Friday, October 16, 2015

Raising young lifters

I have to preface this entire article with the fact that this is about my experience in training with my own kids.  I am not trying to tell anyone how to parent their kids because that's not my business.  I am just relating my own experiences in training with two of my daughters for those that also have an interest in having their own kids train alongside them some day.

Recently, I publically shared an email my daughter sent me after a few months of training together.  Her message to me in that e-mail received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from the people who follow me.

In a nutshell, my middle daughter wrote me an e-mail one day, thanking me for all of the wonderful things that being in the gym and getting stronger had been doing for her both physically, mentally, and emotionally.

For me, as a father of three, it was a very moving and emotional e-mail to receive.  In essence, it was beautiful.

Those of us that are striving to fill our place as a good role model for our kids, we desire very much for them to proud of us.  More than any stranger on social media, or even our closest friends, it's the affirmation from them that we desire most.  To know that they are proud to call us "dad" or "mom".

I would even go so far as to say that I know for myself, when my kids are proud of me, or any of my accomplishments, that means more to me than even making my own parents proud did.

I received a lot of messages and e-mails that were all very positive and uplifting about her e-mail.  I also was asked a lot of questions from some parents about how to get their kids interested in lifting.  So I thought I would give some insight to this, and maybe shed some light on how parents can get their kids involved in lifting, and help give the gift of strength to them.

To be clear, this wasn't my first rodeo in regards to having one of my kids be my training partner.  Let me also be clear, this is my own experiences with this.  How you parent your kid is entirely up to you.  I am only going to give my thoughts on this and where I feel like I failed, and succeeded.

My oldest daughter actually trained with me for well over a year, and even did a powerlifting meet with me during that time.  She did well, and was actually a pretty good deadlifter.  I think she pulled 245 at around 100 pounds in the gym at one point, and for the most part was a hard worker.  But training never "took" with her like I had hoped it would.  She eventually found other outlets in her life that she enjoyed more and lifting soon fell to the wayside.

And that was perfectly ok.  To me there is a massive difference in having your child be your training partner, and participate in say, recreational sports.

Team sports vs lifting partners - 

I've never been that dad you see at the pee wee football practice that is beet red in the face, screaming at his kid or the coaches, trying to turn his 9 year old son into Ray Lewis Jr.  If you want me to be perfectly honest, as a former football coach and as a kid who had a father similar to that, I detest that shit.

Sports should be a positive outlet for kids.  Something that helps to build character, and a competitive spirit.  I do not however, believe in participation trophies, and I also detest a lot of school policies now that make it so that anyone and everyone who tries out for the team gets to wear a uniform, and at minimum sit on the sidelines and be a "part of the team."  Even worse, when I was coaching, every kid had to get an equal amount of playing time.  Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I do believe in the Lattimer philosophy of earning a place at the table.

If you don't know what that means, then you never saw the movie The Program.  In The Program, Lattimer was the juiced up dude that spent the whole summer training his ass off in order to make the starting squad, and earn a "place at the table".

That is exactly how I grew up in regards to sports (I don't mean spending the summer juicing up to make the squad).  Wearing the uniform meant you earned it.  Stepping onto the field as a starter meant you earned it.  It was earned; not given.  And if you weren't good enough, then you didn't make the team and you could go find a corner to cry in if that's what you needed to do.  And none of us felt sorry for you about it.

And I still support that method of thinking.  Because I believe it helps kids more than hurts them.

As adults, rarely are we going to be in a position in real life where we just get handed participation "trophies".  We're probably not going to get the same raise as the guy who works his balls off, while we slack on the job.  To me, teaching kids that things had to be earned, and not deserved, was paramount in building strong character and resolve.

My way with my kids, and again I have to keep repeating this because I do respect that as parents we all think "our way" is best (otherwise we wouldn't be doing it that way), is my way.  Everyone has their own values and principles that they want to instill in their kids, and that is obviously their right to do.

For myself, I never ever tried or forced my kids to be the best at recreational sports.  My rules to them were only a few.

1.  If you start the season, you finish the season.  You don't get to quit even if you hate it.
2.  You will give your all.  You don't have to be the best on the field, but you have to give your best effort and be the best player YOU can be.

I massaged those rules when it came to the gym.  To me, it wasn't the same.  For a myriad of reasons.

