There's a lot of confusion out there regarding how high school athletes should be training and in this article I'm going to clear a lot of the BS up. For the highly motivated you can and should invest in your knowledge through my Encyclopedia of Underground Strength & Conditioning and through my 16 week online program, High School STRONG.
You might be angry already saying, "WTF Zach, first thing you do is tell me to buy something!!!???"
My answer: NO. The First thing I tell you to do is INVEST in your knowledge.
The moment you are "good enough" or believe you have all the answers is the moment you need to step DOWN as a Coach. That is 1 of the BIG problems we have in America, too many Coaches saying "We always did it this way....." and refusing to get better.
The right people will read this article and the wrong doers out there will continue to let their egos drive them while they say to themselves, "We already do all that stuff."
You'll note before hand that the losing teams tend to have the worst coaches who train the wrong way and vice versa. So if you're a Coach and your team has a losing record, PAY ATTENTION.
Living in America, our system is backwards compared to overseas countries which makes things even tougher in the states to develop great athletes.
The wrong training leads to injuries, burn out and athletes never achieving what they could have under proper guidance & great coaching.
In overseas countries, the top tier Coaches begin at the youth level which is the opposite of America.
These Coaches build the athletes up gradually with age appropriate sports technique and physical preparation (in America known as Strength & Conditioning).
The developmental years of overseas athletes are ALL general in nature:
- The athlete plays multiple sports
- The athlete develops multiple sports skills because they all carry over to one another and build the mind and body for the future
- The sports coach is also the physical preparation coach aka Strength & Conditioning Coach
- As the teenage years arrive, the young athlete is moved towards the sport he / she is best suited for physically, mentally and genetically
In America we have uneducated parents telling people that their 10 year old superstar on the football field will be playing for Notre Dame, Alabama, Aubun, etc. Or they brag about their 10 year old who has won 4 state titles in wrestling......
The Parents are another problem who think they know it all.
In a few states across the country, there are states that have highly qualified Strength & Conditioning Coaches placed in the high schools, such as a Georgia & South Carolina. Some states have High School S & C Coaches but unfortunately some of those positions are filled because of:
- friends of friends
- former athlete who played Football at the same school so he gets the in
- Admin confused with an athlete being a D1 stand out for having the ability and knowledge in physical preparation to coach up athletes so said athlete who just graduated college gets the job
So, before this becomes a RANT, let me drop some knowledge for those who CARE.
The state of overall physical fitness among high school athletes is at an all time low.
Athletes are injured before high school even begins due to overuse and 16-17 year old varsity athletes often struggle to perform 1 solid push up, 1 pull up and 1 bodyweight squat. Looks like a BROKEN "system" to me!
The parents of these athletes are duped and confused by fads and gimmicks and so their child jumps from 1 training center to the next hoping to find the holy grail that will turn little Johnny into the next NFL draft pick at age 21.
These struggling athletes are the same athletes you see performing "Max Out Week" and back squatting, power cleaning and benching in school.
Houston, we have a problem.
Let's work to fix this because the motto is simple: The Kids Are # 1.
If it doesn't help the athlete, do NOT do it.
Rule # 1 is borrowed from Dan John: DO NO HARM.
From there, let me kick off some simple and effective tips to implement into the schools or into your gym / weight room if you train high school athletes.
Rule # 2) Communicate with the middle school coaches & PE staff and build a "foundations program" that middle school athletes can begin using bodyweight exercises and light dumbbells. Teachers should leverage technology and share this info with the students via social media, Health & PE classes and the web as a whole. Get this info to the parents as well, preferably as a small packet printed out so parents can read and have access to.
- Utilize bodyweight exercises, light resistance bands, light dumbbells, sled (you can make them from tires) and create levels to motivate athletes to strive to these levels.
These introductory Exercises could be made / built into to a record board in a gym to encourage athletes to progress. If you don't use a record board, then have standards posted somewhere so the athletes are striving to become better on a regular basis.
You can certainly have a record board for boys and girls on these basics:
push ups / pull ups / 400 meter run / vertical jump / med ball throw (12 lbs) / 60 second burpee test / broad jump.
