There are over 35,000 high schools across America.
Most feature some sort of strength and conditioning program meant to enhance the performance of their student-athletes. These programs seem great, as they benefit the health of the athletes while also improving their play. But in reality, how many of these programs are actually effective?
The biggest issue affecting high school strength and conditioning programs is the lack of qualified strength coaches with real education and certifications in the field. Some schools are lucky enough to have a certified strength coach, but those schools seem to be few and far between. For the others, the duties of strength and conditioning program design and implication are left to a randomly designated coach from one of the school’s athletic teams. These coaches often find workouts on the internet or base their programming on what they did “back in their playing days.”
Would you let the linebackers coach diagnose and treat on-field injuries? No, we leave that to medical professionals and certified athletic trainers. But sadly, strength and conditioning is not viewed in the same light at the high school level.
However, high schools can’t afford to abandon a strength and conditioning program all together simply because they don’t have a licensed strength coach to head it up. With that being the case, here are five rules that should be followed, listed in order of their importance, to ensure a safe and successful high school strength and conditioning program.
1. Do No Harm
Pretty obvious, huh?
Don’t hurt the athletes and individuals you’re supposed to be helping. If an athlete wants to get stronger but he’s sidelined because he hurt his back doing the 30 Deadlifts program his “strength coach” found on YouTube, then the program is literally doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. When in doubt, gear down the intensity. Start basic. Listen to the feedback of your athletes. If you’re doing them harm, the school actually would be better off with no strength and conditioning program. So this rule always needs to remain at the top of your mind when designing and implementing a program. Many of these next rules will help you learn how you can avoid doing harm when designing and implementing your program.
2. Start With Why
“Start With Why” is a phrase popularized by British motivational speaker Simon Sinek. It refers to the fact that if you understand why you’re doing something, you’ll be more inspired to do it with passion.
As a high school strength and conditioning coach, everything you plan, program, say, and do must have a solid “why” behind it. This will help you avoid doing harm and elicit a greater buy-in from your athletes. However, “because I did it when I was your age” is not a solid reason why your athletes should perform a certain movement or exercise. You also shouldn’t program high Box Jumps onto a metal box because you think they’ll help separate the brave athletes from the timid ones. Not only is that a weak reason why, but it also violates rule No. 1.
So, what is a solid “why?” Say you program a three-day jumping split for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The split includes Vertical Box Jumps onto padded boxes, Linear Broad Jumps and Lateral Jumps. Why these exercises? Because these are safe variations that will develop explosive power in multiple planes of motion and they translate efficiently to sport. See the difference between that explanation for “why” and just saying “because I told you so?”
You should share the reason why you’re performing certain exercises with your athletes before they even touch the weight or get into position. That will help them train with a purpose. You should also encourage your athletes to ask questions about why they’re doing certain things. That will help you consistently focus on this rule, and if you find yourself unable to give a good “why” behind a certain drill, exercise or movement, perhaps you need to do more research. If there’s no good “why” behind it, cut it from the program all together.
3. Be a Transformational Coach
Joe Ehrmann, a former Pro Bowl defensive tackle who now works as a motivational speaker, says you can either be a transformational coach or a transactional coach.
A transformational coach is one who genuinely cares about the athletic and personal development of each and every individual in their care, and one who invests time into relationship building/connection. A transactional coach is simply interested in how an athlete’s success can benefit them and allow them to climb the ladder or earn more money.
It might sound simple, but you must strive to be a transformational coach. Invest in these kids and they will invest in you and your programming. The best and fastest way to get your athletes to buy in is to show and prove that you genuinely care about them, their health and their development.
4. Start Basic and Only Progress After Mastery
You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s amazing how many high school strength and conditioning coaches ignore the basics or simply gloss over them before moving their athletes into advanced exercises.
If you’re having an athlete who is fresh out of middle school Deadlift and Barbell Back Squat with your seniors, that’s a breeding ground for injury. The freshman is likely not going to have the mastery of the movement patterns needed to perform those exercises correctly and transfer them to sport. You’re putting them at increased risk of injury for little to no benefit.
Instead, start athletes who are new to strength and conditioning with basic exercises that offer very little risk for injury. Kettlebell Deadlifts and Goblet Squats are two moves that allow an athlete to get comfortable with the movement and master their form while also providing little risk for injury.
Teenage athletes can also feel wildly competitive in the weight room, and forcing new trainees to use light weight until they master the proper form will combat their natural tendency to go heavy and try to show off. Always remind them that their quality of movement is more important to their development than the amount of weight on the bar. In the long run, beginning with the basics will create athletes who are stronger and capable of better movement while also being more resistant to injury. If you skip the basics, your athletes will have little chance of performing more advanced movements correctly. They’ll just simply be putting themselves at a higher risk of injury while not getting much tangible benefit from their training.
5. Create a Well-Rounded Program
Your athletes are not bodybuilders. They are kids in need of increasing their full-body strength. With that being said, a smart strategy is building a program that uses multiple supersets. This allows your athletes to perform an efficient workout while also including a good amount of work. If your program consists of three full-body workouts each week, you’d like to include at least one exercise from each of the following six groups into each and every workout.
- Push: Bench Press, DB Bench Press, Incline Press, Push-Up variations, etc.
- Pull: Weighted Row, Bodyweight or TRX Row, Pull-Ups, etc.
- Hip Hinge: Deadlift, RDL, Glute Bridge, KB Swing, etc.
- Knee Dominant: Squat, Lunge variations, Step-Up variations, etc.
- Core: Planks, Suitcase Holds, Dead Bugs, Rollouts, Pallof Presses, etc.
- Other: Weighted Carries, Sled Marches, Sled Drags, etc.
Remember, these five rules are listed in order of importance. You’ll notice rules 1-3 really have no science implication at all. However, if you truly follow them, they can go a long way towards running a successful strength program. Avoiding harm, having a strong “why” behind each part of your program, and being a “transformational coach” will immediately elevate your program and your athletes. Having your athletes master the basics and building a well-rounded program tie directly into those three rules, as it will help your athletes avoid harm, understand the purpose of their training and enhance their long-term development. Implement these five rules into your programming and coaching and your athletes will flourish.
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