I was never going to force my kids into staying in the gym with me if their desire wasn't to do so.  I always felt this line of thinking was counter productive in regards to planting the seed of the iron, then helping them water it, feed it, and watch it grow into something special for them.

Kids aren't a lot different than adults in regards to being passionate or disinterested about things.  Your buddy can tell you how awesome his hobby is, and have supreme life boners about it, but you flat out may not understand why and never have a single iota of interest in it.  No matter how many times he tries to make his passion appeal to you by having you participate in it with him, it just may never appeal to you.

Some things appeal to the nature of who we are, and some things do not.

Being in the gym and moving iron is no different.  Regardless of age, or gender.  People who love the iron and never leave it come from all walks of life.  Regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, those of us who find the gym and never leave, do so for our own personal reasons.

When my middle daughter, Emmy Jo (her real name is Emily but I've always called her Emmy Jo), was around 9, and would see me and my oldest training together, I told her she would have the chance to lift weights with me one day too.  A few months ago, to my surprise, she was the one that actually came to me and expressed interest in training.  So of course, I welcomed that opportunity.

However, I knew I was going to do things different with her than I did with my oldest.

I learned a lot of lessons from the first go round with my oldest daughter that I felt were probably counter productive in regards to her loving the iron.  Maybe they played a part in her becoming disinterested later, and maybe, as noted before, the iron was just something that was never going to "take" with her.

Nevertheless, I decided to do things very differently this time around with Emmy Jo.  Things I felt would make training more fun and exciting, and create more potential for it to "stick" with her.

With my oldest, I was still competing in powerlifting, so my training revolved around doing lots of squats, deadlifts, and bench pressing.  Naturally, as she was going to be my partner, she would have to learn these movements and focus on perfecting her technique, and apply a form of simple progression on them.  Of course, I did massage her training so that she wasn't copying my program exactly, but for the most part, we did a lot of the big three together.

So a great deal of our energy was spent in the gym perfecting her movements, technique, and slowly adding weight to the bar.

All basic concepts to help build the foundation for lifting at the beginner level.  In essence, this is not a bad concept.  It looks good on paper.  Lots of things look great on paper that in real life, don't always end up working out that way.  It's like that NFL team that went out in the offseason and signed all these big name all-star free agents, only to find out that as a cohesive unit, it doesn't produce in the "W" column like you'd believe it should.

And in retrospect, I believe focusing on these things too much (perfecting the technical aspects of her lifts) played a bit of a part in her losing interest in training down the road.

Let me also add in that, as someone who has trained a ton of novice lifters, teaching the squat, deadlift, and bench press for me to people with poor coordination and body control, is about as much fun as masturbating with a high powered Hoover vacuum cleaner.  Or maybe you think that's fun, I don't know.  What I do know is, when you're training with your kid, there has to be a balance of teaching, and fun.

You're not dealing with a paying client.  You have to be half coach, half partner.

You're trying to create something you can share with them that is fun, exciting, and creates the potential for foundation promoting.  If every training session is like a weekend seminar with some coaching perfectionist, then all of those things tend to get lost in the process.

Despite the fact that my oldest daughter ended up learning the lifts, and progressed fairly well on them, I can see how training would have been pretty monotonous and boring for her.  And when we are getting involved in a new activity, one of the key components I believe, is that it has to maintain a level of excitement for us in order to keep us coming back to it with enthusiasm and vigor.

And while there are tons of lifters who live and breathe squatting, benching, and deadlifting, and feel like hitting PR's in those lifts every few weeks or months is like winning a few hundred bucks from that scratch off lotto ticket they bought at the 7/11, not everyone identifies with that type of training idealism.

Yes, I'm fully aware that there are powerlifters who won't understand that for everyone the pinnacle of training utopia is not hitting some PR's on a few select lifts.  Just like there are plenty of gym bros who have no idea why guys are attaching bands and chains and using boxes to train with, when all they give a crap about is having a set of big pipes and pecs for the ladies they will be trying to court at the clubs on the weekends.

So this time around, with my middle daughter, I knew there would be a lot of things I did differently than I did with my oldest.  I wanted to make training easy to learn, fun, and rewarding.

Luckily for her, I wasn't preparing for a meet, and my training had actually shifted back towards hypertrophy and more of my bodybuilding roots.  So our training would look vastly different than it did for my oldest daughter.

For one, I wouldn't be making her squat.