These are just SOME samples and you don't need to include them all on the record board, but definitely use this record board in some form as it inspires athletes to aim higher.
Rule # 3: Create a baseline program for incoming freshman. This program transitions them through the middle of 8th grade through the summer prior to 9th grade. I recommend that Coaches take action and hold an assembly at the school inviting the parents. Record the seminar and leverage through technology to educate parents.
If you are NOT a qualified Strength & Conditioning Coach, leverage the local expert S & C Coach and work together.
This program should build them UP to the basic barbell exercises. And still, not ALL athletes become ready to do power cleans and back squats.
We'll see exercises such as goblet squats, lunges, steps ups, various carries with dumbbells / kettlebells sandbags, sled drags, calisthenics and plenty of band work. These movements will build the muscles, ligaments, tendons and of course proper technique and proper understanding of body positions.
There are a LOT of mobility issues that often need to be corrected for barbell lifts such as squats and power cleans. That being said.....
Rule # 4: Understand proper progressions and regressions in the weight room.
NOT every athlete will back squat due to weak muscles or poor mobility. Some will goblet squat. Some will box squat. Some will NOT squat at all, they will Just do a lunge variation. Don't get so caught up in "Everyone MUST do XYZ exercise". The goal is to have sports carry over.
The athletes we train are not benching or squatting the most BUT we sure as heck see our athletes achieving very high success in a large variety of sports. If this doesn't make sense to you then read my chapter on NOT being "Strong & Useless" inside The Encyclopedia of Underground Strength.
I've seen MANY "Gym Strong" athletes who are slow on the field, always complaining, not mentally tough, not explosive and not durable. Focus on performance, not just the numbers. Understand how to regress & progress every exercise.
Rule # 5: Movement Warm Ups. Get your athletes moving. Build coordination, speed, power, strength & overall athleticism into your warm up. I always tell Coaches that if ALL we did was implement our warm up followed by 1 "Main Lift" these athletes would be far ahead of the competition.
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Rule # 6: Unilateral Training is a MUST. Athletes are showing up with injuries and imbalances that we once never saw much of say 10 years ago. The past few years we must correct more imbalances and utilize more unilateral work for BOTH upper and lower body work than ever before.
Place unilateral work into your warm up AND your training sessions.
Rule # 7: Bodyweight Proficiency. If you follow the earlier tips, your youth athletes will focus on bodyweight work and show up in high school WAY ahead of the competition. I would give sample bodyweight workouts to your athletes to perform at home on their own to develop greater independence and ownership over their preparation.
Create a packet or mini book or a web site that has this set up for them. In a world of technology, Educators must leverage technology to communicate with athletes and parents.
Rule # 8: Build the Champion Lifestyle into The Overall Training Plan. Most of the athletes we train at The Underground Strength Gym get here 2 or 3 x week. On top of that, they have sports clubs to attend or they are multi sports athletes. The time outside of the gym can either ruin the training or make the training.
Here is a short list of these make or break factors.
- Consistency in training and overall Champion lifestyle
- Sports Skills
- Eating habits
- Lifestyle / Rest / Recovery Methods
- Self Motivation
- Goal Setting & Follow Through
- Mindset / Mental Toughness
- Physical Capabilities
- Parental Support
- The Sports Coach Level of Coaching
There are MANY factors. MANY. The above list is just some of the factors that support or hinder the success of an athlete / sports team.
Athletes, Coaches and Parents must Pay attention to them ALL and they WILL only if The Sports Coach is a LEADER. We need Leaders in the Coaching sphere.
Rule # 9: Do NOT be a slave to the methods or the numbers.
Just because you LOVE powerlifting or strongman or Kettlebells or Weightlifting does NOT mean this is what the athletes get.
The athletes need what they need, NOT what you love.
That sounds confusing, so, that essentially means that 1 group of athletes might be ready for Power Cleans and Back Squats while the other group might need dumbbell clean and press and goblet squats because THAT is where they are now and that's the smartest, safest and most effective method for THAT athlete.
