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Being a teenager means getting comfortable with change: changing moods, changing hormones, changing interests, changing social circles — not to mention an ever-changing world filled with shifting views, technologies, and trends.

As a teenager one of the areas where you might especially be feeling the effects of all these transitions is in your changing body. Specifically, how you move your body.

When you were a kid, movement was probably built into your day. Games prevailed in class, during recess, and outside of school. That’s because play, in both structured and unstructured forms, is a central part of learning and development for kids.

Over time, as you grew older, opportunities for play during the school day likely dwindled. And nonschool hours became dominated by homework and after-school activities. You may have noticed that sports teams that once welcomed everyone became more selective.

So, maybe, with all these changes, you find yourself wanting to move — or knowing you should move — but don’t know how to go about it without getting bored, burned out, or injured.

At this stage of life, your energy, adaptability, and ability to recover are at all-time highs. While that doesn’t mean you can’t stay fit — or get fit — as you get older, these qualities are something you can maximize now to build sustainable health and fitness in the long run.

Enter Experience Life’s first-ever guide to teen training, in which our experts explain how to build a workout routine that is flexible, sustainable, and safe — geared not to your parents, not to your younger sibling, not to your favorite football player or that celebrity influencer on your FYP, but to your unique body and goals.

Because you are unique. And though every body is different, there are some general truths about fitness that are specific to adolescence: At this stage of life, your energy, adaptability, and ability to recover are at all-time highs. While that doesn’t mean you can’t stay fit — or get fit — as you get older, these qualities are something you can maximize now to build sustainable health and fitness in the long run.

It might not feel like that’s true, especially if you’ve been in a sedentary phase, but you are stronger than you realize. You have higher bone density than your older counterparts and naturally high levels of anabolic hormones (namely testosterone, no matter your gender), which make it possible to progress quickly and relatively safely in just about any activity you love.

Running, strength training, rock climbing, basketball, martial arts — the workout world is your new playground.

The Rewards of Movement

Being active is good for you at any age. It keeps bones, muscles, and joints healthy while supporting your immune system and microbiome. Moving your body heightens alertness and perception, enhances attention and concentration, and aids learning and memory. Exercise strengthens and protects your heart against disease, lowers blood pressure, builds sturdy bones, improves posture, and boosts digestion.

Exercise has also been shown to support mental health — a notable benefit when teens are reporting unprecedented levels of sadness and hopelessness, according to recent findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (For more on the CDC report, see “Teens in Crisis”).

Exercise can be even more effective than prescription drugs or therapy for improving symptoms [of depres­sion, anxiety, and psychological distress].

A 2022 review in the British ­Journal of Sports Medicine ana­lyzed the results of 97 reviews on how physical activity affects depres­sion, anxiety, and psychological distress among adults. The study concluded that exercise can be even more effective than prescription drugs or therapy for improving symptoms. All types of physical activity and exercise were shown to be beneficial, including aerobic exercise, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga.

While this research focused on adults, a 2023 analysis of studies involving 2,441 participants with a mean age of 14 found that physical activity may help alleviate depressive symptoms in children and adolescents as well.

“You can go out and exercise every day and get almost the same positive response from your body as with medication. Isn’t that an unbelievably healthy way to keep your emotional well-being in a good place?” says Suanne Kowal-Connelly, MD, a New York–based pediatrician, youth coach, and ­author of Parenting Through ­Puberty. “Exercise is medicine; there’s no question.”

What makes all these benefits particularly exciting is not just the potential to improve your life right now. These small, meaningful steps help build a foundation of health and fitness that can carry you through your whole life.

Grooving good movement patterns can protect your joints, ward off imbalances, and keep you mobile for the long haul. Strengthening your heart and other muscles can help prevent chronic ailments and make your body and mind more resilient. It’s never too soon to start building these strong habits.

The Facts of (Young Adult) Life

Adolescence is typically defined as the period between 10 and 19 years old, but this window, physically speaking, is more about your body’s development than your biological age. “There’s a huge difference in how each person develops physically,” explains Kowal-Connelly.

Understanding your personal physical development can help you set realistic goals and expectations for training. Consider these three pieces of advice from Kowal-Connelly and other experts as you embark on your fitness journey.

