My father had an old saying that he used when he and I would watch boxing on TV. He would often comment that certain fighters looked like “they couldn’t punch their way out of a wet paper bag.” While obviously a bit of hyperbole, the overall concept was immediately clear - those fighters demonstrated an obvious lack of upper body strength and power.


When we’re working with children, addressing the issue of upper body strength poses many challenges. Most exercise equipment is nowhere near scaled for children’s sizes, with bars too thick for their hands and seats too high or too low for their height. Of course, there is also the ongoing debate as to whether children under certain ages should engage in any form of weight lifting at all. What’s a teacher or coach to do?


Scalable bodyweight exercises are a great answer. They’re progressive and adjustable, and almost all of them are multi-joint compound style exercises. Best of all, many of them require little or no equipment. So let’s look at each area of the upper body and the best exercises for them, along with some lead-ups and variations.



Upper Body Push

The two best exercises you can possibly do here are the classics: push ups and dips. Push ups can be done anywhere. Literally, anywhere. I’ve done push ups on dirt, tile, mats, sand, rocks, and even in the back of a 767 on a eleven-hour plane flight to Japan. Dips can also be done on a variety of apparatus, including bars, chairs, and tables.


The key for both of these is progression. Many children do not have the proper trunk stability for push ups or the overall strength for dips at the beginning. Partial range motions are great for learning push ups, along with planks and other trunk stability exercises. Dips can start with lockout holds, and then progress to partial-range and full-range movements. Full-body exercises, such as bear crawls, are great assistance tools as well.


Upper Body Pull

While the pull up or chin up is considered the benchmark standard of upper body pull strength, I prefer to use the reverse body row. Again, it’s very scalable. You can modify the exercise merely by adjusting the child’s foot position. You can even go beyond bodyweight by adding vests or other extra weight in older children.


Body rows can be done on a wide variety of devices, from straight bars, to rings, to parallel bars. I enjoy pairing body rows with dips. Have your child do a set of dips on the parallel bars, then immediately transition to a set of body rows on the same bars).



For building core strength, nothing beats variety. Planks, crunches, leg lifts, and flutter kicks all work the flexion and stability of the core. For the low back and hinge, bridges are a go-to, surefire exercise. Again, all are scalable, easy to modify, and can be done just about anywhere.



Other Motions

Crawling variations are perhaps some of the best exercises you can have kids do. Not only do they combine strength, coordination, and stability, but they’re also just plain fun, Depending on which surface you use, you can even target different muscles. Here are a few examples of crawling variations to try with your kids:


  • Lie face down on a smooth tile or mat surface, with arms at the sides. Reach the arms up overhead, then pull the arms downward while dragging the body forward. Do not raise the upper body while moving forward. This exercise is a great hit on the lats and a good precursor for pull ups.
  • Bear crawls and alligator crawls can be progressed to wheelbarrow races and other feet-elevated crawls.
  • Military-style low crawls and high crawls can be a great overall workout, and get heart rates super high.



My main warning for crawls is to check your surface for safety and appropriateness. While your children may enjoy doing alligator crawls through wet grass, the person responsible for laundry in the household will most likely want to have a few choice words with you. And nobody enjoys doing low crawls through sand, regardless of what Navy SEAL documentaries you may have watched.


Putting It All Together

I try to engage all of the major motions in one session, with a bit more emphasis on one motion or another (this emphasis will change from session to session). Here are some good examples for lower elementary-aged children. All the exercises use things normally found in many parks or playgrounds:


Emphasis: Push


1. Push ups, knees down: 4 x 20 seconds

2. Bar rows: 2 x 20 seconds

3a. Dip lockout holds, 3x failure (great to work in a challenge aspect here), superset with

3b. Leg raises: 3 x 20

4. Bear crawls: 5 x 20 meters


Emphasis: Pull


1. Body rows on parallel bars: 4 x 15 seconds

2. Planks: 3x to failure

3a. Chin up flexed arm hold: 3x to failure, superset with

3b. Bear crawls: 3 x 20 meters

4. Wheelbarrow race: 3 x 10 meters


These bodyweight workouts could be made even better by adding games, leg exercises, and other things to round out the overall exercise experience.


It’s not that I don’t love weights. On the contrary, I’m a dedicated iron bug. But for children, build the foundation before rushing them onto the barbell. When it is time to put iron in their hands, you’ll find they are better prepared, stronger, and less injury-prone.


Photos courtesy of CrossFit LA.