How do I get my kids to work out? That’s a question I get fairly often from fellow parents. The short answer is, unless they are genuinely interested in exercise, you will have to force them. That may entail threats and/or bribes, depending on your particular parenting style and how obedient your children are. With any luck they will eventually learn to enjoy it—or at least enjoy the improvements in the way they look and feel—and decide of their own volition to continue with training as a lifestyle.
My son Christian turned 14 at the end of September. Like a lot of kids these days, he has never been very physically active. That always boggled my mind because most of my childhood memories involve walking, biking, hiking, climbing things and jumping off of them, wrestling and so on. I never stopped moving, and I suppose these days a parent might have had me medicated to calm me down. I was a thin kid, but physically I was in tremendous condition. I remember being on a church youth group canoeing trip to Lake George and running all the way up and down a mountain with no more than a five-minute break to take in the view at the summit.
In summer I rode my bike everywhere, from morning until dark. Christian has owned two bikes, yet he has never even learned how to ride one. These days kids are often chauffeured everywhere, so walking and riding bikes as a means of transport is an archaic concept. Left to his own devices, my son would be perfectly happy doing nothing but playing Xbox One and watching YouTube videos on his iPad.
When my son was only four, I enrolled him in martial arts classes. It was something I had very much wanted to do as a child, but my parents had refused to pay for it. Christian didn’t want to go to classes, and there were many times that I had to drag him, screaming and crying. I knew that one day he wouldn’t hate it, and he might even start to like it. That took about four years. It wouldn’t be accurate to say he loves martial arts, but he has earned his third dan in tae kwon do and is studying for his adult black belt test. He’s not on track to fight in the UFC, but he could handle himself if he ever had to.
I knew this wasn’t enough physical activity, so I put him in baseball one summer and soccer another time. Like me he had no interest in team sports. What I was really waiting for was for Christian to be old enough to start going to the gym so I could train him. Around the end of the school year in 2011, when he was a couple months shy of turning 12, the owner of my gym allowed me to start training him.
The assumption for many is that because Christian has grown up with two parents who are dedicated to hard training, he must have been waiting impatiently for the day when he, too, could pick up some iron. No, no, no. That was not the case!
Just as with martial arts, Christian was opposed to it at the start and often tried to whine and plead his way out of working out. Not an option! The routine I started him off on is very similar to what he does now. I train him three times a week on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday (he does martial arts on Monday Wednesday, and Saturday) with full-body workouts that usually look like this:
Knee raises 2 x 20
machine crunches 2 x 12
Bench presses* or
incline presses 3 x 6-10
Chinups** 16 reps total
or rows 2 x 10-12
presses 2 x 10-12
Dumbbell curls 2 x 10-12
Triceps extensions or
machine dips 2 x 10-12
Squats*** 3 x 10-12
*Chris wasn’t strong enough to press the 45-pound bar until a little more than a year ago. Before that we used light dumbbells or a machine.
**He couldn’t do a single chinup until a year ago. Before that he used the lat pulldown. Occasionally I still let him do that. Every other workout he alternates a chin or pulldown with some type of row: dumbbell, supported T-bar or Hammer Strength machine.
***He was probably strong enough to squat the bar more than a year ago, but he lacked the balance and coordination. Until about a year ago he used a selector stack machine leg press.
Most of his reps have been in the 10-to-12 range. Only recently have I allowed him to go heavy enough on his final set of bench presses to get just six reps. I don’t believe it’s safe to have a growing adolescent do very heavy lifting for low reps. I insist on good form and never let him use more weight if his form suffers in any way. As for how “hard” I have him train, he goes to failure less than half of the time. Right now it’s not about trying to get my son huge or powerful. I just want him fit and becoming gradually stronger, safely.
I must state for the record that I am not certified in training juveniles and have zero experience in the realm of strength coaching. I merely put my son’s routine together to give him a well-rounded overall base. In terms of how to train young athletes to excel at their chosen sports, I am fairly ignorant.
Christian’s strength and size have increased dramatically in the past 2 1/2 years. That makes sense because he was really just starting puberty then, and he’s now at least halfway done. He was probably only 4’6” or so then and perhaps weighed 70 pounds (as you can see in the accompanying photo of me training him in the late summer 2011). Today he is a little over 5’4” and 112 pounds. At his age I was 4’11” and about 95 pounds. I also started puberty at least a year later than he did. I suspect that his being half Cuban has something to do with that, as Latinos typically reach physical maturity faster.
All that said, the really good news is that at some point about six to eight months ago Christian actually seemed to start enjoying going to the gym and working out. He began to notice the changes in his body and liked what he saw. It’s funny to note how the same areas that responded first for me, the chest and traps, were also the first places to show some development for him. A couple months ago he started seeing his arms begin to fill out, with a little biceps peak like his mom’s (mine are fuller without peaks). Christian also has a funny obsession with seeing new veins in his forearms.
My point is, you can’t make your children want to exercise, but you can make them exercise whether they like it or not, and eventually it’s likely that they will start to enjoy it and want to do it without your urging. Because there is virtually no physical education in public schools today and because a lot of kids are not athletic and/or active the way kids used to be before the advent of Xbox Ones, iPhones, iPads and so on, we as parents must take it upon ourselves to make sure they get enough exercise to be healthy and fit.
As for getting kids to eat healthfully, sadly I can’t speak from any experience in doing that! It’s all I can do to get my son to eat one truly healthful meal every day. Still, he’s working out consistently and started to crave more results, so a better diet is likely in his near future.