elitefts™ Sunday Edition

My high school’s weight room couldn’t be uglier. The barbells are bent beyond recognition, dilapidated machines collect dust in a corner, and two thousand students share three benches, a few trap bars, and zero squat racks. However, the athletes who train there make up for the crappy equipment with clear goals and a relentless attitude.

It wasn’t always like this. I spent the entire 2011–2012 school year with the baseball program, implementing the fresh perspective, simple programming, and competitive atmosphere it needed to become competitive again. After winning four consecutive conference championships from 2007–2010, the varsity baseball team finished 11-12 in 2011. Searching for answers, the head coach turned to me for feedback. I believed his players had the skills but lacked the athleticism they needed to compete with the best teams in the state. I explained to him that strength and conditioning are two very different things, and his methods (distance running, stadium steps, and “light weight, high reps”) weren't addressing their needs. I also told him that developing better athletes required a year-round commitment and a significant portion of his practice time, but it would pay significant dividends. He agreed that the players needed to get stronger and faster and allowed me to overhaul the program’s strength training and conditioning.

A variety of challenges emerged as I created an annual training plan. The first was the awful equipment. Despite being the largest high school in the county, the weight room is a converted classroom. Fifteen sports teams are supposed to share the facility, but it barely fits one team at a time. Improving the weight room wasn’t an option because the school didn’t have an active booster club and nearly all the money the baseball program raises goes back into the field, as the team has to provide their own grass seed, dirt, tarps, and other items. In short, the weight room alone wasn’t going to be enough.

My thirty-five athletes needed another option, so I approached the head coach about gathering equipment at the field. For less than $250, we added enough medicine balls, sledgehammers, tractor tires, and Therabands to train an entire team.

The next challenge was writing programs appropriate for the players’ various ages and ability levels. I spent the summer getting to know the players during optional workouts two days a week. Turnout wasn’t great (most players had games four to five nights a week), but it was a perfect opportunity to assess and experiment with exercise progressions, coaching cues, and school equipment. My observations helped me set four training goals for the school year:

  1. Improve mobility: To move safely and efficiently on the field (and perform squat and hip hinge patterns in the weight room), the athletes needed a revamped warmup and ground-based and dynamic mobility exercises in each training block.
  2. Increase strength: Very few players had ever lifted weights consistently and everyone needed to add mass. They needed to regularly practice the barbell lifts and supplement that with heavy doses of body weight exercises, medicine ball throws, tire flips, and sledge hammer strikes.
  3. Prevent shoulder injuries: Due to a long competitive season and no commitment to basic arm care, numerous players possessed a history of overuse injuries and needed help strengthening their rotator cuffs and preventing future injuries.
  4. Learn how to sprint: A weak and immobile team is usually a slow team, and this team wasn't any exception. Replacing long-distance running would help, but they also needed technique instruction and low volume, high intensity speed and agility drills to improve their linear and lateral speed and acceleration.

Another challenge was the players’ academic schedules, as their holiday breaks and final exams fell during key times. To make the most of my time with the team and to take advantage of the equipment available to us, I broke the training plan into four blocks. Each block emphasized my goals in a unique way:

  • Block 1, September and October: Sport practices, GPP
  • Block 2, November and December: Getting strong in the weight room
  • Block 3, January and February: Getting strong and preparing to play
  • Block 4, Mid-February to mid-May: Competitive season

Block 1: September and October

State rules prohibit full-team practices during the fall, so the head coach and I formed six groups of eight players and worked with each athlete one to two times per week. He agreed to ditch his conditioning and give me the final thirty minutes of each practice. Because of my limited time and access to the weight room, I completed the fall training block at the baseball field. In addition to medicine balls and sledgehammers, I borrowed hurdles from the track and field program, spray painted speed ladders in the outfield grass, and used cones as distance markers for speed agility work.

Using our simple equipment, athletes worked in pairs and spent five minutes at each of the following stations:

  • Speed ladder drills: High knees, side shuffles, knee tucks, one leg hops, and ice skaters
  • Sledge hammer strikes against tires: Sets of 10 swings, 60–100 total
  • Mobility work: Stepping over and under hurdles forward, backward, and laterally
  • Medicine ball throws: Backward underhand scoops, chest passes, side tosses, overhead floor slams

I demanded constant competition between partners and challenged them to move more efficiently and explosively every day. If a player wasn’t competing, I sent him home early. At the end of October, I held a contest to see who could complete the speed ladder drills the fastest and throw the medicine balls the furthest. The atmosphere immediately increased the players’ enthusiasm and helped set the tone for block two, when the entire team would train together.

Block 2: November and December

Block 2 was all about getting strong. Holding full-team training sessions with all thirty-five players in a tiny gym presented a whole new set of challenges. The players’ wide array of ability levels didn’t allow me to write a one-size-fits-all plan. Plus, the limited equipment forced me to be creative with exercise selection. Furthermore, various football, basketball, track, and lacrosse players drifted in and out of the weight room on any given day, often more serious about socializing than training.

With these obstacles in mind, I began block 2 by testing every player’s ability to perform push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and one-leg squats to a box. I posted the test results in the weight room for everyone to see, used the data to form two groups, and set simple goals for each player:

  • Group 1: Control own body weight
  • Group 2: Perform barbell lifts

Group 1 consisted of freshmen and severely undertrained or lazy returners. Their goal was to get strong enough to control their own body weight and then exhibit their strength by performing fifty push-ups, seventy-five sit-ups, eight pull-ups, and five one-leg squats. To reach this goal, they performed 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 15 reps, going “all out” on the final set of push-ups, dips, partner assisted pull-ups, one-leg squats (to a box), lunges, trunk twists, step-ups, planks, mountain climbers, and glute ham raises.

