A constant phrase that I hear muttered across the sports performance and strength and conditioning field is “polishing the basics.” This is a topic that the strength coaching community needs to address before we lose our heads over what it actually means and why it is being harped on at an absurd rate. Multiple coaches continue to use this phrase, and I personally believe it is being abused and athletes are losing out on development because of it.
This article will explain why polishing the basics is something we must move on from at some point soon. I’m not sure where this came from and how it became such a popular mantra, but I am going to just come out and say it…
Are you “polishing the basics” or are you incompetent as a coach?
Before someone loses their ever-loving mind on me, I want to preface this with the understanding that the basics are IMPORTANT. Everyone needs a foundation. Everyone needs that 101 course to get them started. Every athlete needs to learn how to squat, lunge, hinge, push, and pull. If you think I am getting away from that, you need to check your ego at the door.
Part of performance coaching is teaching movement. It is imperative that we ingrain good movement patterns and habits as soon as possible. But remember, the basics are simply that—the basics. You must move on from them at some point in order to continue development. If not, you and your athletes are going to get left behind, and you’ll be left wondering what went wrong.Remember, the basics are simply that—the basics. You must move on from them at some point in order to continue development, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
Let me paint this picture for you: In your college education, you only take general education courses for 2-4 semesters. In the military, the average basic training lasts about 10 weeks. There aren’t any engineers who only took pre-algebra in high school. Why do we believe that this is the best way to approach training for our athletes? Let me answer that for you…it’s not. I am going to go through what a progression with a team in the weight room may look like, and why polishing the basics for so long will not only yield smaller results but may even stop development altogether.
Let Me Give You Some Context
I took over the strength and conditioning program here at Madison Academy back in May 2018. It became my fifth stop in two years as a strength and conditioning professional. At that point in my career, I was spending just enough time somewhere to see traction begin to set in….and then I’d get another job.
This happened three times, and it became apparent that I had not been anywhere long enough to see any fruit from the seeds that I had planted in those places. I made the move to the high school ranks knowing this was where I wanted to stay, so I decided to approach it a little differently than those other places. Little did I know how much I would learn about who I was as a coach and how I was going to get results.
I told myself that the first few months were going to be about—yes, you guessed it—polishing the basics. Ha! Funny, right? We were going to become masters at movement patterns because this is what high school kids need the most, right?!
Well, it became apparent that I was partly right. These kids knew how to move decently well, for the most part. Fortunately, there was a qualified strength coach who came before me, setting these kids up for success and ingraining the idea of developing movement patterns before adding load. This is good and all, but I had a decision to make when I arrived that May:
1. Start everything over, implement my system, and teach everyone the very basics.
2. Just begin training and teach as we go.
I chose the latter.
We began to train with the frame of mind that we needed to get used to movement WITH LOAD. I quickly began to see who could handle it and who could not. This is where my differentiated leveling system was born.
My athletes fall into three different categories: novice, intermediate, advanced. I initially placed them into these categories based solely on two factors: movement complexity capability and effort. Who could sequence the clean right now? Who could squat to depth with great control right now? Who could hinge and hold pelvic stability right now?
I made these evaluations on the fly and we began to TRAIN. I did not stop and make everyone do a PVC clean; I did not have everyone do 1,600 bodyweight squats. We just began to train, and the training allowed for development to begin without losing time.We just began to train, and the training allowed for development to begin without losing time…now all of my students are competent movers, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
Fast-forward two years, and now all of my students are competent movers. We load every main movement in some capacity and polish the basics no more. The basics are important to cover, but why do coaches stay on them forever? My guess is they are scared and insecure. It’s as simple as that.
A Story of Two Coaches Who Are Both Wrong
I currently see two philosophies across the board when it comes to strength and conditioning, especially at the high school level and other developmental models. Let’s call them Coach A and Coach B.