1) Embrace awkwardness.

It’s no secret that we all grow at different rates and times — and when it happens, living in a growing body can feel pretty awkward.

“You actually grow from the outside inward — you grow from your hands and feet into your core or the center. And as that happens, you can be kind of off-kilter,” explains Kowal-Connelly.

“You actually grow from the outside inward — you grow from your hands and feet into your core or the center. And as that happens, you can be kind of off-kilter.”

When changes happen rapidly, even movements you’ve been doing nearly your entire life can feel awkward, says ­DeVentri Jordan, founder and national director of Life Time’s GameFace training program for youth athletes. “If a kid grows 2 inches taller, everything changes, and they have to train every­thing all over again.”

Jordan stresses that it’s important to be patient and adjust your expectations. “I call this period the learning-to-train age. It’s not just about what you can do physically; it’s about mentally understanding how to train. This is not a race. It’s a journey.”

2) Don’t obsess over aesthetics.

Working out — and strength train­ing in particular — offers a cascade of physical and mental rewards, benefiting every system in your body no matter your age. Most of these health boons have nothing to do with your reflection in the mirror or the number on the scale. And yet it’s com­mon for young people to train specifically with aesthetics in mind.

While there is nothing wrong with pursuing aesthetic goals, hyperfocusing on the size and shape of your biceps, glutes, or other muscles can become problematic. For one, it can disengage you from your body and intuition, setting you up for overexercise, burnout, and injury.

An overemphasis on aesthetics can also contribute to eroding self-confidence and even lead down a path to body dysmorphia, disordered eating, and other harmful beliefs and practices, says Life Time personal trainer and strength coach Becca Rigg, NASM-CPT.

Moreover, while there is some opportunity to reshape the body through intentional, consistent strength training, each person is limited by factors like genetics and simple biology. Hypertrophy, or an increase in muscle size, depends on the amount of testosterone your body produces. All genders experience an increase in testosterone during puberty. But people assigned male at birth will experience a surge of testosterone to a much greater degree, explains Kowal-Connelly.

This means that not everyone will be able to develop muscle mass at the same rate or at the same time, even if they do all the “right” things in the gym.

As a result, aesthetic goals are tricky for teens, Rigg says. She advises shifting your focus to nonaesthetic markers, such as the new skills you’re developing and how you’re feeling.

Strength training builds confidence and self-esteem,” she notes. “I love the message you receive when exercising in this way: You learn that even though what you’re doing may be hard, you’re getting stronger.”

3) Be patient with your body and brain.

Just before puberty, the human brain goes through a period of overproducing synapses, the connections between brain cells. This is followed by a period of pruning, during which some synapses are lost and others are strengthened.

“Your brain is working out what areas it needs to hold on to and what areas it can set aside, so there’s a lot of remodeling of the architecture inside your head,” says Kowal-Connelly.

This “remodeling” makes your teen years an excellent time to develop coordination and hardwire solid movement patterns into your system, advises Ryan McDowell, CSCS, a youth strength coach in Hopkins, Minn. “Your body doesn’t yet have the software for the things you’re about to do. At this age, it’s about developing the nervous system and the ability to coordinate.

“It doesn’t matter if you want to go hiking, play a high-level sport, or just do things around the house. The goal is to be able to move better.”

The keys to developing any new skill are patience, persistence, and practice. Be curious about anything in fitness that interests you and give your brain and body time to adapt. It’s unlikely that you’ll be great at everything the first time you try it. That’s one of the most beautiful parts about fitness: discovering what you like and then putting in the work to get better.

Know Your Why

Before committing to a program or activity, the most important first step is to define your why — your reason for moving your body. Maybe you want to find a fun hobby or make new friends. Maybe you want to discover how strong you really are — and how strong you can get. Maybe you want to improve your fitness to support other activities you already love, like swimming, playing soccer, or skateboarding.

There is no right or wrong why, so don’t be afraid to get honest with yourself about what you want and why you want it.

Knowing your why is practical, too. “Don’t go to the gym without a purpose,” advises Brinley Rigg, trainer Becca Rigg’s 15-year-old daughter. “If you’re just walking around, you’re not going to have a good experience.”

