The summer is a terrific 10- to 12-week block of open calendar when many coaches hope their athletes will do a little extra training and come back to school ready for a big athletic year. Nothing beats enrolling in a private facility’s program or working under the eyes of a knowledgeable and watchful coach. You can have periodized training and consistent and appropriate exercise selection, follow a progressive overload, and get deload weeks timed appropriately.
For me, summer programs and clinics have always been less about the preparation for the upcoming season (although that is the draw), and more about promoting independence moving forward. Athletes should carry some sort of basic understanding of why they do what they do into the competitive season. This helps them make better choices in training.For me, summer programs and clinics have always been less about the preparation for the upcoming season, and more about promoting independence moving forward, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
The truth is that many high school athletes float around untethered each summer without a lot of structured training. They work out by themselves because the cost of some summer training programs is too high, their schedules are already full, or they don’t think structured training could benefit them. With a little more work, these athletes have the potential to help our teams.
Misconceptions about what is needed to take these steps forward are a huge problem. No matter how much coaches explain their philosophy and training methods in season, most athletes don’t internalize these tips or seek out extra coaching. Some end up doing too little; some, too much; and some, nothing at all. The disease of more is just as problematic as inactivity.
Lots of high school athletes who are beginners sign up for gym memberships. From what I observe, it goes one of two ways:Consistently solid training in the important summer weeks will always yield better results than doing nothing or doing the wrong work, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I am sure there are exceptions to these examples, but not having a plan or seeking out solutions is disadvantageous. This writing doesn’t serve as a specific training program, but rather, a reminder to those athletes who may be flying solo this summer. These athletes can help our programs and should be pointed in the right direction to make good choices. Consistently solid training in these important weeks will always yield better results than doing nothing or doing the wrong work.
Don’t Be Driven Solely by Aesthetics
Whether you call it hypertrophy training, beach muscles, or pump chasing, high school males find it hard to ignore its appeal. They rifle through the latest issue of Flex magazine, pull out a sample week from Phil Heath, and make plans to get “jacked.” We have all heard it before: “Coach, I’m going to get huge this summer.”
Many of us coaches love this training ourselves. It is easier on the tendons and joints and makes us look great in our polos. It is also probably a good base of training for athletes who are new to the weight room and can be a good accessory lift in the right doses and places for others. However, the SAID principle eventually says that if we want to be good at something, then we just have to do that thing, or at least things in the same ballpark. Endless bicep curls and bench presses just adapt us for curling and pressing.
Always lifting this way is a performance killer, especially in the absence of other components of training like sprinting and plyometrics. A bodybuilding split in and of itself won’t get you the results that you need. Single joint exercises are about the muscles and not about the movement. Your body doesn’t think like this. Athletes need to focus on the intention of the movement.
Lifting in the 8- to 12-rep range isn’t heavy enough for main lifts and is too much volume for high intent on power exercises like the hang clean. After learning correct technique, lifting relatively heavy loads or moving them fast will be the key for athletic transfer through a high force output. This matches up better with the goals of most athletes.Having a strong upper body is absolutely important on the field and during acceleration to help timing and counter rotation. Just make sure it isn’t all ‘show and no go,’ says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Having a strong upper body is absolutely important on the field and during acceleration to help timing and counter rotation. Just make sure it isn’t all “show and no go.” There are plenty of simple multi-joint movements that can create a strong upper body. If an athlete is eating a well-rounded diet (I know, I know—most aren’t) and slightly more than maintenance calories, they will gain muscle while still staying strong per pound of body weight.
You Need to Train Your Legs
This brings me to my next point. As Bret Contreras has said, “Glutes on the ground, hamstrings in the air.” I like this quote because it boils down the complex sprinting biomechanics of the legs to something very simple: Legs are important. This means compound lifts, rather than isolated movements like leg curls, should be the main lifts.
Hamstrings are most active when prepping for the ground and glutes are most active in the stance phase, where they help extend the thigh, stabilize the trunk, and prevent hip drop. This is a little reductionist on my part, but legs help athletes go, slow down, stop, land, and prevent injuries. Yet, many high school athletes avoid training them altogether unless they are with a coach or trainer. Barbell hip thrusts are an excellent way to train hip extension in sprinting and Romanian deadlifts are a great way to eccentrically train the hamstrings for ground contact when sprinting.
I think, compared to most upper body exercises, the technical nature of lower body strength and power exercises is a bit intimidating. I love all types of squats, from goblet and front to back and split squats. I cannot in good faith recommend that someone who doesn’t already know how to squat just go and start squatting. Squatting is very individual and matching up squatting exercises and mobility drills is something a coach should help with. The same goes for all types of Olympic lifts.Matching up squatting exercises and mobility drills is something a coach should help with. Don’t just go and start squatting if you don’t already know how, warns @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I think it is easy for someone to fall into analysis paralysis with the vast array of lower body items making the rounds on the internet. I still think if an athlete is sprinting and doing other athletic work, they don’t need complicated in the weight room, at least for high school kids. It is also perfectly okay to repeat exercises. Variety is good and can be motivating, but not if you haven’t passed Weight Room 101.
