Strength and conditioning coaches are under the spotlight more than ever. The field is under more scrutiny than ever—as it should be. The media-driven world we live in gives us the ability to see a snapshot of many different strength training programs around the country. This can be a trap for a lot of coaches out there running programs in many different leagues and levels.
As the old adage says, “Never judge a book by its cover,” right? Well, this is not a reality. We make judgments every single second of our lives. Coaches make judgments the second they see an athlete move. Great coaches have protocols in place once they identify gaps in movement patterns. We must understand that judging a book by its cover is not always a bad thing. It can go one of two ways.
First, a young coach may see a snapshot of a training session and think it’s a missing piece to their program or that it may take their athletes to the next level. This can be dangerous because of the lack of context in which it was prescribed. Second, the same mistake can be made by the experienced coach who sees that same snapshot and proclaims that it’s inappropriate programming or coaching. Unfortunately, this happens every single day on social media.
Because we live in a world of instant information, I want to shed some light on the steps that performance coaches must take before ever writing an exercise, volume, or intensity prescription. I hope this post gives perspective for every young coach out there looking for guidance on programming and why everything in training, and in life, is relative.
We must address five main categories in every program before we write it. We often speak of how powerful the basics of training can be and why being a principle-driven programmer is more effective than an exercise-driven programmer. Before we can even get to training principles, we must first address our uncontrollable circumstances: population, time, resources, manpower, and relational dynamics.
No matter where you coach, always understand that the logo is not what drives the organization—the people do. We must dive deep to understand the people we work for and the people we serve. The strength coach’s responsibility is to progress the physical capabilities of athletes while minimizing injury risk.
Assessing Your Athletes
When coming into a program, the coach must first assess the athletes’ current abilities so they can have an idea of where to start. How do we do this? Some coaches like to begin with a movement assessment, such as the FMS. I find that the FMS is not a great use of time. Instead, when I began at my new position at Madison Academy, we simply began to train. Watching my athletes move was enough for me to gain that context. As long as you base your initial program on basic movement patterns (squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, brace, jump, land), you’ll see where you need to go.
This may look different from the professional to the college level. It may look different from the college to the high school level. This may even look different from one team to another at the same level. It may look different on the same team from year to year! Shocker, right? Programs should not be written before you consider and analyze the specific needs of your athletes fully.
What does this look like? When I was responsible for the baseball and softball programs at Division 1 McNeese State University, I decided to stay away from the Olympic movements in training. I based this decision on the risks and rewards and the importance of the wrist and hand. I also believe the demands of a predominantly rotational sport will not see as much benefit from a primary movement in the vertical sagittal plane. Some coaches may disagree, but it’s my stance on this specific parameter.
In my current position at the high school level, I’m implementing a primarily developmental model that uses the same basic movements across all students and athletes. Everyone cleans, everyone squats, everyone deadlifts. While I make some individual modifications, this model looks different in my current population than the ones I served before. The outlook for my high school athletes is not the same as the outlook I had for my college athletes playing one sport.
Number of Athletes
Next, consider the number of people you’re serving. Some coaches, especially at the high school level, are serving 300+ athletes every week. Some coaches are managing 60-80 athletes in a weight room in a single session. We must consider these factors before programming begins. If the schedule and circumstances happen to give you no choice but to train a large number of athletes at once, you must keep things as simple as possible. This has more to do with the coach-to-athlete ratio, which I’ll touch on later in this article.
Movement Ability and Training Age
The last consideration is the movement competency and training age of the population you’re training. Before executing the training program to progress the athletes properly, we must perform determining assessments and evaluations that give a clear picture of how to begin. One of the simplest ways to do this is to use a movement-based standard training template that allows for enough volume to assess and light enough intensity to be safe and work from there.
The next factors to consider before programming are time and schedule. In the majority of strength and conditioning settings, we cannot control these. In the high school setting, for example, the schedule is usually set in stone due to the class structure during the day. On the other hand, some high-level college sports, such as men’s basketball, may have their own facility and only 16 guys on the roster. Scheduling training can have more flexibility with a schedule like that. When scheduling is more flexible, programming strategies can be as well.