I personally hate teaching a novice how to squat.  I've done enough seminars and teaching at this point that I can tell you, there are plenty of people who have been in the gym for quite some time don't squat properly.  Teaching a beginner, for me, is a fairly excruciating process.  And in retrospect, I don't imagine it was very fun for my oldest either.

Instead of us just walking into the gym, throwing some chalk around, then proceeding to "get after it", it probably felt like science class.  Going over all of the nuances involved in proper squatting may be fun for some, but I don't think it was fun for her.  So this time, squatting was out.

We would be doing a bit more machine work, and a wider variety of movements with short learning curves.  Then she could simply concentrate on adding some weight to the bar, the stack, or moving heavier dumbbells.  Again, fun and easy.

On the surface, this seems like common sense if you want to get and keep someone interested in training.  In essence, just make it fun.  Sure, there will be hard work.  But if training is not fun, regardless of your level of experience, going to the gym isn't going to be the highlight of your day.  Instead of being that refuge to get away from the grind of life, it becomes part of that grind.  And despite all of the popular memes about "grinding" in the gym, I personally don't want to feel like the gym is a grind.  I want to be excited, enthusiastic, and motivated when I walk in.  And this was the feeling I wanted my new training partner to have when she hit the gym with me.

Because I wanted her to also still feel "involved" with me during training, I actually structured my own training the best way I could so that we would still be doing most of the movements together.  I didn't want her off on the other side of the gym using some piece of equipment while I was concentrating on doing something completely different so I could "specialize".

My personal opinion is that to build that bond, and help the whole process become a closeness building experience, you need to be doing things together.  Not isolating them off from you while you work on shit you feel like you need to be working on while they do something else.  If a kid expresses desire to get into the gym with you a big reason for that could be to simply share that time with you.

In Emmy Jo's own words to me, she didn't desire to be jacked or ripped.  She just wanted something to occupy her time alongside dad with.

So as I structured my routine, I did so in a way it both fit my goals and made being in the gym a fun process for her as well.

Because my training focus had changed, there would be more machine work, which would make things easy for her.  I still needed to squat from time to time, but instead of trying to teach her to squat, I would have her do split squats right along side me instead.  Split squats are easy to learn, and yet can still be challenging at the same time.  Also, I could sit on the bench with her between sets of squats, and laugh and talk.  Doesn't sound like much does it?  But it's three minutes that you get to spend strengthening that bond of training even further.  Training wasn't just lifting weights.  It was time with dad that was just for her.

Once she had been in the gym with me for a while and became comfortable, I also added in things where we could help to push each other to do more, and create little competitions between us.  Like walking lunges, or simply beating each others rep numbers for certain sets.  The weight didn't matter.  If she did 9, I would try to do 10.  The next set, she'd have to be smart to pick a weight she could do 11 with, that was still difficult.  I would let her pick her own weights for these sets, as I felt this also let her feel more "involved" than me just coaching her up.

But there was a surprise that came with bringing her in as my training partner that I did not expect.

Little did I know, that just like I was when I got into the gym at a young age, her desire to work hard and push things to the limit was quite tremendous.

In fact, sometimes annoyingly so.

Because beginners often recover from even the hardest of sets than an advanced lifter, she was constantly telling me "Dad, hurry up.  Time for another set."  Sometimes, she'd even get annoyed at how long I was taking between sets (I actually do train fast, I swear), and do 2 sets for every 1 that I did.

This annoyed and motivated me.  Yes, to train harder.  To work at a faster pace, and basically to match her intensity or even outdo her.  In essence, something happened I personally did not expect.

She was making me a better lifter.

Yes, I just wrote that.  I hated that I felt like in some ways she was working harder than I was.  I was the one that was supposed to be setting the example.  Then she'd work to blood vessel bursting failure, rest for a minute and be ready to go again.

Now once again, I'm aware that because a beginner cannot move the same amount of weight, their recovery time is going to be much quicker than mine, but I did not care.  The competitor in me did not appreciate this 13 year old busting my ass in the gym when I was just trying to make this whole process fun for her!

And then it hit me:  The reason why she was working that hard, and pushing me every session, was because I had made it fun.  And her enthusiasm grew exponentially.

The more we trained together, the more she wanted to be involved in every aspect of it.  For example, if I was doing incline press with 315 or more, she didn't want me asking someone else for a spot.  She wanted to know exactly how to do it, and what was the best way.