For the high school athlete who is by themselves this summer, I think these exercises are fairly easy to learn and still accomplish most of what they need to take a step forward.
In this table, you can find terrific examples of hip extension exercises and lower body power exercises. I am not going to say they are the “best exercises,” but the exercises I feel most athletes could learn and do safely on their own. The hip thrust, even with a dumbbell and single leg, is an excellent way to train hip extension.
I would encourage athletes to still research and look at the videos on YouTube before doing these movements. There is enough variety to motivate an athlete to switch things up when bored while also promoting consistency. When we utilize exercises too soon, we can end up with something unsafe (or at least unproductive), like the reverse curl-hang clean.
The hex bar deadlift jump also gets a lot of love as a power exercise and I can see why. But I would not want an athlete in the off-season to be doing this without a coach/trainer. There have to be prerequisites to advanced items. A careful load selection percentage, the presence of a hip hinge, eccentric hamstring strength, and prior experience with deadlifting are all factors I would want in place before an athlete does these. While a trap bar deadlift is not the same setup or technique as a conventional barbell deadlift, it is a derivative used for roughly the same purpose. Conventional deadlift technique is taught better and, in my opinion, this makes trap bar deadlifts that much easier to master afterward.
I have seen many high school athletes at regular gyms without supervision just squat down, lift it up, and crash down with no eccentric control. This hinders hamstring development and deceleration abilities.
While it is a bit easier to do and add load than a conventional deadlift, the addition of a jump to a hex bar deadlift must be earned. These have an eccentric and concentric portion. If you are not doing trap bar deadlifts with the all-important eccentric phase, hex bar jumps are not an option for you yet. Simple things still need to be coached and you need to be strong before you worry about being powerful. Hold off on this exercise and other shiny objects for a while.
The above four power items are a bit less shiny and concerning due to the bodyweight and lighter weight load used during the exercises. There just are fewer boxes to check first before doing these. Every power exercise above, except med ball throws without countermovements, has an eccentric portion. Pick movements and not exercises. For beginners, learning correct technique on med ball throws is not as hard as Olympic lifts, especially if throwing it hard and fast is progressed slowly.
Rest More Than Before
I am not just talking about sleep. I am talking about rest intervals between sets and reps. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have fallen in love with the notion that constant motion equals hard work. Sweat doesn’t equal intent and, more often than not, doing things fresh with more rest will get the better result.We seem to have fallen in love with the notion that constant motion equals hard work. More often than not, doing things fresh with more rest will get the better result, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
During our track season, it is not uncommon to have four or five athletes at a rack in the weight room. We do this to force rest. By the time the first person goes again, they typically have rested for three minutes. This is a perfect amount of rest when strength training and they do nothing between sets but talk, spot, and support each other.
The same goes for speed training. The general rule of thumb devised by people much smarter than me is to rest one minute per every 10-meter run in an acceleration or max velocity session. A common introductory session I might use is 6x20m r=2’. If we are doing 10-meter flys with a 25-meter lead-in, I may use four minutes of rest by rounding up from 3.5 minutes. I encourage them to do some sprint drills to stay loose between sets. At any rate, complete rest is the goal.
Dr. Mike Young has noted that people with well-developed aerobic systems (helps ATP production) may be able to handle slightly less rest as long as the intent and speed are still greater than 90%. If you want your body to adapt neuromuscularly to sprinting, you have to train absolute speed. This can be boring and relatively sweat-free, but it works.
Have someone time you or, better yet, compete against a friend. Two sprint days a week can go a long way in developing your speed this off-season. Again, working with a coach on a specific program will always be the best option, but sprinting fast is often a good place to start. While everyone else is on “the grind,” use appropriate rest periods to get your best results.
A beginner athlete lifting smaller loads can probably get away with less rest and have slightly more volume to learn the movements better. As they move into increasing the loads, they may initially need more rest. An intermediate-level lifter will need to stay truer to the rest constraints.
Have Fun with Your Workouts
This is geared more to the intermediate and advanced athletes with some more experience. The pressure of being a serious athlete has to wear on high school athletes at times. Long seasons, early morning workouts, and school work can all have a cumulative effect and resultant burnout. They can become disinterested and experience large drops in performance.
I have an interesting view because I teach fifth grade and see strong athletes enrolled in travel ball, playing soccer through all seasons, and getting private lessons all the time. It is not uncommon for me to discover that when these athletes reach high school, they don’t play any sports at all. Some of this might speak to their peers catching up to them developmentally, but I suspect a few just got sick of it.
Mark Manson said, “Success is often the first step toward disaster. The idea of progress is often the enemy of actual progress.” I don’t see that pushing too hard, too often, and early is good for long-term development. More isn’t always better for growing athletes. Keep doing things really well and enjoy the process.I don’t see that pushing too hard, too often, and early is good for long-term development. More isn’t always better for growing athletes, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Even professional athletes have time off written into their contracts. As coaches, we need to remember who we are dealing with. Summer is an excellent time to catch up on much needed rest and make some gains, but I also think athletes should make time for things they love that still involve activity.