Once you’ve narrowed down your intention, think about what you might enjoy doing. Finding joy in movement is a sure-fire sign that you’ve found something you’ll commit to — and consistency is the best way to make progress.

“It always comes back to what you want to do, and I encourage teens to find those activities first and to explore,” says McDowell. “Do you like to mountain bike? Do you like rugby or Ultimate Frisbee? Figure that out, and then let’s talk about what it takes to do those things.”

Again, there’s no right or wrong answer when determining what you love to do — and no shame if your answer is “I don’t know.” As we established earlier, this is your chance to be curious and discover what you like, so take advantage of opportunities to try things out.

Explore the classes at your local health club or rec center. Yoga, Zumba, Pilates, boxing, indoor cycling, and strength training are just a few of the offerings you’re likely to find there. Check out ­specialty gyms for activities like bouldering and trapeze.

It’s normal to feel apprehensive when trying something new, but don’t let intimidation stop you. Take it from RaShadd Perkins, who was 17 years old when he signed up for an Alpha class at Life Time, a small group training format that blends advanced strength training and metabolic conditioning. Now 18, Perkins recalls that he was “pretty nervous.”

“I was new to using the equipment, but I started going more and realized it was a comfortable environment,” he says. “The coaches didn’t seem judgmental, and everyone in class is in the zone, so they’re not judging you.”

In fact, the community you’ll find at most health clubs and gyms will only enhance your experience. “It’s not just about the equipment that’s there. A gym is also a social environment,” says Kowal-Connelly.

You can build relationships with like-minded people. Making friends (or working out with existing friends) can help you feel more comfortable. “Finding a group of gym buddies is a big thing that can help,” says Brinley Rigg.

Brinley’s 17-year-old sister, Teya Rigg, adds: “Try to find a friend who can be your accountability buddy. It helps to know that even if you don’t feel like exercising, they’ll convince you to do it, and you don’t want to leave them hanging.”

If you truly don’t know where to start, or are afraid of getting hurt or feeling embarrassed, consider a session or two with a personal trainer to get acquainted with the equipment and moving with good form.

“A trainer is like your VIP bodyguard on the fitness floor — any gymtimidation you have, a trainer cuts right through it,” says Becca Rigg.

Get Moving

A balanced fitness routine, whether it’s a standalone program or designed to supplement other training, ideally includes three broad areas of movement: strength training, cardio, and mobility. Here’s what you need to know about each of them.

1) Strength Training

In the 1970s and ’80s, it was widely believed that the risk of injury made strength training unsafe for kids and adolescents. But more-recent studies have found that it’s truly safe — as long as young people follow age-appropriate training guidelines.

“Really young children, as early as 7 or 8 years old, are often perfectly capable of being involved in strength training,” says Kowal-Connelly. “What is necessary for success is a young child having a desire to do it, being able to listen to directions, and being willing to commit to working out regularly. Then they can safely start a strength-training program along with the guidance of an adult.”

In fact, the National Strength and Conditioning Association states that a strength-training program can offer all sorts of benefits: It can enhance your muscular strength and power; improve your heart health; boost motor-skill performance and contribute to enhanced sports performance; increase your resistance to sports-related injuries; and help improve psychosocial well-being.

To make the most of your strength-training routine, heed the following tips.

⋅ Focus on multijoint primal movement patterns, such as squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, and lunging, says McDowell.

⋅ Start with your own body weight or light resistance. Jordan uses a combination of body-weight exercises, plyometrics, and resistance bands when training younger athletes. He introduces light dumbbells to high schoolers.

⋅ Stay in a moderate rep range. “The most important consideration is impeccable form. Heavy loads tend to get sloppy and put a strain on your central nervous system. You are still growing and should not be maxing out,” says Becca Rigg. She recommends choosing a weight that you can han­dle for either six to eight reps or eight to 10 reps.

If you’re looking to maximize strength, McDowell recommends doing three sets of five twice a week for most exercises. Gradually add weight each week, as long as you’ve been able to complete your sets.

⋅ Emphasize recovery. Aim for at least two and no more than three days a week of strength training, says Rigg. Your rest days should still include movement for active recovery.

Adequate sleep — at least eight to 10 hours a night — and nutrition are also key. “It’s important that you’re getting enough calories, since your body already has a high caloric demand because of growth,” says Rigg. (Learn more about active recovery at “Why Workout Recovery Days Are Essential for Optimal Fitness.”)

