Starting a High School Strength Program

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Published Friday, January 23, 2009

Starting a High School Strength Program

by Michael Boyle

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 they always want to talk about "sets and reps". Coaches ask questions like: "should I do BFS", or "should I use the Husker Program"? Much to their dismay, I generally want to discuss organization 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 only one thing out of this article, remember this quote (author unknown): "A bad program done well is better than a good program done poorly." Keep it simple, and adhere strictly to the following guidelines:

1) 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.

2) 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 push-ups 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 last a year, but you will not be getting poor patterns practiced with no supervision.

3) 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 to prepare workouts on your 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 but lousy lifters. Let the paperwork suffer and do the coaching.

4) 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 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?

5) Focus on 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, allow no bounce and 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, because lifting more weight feeds their ego. Once you allow it to happen, cheating is very difficult to stop. 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.

6) Use bodyweight when possible. Always teach bodyweight squats first. If they can't bodyweight squat, they can't squat. Do lots of push-ups, feet-elevated push-ups, one leg squats, chin-ups, and dips. Bodyweight is humbling. Use it wisely and often with high school kids.

7) 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. Don't pass out rewards unless they reward improvement over personal bests. If you test strength, also test performance factors like vertical jump and the 10 yard dash. If athletes are improving strength without changing performance factors, the program is only marginally effective.

8) Have appropriate equipment. BFS sells (lighter-weight) 15 lb. and 25 lb. Olympic bars. These are critical to a good high school program. Platemates allow athletes to make reasonable jumps in weight with dumbbells. Small plates let everyone add weight. Spend money to encourage success, because 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.

About the Author
This article originally appeared in the National Strength and Conditioning Association's "Strength and Conditioning Journal" (Vol. 23, No. 4). It was written by Michael Boyle, and was provided courtesy of helps coaches and athletes improve their sports performance through its unique "how-to" sports training articles, discussion groups, chatrooms, newsletters and more.

Michael is one of the foremost experts in the fields of Strength and Conditioning, Performance Enhancement, and general fitness training. He is the founder of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning, which provides performance enhancement training for athletes of all levels. He served as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Boston University for 15 years. From 1991-1999, Boyle served as the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League. Michael was also the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the 1998 US Women's Olympic Ice Hockey Team, Gold Medalists in Nagano, and served as a consultant in the development of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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