High School Happenings

TAGS: Doug Berninger, high school, sport, strength training

It has come to my attention that many high schools are underserved in the strength and conditioning department. I recently went back to my old high school to observe the football team and find out what the coaches know (or don’t know) about training. It wasn’t pretty. It was if I was walking into every college recreation center in the nation. The first thing I saw when I walked into the field house was the entire group of players benching. Not only were they benching, but they were maxing out! Are you kidding me?!

The first kid I saw benching almost lifted his entire body off the bench to get the weight up. Then he jumped for joy afterward because he believed it was a good lift. Wrong! I told him what he was doing wrong as he glared at me from the other side of the room. I then asked the players if they had done lower body the day before. The response was, “Yeah, but we do full body each day so we'll do squats after we’re done benching.” I thought, “Wait a minute…” I explained to them why they should be squatting before they bench and told them to meet me at the squat rack when they were finished.

They already had 225 pounds on the bar left by whoever had used it last and hadn’t taken the time to unrack the weights. I was curious as to what would occur if I stripped the bar. I did and then waited. Not surprising to me, the first kid to come to the rack loaded two 45-pound plates on one side before I questioned him. “What are you doing? Did you warm up yet? Or is your first warm-up set 225 pounds?”

I explained to him that he would benefit greatly from starting his warm up with lighter weight and that 225 pounds was very close to his ‘true’ maximum, so starting with it wasn't a good idea. He told me that his max was 365 pounds. This is when I couldn’t help but laugh to myself because this kid was no more than 145 pounds soaking wet. I asked him to show me his squat with 135 pounds on the bar. He pulled a box into the rack with him that allowed him to get to approximately 45–50 degrees knee flexion. Again, I laughed inside. I pulled out the box and told him to try and do a full squat. He didn't like this very much, but I explained that he would get a lot stronger if he did them this way and would save his knees in the process.

I laughed at these kids, but I really didn’t expect to see what I did. The long overdue point is that many high schools around the country are in this situation and more of us need to step in and help where we can. This was my old high school, so I thought I might help out a little while I was home for a weekend. Many of you can do the same with your old stomping grounds. I don't blame the kids for what they were doing. I was doing the same thing when I was in that stage of my life. I don't even really blame the coaches. They could do a better job of educating themselves, but these are coaches who have other full-time jobs on top of coaching.

As professionals in strength and conditioning, I think many of us—myself included—need to do more to help our communities with knowledge about training. This could be as little as sending an informative email with sources of good information to your local coaches or actually making a visit and working with the young athletes. Either way it will be better than the alternative.

Here’s a list of what I believe to be essential to an effective strength and conditioning program including what components should be a part of these programs and how to implement them:

1. Assessments (pre- and post-)
Whether an athlete is coming in for the first time ever or he is a returning player at the beginning of another season, you must assess where he stands with various physiological, anatomical, and performance traits. For coaches who don't know much about this, it might be a good idea to purchase Gray Cook's Functional Movement Screen items. Andrew Paul also has a great two-part article on his approach to a modified assessment protocol that suits his needs.

The assessment process helps the coach find an athlete's strength and flexibility imbalances. It also helps the coach prevent future injuries that would occur as a result of these imbalances. After all, if the coach finds these imbalances, he can prescribe the appropriate program to fix the problem areas. The performance areas that need to be assessed will depend on the sport in which the athletes are participating and that sport's physiological requirements.

Here’s an example of a testing battery for football after an appropriate warm up:

Broad jump, vertical jump, 40-yd dash, pro-agility, power clean for 1–3RM, squat for 1RM, bench press for 1RM, and deadlift for 1RM

This is a lot for one day, so it can be broken into two testing days for better results. The same movements for both the functional movement screen and the pre-tests should be done at the end of the season as a post-test as well. They could even be done during the season at some point. This is a good idea if the strength coach wishes to evaluate his program's effectiveness at different stages throughout the entire season. We all know tracking progress is a big part of the game. In doing so, this allows us to evaluate if any changes need to be made to our programs.

2. Warm ups
Warming up could possibly be one of the most important components of a program. This includes warm ups before any activity has begun and warm ups for specific lifts. Warm ups are essential for doing exactly as they are aptly named—warm up the muscles. This makes the muscles that are to be used in activity more pliable and able to withstand repeated, high force contractions. Warming up also allows the joints to move in a greater range of motion once the muscles become loose. Greater ranges of motion between joints benefit the athletes because it allows them to move in positions they couldn’t reach in a cold state.

There are two types of warm ups—general and specific. General warm ups are those that are performed before beginning any other activity. These can be done with many different exercises because we just want to get the blood flowing and the muscles warm (as stated above). It is a good idea to perform movements that involve the muscles and joints targeted for the exercises prescribed on that specific day. For example, a great way to start a training session and something we do frequently at Synergy Sports and Performance is to perform what we call the hip circuit. This circuit includes hip circles (forward and backward) and hydrants. We also like to do clams and glute bridges.

