The best bodybuilding routine for kids (and maybe for you too)
For years, my kids followed me to the gym in my garage. (Even before we had a real home gym, they were stealing misplaced dumbbells or yoga balls that I thought I bought myself.) I would encourage their interest, but I wondered: HHow can I encourage them to make exercise a habit? It took a while, but I think I got it.
My three children are now between 6 and 12 years old. The older one is definitely ready for structured strength training: HHe wants to get stronger for the sports he plays and he’s organized enough to have a daily routine that involves a visit to the garage gym. When I tried to guide him through a practice session, however, he tended to get bored or frustrated. (Imagine the “are we there already?” of a road trip, but here it’s “how many sets are left?”) I’d rather he have fun and get into a habit than work on something I decided it was optimal for coaching.
The younger ones are still just there to have fun, which is great, but then they’ll be walking around the gym while I am trying to lift, and demanding that I give them a workout, too. So I was looking for a lifting routine that would be simple enough to suggest on the spur of the moment, but fun and interesting enough to avoid whining while I try to do my own workout. And I think I’ve found it.
I wrote this, or something very similar to it, on a whiteboard in the gym:
2 sets of 5: goblet squats
2 sets of 5: kettlebell deadlifts
2 sets of 5: bench press
2 sets of 5: Kroc ranks
2 door, any heavy object of your choice
The set/rep name and schema are pinched with a book I’ve heard of it but I admit I haven’t read it. (There is a version of the Easy Strength program here, if you want to get an idea of where it came from and how you can modify it for more serious athletes.) I want to clarify that any changes I have made to the program are not endorsed by the authors; and also, that I don’t know what they are since I just grabbed the central ideas and ran with them.
The basic structure I stole looks like this:
- Each exercise is done for ten repetitions, divided here into two sets of five.
- There are always five exercises that fall into the following categories: squat, hinge, push, pull, and carry.
- You can do it every day.
- Add weight when it feels too easy.
It is a resounding success. The eldest lost the habit a few times, but always comes back to it without my pushing him. Sometimes his little brother accompanies him and they train together. And even my youngest child can do all five exercises in the chart, although she needs my help with some of them.
Why my kids love it
First they were sold on the name. If you’re a kid who easily becomes out of breath or discouraged in gym class, the idea that exercise can be “easy” is appealing, even revolutionary. According to a paper which describes the Easy Strength program, the first time you do an exercise it should feel pretty easy like a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. Or to put it another way: you do five reps of each exercise with a weight that you could do nine or 10 reps of, if you wanted to. (You can add weight if you’re feeling frisky, but it’s never meant to feel hard.)
Second, we chose exercises they like. I would love to see my kids do more push-ups, but the older ones prefer the bench press (and they know how to do it right, with the safeties in our rack). They hate just about every type of squat except goblet squats, so: okay. Better a cup than nothing.
Third, and I think this is key, we have chosen exercises that requires no setup time. We have small, medium and large kettlebells. Depending on the child, they use medium or large for deadlifts, and small or medium for squats. I had originally thought they might start chaining small plates to kettlebells to add weight, but preferred to keep working with the same bell until it seemed too easy, then they would try with the next larger size. Hey, it works.
Why It’s Secretly A Really Solid Workout Program
At first it seems almost laughable. Just two games of each exercise? The first time my eldest did it he was in and out of the gym in less than 15 minutes. Now that he knows where to find everything and how to do the minimum setup, he can do it in days in less than 10 years.
But here’s the thing: TThe sweet spot for building muscle and strength is considered to be between 10 and 20 sets per muscle per week, with beginners able to get away with a little less. If you do two sets a day, that’s 14 sets a week. If you only do five days of training and take the weekends off, that’s still 10 sets. And if you’re a kid who walks to the gym a few times a week and forgets about it the rest of the time, that’s still six sets a week, which is way more than zero.
Don’t they need rest days? I hear you mumbling in front of your screen. Not necessarily. Remember that if you do an amount of work that you’ve adapted to (or that’s small to start with), you can do it just about every day. For example, you can go for a walk every day. Workers show up for work every day.
Or to think of it another way: no one would care about a program that had three or four sets of each exercise on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s the same thing, just spread over several days. It’s the same amount of work. (And no, there is not a law of nature that you have to take a day off between weight training sessions; rest days just make planning easier.)
How to start doing this with your kids (or yourself)
If you want to set up something similar for yourself or your own family, here are some tips to get you started.
The most important thing is that the children (or you) know how to do the exercises that are part of the program. If a child needs to learn to squat and how to deadlift and everything else, the chances are not good to go the first day without crying. But if you’ve ever trained them through overhead squats or reminded them to keep their backs flat when they’re curious about lifting your kettlebell, then they may be ready to include these exercises in their routine. If you don’t know where to start, ask them what they did in gym class.
Once they know the exercises and can do them safely, you can let them do the routine on their own, age permitting. This is where the zero configuration rule comes in: MMake sure they can come in and start without having to ask you to load the bar. Kettlebells and fixed (non-adjustable) dumbbells are great for this, but remember that bodyweight movements also require little to no setup.
For example, you can have children do push-ups with their hands on a bench. As they get stronger, they can do them on the floor, then proceed to put their feet on the bench. Step-ups are a great option when overhead squats get too easy. Reverse rows are a good “pull-up” exercise, and they can progress to pull-ups if you have a barbell. Take a look at our list of bodyweight moves that are good for building strengthand choose things that will work for your little ones (or not so little ones).
And if you do this for yourself, consider the version called “Even Easier Strength” which is explained here. You’ll have the chance to work up to a heavy single every two weeks and do sets of 10 sometimes. And where your kids appreciate the familiarity with the drills, you can swap things out every two weeks or whenever you feel like it. For example, in the dedicated squats lunge, you can cycle through unweighted squats, lunges, step-ups, and single-leg squats to a box (or whatever variations take your fancy).
Is this the best way to build strength and muscle? I mean, I wouldn’t train for a powerlifting competition that way. But any routine you’ll have actually do beat the heck out of doing nothing. So if you don’t like to challenge yourself with tough training plans, do it. to stay healthy easy on yourself by setting up a routine that’s quick enough to fit into your day and that you’ve designed to be enjoyable. After all, why should kids have fun?