High School Strength Training Manifesto

TAGS: strength and conditioning coach, manifesto, Dan Stevens, high school

Like most of you, I am a regular visitor to elitefts.com. I read the articles, Q&As, training logs and have had the opportunity to attend three of the Learn to Train seminars. In a recent log post by Coach Watts, he wrote about five things that are wrong in our country and how to fix them. This inspired me to create a list or manifesto of ten things I believe form the foundation of a training philosophy when working with high school sports participants.

Working for close to 30 years as a middle school and high school sport coach and the last ten years exclusively in the weight room has been a long, strange trip.  One huge lesson I have learned along the way is that when it comes to strength training, almost every coach has an opinion on how his or her sports participants should lift. This is often regardless of the coach's own experience under the bar. Because of this disparity between programs, coaches, and opinions, the strength training for the multi-sport participant becomes a confusing, garbled process. Quite often, the sports participant gets caught in the middle between two or three sport coaches each giving different direction on what is best for the athlete.

The following is a list of things that, regardless of sport, should form the foundation of a high school training program. To be sure, this list is far from complete. My intent is to at least get the people that I work with thinking beyond the scope of their own domain. I would like to see coaches gravitate toward a more global approach as it becomes more important to share sports participants and provide quality opportunities to compete at a high level.

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There is no question that squats are an essential movement in the development of sports participants. The caveat with utilizing squats in a routine is that depth (how low one goes) is a primary factor in obtaining results. It is widely accepted that one must lower the hips to a point that the crease of the hip drops slightly below the top of the knee — this is breaking parallel. It takes squatting to this depth to get all of the available muscles involved. When squatting is done above this level, the backside muscles (hip extenders) are not called upon to participate and the exercise becomes little more than a terminal knee extension with a bar on the back.

Regardless of the style of squat used, it is imperative to emphasize hip extension. While depth is a critical factor in this equation, I believe some styles such as the traditional parallel back squat and the parallel box squat are better at building the power of hip extension. Other styles such as the front squat, high bar Olympic squat, Zercher squat, and the overhead squat place a much greater demand on the knee extending muscles and diminish the role of the hip extending muscles.

The power of hip extension is directly involved in sprint speed and jumping height. The great Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis utilized the squat in the strength training of sprinters such as Ben Johnson. He also exposed the fact that elite level sprinters have 1:1 or even possibly 1.3:1 hip extension to knee extension strength ratio. This clearly illustrates the importance of training the backside hip extending muscles. Interestingly, a common ratio in strength literature calls for a ratio .6:1. If this is the current standard, maybe this can help to explain the excessive knee ligament injuries in our female sports participants. Strong hip extenders are critical to knee joint integrity.

The box squat is an excellent way to teach proper squat technique. With the correct box height depth is the same every time. The lifter also learns to sit back and spread the floor with his or her feet, creating stimulation for the backside muscles. One additional benefit of the box squat is that it is easier to recover from, making it perfect for in-season training.

If we are going to have our participants squat to improve performance and enhance injury prevention, we should all be diligent in coaching these people to squat to a parallel depth. This must be the standard.

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Agility Ladders

Developing agility, speed and quickness is on every coach’s list of performance enhancement activities. I do not think that every coach is working from a standard definition of what agility is and how it relates to sport form. Agility is the ability to decelerate, redirect and accelerate in a different direction as quickly and as smoothly as possible. This action most often takes place in the heat of competition when an athlete reacts to an opponent or action of the game.

When one considers the above, the use of agility ladders is questionable at best for anything other than a warm-up activity. The participants are almost always looking down to place their feet in the ladder in the proper pattern. Even after the patterns are learned, they are not repeated in the actual execution of sport form in a competitive environment. I believe that what the participants learn is to move their feet really fast while they look down and go nowhere fast. We need to be teaching athletes to cover ground, react and fill space, get open, and do it with alacrity and accuracy.

Why not create drills that require a change of direction or multiple changes of direction that cover ground while reacting to a visual or auditory signal or cue that dynamically correspond to the sporting activity itself.

Using Distance Running for Conditioning

While it is important to develop the aerobic energy pathway, as recovery is aerobic, running or jogging for distance may not be the most efficient way to accomplish this. Running or jogging for distance can be used as a means to enhance recovery from high intensity (intensive tempo) training. With the exception of cross country, the two-mile in track and field, and distance events in swimming, most of our sports have a large component of alactic-aerobic energy output. A more efficient way to develop both pathways would be to employ intensive and extensive tempo runs while controlling the work to rest intervals. This form of conditioning can be molded to more closely resemble contest specific and player/position specific energy needs. A "one-size-fits-all" approach may not be the best way to condition our teams.