Bret Contreras is well known for his glute activation techniques. I highly recommend that you read any articles he has written on the subject. Once you're finished with the hip circuit, you can move on to other general movements such as spiders (the world's greatest stretch), sumo squats, butt kickers, and others. The main thing is that the athletes move dynamically and all the joints and muscles that are to be used following the warm up are targeted. The movements I described are types of dynamic stretches. Before activity, dynamic stretching has proven to be more effective than static stretching. Static stretching is said to reduce the amount of force that a muscle can produce by way of a reduction of musculotendinous stiffness (Samuel, 2008). Therefore, it isn't a good idea for athletes to static stretch before activity if force production is required.

Specific warm ups are those that are performed before getting to the working sets of a lift. It is important that progressions of weight aren’t rushed too quickly or taken too slowly. If there are too few warm up repetitions performed before the working sets, the central nervous system (CNS) may not be ready to perform up to par (recruitment may be slow to respond). If there are too many warm up repetitions done before the working sets, the CNS may be too exhausted or there may not be enough ATP generation to complete the working sets.

Be smart with warm up sets. It will take some playing around before you know what is good for you. Everyone is different, and even your body can change how many warm up sets are needed from day to day. Just make sure you listen to your body!

3. Balanced training program
As I’ve said, I believe many high school programs in this country are sorely lacking a good program. Not only are they lacking a “good” program, but some may not have a set program at all. I know my school didn’t. How can you have the athletes just coming in and doing whatever they want and expect to do well or even prevent injuries from occurring? Having a balanced training program is dire to being successful in sport. This idea of a balanced training program means that all the ducks are lined up. The program involves all areas of performance and recovery.

Here’s a list of components that a balanced training program should have as well as why it’s important to include these components.

a. Assessments: Mentioned above.

b. Warm ups and movement preparation: Mentioned above.

c. Speed and agility: It’s important to include these components to ready the athlete for competition and develop those skills necessary to perform at a high level. These skills may include cutting, jumping, backpedaling, and sprinting. These are the types of movements many athletes become injured by performing. If we can have them perform these in a controlled environment at first and then progress to an open environment, we reduce the risk of injury. This is because their movement patterns to perform these specific movements become second nature. They are performing these movements regularly, not just lifting weights all the time. Lifting is just one component of the overall scheme.

d. Lifting: This is obviously one of the most important components of the program. Without this component, athletes wouldn’t be able to develop the appropriate levels of strength and power necessary to perform at higher levels of competition. Whatever program template is used (Smolov, 5/3/1, conjugate, German volume, Sheiko), you must make sure that every muscle group is worked. I’m not saying that muscle groups should be trained like bodybuilders because I don’t believe in that type of training for athletes. I believe movements have to be trained, but while training movements, each muscle group should be worked to an extent. I like to call this the “no muscle left behind” method of training. I'm not sure if anyone has coined that title yet, but I find it to be a good fit.

Agonists and antagonists (opposite muscle groups) should be trained equally. For example, you should train the quadriceps and the hamstrings equally so that a strength imbalance doesn’t occur. Again, this is where injuries become more prevalent. Problem areas (areas that are often injured) of specific sports should be targeted. We often see hamstring problems in many sports, usually because of a strength or flexibility issue.

Another problem area is the back. Obviously, this is an area of the body that can’t be taken for granted. Eric Cressey wrote a great two-part article on titled "Low Back Savers." See part one and part two. Also, any work done by Dr. Stuart McGill is a must readpart one because of his expertise on this subject.

With lifting comes the ultimate possibility of volume and mixing sets and repetitions. “How many sets and reps of this exercise?” you may ask. It all depends on the sport and time of year. Are you in-season? Pre-season? Off-season? I've seen coaches have their athletes perform what would normally be an off-season program during the season. This isn't a good idea because in-season work should be devoted toward more skill sessions and less lifting/training sessions. In other words, more time should be devoted to skill development during the season and less time spent on strength/power development. The in-season is more of a maintenance phase in this regard. I believe more sport coaches need to understand this aspect of training.

I also think it’s necessary to mention the weightlifting movements of the snatch, clean and jerk, and their variations. These are explosive lifts that, if performed properly, can develop very powerful athletes. Many coaches don’t use these lifts because they claim they take too long to teach, but I can assure you that if you have a qualified, knowledgeable coach come in and help out, it won't take more than 20–30 minutes to teach the basics. I urge you to at least contemplate using some of these lifts in your program. You won't regret it!

