Every summer, I’m besieged by a new crop of high school graduates looking to “get in shape” for college sports. Armed with their school strength and conditioning manuals (which are often as thick as phone books), they desperately seek help mastering the intricacies of Olympic lifts, plyometrics and other types of advanced conditioning drills in just a few short weeks—despite having little, if any, training experience.
Although we’re able to make progress, it’s nearly impossible in such a short amount of time to adequately prepare athletes who lack the mobility, coordination and strength necessary to effectively execute these types of drills. Whether we’re dealing with excessive pronation—knees that pitch inward during strength exercises and change-of-direction training—or restricted range of motion around the shoulders, ankles and thoracic spine, it’s difficult to load on any appreciable weight. Because of this, wholesale improvements in strength and power are usually out of the question.
About the best we can hope for is to create more awareness of the importance of adequate core strength and mobility, and ingrain proper form for all the big staple lifts. That way, once they do get to college, these athletes can put themselves in the best position to succeed.
Here are a few strategies to help get high school seniors on the right track.
Introduce Olympic Lifts Slowly
Most college strength programs place a lot of emphasis on various types of Cleans, Snatches and Overhead Presses. Because they require simultaneous extension of the knee, hip and ankle joints (known as triple extension), exercises like these offer a great way to increase explosive power.
That said, they can also be pretty tough to execute—especially for teenage athletes who often lack the mobility and general body awareness to do them with proper form.
Using lighter loads and focusing on exercises like the Hip Hinge, the Front Squat and the Overhead Squat will help foster good lifting mechanics and prepare people for heavier loads down the line. The video below includes a couple of supplementary mobility drills that will help young athletes safely achieve a deeper squat, as well as get into a proper catch position when doing Cleans and Snatches.
[youtube video=”bZly1Vood_w” /]
Aim For a Balanced Training Approach
Instead of devoting so much gym time to the muscles on the front of the body (something for which teens are notorious), athletes should focus on the muscles they can’t see in the mirror. A program rich in exercises like rowing variations, Reverse Flys and External Rotations can improve shoulder stability by balancing excessive pec and front deltoid work. Likewise, concentrating on movements that train the posterior chain (the glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors working together as a unit), will lead to better knee stability and decrease the likelihood of a knee injury.
Of course everyone is different, but for upper-body training, adopting a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of exercises that strengthen the back (i.e., the posterior aspect of the shoulder joint) in relation to those that work the front (or anterior aspect) is a good guideline to follow. For example, for every six sets of chest work (e.g., Bench Press, Incline Dumbbell Press, Dips, etc.), perform at least 12 sets of upper back dominant exercises. Regarding the lower body, stay away from machines like the Leg Extension and Leg Press in favor of Deadlifts, Squats, Step-Ups and various types of Lunges.
Choose More Functional Core Exercises
To properly execute most of the drills mentioned above requires a strong core. That doesn’t mean you should do tons of Crunches, Leg Lifts and other floor-based “ab” work. Instead, opt for exercises that strengthen your core in a standing position, or while attempting to balance yourself in various ways. Pallof Presses, Rotary Chops and Plank Rows all offer a major step up from the typical “gym rat” approach to abdominal training.
Don’t Neglect Flexibility
Improving range of motion around key joints is actually one of the best ways to get stronger. Although typically more associated with injury prevention, flexibility also affects how much load a person can safely handle. If a young athlete lacks the ability to get down into a proper squat position using just his body weight, what do you think will happen if he places a loaded barbell on his back? Chances are, he will compromise form to some extent, and this will only worsen as he adds more weight.
Other times, athletes may be flexible enough to perform an exercise correctly, only to hit a frustrating training plateau. By working on further improving range of motion around the affected joints, they’re often able to break through and hit a new personal best.