Be still my beating heart!

She also wanted to work the pin on the stack for my drop sets.  She wanted to strip plates off the bar during strip sets.  She wanted to know how much effort to apply in order to make forced reps be perfect.  On days when I was off or having a bad day, she became very aware I wasn't focused enough, and would put me in check.

"Dad, you're not focused.  Get it together."

When it was time for hard working sets, she started to learn how to turn it on and get in the zone.  And when it was my turn to be ready, she would tell me "let's get it, dad!" and slap me on the back.

I don't know if all of this came together with her because my approach was different, or because I truly believe the iron ends up resonating more poetically with some people more than others.  Maybe it was a combination of the two.  But whatever it was, this time it "took".  

Since I've had experience with two kids now in regards to getting them into the gym, here is my own personal advice about how to do that, and how to create the best environment so that they may end up loving it as much as you do.

1.  Make it fun

Without a doubt, this is rule number one that I learned.

As I've covered, training with your kid isn't training a client.  They aren't paying you to be there.  My personal opinion is that when your kid comes to you to ask about training with you, it's because they want to share something with you that they see you love.

Think long and hard about this.  Think long and hard about what you want to make this experience like for them.

Create an environment where you feel like partners.  One of my mottos about parenting is that "we are our kids providers, protectors, mentors, and disciplinarians; we're not supposed to be their best friend."  This time together is an exception.  Yes, coach them up, but be their best training partner.  And help teach them in a positive and constructive manner how to be one for you.

If you want your kid to get interested in training, my personal advice is simply extend an invitation.  Let them know if they are ever interested in training with you, that you'd really enjoy that.  They may be afraid to ask, or may feel like that is "your time" and don't want to intrude.  I don't know.  All I know is, forcing it on them to get them involved is probably not a great idea.  Again, this is just my opinion.

2.  Be cognizant of what they like, and don't like

If they hate doing an exercise, don't make them.  There's no reason to.  If you get training to "stick", over time their goals will change, and they will probably desire to learn those movements they initially did not want to do, and that process takes care of itself through nurturing the love and enjoyment of training.

If they don't want to squat, try out lunges.  Try split squats.  Try trap bar deadlifts.  There's no reason to try and get your kid to marry himself or herself to an exercise they hate because you think it will be good for them.

There are movements you love, and movements you hate.  When your kid starts training with you, they aren't going to be any different.  The problem is, they may or may not voice what they like or don't like.  Their body language should speak loudly about what movements they enjoy and don't, but you may still have to ask.  Get feedback from them on a continual basis about what they are enjoying and what they dislike.

Part of making them feel like they are part of training is to let them have some input as to what they want to get stronger or better at.  Once again, this provides a lot of positive association with lifting.  They get to have input into training, and thus, are part of the "team".

3.  Feedback - Constructive criticism, destructive criticism, and positive reinforcement 

I've never gotten much from positive feedback.  It's nice.  It feels good.  It's cool.  But it has never been something that drove me to be better.

Different kids respond very differently to various types of feedback.

From a young age, I hated criticism.  Or so I thought.  I hated hearing it; but it absolutely fueled me.  Anytime a coach chewed me out or singled me out, I absolutely hated it...and it made me better every damn time.  But I can never ever remember a great coach giving me any type of criticism that wasn't constructive.

There is a massive difference in destructive criticism, and constructive criticism.  One exists to serve no other purpose than to try and break you down, and the other to lift you up, even though it may not feel very good at the time.

People who have a genuine interest in you getting better, and fulfilling your potential will offer up constructive criticism from time to time, and you need to be able to know what that looks like and discern the difference in destructive and constructive.

The delivery is often a big difference in how criticism "feels".

"You can't do it that way, that's wrong and stupid.  Let me show you how to do it right, you moron."

"This is not bad, but let me show you a few things that will make it a little better."

Essentially the two sentences are trying to accomplish the same task.  To let someone know they are doing something incorrectly, and needs to be fixed.  But obviously the wording and delivery make one look destructive, and the other constructive.

In my opinion, it's important to always leave destructive criticism out of this partnership.  In my opinion, destructive criticism is the best way to drive them from wanting to share that bond of training alongside you.  By creating negative experiences and context in regards to training.

Constructive criticism and positive reinforcement I believe, both have a time and a place.  When Emmy Jo would be having an off day due to lack of concentration, I would let her know about it.  No different than she did for me.

