I’m lucky that I get to lift in a gym with eight Olympic-style platforms, bumper plates, a GHR, and a chalk stand. Even better, the people I lift alongside are motivated D-III athletes who follow solid programs that include basic strength and explosive lifts, foam rolling, mobility work, and sensible stability training. After a few years at an increasingly repressive YMCA, being surrounded by people — male and female — who spend most of a session squatting, pulling cleans, and hitting depth jumps is invigorating.

It’s also educated me on how difficult it is for a small college to train its athletes. Even at my tiny high school, the football team was supervised in-season by eight or nine coaches, and off-season by at least a couple. At my current employer, teams are lucky to have two supervising coaches in-season, and any during the off-season. These are team coaches mind you, not strength coaches. We do have a very able S&C coach who has a great rapport with players and knows how to teach lifts. The problem is that he’s also in charge of the whole gym, and so on the days he’s working, he’s spending the bulk of his time making sure the ellipticals are oiled, people rack their plates, and no one puts a barbell through a mirror.

This staffing situation seems to have created several recurring problems with athletes’ gym performance, and also has brought to mind other issues I’ve seen at different gyms. I’ll try to avoid the glaringly obvious items — rounded backs during squatting, chest-caving bench presses, and using lifting belts like bullwhips—and focus more on smaller details.

I lift recreationally, yet I constantly address technique issues in my squat, bench, and deadlift, if only for health reasons. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be lifting any more due to constant pain and injury. Seeing a bunch of young athletes beating themselves up without correction has made me want to address the problems in a public forum where (hopefully) coaches who are already in the thick of things can benefit from an external perspective. If it improves performance, team cohesion, and discipline along the way, I’ll consider it a bonus.

Acute Problems

Poor General Safety

Lifters — young and old, novice and experienced — do dumb things in the gym. A single coach supervising an entire team can’t be expected to make sure that every single sleeve is collared, or that every safety bar is set at an optimal height. The one thing I see that is easily and practically permanently correctable is the use of lousy equipment. What tops my list is what I’ve seen some gyms use for squat boxes. The worst was a box that literally had the width and length of a shoebox. It was so small that you spent more time worrying about hitting it than you did performing a good lift. They were also too tall — every male athlete I saw use one ended up with his hip crease several inches higher than his knees; it was probably a safety precaution to prevent back flexion, a misguided idea at best, as there was still plenty of tail-tucking. Worse, these boxes had a slick, rounded cushion top, slick bottoms, and weren’t heavy enough to stay in place. Put them on a hardwood squat platform, and it was like box squatting on a skateboard. Things got even better when the coaches treated the squat box like a safety device and put their attention somewhere else, so you ended up with the trifecta: potentially dangerous lifts, little athletic carryover, and little or no supervision. And don’t get me started on plastic barbell collars. Coaching is hard enough with the right equipment: there’s no reason to make things harder with lousy gear.

Speaking of coaching, another thing that blows my mind is the “buddy coach.” Now I’m not saying that a coach can’t be friendly with his/her players — honestly, if you aren’t friendly to a degree, you’ll likely blow a lot of chances to become a real mentor and influence on your kids. But if you’ve got a coach who’s goofing off with the guys on the platform, then you have a cancerous safety problem that’s going to influence every athlete in the area. Undisciplined coaches lead to undisciplined athletes, and undisciplined athletes waste their time and get hurt.

Lack of Hip Hinging and Opening

Even with the tall squat boxes I mentioned earlier, the athletes that used them frequently squatted with caved knees and rounded backs. Why? Because they hadn’t been taught to open their hips. Give your athletes four years of practicing loaded valgus collapse three days a week and you’ll end up with a team full of accidental experts in how to tear an ACL. This is really troubling for female athletes who generally have unfavorably wide hips to begin with.

Just as bad is when an athlete tries to get a good squat depth despite their pinched knees, and achieves the lift by rounding their back. Not only does it turn the squat into an unnecessary lumbar extension lift, the technique carries over into deadlifts and Olympic lifts, which reduces their effectiveness in hitting the posterior chain and puts untrained athletes in a spot where they might hit the magic vertebral facet angle that blows out a disc.

