By Mark Hoover
One of the great challenges faced by high school strength and conditioning coaches is developing an effective protocol to develop student-athletes in our performance programs. Having an effective entrance plan with well-thought-out progressions goes a long way to efficiently move your athletes along the path to high performance within your programming.
I’m writing this article to offer insight into how we begin to develop our athletes to prepare for the climb from our Block Zero (Block 0) program to our Block 4-Elite level.
When I first began working with athletes over 20 years ago, I had very little experience differentiating programming based on training age. I came into the field from the sport coach side. My experience was using the back squat, deadlift, bench press, and hang clean. I’m embarrassed to say that at that point, I basically used the same program for all my athletes.
A few years into my coaching career, I began to see that there was another, much safer and more effective way to program. Since then, I’ve continued to chase knowledge and pursue best practices for working with athletes with a young training age. It wasn’t until about ten years ago when I was tasked to work with 3rd– to 8th-grade athletes that I really began to fine-tune what we now do.
While the base of our program is set, I continue to tweak and seek ways to become more efficient in our progression and regression protocols. I have learned from so many great coaches, and it would be impossible to list all who have contributed. I hope you can use this article the way I have used so much of what I’ve learned over the years on this topic. I hope that you can take something you see here and find a way to use it to your advantage.
About the Block Zero Program
Much like everyone else, our Block 0 program at York Comprehensive High School (YCHS) is a basic movement program. We teach our athletes mobility, body awareness, jumping and landing mechanics, stability, and all the basic movement patterns they’ll use during their time in our program. Of course, Block Zero was a term that was developed by Coach Joe Kenn to describe his introductory program. It’s become a general term many use to label their intro program. Although you’ll find many different plans depending on the coach, most contain the same basic ideas and principles outlined in Coach Kenn’s plan.
At various times I’ve had more direct control over the Block 0 program than others. In my last position, I ran a sports performance camp year-round that was attended by most of our young football players. I also did a summer camp in our weight room, teaching the basics of the program. In my current position, I don’t have access to our athletes until the Spring of their 8th-grade year. However, we have strength and conditioning classes at our middle school, and we’ve coached the teachers on our program. Each year, our rising freshman get a little better at what we do. I urge you to be as involved as possible with the young athletes in your program. If you’re not doing this yet, you’ll see an immediate impact when you start.
Basic Movement Overview
Our Block 0 program has many small variations and progressions. The chart below shows a very basic outline of what we do at the very beginning of the program. This is a multi-year plan, so you only see the first steps.
During Block 0, the athletes will learn a general mastery of the following:
- neck nods
- cross crawling
- general movement skills
- basic sprinting techniques
- straight leg bounding
- bodyweight movements
- eccentric and isometric bodyweight
- basic jumps with landing focus
- medicine ball throws
- weighted pushing and carries
|Bilateral Squat||Hinge||Horizontal Push||Vertical Push||Unilateral Squat||Pull||Pushes and Carries|
|Eccentric Air Squats (3-3-x tempo)||“3 Jump” Power position||Push-up plank and shoulder touch||PVC Shoulder press||Eccentric Split Squat (Hands overhead)
|High to low inverted rows (feet to floor up to elevated)||Sled Push-loaded|
|Plate Goblet Squat||Partner Push/PVC Hinge||Push-up plank leg lifts and hand walks||Med Ball Shoulder Press||Short Box Rear Foot elevated split squat||Chin Up hangs to assisted chin up||Farmer Carry with DB|
|Goblet Squat||Wall Drill||Eccentric hand release push-ups (3-3-x tempo)||Kneeling Med Ball Press
|Short Box Front foot elevated split squat||Assisted chin up to eccentric drop (slow as possible)||Waiter Carry with KB|
Our goal is to have each athlete come to us with a basic mastery of each of the above movements and progressions. They’re also exposed to more slightly advanced movements as they get close to the Spring of their 8th-grade year. Of course, that won’t happen 100% of the time, and it never will. We just hope to have as many as possible as high performing as they can be when they come to us.
8th Grade Spring Semester: The Key Transition Period
As high school coaches, ideally we’ll be able to either participate directly or at the very least program for our athletes from as early an age as possible. At YCHS, I’m particularly blessed because our middle school has weightlifting classes for both male football players and a separate female class. Our football program also has weightlifting sessions in the summer at the middle school as part of the team’s summer practice schedule. It’s a great opportunity for our athletes to take part if they choose to do so.
