When Jeff and Mikki Martin became the owners of the fifth CrossFit affiliate in the country in 2004, they couldn’t talk any adults into trying the new workout program. But as the owners of Brand X martial arts school in Ramona, Calif., and the parents of three adolescent boys, they did have one thing going for them: a captive audience.
“Between the kids’ martial arts program and some of my son’s teenage friends, I thought, ‘I can make them do it.’ And that is how CrossFit Kids started,” Jeff says. Today, Brand X offers four levels of CrossFit Kids classes, from preschool through high school, and packs in almost 40 kids a class. They get five to 10 emails a week from schools around the country that want to implement the program into their curriculum. While the physical achievements of the CrossFit Kids athletes are amazing (Martin’s son Connor did a 2:30 Fran at 16 years old), the program has aspirations that go far beyond times and loads.
How do you program CrossFit workouts for children?
CrossFit Kids trainers are committed to the CrossFit charter: mechanics, consistency, then intensity. Our job is to help kids move better. You shouldn’t hear a trainer encouraging a kid to move faster; rather, you should hear trainers cueing the kids on how they can improve their movement. We set the classes up to reward good movement rather than the load moved or rounds completed.
What are the differences you’ll see between a CrossFit workout and CrossFit Kids workout?
There is no movement that we do in CrossFit that is unsafe for kids. That being said, we stress that overhead squats and push jerks should probably be saved for the teen class. We also don’t recommend one-rep maxes for kids. We believe lifting heavy weight safely requires the ability to maintain focus throughout the lift. Developmentally, children, even athletic children, can lose focus at critical times. Lastly, young kids get strong through repetition that yields neuromuscular adaptation, not through hypertrophy. Multiple reps done correctly are far better for this age group and are more developmentally appropriate.
“Every other coach out there is concerned about winning. As a CrossFit Kids coach, we don’t have to worry about winning, only about making that kid better.”
— Jeff Martin, co-founder of CrossFit Kids
Talk about the crossover between CrossFit Kids and academics. There is a great deal of evidence that there’s a window of opportunity to learn right after exercise. We run a kids’ class, and after they finish, they go immediately into a study hall we’ve built. We’ve hired a tutor who helps the kids with their worst subject. We have seen such positive growth in the kids academically it’s astounding. From our gym, we have had five valedictorians out of our high school.
It seems like kids’ sports are getting more and more specialized, with a single sport being played year-round. What do you think of that?
I can tell you two things: If you don’t have a broad base, the absolute expression of somebody’s genetics in sports can’t be supported. If I take a child and put him in a specialized sports program, that child may increase his ability, but it will be very subtle. I can take that kid, double his back squat, double his deadlift, and the kid is a different player. He won’t just be a better player. I can change the way that player is, making him stronger, faster, more fit and more durable. On a whole separate note, the amount of injuries coming out of specialization is enormous. In the last 10 years, we have seen a 400 percent increase in ACL injuries in child athletics. And it is directly attributed to sport-specific training. Children are simply not strong enough to survive the rigors of single-sport training year-round. I think we are the antidote for that.
You sound like you love your job.
I love my job. Outside of the physical accomplishments, when you have a kid come and tell you how he did on a test or say that he got a scholarship or was accepted into the Air Force Academy, it’s stunning.