Encouraging the Wrong Lift

There’s nothing like competitiveness to stoke a strength program, particularly a program with limited resources or a lack of tradition. As a coach, though, you need to get your athletes fired up for the right lifts. Having your team drop everything to cheer on a guy’s PR bench attempt isn’t a bad thing. Doing that and then having them half-ass their way through squats, cleans, and plyos sends the wrong message and robs them of the lower body development that’s vital to athletic performance.

Overly-Complicated Programming

Strength development in teenagers is rarely limited by programming complexity. It’s limited by recovery, and generally on the part of the athlete in terms of food intake, sleeping habits, and focus. Unless you have enough staff to shadow every lifter, the simpler your program is, the better it’s likely to be. I’ve seen one group of college athletes that were given a lifting plan that progressed from military presses, to push presses, to push jerks on a monthly basis. The athletes were left on their own and ended up doing about three months of identical, uneven presses that were achieved in part through a wobbly full-body undulation. Similarly, medicine ball training is great, unless it turns your athletes into flopping approximations of dolphins ODing on ibogaine.

Macroperiodization — in-season vs. off-season, and the varying degrees between the two — is probably the most important periodized component to keep in mind.

Overly-Complicated Lifts

Every lift is a potential disaster when poor form is involved, though the Olympic lifts seem to be the most-easily abused. The vast majority of student athletes I’ve watched catch their cleans with a vertical forearm and an extended wrist, with the wrist joint absorbing the bar’s force. You’d be right in thinking that the squat that goes with the catch would offset some of the load, though most of these catches are made in a fully-upright position after a straddle hop, with any thought of getting under the bar done as an afterthought well after the actual catch. This technique is generally accompanied by a team coach’s supervision, which leads me to believe the neither the athlete nor the coach understands the problem, although a rapid transition from catch to drop means that even a knowledgeable and attentive coach can miss this at times.

Let’s ignore the obvious acute risk of what happens when a young athlete gets strong enough to move heavy weight and still catches (or has one horrific failed attempt at catching) like this. The athletes doing this are football players and wrestlers who already beat their wrists up just taking falls. They’re also basketball, volleyball, and lacrosse players who won’t enter the game if their wrists are injured or dysfunctional. If any of these students keep up with power-style Olympic lifts, and they never learn that what they’re doing is harmful, they’re asking for long-term articular and laxity issues.

The take home message is to teach a proper catch. If you’re worried about shoulder issues, don’t teach the clean. The clean is just a complicated collection of simpler movements. A jump shrug, KB swing, or high pull grooves the same primary movement pattern and builds the same explosive strength foundation. The depth jump teaches force absorption. And if you don’t have shoulder problems to deal with, the front squat teaches hip/leg extension under load with a tight torso.

Don’t get me wrong: the economy of the clean is a tremendous asset, and it’s a fun lift for athletes — if they can perform it properly. If they can’t, it’s at best inefficient, and at worst an injury machine.

Athletes Lifting to Their Strengths

I’m often hearing things like a skinny kid saying, “Man, I don’t feel like squatting today,” and then walking over to the GHR and knocking out thirty bodyweight back extensions or dangling through a long set of kipping pull-ups instead. The only possible effect these athletes get is lumbar ligament creep. This feeds back into encouraging the wrong thing — sad as it may be, most people don’t like squats and deadlifts. Failing to hold your athletes accountable for doing these lifts shortchanges their development and limits their protection from on-field injury.

On a related note, if you have a team full of athletes who bench what they squat, you have the same problem.

External Influences

When I was in high school, I completely derailed my strength progress. As a chronically undersized lineman, I was desperate to bulk up. While the real problem was that I ate like a bird, the problem in my head was that my training wasn’t enough like a bodybuilder’s. So my junior year I avoided plyos, added more isolation exercises, and reduced my lifting tempo on everything. So I entered my final season small and making up for it by being slow. Though they didn’t take it to my extremes, plenty of my teammates loved curling up and down the rack, and loading 45s on EZ curl bars and then repping out close grip presses on them for their “inner pecs.”

