As a sports-performance professional, I am a firm believer that high school athletes are not offered top-notch training programs to maximize their development. Most of these athletes rely on their high schools to provide them with the best opportunity for individual growth and success within their chosen sport. Since every sport is fundamentally different, the corresponding training regimen should be tailored to suit the demands of the game — a challenge that is hard to deliver at this level of athletics.

By utilizing a comprehensive training model, young athletes must be given the necessary tools for safe and efficient progressions within the weight room. Failing to implement a holistic approach to strength and conditioning is a leading cause of many common high school injuries. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are easily attainable alternatives that can complement the standard high school training experience. One such example is my Four-Year Model, an implementation method that, if followed correctly, can provide an athlete with better competence in the weight room and ingrain the proper movement mechanics necessary to lower the risk of injury.

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The following steps will help augment the preparation and proficiency of a typical high school athlete:

Year One: Preparation – The 9th Grader

Ninth grade is perhaps the most pivotal year for the development of a young athlete. By this age, most have been subjected to some form of strength training. The athlete will likely have a great interest and desire to be in the weight room to develop stronger fundamentals for their sport of choice. But it is essential that each individual is screened for proficiency prior to beginning a program. As a coach, I prefer to use Grey Cook’s Functional Movement System (FMS) to screen my athletes and assess their personal attributes before assigning a regimen.

The challenges for athletes of this age are diverse as the athletes themselves. Each athlete begins with a distinctive developmental range. While some may come in conditioned to train, others may be substantially underdeveloped for their age group. Regardless of inherit talent or lack there of, it is essential to stay the course and encourage them to develop proper habits of strength training and conditioning. Here are a few easy to employ steps for working with an athlete in this grade level:

Goals: Provide the athlete with a foundation of strength and stability from which they can build upon throughout their high school career.

Primary Lift Emphasis: Bodyweight exercises (overhead squat, one leg squat, GHD, pushups, pull ups, and other bodyweight variations).

Secondary Lift Training: Squat technique (front and back), dumbbell bench and shoulder press. Weight should be capped and technique must take precedence over load.

Movement Emphasis: Neuromuscular efficiency, running mechanics, deceleration training and plyometric.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Whitacre

Year Two: Acclamation – The 10th Grader

By year two of this model, the athlete should have a decent foundation of strength. This will allow them to properly execute squats, perform bodyweight pull ups, run with a proper technique, and decelerate from a jump or sprint. Once this foundation is established, the strength and conditioning coach can begin to develop the athlete’s personalized strength assets in the weight room.

Once again, it is vital to use some form of a movement screen before the onset of a training program. So if you are using the FMS screen, you should not allow the athlete to progress in the program unless they have achieve a minimum score of 17 score with no more than one asymmetry.

Goals: Introduce barbell training with the front squat, back squat, deadlift, and bench press.

Primary Lift Emphasis: Front squat, deadlift, back squat, bench press, and pull up.

Secondary Lift Training: Olympic lifting variations (clean grip pulls and hand clean hi-pulls). Mechanics must be close to flawless before a load applied.

Movement Emphasis: Sprint technique, acceleration, and change of direction.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Whitacre

Year Three: Realization – The 11th Grader

Year three is a true turning-point where, as a strength and conditioning coach, your goal should be to dramatically increase the athlete’s strength, muscle growth, and training on a bar to develop strength-speed capabilities. As always, you should still screen your athletes prior to the onset of this program.

Again, it is important to note that weight should never be increased if an athlete is unable to perform a movement proficiently. Progressing before an athlete is ready is negligent and you are putting the athlete in harm’s way.

Goals: Build strength capabilities in primary lifts, fine tune Olympic lifting mechanics, develop speed-strength in the squat and bench.

Primary Lift Emphasis: Front squat, power clean, back squat, bench press, and pull up.

Secondary Lift Training: Hang snatch and push press.

Movement Emphasis: Acceleration, lateral agility and change of direction, top end speed, transitional running and combine testing criteria.

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Year Four: Proficiency – The 12th Grader

By year four, your athlete should be extremely competent in the weight room and should possess the ability to sprint, change direction, and decelerate efficiently. During this year it is important to tailor the regimen towards any specific needs or goals as it pertains to their future athletic endeavors. Again, screening and proper fundamentals are necessary prior to advancement.

Goals: Improve speed-strength and absolute strength capabilities, continue to develop Olympic lifting mechanics, provide the athlete with a college ready body.

Primary Lift Emphasis: Back squat, power clean, front squat, bench press, push press, and pull up.

Secondary Lift Training: Hang snatch and split jerk.

Movement Emphasis: Acceleration, lateral agility and change of direction, top end speed, and transitional running.

Instituting these guidelines when training a high school athlete may not guarantee their overall success within their chosen sport. However, it will sufficiently prepare them for the road ahead by instilling competence, confidence and most of all procedural safety. As a coach, it is your duty to properly prepare your athlete to excel but safeguarding their development is a pivotal step in achieving that success.

Robert Van Valkenburgh is currently the owner of Raw Strength and Conditioning in Denver, CO where he trains athletes of all ages and ability levels. In addition, Robert serves as a consultant to high school athletic programs in need of comprehensive strength, speed, and conditioning programs for all sports. He has coaching experience at the Division 1 level as well as in the private sector at some of the finest training institutions in America.