Our administration also has allowed to me spend time during the school day to provide professional development for the staff and coaches as well as coaching the athletes at our middle school. During the professional development sessions, I lay out a general plan for the areas I’d like to see developed. This includes all areas of our Block 0 program, including sprinting and jumping/landing techniques. I hope that our middle school athletes can master the most basic techniques and have exposure to some next level movements.
At the very least, I hope our athletes will have a working knowledge of hinge and squat patterns. Of course, there will always be athletes who don’t end up in a class and come to us with a zero training age. It’s not uncommon to have freshmen and sophomores come in with the same issue. For these athletes, we go straight to the very beginning, though we obviously don’t have the time to spend multiple years mastering Block 0. Instead, they’ll move at a pace that will allow them to master the most basic techniques in the weight room. These older Block 0 athletes will still have to pass all our entrance standards to the various levels of weightlifting movements, jumping, and landing. Unfortunately, they lose some of the movement skills practice that comes with the multi-year Block 0 program.
Starting in the Spring semester of their 8th-grade year, they begin to participate in our after-school sessions. Most of these athletes are female because both 7th and 8th-grade football has a weightlifting class during school hours. Our middle school and high school athletes are together during this time, which can get pretty chaotic for me. I’ll have male and female Block 0 to Bock 4 athletes on a multitude of calendars based on sports season participation.It’s important for the coach who has the most experience to work with the least experienced athletes, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
If you plan to run your sessions this way, it’s imperative to have help. I usually have two to four sport coaches working with me during this time. While it’s tempting to work with our more advanced athletes and have the sport coaches focus on the younger group, we do the exact opposite at YCHS. I spend the vast majority of my after-school program with my 0 and level 1 athletes. The sport coaches will be with our 2-4 groups. If I teach our young athletes exactly how we want to do things, I believe they’ll experience success at our higher levels with less attention. It’s important for the coach who has the most experience to be with the least experienced athletes. The only exception to this rule is the week we test.
Jump and Land Athletically
When the 8thgrade Block 0 group first comes to us, we want to get a general idea of where each athlete stands concerning what we hope they have mastered. I also want to understand each person’s overall level of athletic ability. We do this by watching them (with very little coaching cue) hop over five short agility hurdles. I tell them to jump and land, hold the landing for two seconds, and repeat.
We chose this test because it’s a great indicator of how much time they spent in our Block 0 program. Having an athlete jump and land also gives us a rough estimate of their athletic ability. Athletes who have a good level of experience will show a level of technique that a less experienced athlete won’t—particularly how they initiate and land.
We coach the “smash the egg” technique. I cue them that they have an egg on the back of their hamstring and when they jump, they need to “smash” the egg with their calves. We also approach landing with a very detail-oriented style: soft landings initially (with more stiff and explosive techniques coming later in the process) with toe to heel progression, feet shoulder width and forward, proper lower body flexion, and upper body bent forward close to 45 degrees. They hold for two seconds and repeat the effort over each mini hurdle.
This process is especially important for our female population. Knee injury is so prominent among female athletes that we, as strength coaches, have to help them not only strengthen but learn to move efficiently. And this is part of that process. I understand the argument that athletes in sport don’t often have the opportunity to land perfectly. But I also firmly believe that teaching the correct way to absorb force and stabilize while adding strength will help an athlete make the needed corrections in less than perfect landing situations.Teaching how to absorb force & stabilize while adding strength helps self-correction in less than perfect landing situations, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Following this initial observation time, we go into a coaching period. We’ll review the correct techniques and explain our cues. Then we go through the drill a few more times, this time correcting and teaching the athlete to self-correct.
Constructing Power Position and Hinge Mechanics
The next step in our evaluation is hinge progression. We begin by reviewing the power position. I can’t recall where I heard this cue, but it’s my favorite: “You’re talking to a friend in class, and you sit on the edge of a desk to talk.” Next cue is superman or superwomen position, not by the sticking chest out or by pushing shoulders back but by “squeezing your big back muscles” up and squeezing hands together into a fist in front of you. This locks the athlete into a nice tight power position with their core and back. I have them hold and release this position to get a feel. I then have them hop three times and land without adjusting their feet but by getting that feel back. I’ve found that hopping and landing without thinking about foot placement often result in the athlete finding a natural power position.Hopping and landing without thinking about foot placement helps athletes find a natural power position, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Step two is to partner up the athletes and have them stand back to back. We cue “power position” and then “push back with just your butt,” and they push against each other and reset, this time taking a step away. We repeat this process until they are far enough away from each other to complete a hinge movement. One cue that’s very helpful when teaching this concept (especially with basketball players) is having them imagine themselves with their back to a basket, ball in hand. Tell them the defender is playing tight and they need to create space to make their move without fouling. Often, they instinctively sink their hips and push the butt back into a really nice position.