These days, a coach faces two major cultural influences that can throw off young athletes. The lesser one is Mixed Martial Arts. The last thing you need is a football player who has no inclination of ever seriously participating in MMA getting himself in excellent shape for whenever your team runs a play that lasts three minutes and devolves into a rugby scrum. Keep an eye open for guys that are intent on supersetting everything with bodyweight lifts or turning each session into a circuit. They’re sabotaging their strength development in the gym, their sport-specific preparation on the field, and even their targeted metabolic conditioning in practice (particularly for sports like wrestling and basketball.)

Still, the MMA guys are at least interested in sport performance, and the ones that go wild with it are more likely to have the work and recovery capacity to keep the extra work from becoming too big an issue. The larger problem is the rise of the lethargic child. Kids are playing video games instead being of outside, gym classes are getting hammered by parents and budgets, and good nutritional habits are in a state of decline. The amount of remedial training a coach could face (particularly at the high school level) reinforces the need to examine program complexity. For younger coaches, what you did as a child just ten or twenty years ago is markedly different from today’s norm.

Causes and Solutions

Everything I described above is really just a symptom of larger problems. These overarching issues could be coaches’ ignorance/apathy in proper lifting technique, athletes’ ignorance/apathy in the same regard, or a coach being stretched too thin to keep things in order.

So what’s a coach or athletic director to do? First, identify the root problem. If your weight room looks like a clown college because you have coaches in charge who don’t study lifting, then educate them or find coaches who are willing to give a damn. Team coaches and strength coaches should be constantly exchanging information and improving their skill set. There are too many good, easily-accessible workshops and instructional materials out there for ignorance to be an excuse any more.

If your athletes don’t know enough, start from scratch in learning and practicing basic concepts. A high school o-lineman will practice basic blocking steps every day of practice, and a basketball player will do the same with free throws. Why shouldn’t an athlete practice the neutral hip hinge and hip opening just as frequently? Or a properly-tucked push-up? A full lunge? These movements should be rote before an athlete even touches a bar. Also, think about intense pull-out training sessions for your team leaders so that you have extra eyes in the weight room.

If the problem is not having enough coaches to train and supervise everyone, then the correct response is reducing the programming variables. First, eliminate what you can’t quickly fix (or really fix at all). Can’t supervise Olys? Then stop doing them. Do your athletes turn their bench presses into sternum springboard competitions the second you stop watching them? Ban barbell benching. Don’t have enough racks for safe squatting? Stop squatting with weights, find a reasonable substitute, and keep the basic pattern grooved with bodyweight or goblet work. Have one guy that’s a particular knucklehead and won’t listen? Sit him out. You’d pull a player for not running the right play or taking an idiotic shot—why don’t you do the same thing when your player is talking to a friend instead of spotting a teammate on a heavy squat? Nothing stops a bad lifting habit like removing the lift (or the lifter), whether temporary or permanently. Use the time away to retrain and regroove.

Once you’ve done an emergency trim, evaluate your program, athletes and resources. Just a few examples of reasonable questions could be:

  • Does it make sense to teach a small number of technically complex lifts, or a larger number of simpler lifts?
  • Do your athletes have basic strength and body control? Do you have athletes bench pressing when they have a hard time getting five good push-ups?
  • Can you maximize an abundant resource over a less-abundant one, e.g., would it be more efficient to have your players floor pressing in your eight squat racks instead of benching on your three flat benches?
  • Conversely, if you go with an atypical approach (such as emphasizing floor presses), can you turn around your programming in time to prep your next-level athletes for the more routine training they’ll face in college or the pros?
  • Do your main lifts have too many cues that are essential for proper technique?
  • Does your program balance real and potential health problems?
  • Are your lifts and programming matched to the needs of your athletes’ various sports?
  • Are you putting together advanced periodization schemes for kids who can grow for the next five or six years just from looking at weights?
  • Is nutrition a weak link that needs to be addressed?
  • Do you have to reverse a poor training trend from prior years?
  • Are you working with athletes of similar experience and skill, or athletes with varying skill and experience levels?
  • If your athletes will be strength training without supervision at some point, can you structure the workouts so that the unsupervised sessions have the least-complicated lifts?

Whatever the answers to you your questions, they should be in service of creating focused athletes operating in a safe and productive lifting environment. Focused athletes and an attention to health are the foundations of effective strength training, especially among younger athletes. Ensure these factors are achieved, and your athletes will have success under the bar.