By Zack Nielsen
Every university across the country has incoming freshman step foot in the weight room with varying levels of experience. As the strength and conditioning industry progresses, more qualified coaches are being employed at the high school level. Even with a qualified coach at the helm, many athletes will continue to show up on college campuses for their first day of practice needing more work from a developmental standpoint.
While sport coaches breathe down our necks to find out how much their athletes are squatting or how many inches we’ve added to their vertical jump, as strength and conditioning professionals we must know how fast to move an athlete through our progression/regression stages.
About Our Freshman Developmental Model
The research by Istvan Balyi on long-term athlete development provides the basis for this model. Each athlete entering the program begins in the same stage: Stage 1. As the athlete accomplishes the goals of each stage, they will progress to the next stage. This progression will lead to more challenging movements from a technical proficiency standpoint, greater requirements of the athlete’s work capacity, and a larger exercise library the athlete will have to be proficient in.Technical progression, not strength level, differentiates one athlete’s programming from another’s. Click To Tweet
The driver for progression of movement is, and always will be, technical proficiency. Technique is the highest priority when progressing an athlete. Proper technical mastery of prerequisite movements assures us that the athlete is ready to load each movement in the manner that we see fit. Technical progression, not strength level, is what will differentiate one athlete’s programming from another’s.
Stage 1: Learn to Train
The goals of Stage 1 are to teach the athlete our basic movement patterns and build work capacity. Year in and year out, the incoming freshmen generally display a lack of work capacity.
Prior to the execution of any lifting of any kind of implement, the athletes will do focused work on diaphragmatic breathing.
There are many ways to accomplish this. I have had the most success using the 90/90 wall breathing drill. The video below gives instructions for the execution of the breathing drill. I have found that this exercise not only teaches athletes to breathe properly, but also helps them get into a neutral posture through their lumbar spine.
Video 1. While teaching breathing is trendy, coaches have been doing it for years, just with less sophistication and education. Engrain good habits right away, and build a foundation of quality breathing.
Following the introduction to proper breathing mechanics, we introduce our basic movement patterns: squat, hip hinge, upper body push, and upper body pull. The exercises used during this stage are a KB/DB goblet squat, KB/DB RDL, push-up, and body weight rowing patterns such as a TRX row or barbell inverted row. The introduction of these exercises serves as our basic movement screen as well. We can address basic movement inefficiencies (lack of joint mobility, lack of stability, asymmetries) while the athletes execute these exercises.
These sessions not only focus on movement introduction, but there is always a work capacity component added. Many athletes we bring in are simply not ready to undertake the amount of training we plan to put them through, so we stick to basic means to accomplish the end goal. Various sled dragging patterns, carries with various objects for various distances, and the use of escalated density training (EDT) are all methods that we utilize in our program to increase our athletes’ work capacities and ready them for the rigors of training as they progress through their careers with us.
Each training day looks very similar during this stage, so it becomes imperative to find ways to challenge the athletes during the session. One way is to introduce tempos to movements. For example, on our lower body push day, we may have an athlete goblet squatting with a KB with a five-second tempo during the eccentric portion of the movement. The tempo not only makes the movement more challenging, but it gives the coach an opportunity to continue to evaluate the athlete as they move under load. By constantly tweaking each movement, we as coaches can continue to evaluate the athlete’s strength and weaknesses, which will lead to better development of movement patterns.
Stage 2: Train to Train
Stage 2 takes our rudimentary movements—the KB Goblet squat, KB RDL, push-up, and TRX row—and progresses them. The next step in our progression of movements is the front squat, barbell deadlift, bench press, and pull-up. We still utilize our Stage 1 movements as warm-up movements, technique primers, or for more GPP-type training following the motor learning portion of the workout. For example, we may bench press.
We do a standard 5×5 training plan for the main movement, superset each set with a low-intensity exercise in opposition such as a band row, and then super set t-spine mobility exercises such as a seated PVC t-spine rotation. After they finish the working sets for capacity, we have the athletes execute push-ups, KB goblet squats, and TRX rows for time, usually 15-20 minutes at the end of a session.
During this time, we still coach the push-up to our specifications and even decrease individual volumes if the reps begin to look bad. While fatigue can make cowards of us all, we ensure that even if a kid can only do five reps per set to our standards, we stop the set at those five reps to avoid teaching them poor habits.
Athletes spend an extremely long time in this stage. Our freshman football players spend close to three months in this stage to help break any poor habits they may have come to us with.
