Different age groups require different strategies, approaches, and techniques. Different age groups have different life experiences, movement patterns, and workout experience. A good coach takes all this into consideration when putting a program together.
How should one go about training middle schoolers?
First of all, let's dispel the myth that lifting will stunt growth. The New York Times recently had an article saying how virtually all research has shown that not to be true.
In my observation, here are three principles to follow when training middle schoolers. These principles will help them prevent injury during training and in their sport, be well-rounded athletes, and help them excel in high school sports.
First, make the training safe. Second, make the training fun. Finally, make the training progressive.
PRINCIPLE ONE: SAFE TRAINING
As a coach, my number one priority regardless of client age is to not injure the client, have them doing healthy movement patterns, and don't put them in a position to get hurt. There are two big ways to avoid injury -- teaching the body to lift and teaching the body to absorb force moving through space.
For middle schoolers this means, light to very little weight for movements I want to coach. To properly teach the movements, here are a few strategies I like -- volume through reps, volume through time under tension, and volume through isolation movements.
Volume in Reps:
The more the brain, nervous system, and muscles do a movement, the more they'll do it correctly. I would do 4 sets of 12-18 reps for the movements.
Volume in Time Under Tension:
Another technique to employ are slow negative movements -- taking 10 seconds to go through a full range of motion down, holding the position, then moving slow or fast out of it.
Volume in Isolation Holds:
The brain learns by feeling a muscle actually contract. If you can isolate, say, your hamstring through a bridge, then the brain will know what the coach means when they say "fire through your hamstrings!"
After we really hammer the basics, then can we start to add weight -- and very light weight at that!
Teaching How to Absorb Force
A lot of injuries in sport occurs when the body can't properly absorb force (think landing, cutting, sprinting). Therefore, it is extremely important to teach kids how to best use their bodies, the space around them, and leverage to safely change direction, jump, land, and accelerate.
Not only do athletes need to be strong to change direction, but they need to be smart about moving their bodies. This takes time and practice and can't be done all at once!
Teaching this type of movement requires getting away from the weights and in to agility drills, movement "games" where you have to move through space in a competitive environment, and different types of calisthenics.
PRINCIPLE TWO: FUN TRAINING
These are kids we're training, not professional athletes. They are emotionally immature and not quite thinking long term, so strategies like "crush your weakness" "pain and gain" blah blah blah won't be effective motivators. The more they enjoy training, the more they'll train. The more they train, the better they'll be at sport. The better they are at sport, the more they'll enjoy playing sports!
How to make it fun? Make skills and drills you'd want to teach in to games!
Want the kids to be explosive through their hips? Make a contest to see who can throw a med ball granny style up in to the air. This motion is effectively the same thing as a lot of olympic lifts -- using your body to create force in to the ground which leads to full hip extension which moves an object vertically very rapidly (and has carry over to a lot of sport movements).
Want to teach keeping a low center of gravity when making athletic moves? Have them play freeze tag where they can only move side to side in a shuffle movement (except for the person who is doing the tagging!!). If they've got someone barreling down on them and they want to not be frozen in a partial squat, you definitely have to learn to move side to side QUICKLY, which forces them to stay low.
Want to improve hand eye coordination? Have them play a basketball type game with a volleyball and they can only use their off hand (have them put their dominant hand in their shirt). You don't have to make the basket, but maybe hitting the backboard is 2 points, hitting net is 3, making a basket is 5 points.
Then reward winning -- have the winning team or person only have to do half the number of reps of a certain move (squat or push ups) or the losing team has to sing a karaoke song.
Break the workouts up in to fun segments too -- it doesn't have to be all serious for 55 minutes then only 5 minutes of fun. You can have them do a movement, then do a game that would compliment the movement you want reinforce.
PRINCIPLE THREE: PROGRESSIVE TRAINING
Finally, these little kids want to do what the big kids are doing (benching, cleaning, deadlifting, pull ups). Teach them in a way that they can see the bigger picture -- master the basics to move on to "cooler" things.
One of the big problems in education is not showing how learning compounds on itself -- I wish my teachers would have better explained to me why math concepts that seem difficult and pointless will help later in life when trying to do statistics!
As kids master moves, have them do more complicated movements and add weight for them (not too much though!!). Young lifters should not do max effort lifts!
These are basic principles you should look for in a coach for your middle school age athlete. Make sure the coaches are coaching safety, making training fun, and make it progressive.
There is a lot more that goes in to having your kid be a well rounded athlete, though.
FIRST, YOU should lead by example -- get off the couch, out of the barstool, and off your phone. Get moving, get lifting, set physical goals and tell your kids about them so they can see you still pushing yourself.
SECOND, have them do a bunch of moving, not just training! Have them play a bunch of sports, have them play on the playground, encourage them to wrestle and rough house with their friends, foster an environment of curiosity and hard work in your household.
FINALLY, speaking of training youth athletes, I'm putting on a deadlift and doughnut event Saturday February 27th for Backfield In Motion, a local non-profit that helps at-risk youth in the Nashville area. I'd love for you to buy a ticket or donate to the cause! BUY YOUR TICKET HERE!!!