It is also important that when training for speed, recovery between bouts must be complete. Training to run faster cannot be productive if the participant is in a state of fatigue. Absolute speed training should take place at distances between 10-60 meters with long recoveries (1 sec:30sec) and low volumes (200 meters).

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"A Workout Wasn’t Good If We Didn’t Crush Them"

Judging the effectiveness of a workout based on how miserable the participants feel afterward isn’t an accurate form of measurement. Watch the body language of the participants after a contest. They are physically and emotionally tired but certainly not in a state of misery. We should teach our participants to work hard but also smart. We also need to teach them that discomfort from exertion is to be expected, but they do not need to crawl away from a workout in search of a puke bucket.

Weight Room Work is General Physical Preparation

There is very little activity that takes place in a weight room that can be construed as truly “sport specific.”  With the exception of Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting, the exercises employed should prepare the participants for the rigors of sport, not simulate sport skills. Increasing a high school sports participant’s ability to overcome external resistance in a variety of movements will do more to improve the performance of sports skills than trying to create “sport specific” exercises utilizing external resistance.

Maximal Strength Rules

Maximal strength will cause improvements in other forms of strength. Developing maximal strength in high school sports participants will improve their ability to produce force fast against external resistance (speed strength). Developing maximal strength also increases the ability to extend the duration of work against sub-maximal loads (strength endurance). Developing maximal strength improves a sports participant’s ability to control, balance, accelerate, decelerate, change direction and overcome the inertia of his/her own body weight (speed, agility and quickness). It is clear that developing maximal strength in high school sports participants is the most efficient way to address a variety of issues involved in sport participant development. Every sports participant should have a surplus of strength, more than the minimum required to be successful at the chosen endeavor.

In-Season Training

There is simply no reason to discontinue strength training during a competitive season. We must commit to at least one day each week in the weight room. For some sports this is easier said than done, but it can and should be done. The alternative is entering the championship portion of the season weaker than when the competitive season began. We owe it to all of our programs to not pass on weaker participants to other sports.

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Athletes Must Train Three days A Week to Be Strong

There is not an overwhelming body of evidence that clearly suggests that training three non-consecutive days a week is more productive than two well-planned days per week or four or more days per week. In many cases with the proliferation of AAU and club sports, two days a week may be the optimal frequency for many of our sports participants. Less can be more.

We Need a Special Plan for Each Sport

The most important elements to training are consistently training with an unwavering willingness to work hard, a determination to get stronger, and directing those efforts with a plan toward achieving a goal. At the high school level, almost without exception, our sports participants are novices to beginners in relation to strength training. Like any activity, the more inexperienced the participant is, the more basic the plan must be. A good plan is rooted in the performance of big, multiple-joint movements. The bench press, military press, back squat, deadlift, power clean and horizontal row should comprise the bulk of the program. These lifts require multiple lever systems work together to create movement against external resistance. This provides adequate stimulation to the muscular and nervous systems.

These lifts can be performed over any number of days a week and the resistances should progress over time. The beauty of training sports participants at this level is that the programming does not have to be complicated to produce results. I have adopted a program based on two progressions. Both increase weights over a three-week wave. Only the sets and reps are different. Both are based on a percentage of a theoretical best performance in each movement. The actual loads are then based based off 90-percent of the theoretical best. This is a training max.  This is a weight one can handle any time, any day, no matter what. This allows us to continue to train in and out of season and still progress.elitefts wkhs girls

Girls Will Get Too Bulky

Girls do not produce enough of the anabolic hormone testosterone to create large increases in lean mass (muscle). This is not to say that they cannot increase lean mass, but it isn’t easy to create this situation. It is expensive to increase appreciable amounts of the most metabolically active tissue in the body. There must be a reason for the body to add this tissue. The weights must become progressively heavier over a long period of time. In beginning lifters, most of the gains in strength come from the adaptation of the central nervous system as the skill becomes more and more second nature and the body learns to recruit more of the available muscle fiber. Only as a last resort will the body add lean tissue to further adapt to the training. In order to make this addition, there must be sufficient resources available in the form a caloric surplus.

The reality is that many of our girls do not lift with the intent to challenge their organisms enough to upset the status quo.  They probably do not eat enough extra food to create a surplus of tissue remodeling resources. Actually, the addition of tissue to increase cross sectional size would go a long way to help maintain any gains that might result. Girls have to lift harder than boys to get results because they don’t build the muscle necessary to hold the strength once training has ceased. It is imperative that our girls lift not like boys but like high-level female athletes.

I hope that the above promotes a more collegial approach to coaching the high school sport participant. It represents the beginning of what could become a department wide philosophy. I also hope more high school coaches who visit the site will offer their ideas on how to create a more collegial approach to training and sharing high school sports participants.

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