Don't force an athlete to fit the program, fit the program to meet the athlete's needs.
Regarding the numbers:
Why are high school athletes maxing out every month on the squat, clean and bench press?
Are we unable to think for ourselves?
You can test athletes by tracking their numbers on MANY lifts.
You don't need a 1 rep max. There are MANY "Max Tests".
There are MANY apps and software programs where Coaches can track lifts.
I use Wodify.
I can see progress across the weeks, months and years. I don't need to wait for "test week" and then let my athletes do half squats, round back - jumping jack - jack crap "power cleans".
I've had MANY athletes "test their Squat" and hit 315 - 365 yet the squat 165 with us. I can't imagine what the 365 squat looks like. Go back to Rule # 1: DO NO HARM.
Rule # 10: Technique is # 1
If it was a half squat, a half rep bench, a round back jumping jack "power clean" that is a "NO Rep".
Build discipline into technique first & foremost.
Anything less than GREAT technique should be refused and unacceptable.
Rule # 11: Leave 1 Rep in The Tank
Teach athletes NOT to go into the "I don't know if I can do this rep" with the BIG lifts such as back squats, cleans, benching.....
High School athletes are NOT advanced lifters. They don't have the physical OR mental readiness to lift like a competitive powerlifter or weightlifter.
They also do NOT understand what I describe as "the art of the grind rep".
High School athletes get scared under the grind and will dump a bar in a dangerous manner when an advanced lifter will grind AND maintain technique to finish the rep.
Technique = Strength and vice versa.
In addition, MOST Coaches never teach safe and proper spotting technique in case something does go wrong. I've seen high school athletes spot and I call this "the death sentence spot" where they use 1 finger while their partner maxes out at 255 lbs on the bench, or, they fear getting close to their partner when spotting the squat.
I would spend time as a Coach REALLY teaching spotting techniques and then creating a chain of command where upper classmen teach and help the under classmen so there is a team working together in training vs every man for himself.
Rule # 12: Train Year Round.
The biggest mistake is getting stronger and faster leading up to the season then stopping all lifts in season.
Can you get strong and fast with OUT training for it?
The END of the season is when championship games / events are held, often times the healthiest athletes / teams succeed here and in season training keeps athletes healthy, strong, fast and confident.
Skip those in season workouts and you now have a less confident, slower, weaker and more susceptible to injury athlete / team.
Rule # 13: Cut The "Sports Specific" Bull Shit
Sports Specific is the sports skills. Period.
Almost All training at the high school level will be generalized, and from there, the advanced lifters can receive "general specific" training.
Advanced lifters are different than Advanced athletes. I've seen Olympians have NO clue how to perform basic bodyweight exercises.
There will be tweaks made in season for each sport to ensure healthy joints to avoid overuse injuries as well. There will be tweaks made to keep the athletes healthy, strong and hopefully, peaking at the right time of the season (usually the end of the season).
Some sports require more skill work to be honed in during the off season.
I've found that wrestlers need to attend wrestling clubs and build their skills up while Football Players can receive a greater carry over just from weight room. I STILL encourage field athletes to play another sport.
Our most successful Football players would often play pick up Basketball games on the regular which was their "speed & agility" training. Nowadays unfortunately I hear that "The Football Coach won't let me wrestle...." and other threatening type of BS.
Our Basketball players keep up with their skill work in the off season to blend their strength gains with their skills. Same with our Baseball players.
Our best Football players would Wrestle to develop greater toughness, hand fighting skills and overall athleticism. Many of Our Wrestlers who play Football get meaner with the tackling on the field.
In the weight room, you are strengthening the muscles used in sports.
Do not turn the weight room into a circus of "sports specific" BS.
Rule #14: CARE.
I can't teach you to care. You either GENUINELY CARE about the success of the athletes or you don't.
If you DO care, then the tips I just posted will excite you and fire you up.
If you don't care you likely never read this far anyway & I truly believe Coaches who don't care should step down and let someone who cares take over 🙂
Post your comments / questions below.
Live The Code 365