For years, my kids have been following me into my garage gym. (Even before we had a proper home gym, they would steal stray dumbbells or yoga balls that I thought I had bought for myself.) I would encourage their interest, but I wondered: How can I encourage them to make exercise a habit? It took a while, but I think I have that figured out.
My three kids now range in age from 6 to 12. The oldest is definitely ready for structured strength training: He 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’ve tried to lead him through a workout, though, he’s prone to getting bored or frustrated. (Imagine the “are we there yet?” whining of a car trip, but here it’s “how many sets are left?”) I’d rather have him enjoy himself and build a habit than work through something I decided is optimal for training.
The younger ones are still just in this for fun, which is great, but then they’ll wander into the gym while I’m trying to lift, and demand I give them a workout, too. So I was on the hunt for a lifting routine that would be simple enough to suggest on the spur of the moment, yet fun and interesting enough to stave off whining while I’m trying to get my own workout in. And I think I’ve found it.
I wrote this, or something very much like 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 rows
2 carries, any heavy object of your choice
The name and the set/rep scheme are pinched from a book I have heard of but admittedly not read. (There is a version of the Easy Strength program here, if you’d like to get a sense of where it’s coming from and how you can modify it for more serious athletes.) I want to be clear that any of the modifications to the program that I’ve done 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 that I stole goes like this:
- Every exercise is done for ten reps, broken here into two sets of five.
- There are always five exercises that fit the categories of: squat, hinge, push, pull, and carry.
- You can do this every day.
- Add weight when it feels too easy.
It’s been a smashing success. The oldest has fallen out of the habit a few times, but always gets back to it without any prodding from me. Sometimes his little brother will tag along and they’ll do the workout together. And even my youngest kid can do the five exercises on the board, although she needs my help for some of them.
Why my kids love this
First, they were sold on the name. If you’re a kid who gets easily winded or discouraged in gym class, the idea that exercise can be “easy” is appealing, even revolutionary. According to a paper that describes the Easy Strength program, the first time you do an exercise it should be easy enough to feel like a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. Or to put it another way: you’re doing 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 supposed to feel hard.)
Second, we chose exercises they enjoy. I would love to see my kids doing more pushups, but the older ones prefer bench press (and they know how to do it properly, with the safeties in our rack). They hate pretty much all types of squats except goblet squats, so: fine. Better a goblet than nothing.
Third, and I think this is key, we chose exercises that require zero setup time. We have small, medium, and large kettlebells. Depending on the kid, they use medium or large for the deadlifts, and small or medium for the squats. I had thought at first that they could start chaining small plates to the kettlebells to add weight, but they preferred to keep working with the same bell until it felt too easy, and then they would give it a try with the next larger size. Hey—that works.
Why it’s secretly a really solid training program
At first, it looks almost laughable. Just two sets of each exercise? The first time my oldest 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 minimal setup, he can make it some days in under 10.
But here’s the thing: The sweet spot for building muscle and strength is considered to be somewhere in the ballpark of 10 to 20 sets per muscle per week, with beginners able to get away with a bit less. If you do two sets every day, that’s 14 in 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 wanders down to the gym a few times a week and kind of forgets about it the rest of the time, that’s still six sets per week, which is a lot more than zero.
Don’t they need rest days? I hear you muttering at your screen. Not necessarily. Remember that if you’re doing an amount of work that you have adapted to (or that is small to begin with), you can do it pretty much every day. For example, you can go for a walk every day. Manual laborers show up to work every day.
Or to think about it another way: nobody would bat an eye at a program that had three or four sets of each exercise on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This is the same thing, just spread over more days. It’s the same amount of work. (And no, there’s not a law of nature that you need to take a day off between strength sessions; rest days just make for convenient scheduling.)
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 a few tips to get started.
The most important thing is that the kids (or you) should know how to do the exercises that are part of the program. If a kid has to learn how to squat and how to deadlift and everything else, odds are not good for making it through the first day without crying. But if you’ve already been coaching them through some air squats or reminding them to keep their back flat when they get curious about lifting your kettlebell, then they may be ready to include those exercises in their routine. If you’re not sure where to start, ask them what they’ve been doing 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-setup rule comes in: Make sure they can walk in and get started without having to ask you to load the bar. Kettlebells and fixed (not adjustable) dumbbells are great for this, but don’t forget that bodyweight movements also require little to no setup.
For example, you can have the kids do pushups with their hands on a bench. As they get stronger, they can do them on the floor and then graduate to putting their feet on the bench. Step-ups are a great option for when air squats get too easy. Inverted rows are a good “pull” exercise, and they can work their way up to pullups if you’ve got a bar. Have a look at our list of bodyweight movements that are good for strength building, and pick out some things that will work for your little (or not-so-little) ones.
And if you’re doing this for yourself, do consider the version called “Even Easier Strength” which is explained here. You’ll get a chance to work up to a heavy single every other week, and to do sets of 10 sometimes. And where your kiddos may value familiarity in the exercises, you can swap things out every two weeks, or whenever you feel like it. For example, in the slot dedicated to squats, you can cycle through squats, lunges, step-ups, and unweighted single-legged squats to a box (or whatever variations appeal to you).
Is this the very best way to build strength and muscle? I mean, I wouldn’t train for a powerlifting competition this way. But any routine you’ll actually do beats the heck out of doing nothing. So if you aren’t into challenging yourself with tough training plans, make staying healthy easy for yourself by setting up a routine that’s quick enough to fit in your day and that you’ve designed to be enjoyable. After all, why should kids have all the fun?