Coach A is the old-school coach who wants to chase numbers and solidify himself as a hard-nosed, tough coach who gets his athletes to work hard. Coach A believes that reaching a specific number on the squat, clean, and bench will automatically make the football team better. We can all argue that this is not the best approach to performance training and that Coach A may get his kids hurt. Coach A does not focus enough on movement. Coach A does not consider prehab to be beneficial. The numbers he chases are arbitrary, and the return on investment is not as high as he believes it is. Most professionals would agree that Coach A needs to check his ego at the door and seek some growth on human and athletic performance.
Then there is Coach B. Coach B considers himself a human performance specialist, with certifications in everything from corrective exercise specialist level 12 to backyard nutrition with four distinction asterisks. Coach B believes that the basics are what is best because they keep athletes the safest. Coach B focuses a lot on ankle mobility rocking drills and PVC movements on the whistle. It takes two years to “earn the barbell” because mastering a goblet squat is really difficult to do. The elite athletes of the group do more complex movement such as catching tennis balls while doing footwork on a Bosu ball, because of the vestibular adaptation. But this coach’s athletes are never sore and do not have injuries in the weight room. This coach seems to be praised more in the online performance setting because polishing the basics is what keeps athletes healthy…
Which coach would you want developing and coaching your athletes? My answer? Neither.
Alright, I know I was a tad extreme there, but you get my point. Unfortunately, I see a lot of coaches out there who share a lot of characteristics with Coach B. They use phrases such as “Earn the barbell.” Although this is good in theory, barbell movements still require a level of skill that athletes can only acquire from experience with a barbell in their hand.Although “earning the barbell” is good in theory, barbell movements still require a level of skill that athletes can only acquire from experience with a barbell in their hand, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
I see many coaches who believe that there needs to be some revolutionary program that spends hours and hours on push-ups and bodyweight squats. Shall I say the “Block Zero” approach may be a little ridiculous? The strength community may disown me for saying it, but I believe you are wasting your time after a certain point and need to get under a bar and learn what a bar feels like. Many coaches love the term “Block Zero” that was coined by Joe Kenn. Unfortunately, some of the “Block Zero” programs I see today are simply a waste of time.
Let me give you an example. In my program, the front squat is a high priority. I see my students as early as eighth grade. When they begin with me, we do four weeks of goblet cyclist squats to drive volume and kinematics then go straight to the barbell. It is going to take time for my middle schoolers to feel what is demanded in a great front squat, so guess what we do? We rep it for months, at different speeds, different loads, different volumes, and different intensities. I see many coaches who goblet squat their athletes for an entire year. You can’t practice checkers to be good at chess even though they are both strategy board games.
I recently spoke to Brandon Reyes, Graduate Assistant Strength Coach for the D2 National Champion University of West Florida Football Program, and he spoke highly along the same lines of using bang-for-your-buck movements that you can load:
“We were able to continue to load our guys throughout the season, moving heavier weight faster, and that eliminated having to do more exercises in-season because of the qualities we were developing through our experience with a loaded bar.”
There is a distinct difference between establishing the basics and polishing the basics. Some coaches spend too much time in the basics and forget the principle of progressive overload and the law of accommodation. The basic movements that coaches teach are not fundamentally tough enough to get good at with little to no load. The kinematics of the movement change as load increases. In order to see adaptation, whether that is strength, rate of force development, power, or what-have-you, there must be some experience with those load zones.There is a distinct difference between establishing the basics and polishing the basics, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
The greater the athlete’s skill with the handling of load, the higher their training capacity will be. The higher their training capacity is, the higher potential for adaptation. The only way this happens is if the athlete gets some experience with the bar in their hands. Does this excuse bad training? No. Does it excuse poor movement patterns with poor intensity prescription? Not at all. But load is important and must be practiced just like anything else. Let me give you some examples of where I think coaches miss the boat when they believe they are “polishing the basics.”
The Perfect Push-Up Must Come Before the Bench Press
This is probably the most asinine concept that I can think of. I have heard countless coaches argue that if an athlete cannot handle their body weight in a push-up, then they have no business loading up a barbell. I can give you a few reasons why this concept does not make sense. Let’s compare the two and I will show you.
