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Too Fat To Get Fit

By Brett Klika

It isn’t pretty, but it’s a reality.  Our youth are getting fatter and unhealthier by the day.  Physical Education classes are either gone, or absolutely minimized in our educational curriculum.  The classes that are still intact are ill-suited for the new generation.  As trainers working with youth, many of us do a poor job of adapting our programs to these kids’ needs.  This oversight decreases the amount of impact we are able to have on these youngsters, both short term and long term.  This article will discuss some common issues when working with overweight youth, and how to modify programs so that their needs are more appropriately met.

I work with large numbers of kids.  A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to work with about 1000+ youth while at the NFL experience in Tampa, FL.  One of our sponsors had set up a large “football combine” simulation with a variety of “test” stations.  We had basic stations set up; pull-ups, push-ups, agility ladder, broad jump, in addition to the 40 yard dash.  The ages varied from 8-18, but most were in the 9-13 range.  I can honestly say that out of the over 1, 0000 kids I saw in 4 days, I can remember a handful that could do one pull-up.  About half could do 1 legitimate push-up and about the same number could do an actual lunge.  Furthermore, these kids had to put down their soda and churros to do the drills!   I remember back to when I was in grade school.  I wasn’t a strong kid.  I was a little chubby actually.  I did everything kids are supposed to do, but my mom was a great cook, and I was a late bloomer.  I remember being so embarrassed in my 6th grade P.E. class because I was one of two boys that couldn’t do a pull-up.  Two kids out of 20 could not do a bodyweight pull-up.  At the NFL event, I observed about 985 kids out of 1000 that couldn’t do a pull-up! 

The inactivity of our youth has affected them in the sense that they observe a large decrease in strength to weight ratios.  Maintaining a favorable strength to weight ratio is essential for athletic performance, as well as accomplishment of functional daily tasks as you get older.  A good assessment of strength to weight ratio is how well one can do bodyweight activities, pull-ups, push-ups, jumps, sprints, etc.  The strength and coordination for these activities used to be developed throughout youth as kids ran around, threw snowballs, climbed trees, dug holes, did chores, etc.  As we know, kids don’t do these things anymore.  These general bodyweight activities are essential for developing functional strength to reinforce more specific movement patterns like running, jumping, pulling, pushing, throwing, kicking, grasping, as well as a host of other motor tasks.   If youth don’t perform a volume of these general tasks, they can be at a functional detriment for the rest of their lives.  In addition, modern society, with an abundance of crap food and lack of parental supervision, has left this young generation with an inability to put down the churros (it’s like a big long donut if you don’t know what I’m talking about).  Compound the lack of movement for calorie burning and strength development with a near intravenous supply of processed fat and sugar, you get a generation that is obese because they don’t exercise, but it’s harder for them to exercise because they’re obese!

As I said before, it isn’t pretty, but it’s a fact.  We have to now “own up” to the problem.  Our current curriculum, if any, for working with kids is outdated.  It is designed and implemented on the assumption that kids are still capable of doing the things kids did 20 or 30 years ago. When this curriculum is implemented with groups of kids, whether it be P.E. classes, sports, teams, camps, or even personal training groups, you’ll see less than 10% of the kids can actually accomplish the given tasks.  Ninety percent of the group is failing, yet the apathetic instructor moves on.  It’s like P.E. has become akin to law school, only if you aren’t in the top 10%, instead of getting people out of parking tickets for a living, you have a heart attack at age 25. Seriously folks.

To be pro-active, we need to start viewing bodyweight activities with our youth as “skills” instead of “exercises”.  In the good old days, kids developed a lot of physical skills on their own through general daily activity.  When an instructor would have them do a push-up, the summation of their daily tasks would allow for the strength and stability to do so.  Pushing their bodyweight away from the ground was a demonstration of their coordination and strength.  They didn’t really need to practice it much because of their active, adaptive neural system.   In those days, you could just throw “exercises” out at the kids and they could do them pretty well with some basic coaching.  It doesn’t work that way anymore.  With the inactivity problem, there is nearly no strength and coordination to “showcase” in an exercise.  A push-up has to be a learned skill.  It has to adapted, progressed, and practiced.  Even general movement tasks like bear crawls, crab walks, skips, etc., have to be acquired as a skill.  Consider this example.  Let’s say you’ve taken Latin for 10 years.  You decide you want to learn Spanish.  Your years of Latin will help you pick up the Latin-based language pretty quickly, due to the fact you have an understanding of the basic phonetic structure.  The Spanish language just narrows the focus of your Latin language skill set and introduces some new structure.  Now, let’s say you’ve taken Latin for 10 years, and you want to learn Chinese.  With no general language foundation, every word or phrase you learn in Chinese is a whole new phonetic skill set.  The acquisition of physical skill is like learning Chinese for many of our modern youth.  

From a practical standpoint, we need to focus our curriculum on more general activities, replicating what kids used to do on their own, skipping, crawling, climbing, pushing, pulling, etc.  It would be beneficial to hold off on introducing more specific skill sets like push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, and squats, until they can do the general activities well.  When moving on to these more specific skill sets, there should be an observed progression.  Take push-ups for example.  First of all, the youngster should be able to hold a perfect push-up position for 40 seconds to a minute.  This is how we introduce push-ups at Fitness Quest 10.  We then do eccentric push-ups, go to the floor as slow as possible, get to the knees, come back up.  Then we use the blue balance pads as a goal for them to touch their chest.  We’ll start with as many as three under their chest.  As they become capable, we take one away.  We don’t use numbers of reps as criteria, only time.  Five perfect push-ups in 30 seconds are far better than 15 bad ones in 10 seconds.  For overweight and extremely out of shape kids, we use Jump-Stretch bands to help unweight them.  We do this with every bodyweight exercise we teach, including lunges, pull-ups, etc.  We’ll take as thin a band as possible and wrap it around their waist, their feet, or have them hold it.  Their robust bodyweight adds too much neuromuscular overload to learn the proper coordination of a new task.  With the Jump-Stretch band, we take out the overload factor and allow the neuromuscular system to learn the new task.  Once the task becomes more engrained, we use thinner and thinner cords until they can do it on their own.  It’s like adding or subtracting weight to the bar. 

By shifting our focus from “exercises” to “skills” and implementing proper adaptations and progressions, we have seen tremendous progress in the youngsters we work with.  The strength and mobility they acquire through the skills we teach allow them to go out and exercise.  They can ride their bike, swim, run, play a sport, etc., better and for a longer period of time.  This not only makes daily exercises a less arduous activity for these kids, it builds a sense of confidence and self efficacy.  These youngsters feel physically capable, and exercise becomes a positive experience.  This view of physical activity will follow them for the rest of their lives.  This is the true “result” of a successful youth athletic development program.

Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. He presents around the world to both trainers and corporations with Todd Durkin Enterprises on a variety of health, wellness, and athletic performance topics. Brett contributes monthly to the award-winning “TD Times” newsletter. If you would like to sign up, you can do so by visiting, or use the contact form below: [easy-contact]

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