Once we have that established, we’ll get out the PVC pipes. The athletes will get in the power position with the PVC pipe behind them running from overhead toward the floor aligned with the spine and glutes. The athlete’s top hand will be on the top of the PVC pipe with the elbow held at a 45-degree angle. The bottom hand will be behind their back, holding the PVC pipe in and against them. The athletes hinge in this position, making sure the PVC pipe stays connected with the upper back and top of their glutes as they bend. This movement teaches the movement pattern we’re looking for very efficiently.
The last step on the first day is the wall hinge drill, which is very similar to the partner drill. We also use the wall hinge drill as a regression movement for athletes, even at a higher training age. The athlete stands at the wall a few inches away in power position and pushes their butt back to touch the wall. They then step out and repeat. They’ll hold the position each time until I cue corrections. The number one thing I correct is the athlete lifting their toes and rocking back on their heels to get their glutes to the wall.
Introducing Barbell and Bodyweight Squatting Patterns
Once we’ve taught and reviewed the hinge, we move to the squat. Each of these teaching progressions could be an article in itself, so I’ll try to give the most streamlined version possible.
Step one is the eccentric air squat with a 3-second eccentric and isometric (pause) phase and a quick concentric phase. We cue the athlete to get into the power position with hands in front, take a breath through the nose (mouth closed) to expand stomach, squeeze the back (as taught earlier) and hands, push the hips back slightly, and slowly sit back on their heels. When they hit the bottom of the squat, they hold for 3 seconds then breathe out as they pop out of the squat as quickly as possible in a controlled manner.
We’re looking for weight pressing on the heels, superhero chest, body upright with a neutral chin, and knees externally rotated tracking over the outside toe. One common mistake I see is the athlete trying to initiate movement with knees instead of hips. That gets them up on their toes and makes it hard to sit back on the heels. From this, we can tell a great deal about the athlete’s mobility.
Next, we’ll add a plate and eventually a kettlebell or dumbbell to the same movement, which gives us even more information on possible dysfunction. We evaluate from the ground up checking for ankle mobility issues, possible knee valgus, hamstring strength and mobility, and core and thoracic strength.
Our final initial step with our lower body evaluation and preparation phase is our unilateral squat progression. We don’t often get to this on day one. If we do, we start with a split squat (even though it’s not a true unilateral movement) version of the eccentric air squat and progress in the same way. Much of the process is the same.
My main cues involve the front knee since athletes often push their hips forward instead of down toward the floor. This causes the knee to shoot out past the front of the foot, throwing the shin angle into excessive flexion. Also, if the knee is out past the toe but the hips are moving down, they likely have their feet too close together in their split. There are many other things we need to look for and coach with split squats, but that’s another article.
The second day our athletes come to us, we shift to the upper body portion of our protocols. These include horizontal push, vertical push, pulls, and weighted pushes and carries. I’ll cover these in depth in a future article because upper body training—while important—has some complicated politics and philosophies that merit a full breakdown.
Stay Patient and Never Stop Teaching
I hope that this article has given you insight into how we start the athletic development process for sports performance at YCHS. We pride ourselves in physically preparing our student-athletes with an evidence-based, step-by-step process that will lead them to advanced barbell movements with heavy loads. As coaches, sometimes we’re in a hurry to have our athletes lifting heavy and doing these advanced movements. I urge you to avoid this path and instead “slow cook” your athletes.The better prepared athletes are from a young training age, the more strength and power they'll produce in the upper levels of your program. Click To Tweet
Whether it’s using a program like the one I’ve outlined here or another one based on similar concepts, I hope you find the program that’s right for you and your athletes. In the long run, the better prepared they are from a young training age, the more strength and power they’ll be able to eventually put out when they reach the upper levels of your program. As always, feel free to reach out to me to discuss this or any topic. If I don’t have the “why,” I can point you in the direction of someone who does.