’ve taken Latin for ten years, and you want to learn Chinese. With no general language foundation, every word or phrase you learn in Chinese is a whole new phonetic skill set.

The acquisition of physical skill is like learning Chinese for many of our modern youth. From a practical standpoint, we need to focus our curriculum on more general activities, replicating what kids used to do on their own—skipping, crawling, climbing, pushing, and pulling. It would be beneficial to hold off on introducing more specific skill sets like push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, and squats until they can do the general activities well. When moving on to these more specific skill sets, there should be an observed progression. Take push-ups for example. First of all, the youngster should be able to hold a perfect push-up position for 40 seconds to a minute. This is how we introduce push-ups at Fitness Quest 10. We then do eccentric push-ups. We go to the floor as slowly as possible, get to the knees, and come back up. Then, we use the blue balance pads as a goal for them to touch their chest.

We’ll start with as many as three under their chest. As they become capable, we take one away. We don’t use numbers of repetitions as criteria, only time. Five perfect push-ups in 30 seconds are far better than 15 bad ones in ten seconds. For overweight and extremely out of shape kids, we use jump stretch bands to help remove some of the weight. We do this with every body weight exercise that we teach including lunges, pull-ups, and push-ups. We’ll take as thin a band as possible and either wrap it around their waist or their feet or we’ll have them hold it. Their robust body weight adds too much neuromuscular overload to learn the proper coordination of a new task. With the jump stretch bands, we take out the overload factor and allow the neuromuscular system to learn the new task. Once the task becomes more engrained, we use thinner and thinner cords until they can do it on their own. It’s like adding or subtracting weight to the bar.

Watch a demonstration of some of our exercises at the following links:

By shifting our focus from “exercises” to “skills” and implementing proper adaptations and progressions, we have seen tremendous progress in the youngsters we work with. The strength and mobility they acquire through the skills we teach allow them to go out and exercise. They can ride their bikes, swim, run, or play a sport for a longer period of time and at an improved level. This not only makes daily exercises a less arduous activity for these kids, but it also builds a sense of confidence and self-efficacy. These youngsters feel physically capable, and exercise becomes a positive experience. This view of physical activity will follow them for the rest of their lives. This is the true “result” of a successful youth athletic development program.

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