At our facility, we work with a few hundred high school student-athletes, and serve as advisor/coach/consultant to several high school strength and conditioning programs.
In terms of quality, high school strength and conditioning programs vary considerably, and most of them are subpar. The biggest reason for this is that most of these programs lack adequate and appropriate program design and supervision, and allow little or no involvement from qualified, experienced strength and conditioning professionals.
To make matters worse, most high school strength and conditioning programs are run by coaches, most of whom are not qualified as strength and conditioning professionals. Many of these coaches are hell-bent on control and loathe to take advice or guidance from “outsiders.”
The net result is that most high school strength and conditioning programs are run by individuals who lack even a basic understanding of foundational exercise science and it’s practical application. Unfortunately, many of these programs are less than effective and — worse yet — can be unsafe for student-athletes.
My advice to high school sports coaches: GET SOME HELP. Check your ego, loosen your grip on your program, and consult with a qualified and experienced strength and conditioning professional. Trust me — it will be time and money well-spent.
Mike Boyle wrote this article for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) Strength and Conditioning Journal over a decade ago, but it’s still just as relevant today.
Starting a High School Strength Program
Frequently at clinics, I speak with high school coaches who are interested in starting or improving a strength and conditioning program at their school. Most often they are looking for guidance in setting up the program and always want to talk sets and reps. Much to their dismay, I generally want to discuss organizational and administrative concepts because, in my experience, these are the real keys. Setup and execution make the program run — not sets and reps.
If you get one thing out of this article remember this quote: “A bad program done well is better than a good program done poorly.” – Author Unknown
Keep it simple, and adhere strictly to the following guidelines:
- Forget uncooperative seniors. The source of most frustration in starting a high school program is dealing with seniors who already “know how to lift.” Separate these guys out right away. If they don’t cooperate, get rid of them. They’ll be gone soon anyway.
- Do one coaching-intensive lift per day. What do I mean by coaching-intensive lift? Exercises like squats or any Olympic movement are coaching-intensive. Coaches must watch every possible set to correctly ingrain the correct motor pattern. If athletes are front squatting and hang cleaning the same day, which do you watch, the platforms or the squats racks? Don’t force yourself to make this decision. For example do lunges instead of squats on the day that you clean and do pushups instead of bench press on the day you squat. On squat day, don’t do an Olympic movement, do Box Jumps as your explosive exercise. This process of one coaching-intensive lift per day may only last a year, but you will not be getting poor patterns practiced with no supervision.
- Get all administration done prior to the start of sessions. The biggest failure in strength and conditioning is coaches sitting at computers instead of coaching. If you need workouts done on computer, do them during a free period. The job is strength and conditioning coach. Don’t get caught up, as many coaches do, in having great programs on paper and lousy lifters. Let the paper suffer and do the coaching.
- Coach. This is what it is all about. Coach like this is your sport. So many coaches ask, “Can you give me a program?” We could but it wouldn’t work. College or pro programs are not appropriate for high school beginners. They need teaching, not programs. The program begins and ends with technical proficiency. Coaches must realize that their athletes are the window through which others see them. If a college coach came into your weight room would you be proud or ashamed? Would you make excuses for the poor technique or, accept the pats on the back for what great lifters your players are? The other factor, even more important than your athletes being the window through which others see you, is that your athletes are the mirror in which you see yourself. Your lifters are a direct reflection of you. When you watch your athletes are you happy with yourself as a teacher and coach.
- Technique, Technique, Technique. Never compromise. Perform parallel squats all the time. Our athletes do nothing but front squats to a top of the thigh parallel position. If you bench press, no bounce, no arch. Never compromise. As soon as you allow one athlete to cheat or to not adhere to the program others will follow immediately. Remember why athletes cheat. They cheat to lift more weight. Lifting more weight feeds their ego. If you allow it to happen, cheating is very difficult to stop. To make your point use exercises like Pause Bench and Pause Front Squats. These exercises can be very humbling. Canadian Strength Coach Charles Poliquin has a principle he calls Technical Failure. This means that you never count a rep that was completed after technique broke down.
- Use body weight when possible. Always teach bodyweight squats first. If they can’t bodyweight squat, they can’t squat. Do lots of pushups, feet elevated pushups, 1 leg squats, chinups and dips. Bodyweight is humbling. Use it wisely and often with high school kids.
- If you test, test super strict. Testing is when things really deteriorate. In testing the coach should see every lift, and the coach should select every weight. Don’t reward strength. This is a huge mistake that I believe encourages drug use. Reward improvement, make athletes compete with themselves, not others. No t-shirts for rewards unless they reward improvement over personal bests. Also if you test strength, also test performance factors like Vertical Jump and 10-yd. Dash. If athletes are improving strength without changing performance factors, the program is only marginally effective.
- Have appropriate equipment. This is critical to a good high school program. Spend money to encourage success. Success is what sells the program. Strength and conditioning coaching is easy in principle, but difficult in practice. The key is to try to see every set and coach every athlete. This is difficult, time consuming, and repetitive. At the end of a good day you should be hoarse and tired. A good strength coach will have sore legs and knees from squatting down to see squat depth all day.