While good training is very structured, choices provide a mental break that goes a long way. Not everyone has fun running fast or lifting heavy all the time, but the good athletes will still do it.
My track athletes have done some of the following in the summer:
At the time, some of this stuff drove me nuts. I am learning that choice and variety are great things and can make more-resilient athletes. Some of my favorite gym or track sessions now, at age 36, are completely unplanned, and having that freedom keeps me going. I have never associated fitness with torture or being bored. I want my athletes to consistently work out and they need to authentically enjoy themselves once in a while.
I don’t think it has to be as extreme as some of the above activities.
- A well-placed “arm day” or hypertrophy block that doesn’t have a huge technical focus can provide a little mental break for the strength athlete. Training at high intensities all the time is impossible. Even powerlifters periodize training so they aren’t always training maximally.
- An abs/core circuit is a favorite among some of our female athletes. I think lifting heavy and sprinting address most of the core needs, but this is about mental health, not necessarily athletic gain. Think more along the lines of bear crawls, birddogs, and deadbugs, rather than sit-ups and crunches.
- Go for a run. I know some sprint coaches will have my head, but lots of field sports are aerobic as well. Even extensive tempo workouts like repeat 100 meters @70% or bowtie sprints for soccer players are structured. I’m not saying make running the main thing, but the cleansing effect and stress relief from a run can be a good thing.
- Play a pickup game of basketball, volleyball, football, ultimate frisbee, or something that isn’t your sport. Most sports are probably more similar to each other than different. This is an excellent way to get some agility work in a new setting, which can keep motivation high.
If you are an athlete whose calendar is already full of games and workouts and you hear a voice in your head or your joints saying “I need a break” every once in a while, take it. This could be active or complete rest. Once September hits and the competitive season begins, you want not only to be physically prepared, but also mentally ready to sustain that higher level of performance.
So, What Now?
An athlete not being coached through a specific program can have an issue seeing progress, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Getting into the weight room in the off-season and not doing any harm is a good second place trophy. They are still at a disadvantage when compared to athletes getting coached.
Realistically, for beginner and intermediate athletes, 2-3 days a week of full body done well is perfect. It is good to have some variety, but ultimately, some consistency with exercise selection is necessary to improve. I am not going to go full Flex magazine and list out sample training, but I will list a sensible daily format. If you are a novice or intermediate-level lifter, you should probably do something that looks more like this:
A1) Power exercise – jump squats
B1) Strength exercise (main lift) – Bulgarian split squat, 5×5 reps
C1) Assistance exercise – incline push-ups, 3-4x 8-10 reps
C2) Assistance exercise – banded pull-ups, 3-4x 8-10 reps
This is an easy way to start thinking about a plan and how long a gym session may last. You can also easily adapt these for bodyweight exercises to do at home. It isn’t perfect, but it is probably pretty achievable and more along the lines of something that will be beneficial. The next time the athlete lifts, they could make the main lift upper body and superset two lower body accessories. Change is a good way to make sure progress is happening.
The problem is that most of the exercises listed previously as being easy to learn aren’t actually considered main lifts (at least, not like squats or deadlifts are). The only exceptions may be the barbell hip thrust and Bulgarian split squat. I still think progressing to heavier weights with these exercises will help.
It also depends on what you want to get out of your assistance lifts. They are commonly used to make the main lifts better with extra work at lower intensities. Combining an upper body push with an upper body pull is a good way to make sure you aren’t becoming too anterior dominant. Symmetry and balance are great to help an athlete stay healthy.Symmetry and balance are great to help an athlete stay healthy, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I can’t speak in absolutes, so working with a coach obviously helps tailor the pairing of assistance lifts to the athlete and needs of the sport. It also provides more options with an emphasis on better technique. At the very least, athletes should remember that high-volume, split body part workouts aren’t very effective.
The same goes for sprinting. The base of speed is speed. Work short accelerations first and progress to flying sprints. Tony Holler has changed the game by getting the word out across the country with his “Sprint as fast as possible, as often as possible, while staying as fresh as possible” mantra. It is a terrific quote loaded with good common sense, but as Voltaire famously said, “Common sense is not so common.”
I spend a lot of time at tracks in the summer and see lots of athletes training. I see lots of quasi-sprinting under 90% with rest periods that are too short. Sprint first before the weight room and not on days when your legs are already sore. In 11 weeks of this summer, you have the opportunity to do around 20 extra sprint workouts that may bring forth neuromuscular adaptations that allow you to hit greater speeds on the field.
If you are truly working hard, either by yourself or with a coach, you should still plan some less-structured working out. I think being coached and learning are huge for developing as an athlete, but you should be mentally ready to be at your best in season as well. Don’t leave your best performances and mindset in the summer months. Best of luck this fall!
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