In the September 2009 issue of MILO, former Olympic team weightlifting coach, Jim Schmitz, wrote a great article titled, "Twenty Reasons for Doing Olympic Style Weightlifting." It's a great read and very informative. Check it out if you're still skeptical on using these lifts in your program. I shouldn't have to mention the powerlifting movements because these are what most coaches use in their programs. These movements should definitely be used as the base of the program, especially if used during a strength cycle.

Technique: This can’t be overlooked. Technique is a huge part of how athletes become better. We can call this movement efficiency. Basically, this is when an athlete's muscle physiology becomes more adept at performing. The same movements can be made with less effort and less energy expenditure, saving energy for other movements.

Dr. Michael Yessis provides a further explanation of movement efficiency in his blog. Not only will improved technique help performance, but it will also help prevent injury. By being in the correct position, the athlete shifts the stresses of the weight to the correct areas of the body that can handle the said stresses, limiting potential injury. Another point worth mentioning is the quality of a repetition. Yes, I'm talking about each repetition in the program. I talk about this later, but every repetition should be treated as its own set. This way concentration and technique are high and risk of injury is low.

Flexibility and mobility: Mentioned below.

Conditioning: Mentioned below.

Recovery: Mentioned below.

Details: Paying attention to the small things is what separates the champions from the rest of the pack, so to speak. From time to time, a coach will have a few athletes who are just "not feeling it" on that particular training day. The coach must allow these athletes to deviate from the scheduled plan a little. This way they can bounce back from whatever is bothering them, physically and psychologically. A few days of rest or a lighter work load could mean the difference between the worst and best performance of an athlete's career. This is part of monitoring all of the athletes' day to day conditions, which is a good way to make sure none of them fall into a state of overtraining or burnout. These cases are fairly rare, but they can and do happen. Remember, it never hurts to ask how your athletes are feeling on a daily basis. You just have to trust that they will be honest with you.

Personal equipment: It’s generally difficult to prescribe programs that utilize more expensive equipment or equipment bought in bulk to those schools that can't afford it. However, it is much more affordable to ask that individuals buy their own equipment. This equipment may include knee sleeves/wraps, lifting shoes, wrist wraps, lifting straps, chalk, and tape. You get the idea. In the long run, it is much more affordable this way.

4. Proper progressions
You’ve all seen this happen, but I'll paint the picture. Dan comes in with a friend, Josh, and they are squatting. Dan has never squatted a day in his life, and Josh has been squatting for over two years. They immediately put 135 lbs on the bar without any type of warm up. Now, Josh doesn’t have any problem with this, but Dan has never worked so hard in his life.

This is what should have happened—Dan and Josh come in and perform a general warm up for about ten minutes after which they perform a specific warm up of squats. This is where they deviate because Dan is so far behind Josh. Josh should be teaching Dan how to squat with body weight, progressing to a stick and then to the bar. This is all before adding any weight. Josh would then perform his specific warm up squatting with the bar and then adding weight as his warm ups progress. In the meantime, Dan is still getting the basic movement pattern down with the empty bar.

Big weight will come, but athletes have to realize that they must be able to properly perform the movement before they add massive amounts of weight to the bar. Progressing in this nature will not only help motor function but will also provide another way to stave off injury. Progressions don’t always have to be with the same exercise either. Maybe an athlete's goal is to be able to learn the proper flat bench technique, but he’s never done any kind of bench work. You might use a progression such as push-ups, barbell floor press, and barbell bench presses. There are really no set progressions that have to be used because every person learns at a different rate and by different methods. Therefore, you can be as creative or simple as you want as long as the athlete is able to come to his final goal.

5. Specific conditioning
This is an important topic to discuss because so many coaches these days use conditioning as punishment. Remember, activity depends on what energy system an athlete is primarily utilizing. If all the energy systems are tapped because the team had to run gassers for the first part of practice, how can a coach expect his players to perform at their best? I believe other forms of punishment should be used so as to not affect performance in practice and game situations.

On another note, I say "specific conditioning" because that is what conditioning needs to be—specific. Specific to the sport being played. If a football play lasts an average of 3–5 seconds, why would a coach have his players running around the track for long periods of time at a slow pace nonetheless? I’ve actually seen and have been a part of this type of absurd conditioning! This isn’t specific at all! Those players might as well trade their pads in for some track shorts and run the mile. What I'm getting at is that in order to develop the energy systems used for that specific sport (football = ATP and creatine phosphate), you must have the athletes performing the activities that specifically utilize these systems.

Rest is also a key factor in developing these systems. A work to rest ratio of 1:4–5 is generally used for sprinting activities in order to regain the energy substrates needed for the next sprint. In order to improve overall conditioning, the rest can be manipulated (shortened). In this way, the athlete is working harder but still utilizing the primary energy system the most. Whatever kind of conditioning you choose, make sure it matches the time and speed at which the sport is played. Also, make sure the rest periods are appropriate to what you’re trying to accomplish (improved work capacity versus speed/agility/acceleration).