We begin to introduce structured programming during Stage 2. Athletes will start to train through different phases (hypertrophy, max strength, conversion to power, etc). Volume will remain higher than with our advanced athletes to continue to develop their work capacity and engrain motor patterns, but we will begin to collect relative max numbers (3-10RM) and train them based on certain percentages of their projected maxes. During this stage, many athletes progress from front squatting to back squatting if they do not have any mobility/stability issues that would hinder them in this exercise. This stage is also where our introduction to Olympic-style weightlifting movements occurs.
“You can’t progress an entire group of athletes as a unit, but you can move them in the same direction.”
Stage 2 training, while intended to increase the athlete’s general capabilities, is still very much educational. We expose the athlete to a variety of different movements and exercises with various implements and tempos, but the key is still building clean motor patterns. The “art of coaching” becomes a large factor here, as the coach holds the key to the athlete’s progression and regression through the stage. You cannot expect an entire group to progress as a unit—there are simply too many factors to account for. However, by using various training means to accomplish the same goal, we move the group in the same general direction.
Stage 3: Train to Compete
During this stage, the athletes have already had exposure to most of the exercise library and the training becomes much more focused. Analysis of the athlete’s specific strengths and weaknesses occurs during this stage. For example, if you have a 180-lb athlete who can squat the house but has a very poor vertical jump, his training may focus more on power production than on increasing maximal strength.
Most of your upperclassmen will be in this stage. We train to increase qualities that will help increase their performance on the field. We use many different assessments during this phase.
Stage 4: Compete to Win
Buddy Morris has spoken on the reason his defensive backs don’t spend as much time back squatting heavy as the interior linemen do—it simply will not translate to increases in their performance of the same capacity. Why waste an entire year trying to increase Patrick Peterson’s back squat when it won’t make him play corner any better? This mindset is what Stage 4 is all about.
Stage 4 is your highly specific training. Many athletes in this category may never catch an Olympic lift again simply because catching a clean will not make them better at their sport. They have far surpassed that part of their career and reached the upper echelon of sport performance. In very few cases will any of the athletes we coach in our careers reach this level.
The athletes at this stage in their development focus on one task. These are the Olympic-level 100-meter sprinters, the 900-lb bench pressers, the super heavyweight Olympic-style weightlifters, and any other athlete geared toward accomplishing one task through training at an extremely high level. Their training is extremely focused toward the end goal. These athletes have moved past improving general qualities.
Simply put, these athletes do not care about the process; they care about the outcome. If a training modality does not improve their performance, they throw it out and seek out a different method.Athletes in the Stage 4 development phase do not care about the process, only about the outcome. Click To Tweet
A perfect example of programming for this kind of athlete comes from the research of Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk. If you are not familiar with Dr. Bondarchuk, many people consider him one of the best throws coaches in world, specifically in the hammer throw. From his text, Transfer of Training in Sports, Dr. Bondarchuk finds a higher coefficient of correlation (0.620) for an athlete increasing his squat with a barbell when they are a 45-50m thrower compared to when the athlete reaches 75-80m throws (0.196).1 Simply put, the barbell squat becomes less effective for improving the performance of the thrower as they progress through their career.
Additionally, as the athlete progresses from being a 45-50m hammer thrower to becoming a 75-80m hammer thrower, the coefficient of correlation increases for the use of different weighted implements in technical training, while the strength exercises commonly associated with the training of throwers (squat, clean, snatch) decreases. This means that the athletes no longer receive as large of a performance increase using general means (increasing maximal strength) and should now focus on improving strength in their competitive movement (e.g., increased weight of their throwing implement).
Design Your Own Model of Development
It takes time to develop an athlete who is successful at the collegiate level. While we see more and more athletes coming into college with a legitimate training background than ever before, you still must take the time to start from square one and progress kids at the right pace to ensure that they will remain healthy and ready to dominate the field of play. Remember, just because an athlete comes in and is ready to step onto the field of play, doesn’t mean they are ready to participate in the same training program as the fifth-year seniors they are playing alongside.
Check your ego at the door and advise your athletes to do the same. If never letting a kid back squat keeps him healthy and improving on the field, then they may only ever front squat during weights. It is not about records, it is not about likes on social media, and it is not about reporting huge increases in max numbers to your sport coaches. It is about preparing athletes to be successful on the field of play.
- Bondarchuk, A. (2010). “Transfer of Training in Sports II.” Muskegon, Michigan: Ultimate Athlete Concepts.