My current schedule is 85 minutes in a “block” high school schedule. We designate ten minutes before and after class for dressing in and out. We have a total of 65 minutes to complete our training. Because we function on an alternating schedule (set of four classes on one day and a different set of four classes the next), we only get in two days of training per week. This is a major component of my programming template, selections, and protocols. Many high schools get to train every single day, but with less time to train.
The majority of training is scheduled by team based on weight room availability, practice time, time of year, and other variables. In the high school setting, you often see an entire football team training at the same time in a facility that’s not built for it. This can be unsafe and also inconducive to sound programming and coaching. I’ve seen programs train their football team with 80+ guys at once and only 2-3 coaches coaching or “supervising.” It’s economical from a scheduling and time standpoint, but not at all from a quality standpoint. Lots of these variables are out of our control, and we need to analyze them fully before program creation begins.
If you’re pushed into this circumstance, I recommend being a savage at the simple movements, such as a primary squat movement, primary hinge movement, a single-leg movement, an upper-body push, and an upper-body pull. Having a large number of athletes makes it difficult to coach technique at a high level. Sometimes you have to do the best you can with the hand you’re dealt, but make sure your athletes are getting the best out of the situation they’re in.
Resources may be the biggest variable affecting programming capabilities. Every school and team have different resources available to them to use for training. Some of the best facilities in the country have a large weight room with many racks and lots of space, which often is attached to an indoor turf area where athletes can do a lot more than they could inside a weight room. You also must consider weight room exercise equipment. How many racks are available? Do you have bumper plates? Do you have bands? Do you have dumbbells? What barbell types do you have? We must consider all of these things in our programming. Weight rooms across the country all look different. Here are a few examples from my experience.
As a volunteer intern at Mississippi State, I was fortunate to be a part of the strength staff for Nick Savage and company. Before the summer began, the first thing we did as interns was to rearrange the room for how Coach Savage and his staff wanted it based on their programming that summer. He wanted to work in primary training blocks, then work accessories and auxiliary work off a rotation. After the main training blocks were finished, one coach and his guys would go to a station that would involve anything from neck training, shoulder care, back work, and even some arm farm. This type of training would not have been possible without the number of machine resources and weight room space.
When I moved on from MSU to West Alabama as a graduate assistant, the resources were drastically different. Going from a 12,000 square foot facility to a 2,000 square foot facility can change things quickly. Keep in mind, having fewer resources is not an excuse for bad programming or bad training. At West Alabama, we had racks, bumper plates, barbells, and a few dumbbells. I had the privilege to work for my mentor Joseph Boyd who got better results with those items than most coaches get with much more. The team was two wins away from a national championship appearance.You may have to simplify your training program due to weight room resources, but that's no excuse to program poorly. Click To Tweet
Resources may not be things you can control initially, but they’re something that every strength coach should strive to build. The best coaches can get results with athletes using less. I hear many young coaches complain most about weight room resources. You may have to simplify things, but that’s no excuse to program poorly.Many coaches overlook the management, workflow, and logistics of training execution when designing a training program. Click To Tweet
One of the biggest factors that many coaches, especially young coaches, don’t consider is the management, workflow, and logistics of training execution. Lots of coaches put down a training program that will maximize power output but may not be possible to execute due to logistical complications and population size. For example, a coach may have read about Triphasic Training or French Contrast training and want to implement it into their current training program. What if the coach does not have the space to allow for a logistical flow to go from the strength movement to the power movement to the speed/overspeed movement? It’s not good to force a round peg into a square hole. A better strategy is to get very good at a few things than to be mediocre at many things.
The athlete-to-coach ratio is important in training sessions. Many places have only one strength coach, and they have to take care of all training duties and coaching by themselves. At the highest level of college football, five full-time coaches are allowed. Most programs add up to 5-10 interns to aid in many things, such as setup and breakdown. At the highest level, the programming capabilities are endless because they have the manpower to execute the plan.