Athletes in Group 2 had already met these requirements, so they performed additional barbell exercises. In a typical training session, they performed the trap bar deadlift and bench press, working up to a heavy set of 3 to 5 reps followed by two back-off sets. After the main lifts, they did supplemental exercises like rows, pull-ups, lunges, Romanian deadlifts, and abdominal work.

One month later, I tested members of Group 2 and added a third group. To graduate to Group 3, an athlete had to perform a 1.5 times his body weight bench press, a 2.5 times his body weight trap bar deadlift, and twenty pull-ups. For example, if a player weighed 160 pounds, he had to bench 240 pounds, pull 400 pounds, and perform twenty pull-ups. The goal for the athletes in Group 3 was to further increase maximal strength and power.

Only one player graduated to Group 3 during the winter training block, but I still introduced him to the concept of maximal and dynamic effort training and helped him create a personalized routine based on his own strengths and weaknesses. Did my Group 3 athlete need such a different approach? Probably not, but I wanted the rest of the team to see that reaching this category was special. I made a plaque with his name on it and hung it on the wall. I also put him in leadership positions, like demonstrating exercise progressions, reviewing coaching cues for the bench press and deadlift, leading the general warm-up, and helping me supervise the push-up, sit-up, and pull-up tests.

I used the following template to structure each Block 2 training session:

A. General warm-up
B. Ground-based mobility drills (glute bridges, scorpions, fire hydrants)
C. Medicine ball throws
D. Shoulder prehabilitation, two sets of 12–20 reps of scaption, pull-aparts, and external rotations
E. Strength training
F. Competitive finisher, usually some type of hold for time or farmer’s walk

Players completed parts A—D at the field. After the general warm-up, I broke athletes into three groups and they completed parts B, C, and D simultaneously.

Finishing every training session with a competition was vital to creating the right environment. Keeping the barbell out of the hands of the athletes in Group 1 and posting the test results on the wall for the entire school to view also helped motivate even the least interested players. The athletes from other teams often tried to distract my players, so I made it clear that we were there for one reason—to get strong. I told them to respect the other athletes but to never let anyone stop them from getting their work done. This was difficult for them at first, but they quickly embraced my high expectations and learned that moving more weight than your buddies is more fun than talking to them.

Block 3: Mid-January to mid-February

When pitchers and catchers began practicing in mid-January, I returned to small group workouts. Pitchers, catchers, and position players all followed different practice plans, which meant that I needed to further differentiate their training plans.

The pitchers and catchers spent most of their time in the bullpens and lifted whenever they could, usually once a week. I also had them perform low volume sets of medicine ball throws, agility drills, and short sprints following their throwing sessions.

The players who didn’t pitch or catch spent most of their practice time with me. They performed an abbreviated version of the Block 2 template and then spent thirty minutes or so hitting and throwing at the field. A block three training session for position players looked something like this:

A. General warm-up (including mobility drills)
B. Medicine ball (4 X 4): Standing forward scoops, step behind rotational chest passes, two-step floor slams with crow hops
C. Speed training (3 X 3 each leg/direction): Single leg broad jumps, speed skaters, pro agility shuttles, three-cone drills, Z-drills
D. Shoulder prehabilitation: Same as Block 2
E. Strength training: Same as Block 2 with a slight reduction in volume and no competitive finisher
F. Hitting and throwing

Block 4: Mid-February to mid-May

Due to weather conditions, schedule changes, and varying practice plans, my in-season training block was very fluid. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get even thirty minutes of practice time a week in the weight room, but many players found time to lift during the school day or after practice at a nearby commercial gym. However, I did continue to address mobility and sprint technique during the team’s warm-up at the beginning of each practice. I also replaced nearly all distance running (the head coach wouldn’t let go of his pitchers running poles after their bullpen sessions) with short sprints and agility drills.

The results

Our 2012 season was marginally better than 2011. We finished 13-7 but didn't win the conference and lost in the first round of the state playoffs. My training plan didn’t turn anyone into Mike Trout overnight, but by the end of block, two players were making noticeable gains. When I tested everyone on November 1st, twenty-one athletes fell into Group 1 (body weight exercises only). By December 13th, only ten remained. Furthermore, all Group 2 athletes performed a body weight bench press and a 1.5 times their body weight trap bar deadlift by February 15th.

My head coach also noted that the team ran the bases better than any group he’d worked with. This was due in part to their instincts and decision making, but it isn't any coincidence that replacing distance running with short sprints and agility drills led to better base running.

The most important result was the new training environment that we established. Group 1 athletes found ways to improve their body weight exercises quickly because they were dying to start benching and pulling. Players competed with one another for the top spot on my test results lists and a spot in Group 3. In addition, when the players returned to school this fall, they were excited to tell me about the gyms they had joined, the weight they had gained, and the PRs they had set. Their attitudes had changed.

Though they must continue to improve, the players are one big step closer to reclaiming the conference title and making a run in the state playoffs because they realize that improving their size, strength, and speed is just as important as improving their hitting and throwing.

It didn’t take state-of-the-art equipment or additional practice time to build better athletes. It just took simple exercises performed with a purpose in a competitive environment. With their new attitude and commitment to strength, I expect even bigger things on the field in 2013.