As a strength and conditioning coach, I have been blessed to be around many sports like boxing, rowing, football, ice hockey, and even Greco-Roman wrestling. I have learned a lot over the years and have also made a ton of mistakes. Each mistake yielded another learning experience and a little more insight into what the finished product should be; a stronger, faster, more efficient athlete.

Here are six concepts that completely changed my perspective when it comes to designing programs for athletes.

1. Master the Basics Before Implementing Special Exercises

When I learned about Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell Template, I thought that our athletes needed to come in and hit five, three, or one-rep maxes weekly, on every possible derivative of the squat and bench press. I was wrong, as on the testing day, we bombed...BIG TIME! Our technique wasn’t stable with the traditional squat and bench press.

Our athletes looked like train wrecks during squat testing, and it in no way reflected the strength that they truly possessed. The bench press was no better, some athletes were placing the bar around their clavicles when lowering, others on their stomachs, and elbows were flaring. It was a total clusterf*ck.

The solution to this problem was to stick to the basics.

We begin every incoming class (including junior college transfers) with the box squat. We teach the athletes how to spread the floor with their feet, push the hips back, and how to adjust the bar position to put that athlete in the most efficient position for his/her body type.

The athletes also start with the bench press. We teach them how to set their scapulae, place their weight on their upper traps, how to tuck the elbows on the decent, and the importance of driving through the feet when pressing. After all, bench pressing is a total body exercise!

Deadlifting begins with the sumo deadlift, which is easier to learn than the conventional style. One of the biggest weaknesses I find in incoming freshmen athletes is weak hips; therefore, the wider stance benefits them.

As for the programming, after a few weeks of slow progression, we find a rough max and then implement Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 with our first and second-year athletes. The main benefits of 5-3-1 are the ability to teach athletes how to strain with submaximal weights and the opportunity to refine technique before implementing more advanced training methods.

2. Use Training Maxes Instead of Actual One-Rep Maxes

Another problem I have had in the past was when our weights began to creep up to the 90% range, we would start missing reps. This can be attributed to a decline in performance from overreaching, stress (whether it be personal, academic, sport, or training related), or just a lack of technical ability at higher percentages. Once again, using Jim Wendler's wisdom, I solved this problem.

Jim suggests that when using the 5-3-1 program, you take 90% of your one rep max (or repetition max) and use that number as your training max. I have taken this advice and applied it to all our athletes.

I have two main reasons for using the training max:

  1. When testing there is a certain level of arousal involved. On test day, there is incredible competition; often even the sports coaches are present. That means these kids are amped up and want to show not only themselves but also their peers that they have trained harder.
  2. Using training maxes gives a coach incredible flexibility. For example, Athlete A is having a really bad day and it is a 90% training day in which we are performing singles. Ninety percent of their training max may seem like it is truly 90% for athlete A. However, Athlete B, who is doing all the restorative work and is getting the necessary rest, might crush his 90% weight. That tells me we have another 10-15% to play with, and perhaps we may even set a new max that day. This allows the coach to truly specialize the program to each athlete within the principles of that training block.

3. Focus on Training All Types of Strength: Eccentric, Isometric, and Ballistic

Until recently, I only focused on training concentric movements and sometimes used eccentric-less movements via sled dragging and Olympic lifting.

After re-reading Supertraining and seeing Cal Dietz’s presentation on tri-phasic periodization, I began playing around with eccentric, isometric, and ballistic training mini-blocks within our maximal strength blocks. The results of this have been amazing. I discussed these results in my last article, “The Implementation of Tri-Phasic Periodization.”

Eccentric strength is naturally greater than concentric strength. This is important when looking at deceleration (via weights or your own body weight when cutting and stopping or even sitting down). An increase in eccentric strength will also lead to an increase in concentric strength. Training concentric strength alone without stressing the eccentric will not lead to a rise in eccentric strength. So, by stressing this component for short periods, you get an incredible amount of bang for your buck. And you don’t even have to put a bar on your back to get benefit from it.

Isometric strength is another component that is extremely important for sprinting, cutting, and stopping. When evaluating a running back in football, he is engaging his isometric strength when he lowers his hips into a cut (eccentric action) and stops for that very brief moment. If isometric strength is not up to par, that cut will take longer, and he may not have the opportunity to break off for a big play. There are many ways to train isometric strength. You can even use isometric holds as part of the warm-up to wake up the central nervous system.

Ballistic training is the third component of our tri-phasic blocks. During this period, we will implement different forms of depth jumping and anything that causes the stretch reflex to kick in so that we can maximize the training effects of this block. Keep in mind you can do extended blocks for this type of training. In fact, we do that for some of our more advanced athletes that have the maximal strength required but have a speed deficit (strength level is present but speed and power numbers aren’t).

During these ballistic blocks, you can program using straight sets or timed sets (all sets UNDER 10 seconds) for three to five work sets.