2) Cardio

We often think of people running or getting on a machine such as a treadmill or elliptical trainer as cardio exercise. But it also includes activities such as dancing, playing soccer, and riding a bike.

“Cardio is about training your engine,” says Rigg. “You want to be able to bound up the stairs without being out of breath. You want to run the mile in PE class without it being so horrible. You want a long, healthy life, and cardio is a nonnegotiable part of that.”

Incorporate some cardio into your life with these tips.

⋅ Do something you enjoy. If you love to run, that’s great — running is one of the most efficient cardiovascular activities. But if the thought of putting in road miles or getting on a treadmill makes you cringe, explore other forms of cardio until you find something that you enjoy and can look forward to doing.

“The key to success is to pick something you like. Make it fun,” says Kowal-Connelly. Go for a walk with a friend. Have a dance party or learn a TikTok dance. Go bicycling or take a cycling class. Get a group together for a basketball scrimmage.  (See “Find Your Fitness Passion” for ideas on how to start falling in love with physical activity.)

⋅ Make consistency your goal. Whether you want to improve your health or become better in your sport, you have to be consistent. To start, you might try to do 20 minutes of cardio twice a week, says Rigg. Once you’ve developed a habit of consistency, you can start to set performance goals.

⋅ Avoid doing too much too fast. One of the biggest pitfalls that new exercisers encounter is feeling pressure to go all-out — only to burn out or get hurt. Training is not an area in which 100 percent effort or pushing to failure regularly is rewarded.

Listen to your body and follow the 10 percent rule when you’re ready to progress: For instance, if you’re a runner, add up your total mileage over the week and aim to increase your weekly mileage by no more than 10 percent.

3) Mobility

Mobility describes the ability to move through a full range of motion with control — a combination of flexibility and stability. To better understand what mobility means, try this:

  1. Stand, raise one knee in front of you as high as you can, and take note of how high it goes. That’s your active range of motion.
  2. Then lower your knee and repeat — this time, hugging your knee close to your chest with your arms. You probably got your knee a bit higher — that’s your passive range of motion.

If the difference is large — that is, your joints can achieve ranges of ­motion that your muscles on their own can’t control — the chances of injury when you fall, jump, or lift a heavy weight increase. Targeted ­mobility training can help close the gap, helping you maximize performance and avoid injury, says Jordan.

A trainer can help you assess your mobility needs based on your unique body and goals. You can also add some targeted mobility work into your training in the following ways.

  • Do dynamic stretches to start your workouts; think large, con­trolled, repetitive movements that warm you up and prep your body to move. Jumping jacks, walking lunges, and wrist and ankle circles are just a few examples. (For an effective routine, visit “The Perfect Warm-Up.”)
  • Incorporate mobility into your training. Complement your workouts with targeted mobility moves, such as segmented cat–cow and articulated shoulder rolls. (Find these moves and more at “Is Stretching Good for You?“)
  • Save static stretching for your cool-down or outside of your workout (unless a coach or trainer has instructed otherwise). These classic stretches include pulling your arm across your body to stretch your triceps and lateral deltoid and grabbing your foot behind your body to stretch your quad. Make sure to hold them for one minute or longer to get the full benefits. (For the perfect stretching routine, visit “4 Cool-Down Exercises.”)

Whatever activity or workout routine you choose, remember: There is no perfect way to get fit. The best regimen is the one you’ll stick with and, hopefully, enjoy. Be consistent and patient. Give your body a chance to absorb the good things you’re doing for it.

If you’re still not convinced that incremental change can amount to big changes, just ask RaShadd Perkins. Since his initial nervousness, the teen has settled into a routine of going to the health club three times a week — nothing extreme, but the consistency is paying off.

“My overall goal is just to be healthy and gain muscle, and over time I can see my body transforming,” he says. “I’ve found that going to the gym is really refreshing. It makes me feel accomplished.”

This article originally appeared as “Teen Training” in the September/October 2023 issue.

Nicole
Nicole Radziszewski

Nicole Radziszewski is a writer and personal trainer in River Forest, Ill. She blogs at www.mamasgottamove.com.

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