The push-up is a movement that requires anterior core strength, pelvic control, and upper body strength in order to properly complete it. The push-up position is used as a core stability exercise by itself, so moving through a range of motion in that position will require even more stability. Stability must be present in order to produce high levels of force, and it is hard to do that in a push-up, especially for a young athlete whose relative body strength is low. There is a reason why your lightest athletes can bang out push-ups with no problem, but your heavier, and sometimes stronger, athletes cannot. Many coaches say that they do not allow their athletes to bench press until they can complete 10 bodyweight push-ups. Let me use some numbers to open your eyes on this ridiculous concept.
The push-up requires you to lift 65% of your body weight (Zatsiorsky, 2006). Let’s say I have a freshman athlete who weighs 235 pounds. In order to pass the 10-rep prerequisite to bench press, I must keep great technique while doing 10 reps at 152 pounds (65% of BW). Because of the nature of the push-up, the stability and anterior core demands may be too much for this athlete to complete really well right now.The push-up prerequisite for bench press wastes your athletes’ time and leads to you leaving so much development on the table, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
So how should we approach this? Train both at the same time! While my athletes are learning to do the push-up and gaining anterior core stability, they are also gaining relative upper body strength with the bench press due to the greater capacity to train it. The push-up prerequisite for bench press wastes your athletes’ time and leads to you leaving so much development on the table.
‘Earn the Barbell’ – Long Squat Progressions
Another popular concept is for athletes to earn the right to use a barbell in training by mastering the movement in unloaded fashions. The biggest example is mastering the bodyweight squat before adding any load, much less using a barbell. Once again, why is this a thing? I understand that squatting is a motor pattern that needs to be mastered, but why don’t we understand that the movement changes as different loads are added to it?
You can bodyweight squat all you want, but as soon as you add load, something is going to change. For example, getting to depth with a bodyweight squat is more difficult than using an anterior loaded goblet squat. Why? Counterbalance force. When load is added in front of the body, it is easier to stabilize in deeper ranges of motion.
I do not do any bodyweight squats in my program. Zero. We begin with some kind of load with every student, athlete or not. Load gives feedback to the body and allows the athlete to figure out how to move with it. This is why load is important once you have introduced the movement. Furthermore, transitioning to a front squat is a demand that must be worked on through repetition.
Guys, you cannot goblet squat your way into a great front squat. It just does not translate. The rack position demands more thoracic extension and differentiation of scapular upward rotation and lumbar extension. Most athletes who cannot get into a front rack position are very poor in these demands. So, it must be trained. As soon as they are competent, it must be loaded in order to progressively overload. Unfortunately, we have coaches who continue to goblet squat athletes to death and leave mounds of development on the table.You cannot goblet squat your way into a great front squat—it just does not translate, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
The sooner I get my athletes under the bar, the closer they get to development. Do I use the goblet squat for accessory volume? Sure. Is it our primary lift for the lower body? Absolutely not. My eighth graders begin feeling a front rack position as soon as the fourth week of school. I did not do this last year, and I am seeing this year’s eighth graders much further along than this year’s ninth graders.
We established the basics, but we do not polish them. We polish habits every day through high integrity of training. Once our athletes are competent, we load in order to prepare their tissues for the demands of their athletic careers. This is what is going to reduce injury; this is what is going to enhance performance. Not your fancy PVC drills and empty filler mobility super sets.
Qualified S&C Coaches Are Essential
Once again, I want to reiterate that basic movement patterns are essential. It is important that we continue to teach these movement patterns to our athletes, but if we do not get our athletes to a competent point to handle load, we are not doing our jobs as strength coaches. I firmly believe that the majority of coaches who claim they are “polishing the basics” are just afraid they are going to get their kids hurt due to their inability to know how to progress. This is why it is essential for qualified individuals to be running performance and strength programs across the country.
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