NOTE: If your athletes cannot control themselves during ballistic movements (evaluate body position/posture), there is still an eccentric or isometric deficiency, meaning those attributes must be trained for longer.

Below are some exercises I use to improve eccentric and isometric strength and some ballistic training methods we utilize. Throw these in your program over the next few months and see what happens. Odds are you are increasing a form of strength you have lost over time.

Deficit Front Squat Reverse Lunge with six-second Eccentric

Banded Deficit Backward Lunge with six-second Eccentric

Isometric Deadlift Hold

Sumo Deficit Deadlift with Isometric Hold

Dumbbell Walking Pause Lunge with Band Resistance (three-second hold)

Drop Push-ups

Reactive Romanian Deadlift

Reactive Glute Ham

Oscillating S-L Lunge

Oscillating 1 Arm Row

Oscillating Bench Press

4. Concentrated Loading

Up until the 2009 school year, I had used either a typical linear periodization scheme or the Westside Barbell Template when programming the strength portion of my programs. The conditioning aspect was an afterthought and often a mix of different training I had seen implemented when working under other coaches.

Then for the football off-season of 2010, I sat down with my former assistant, Joe Grachen, and we mapped out our entire year in a block training format. Block training has been used by European countries and the former Soviet Union since the mid-70s (covering this would be an entire article in itself).

The over-arching theme is that rather than training several qualities at one time, you pick two to three compatible qualities and train those at a very high level before moving on to the next. These qualities merge, and the athlete’s preparedness for their sport seems to maintain for a longer time. The athletes are very good at what the sport demands, rather than being good at everything.

For football, we spend very little time during the training year in a heavily glycolytic environment; instead, we stress the alactic system (three-14 seconds in duration) and the aerobic system. The end result of this training was that we didn’t condition in-season until Week 10, and our athletes still were able to maintain their conditioning level up until that point.

Training Block Sample

Below is a breakdown of the basic training block types I use for my sports teams (keep in mind; all the teams I currently work with are involved in speed/power sports).

Type of trainingTraining IntensityTime of sessionRest Between setsNumber of sets
Alactic/Anaerobic PowerMaximum 7 to 10 seconds2 to 5 minutes 5 to 6
Alactic/Anaerobic CapacityMaximum7 to 10 seconds30 seconds to 1.5minutes10 to 12
Lactic/Anaerobic PowerHigh20 to 30 seconds6 to 10 minutes3 to 4
Lactic/Anaerobic CapacityHigh40 to 90 seconds5 to 6 minutes10 to 15
Aerobic Power Max VO230 seconds to 2.5 minutes30 seconds to 3 minutes10 to 15
Aerobic CapacityMax VO21 to 6 minutes1 to 6 minutesmore than

5. Be Flexible

In the past, I have been willing to radically change off-season programs with little concern for what had happened in previous years because I wanted to try the next best thing. I thought that the best program out there was the one that you aren’t currently doing. Now that I'm a little older and wiser, I try to ensure that my methods fit the proper training blocks.

At Southeast, we use all avenues of training: Olympic lifting, powerlifting, high-intensity training, submaximal weights, maximal weights, bands, chains, fat grips, etc. The key is ensuring that the methods fit the goal of the training block. Personally, I do not use Olympic lifting unless we are in the midst of a speed/power block or coming into one (to fix technique issues).

As for maximal weights, we aren’t using them unless we are in a maximal strength block. During those blocks, I will use bands and chains to increase the intensity of the exercise further.

I have increased the usage of timed sets during our speed and power blocks to spur competition and increase our relaxation/contraction rate. All in all, there is a time and place for everything, just not everything simultaneously.

Here is an exercise we began using with some of our more advanced trainees:

Band Assisted Jumps

They aim to create an enormous shock on the central nervous system, like depth jumps. As you can see from the video, these jumps can be incredibly competitive and is a great example of staying within your principles (speed block for the case of these athletes) yet thinking outside the box.

6. Account for Stressors When Programming

Everything should be accounted for when evaluating stressors. The body only knows stress, which can occur from class, training, practice, games, lack of rest, and personal life. I think we have all been through periods when our training has suffered due to a family death or problems with our significant other. It is those times that you should take a step back and realize you are not at your best. Do what you can but come back to fight another day.

When counting stresses, evaluate the game and let that guide you. Let’s say that your defense averages 90 plays during a game. That is 90 separate stresses that occur, so your training should reflect 90 stresses during a workout. That means that every rep of speed work is a stress, every rep of your aerobic work, and every set (including warm-ups) of your weight training program, is a stress. That, in my mind, is the essence of sport-specific training. Your training should match the demands of the sport when it comes to stress, joint angle, and specificity (sled pushes for linemen, weighted speed sled drags for running backs, etc.).

Leave a message below if you have any questions.

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Jeff Lee is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Oldham County High School. He formerly was the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Southeast Missouri State University. He owns Monstrousitous Strength and Performance.

SWIS 2023