Training and Coaching
First, the manpower allows for more athletes to train and receive proper coaching. When there are too many athletes per coach, the training session becomes more of a managerial role than a coaching role when specific systems and routines are not in place.
In a weight room, most coaches are concerned with safety. This is common sense. The higher the coach-to-athlete ratio, the higher the risk. To keep order and flow intact, the strength coach may use an on-the-whistle pacing strategy. This may be done rep by rep, set by set, or block by block. To do this, you must have someone responsible for keeping up the pace. I don’t recommend pacing rep by rep. It will turn your athletes into robots. It may be a good method to evaluate if your athletes are completing every rep, but at what cost? You may be counting reps, but are the reps quality reps in the first place? These are questions you must ask.
I like to work off a block-to-block or tier-to-tier pacing strategy. After studying movement types, volumes, and intensities over time, I developed a good feel for how long a block should last in my system. In my current system, I have 2-3 athletes working per rack. No more, no less. For our primary movements, it takes anywhere from 10-13 minutes to complete our first block or tier of the day. This allows some freedom to coach up individuals while making sure everyone is training at the correct pace. I use a visual clock that athletes can see. Some coaches use software such as Rack Performance to help pace their training. Whatever you decide to use, it’s best to use a pacing guide that fits your training parameters. Observe how long training tiers take, decide if that’s too fast, too slow, or just right, and then create your pace.
Setup and Breakdown
Second, the manpower allows for quicker setup and breakdown of the room. Staff with more members can be more efficient during training sessions, especially if transitions or rotations are involved. I’ve even seen interns changing weight for athletes so training sessions can go smoother and faster. This is only possible if you have the manpower available to do so. If you don’t, implementing things such as barbell loading references can help speed up transitions. I have charts posted around my weight room that tell what plates belong on each side for barbell loads from 45 lbs to 500 lbs. They’ve been a huge help to our efficiency.
The art of communication and coaching comes into play in this last category of programming precursors. The relationship dynamic between a strength coach and sport coach is a major variable when programming. Many coaches are fortunate to have the full backing of their sport coach to allow them to do what they are professionally trained and educated to do. What most people don’t see is the groundwork of trust that was laid before that happened. Whether the trust is earned from working with that sport coach over time or the strength coach receives a high recommendation from someone the sport coach trusts, full support comes from the strength coach consistently getting results over time.
Lots of strength coaches in the industry complain a lot about the leverage the sport coach has over them. I don’t believe that a sport coach has much business building training sessions that are impractical but, at the end of the day, they are responsible for their team. It’s the strength coach’s job to communicate on a high level to gain the sport coach’s trust to get the job done.It's the strength coach’s job to communicate to gain the sport coach's trust. And it's up to both to communicate with private coaches. Click To Tweet
The sport-strength coach dynamic will always exist in team sports. Unfortunately, this fails most at the high school level and the communication with private sector coaches. Lots of athletes are looking to “outwork” their opponents and train with private trainers on top of their school training. This can be really beneficial or detrimental. It’s up to the sport and strength coaches to communicate with the athlete and their private trainer to create the most holistic approach possible. This is not the norm. If used properly, private training can help an athlete develop to their highest level much quicker. This is what we want for our athletes, right? It has to be about the athlete, not ourselves.
Want things to get better? Invest in relationships. Reach out to the private sector coach to learn what they’re doing and establish a communication line. Sit down with your sport coaches to explain everything behind your program and why it will make the team better. This doesn’t happen overnight, but if you commit to the pursuit of a healthy relationship with these individuals, your training program will go to a whole new level.
There are other factors we should consider before prescribing an exercise, volume, or intensity. Some of these are the athletes’ sports demands, injury history, and practice plan implementation. We must do a better job as strength coaches to apply stimulus that makes the most sense for the environment our athletes are living in. We often get caught up in our own world of the weight room and do not consider the stressors that are happening outside of it. The next time you write a program, consider the above categories to put together the most appropriate training stimulus for your athletes to continue to develop and remain healthy.
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