"You're not focused today.  Concentrate and kick ass with me."

And she would respond positively.

At the same time, when she would crush some new PR, or muster up the courage to try weights she had previously been afraid of, I didn't belittle that by saying her form wasn't perfect or that it could have been better.  I hugged her, kissed her, and told her she was awesome.  It wasn't about how deep she squatted, or how strict the movement was.  It was about her finding the confidence to even try.  And that showed me she was growing in regards to the intangible things that lifting gives us, that we can't always explain to people.  That feeling of being able to do something that we may have never thought possible.

At her stage, it didn't need to be executed perfectly.  It wasn't about that.  It was about her finding the virtue of courage that precedes all the other positive virtues in our life.  And I wasn't about to step on that in any way.

4.  Pick movements with a short learning curve and add in corrections slowly over time -

As noted, this was a huge difference in training my oldest.  I made sure to pick movements that were easy to teach, and then just let her get after it.  This made my job easy, because I wasn't teaching thoracic spine, hip extension, foot pronation, blah blah blah all day.

So this part was easy.  I knew what movements she could learn quickly, and add weight to at a quick pace.  This again, spurred her on to love training even more.

Down the line, when they have built a level of confidence and strength that they feel good about, making corrections comes much easier.  Because they have better body control and can "feel" things better than they could when they first started.

And speaking of corrections, the other thing I did this time, was add in a simple correction each week here or there.  I didn't try to make everything perfect from day 1.  Then as the weeks passed by, all the corrections came together and her technique became very solid.

A sample list of movements we did, and simple "coaching" I did looked like so -

Legs -

Leg Extensions - Concentrate on controlling the weight up and down.  Don't rush the reps.
Leg Curls - Same as leg extensions.  Control the weight up and down.
Leg Press - This was easiest.  Just make sure there was a GOOD range of motion.  Keep your back and butt on the pad.
Squat Machines - We used various ones.  I didn't emphasize depth at first.  I made sure her knees tracked properly.  Once she got the hang of this, we started emphasizing more depth.
Lunges - Take big steps.  Keep your torso upright.

Shoulders -

Seated Dumbbell Press and Machine Press - Good range of motion.  Weight used was irrelevant.
Side laterals - Don't swing the weights up and down.  Stay light and use good control.

Chest -

Incline Press - Elbow to wrist alignment.  Make sure the elbows and wrists line up with each other under the bar.  To help her with this I would actually put my hands on her wrists and move her through the ROM so she could "feel" the proper motion.
Hammer Strength Bench Press - Same as incline press; make sure the wrists and elbows are in line, and in line with the handles on the machine.
Dips - Elbows point behind.  This was made easy just by telling her to lean forward (I held her feet on these)

Back -

Chins and pull ups - I just held her feet as assistance here.  No real corrections.  Pull yourself up.
Pulldowns - Chest out, think about pulling with your elbows into your back.
Dumbbell Rows - Same as pulldowns, think about pulling with your elbows, and not your arms.
Shrugs - Touch your shoulders to your ears.

Arms -

Curls - Stay strict, don't swing.
Pushdowns - Stay strict and don't rush the rep speed, don't make the range of motion too long (don't let it come all the way back over the top of your head)

As the weeks went on, I would add in more corrections.  Usually just one at a time.

Let me also add that things like assisted dips, chins, lunges, and bodyweight stuff are great because they are easy to teach, and are great foundation builders.  Not only that but they also help with building balance and coordination.  This transcends into learning other movements much easier I have found.

Conclusion - 

For me, training with my kids isn't just about lifting.  I view it as my opportunity as a parent to give part of myself and my passion to them.  How I hand over that gift needs to be done in a way that makes them want to open their heart and mind to it.  Not create resentment for it.

No matter how many great things YOU think lifting can do for your kids, you cannot force something upon someone, without some level of resentment creeping in.  Even if the end results are positive, the gift you handed over will ultimately have been flawed in some way.

It should represent a positive experience in their life.  A time they share with you and the iron that is rewarding, empowering, and lasting.  For those of us that have been under the iron for a very long time, these are the factors that have kept us here this long.  And it will for them as well.

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  1. Very good, thank you, I'll bear this in mind when my children are old enough.

  2. That whole article made me smile. I've been training my Dad for the past few months and a lot of the principles you stated here are the same.