6. Recovery
Recovery is such a huge component of a training program and it could have its own week of articles. Recovering from prior training allows the athlete to work harder in the present training session. This leads to greater intensity, enhancing the impact of adaptation for that specific training session. Recovery weeks (deload weeks) should also be scheduled to allow the athlete to recover before beginning new phases of higher intensity training.

There are many types of recovery methods known today. Some may work better for person A than person B. As in training, people recover differently as well. Again, this is something individuals must play with to find out what works best for them. Some of these methods include ice baths, water contrast therapy, analgesics, ART, massages, compression clothing, and many more. For more information, consult Bishop and colleagues who wrote an interesting review article on recovery from training.

7. Concentration and awareness
This is a big pet peeve of mine and should be for most coaches. Here’s the scenario—you have an athlete who comes in for training and every five minutes he walks over to check his phone. Really?! Not only is this distracting to his training and progression, but it is distracting to his teammates as well. This activity shouldn’t be allowed in any training facility. Cell phones should be checked at the door so as not to get in the way of valuable time that the athletes could be using to adapt to hard training.

Athletes need to concentrate on every rep of every set. Reminding athletes that every rep counts helps their overall development and technique to execute exercises. If they start to drift off and just go through the motions, their risk of injury vastly increases.

The athletes need to be aware of what is happening around them. This is especially important if the training facility has weightlifting platforms where weightlifting movements (snatch and clean and jerk) are being performed. Many, many times, I’ve seen younger athletes walk right across the side of a platform while another was getting ready to lift with bar in hand. This amazes me! What could possibly be going through their mind to think “I could just cut right through here...they won't mind.”

It isn’t so much an etiquette thing (even though it really is) as it is a safety issue. This is extremely dangerous, especially if the bar is loaded heavier and the lifter happens to catch the person walking across the platform while in the middle of the lift. It is dangerous for both parties, and this is something that can definitely be avoided. Safety should always be kept in mind in all facets of training!

8. Flexibility
I will touch on this briefly. I believe flexibility is important to keep the range of motion appropriate for most athletic movements and keep muscle imbalances at bay. Many of us know that if one muscle is tight, its antagonist will shut down. The most popular occurrence is that of tight hip flexors causing the glutes to weakly contract. For situations such as this, stretching must be done. However, if an athlete doesn’t feel tight anywhere and doesn’t show signs of tightness in movement screens, I believe full range of motion (ROM) movement and foam rolling can keep flexibility levels relatively stable.

9. Proper nutrition
This topic is a no-brainer for most of us. To continue to progress performance, the athlete must be consuming the correct foods (and the correct amounts). Too many times, I’ve seen high school athletes eating garbage for their pre-game or pre-training meals. It isn’t a preference for most of them but just a habit because most don't know any better. If they were more knowledgeable in the subject, they would make a better attempt to consume smarter foods. As coaches, we can sit the team down and educate them on what and what not to eat before training and games as well as after these events. Always, always push water on the athletes! Hydration is also very important to performance. It would be a wise decision to guide athletes in their eating habits for all other times of the day as well. But if we had to just pick a couple of times during the day, those times around performances would be the most important. There are many great sources to choose from.

10. Support
I believe support from teammates and coaches is a huge part of success in a strength and conditioning program. This support drives competitiveness between players of an entire team and within the same positions. Without that competitive edge, many players would just go through the motions and never get any better. We don't want that, do we? Some things that may help teams struggling to support each other are:

  • Events outside of football (i.e. team dinners, movies)
  • Fundraisers for the team
  • Fundraisers for the community
  • Community service

With this bonding, the coach will start to see the players’ attitudes change for the better. This is especially true for players who didn’t really know each other before joining the team. As they get to know each other, they will become part of the ‘family’ and will behave accordingly. This is when you see players protecting each other on and off the field as if they are a family. Once this happens, team chemistry is high and support becomes second nature.

11. Coach’s competency
The players will follow what their coaches have to say. If the coach isn’t willing to educate himself enough to better the team, the team won’t progress. This is half the battle with many schools that don't have the equipment or other resources (strength coaches) necessary to get better. Some teams can get by with coaches who don't give them enough guidance because they have the equipment available to goof around and halfway train. But the teams who have a program in place with a knowledgeable coach will always outperform the other teams. If you’re a coach, do yourself a favor for your team's sake and read up on training every once and awhile.

Thanks for reading! Most of you probably already knew most of this, but if I reached even one coach who will use this information, I've done my job. Knowledge is power! Train hard, train smart, and get strong!

References

Bishop PA, Jones E, Woods AK (2008) Recovery from training: A brief review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22(3):1015–24.

Samuel MN, Holcomb WR, Guadagnoli MA, Rubley MD, Wallmann H (2008) Acute effects of static and ballistic stretching on measures of strength and power. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22(5):1422–28.

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