In addition to owning a private training facility for over 20 years, I am also a full-time strength coach in a high school. A typical day for me is coaching three groups and seeing 150+ athletes. Time is limited, with each session lasting only 45 minutes. Sometimes, an in-season team will go for 30 minutes. During certain phases of the year, I have groups of 90 athletes with no help—just me coaching a packed house of athletes with varying levels of training experience.
When I first started coaching at this high school about four years ago, the warm-up was extremely simple in the overly crowded weight room (benches and machines were packed everywhere). We did two exercises for the warm-up: pause squats and push-ups. The majority of the athletes (including varsity and upper-level students) struggled to perform a bodyweight squat to parallel. They struggled to perform a proper push-up.
When I started this new position, I remember thinking to myself, these kids are probably going to have a good idea of how to train.
Why? There’s so much information freely and readily available on YouTube and Instagram. I assumed the baseball players and their coach had read up on Eric Cressey. I assumed the football players understood that squats should be a full range of motion and that benching is performed without a back bridge. I assumed the athletes were bombarded with information on social media regarding how training with the correct technique is the best thing for them.
Instead, I saw athletes perform death-defying 1RM benching every day and then curling for 30 minutes. I didn’t see one athlete squat—or, for that matter, do any leg training at all—and I realized I’d been stuck in my bubble for way too long.
Welcome to High School
I had spent my time training athletes at my private facility and the D1 level. I was used to athletes who showed up ready to listen, ready to work, and ready to be coached. Once I began training teams, I had to change the culture and teach them like I taught middle school athletes to train at The Underground Strength Gym.If you’re starting a new program or taking over an existing one, never assume that the athletes understand what proper training is. In fact, assume nothing! Click To Tweet
If you’re starting a new program or taking over an existing one, never assume that the athletes understand what proper training is. In fact, assume nothing! Looking back at how shocked I was, seeing the difference in a high school compared to the athletes I trained at my private facility…now I shake my head and laugh at myself.
I’ll share with you my experiences and the mistakes I made so that you can hopefully avoid the same mistakes, save yourself time, and get results with your athletes at a faster rate.
Start Them from the Ground Up
Get great at calisthenics (push-ups, iso push-ups, recline rows, lunges, split squats, iso lunges, squats, pull-ups, etc.). Use calisthenics as a warm-up and then add them into the training program with low reps to accumulate volume throughout the training session. With large groups, I often use calisthenics added into the programming, where we sneak them in between sets of barbell and dumbbell training. With large groups, athletes can easily get distracted. Adding calisthenics keeps the athletes active, improves strength and GPP, and builds muscle with the added volume.
Use dumbbells to learn technique/movement patterns and build strength and size before “earning” the right to use the barbell (goblet squats, lunges, Farmer’s walks, military press, chest supported row, shrugs, curls, dumbbell benching at various angles). Have standards with the dumbbell training so athletes have to earn their way to the barbell. After talking with Jim Wendler a while back, I came up with some simple standards and modified them through experience. You can modify these as well to fit your philosophy and unique situation.
Squat Standards: Before an athlete can load their spine, I have the following standards:
- Goblet squats for 10 reps with 75 pounds (body weight under 175) or 100 pounds (body weight over 175).
- For girls, it is a 45-pound goblet squat x 10 reps.
My preference before loading the spine with a back squat is to teach the front squat, but this does not always go as planned. Some teams train year-round with me, while other teams only train in season. You learn to make decisions on the fly to avoid turning a training session into a teaching session. I firmly believe that athletes need to work, and sometimes that means the front squat will be introduced another day.
Bench Press Standards: Before an athlete can get under a bar and begin benching, here are the standards:
- Boys dumbbell benching with 40s in each hand for 10 reps.
- Girls dumbbell benching with 25s in each hand for 10 reps.
Do I ever break the “rules” and bypass the standards? Yes, mainly if I have a quiet group and it’s not a packed house, we might bypass the dumbbell standards and do technique work on the bench, squat, or front squat.
I will say this, though—anytime it’s crowded, and athletes try to sneak to the barbell without being anywhere near the dumbbell standards, we see a dangerous and poor technique. My advice to you is always lean toward earning the right to use a barbell.My advice to you is to always lean toward athletes earning the right to use a barbell…It is a mistake to rush the barbell. Click To Tweet
I began these standards with one set of the designated weight with dumbbells and realized that some athletes could almost get “lucky” doing one set at the standard weight, yet they don’t have enough experience in training. It is a mistake to rush to the barbell. So, here’s what I did instead; I transitioned to three sets of these weights/standards to ensure the athletes could handle this work for more than one set and to stop athletes from trying to rush to the barbell.
Do I sometimes make an exception? Yes. If I am lucky to have a group that isn’t so crowded or if an athlete shows up with great frequency and consistency, I will break up a group and teach the barbell lifts earlier or have experienced athletes bring them into their group. This is a reward for consistency coupled with a safe learning environment.
At my private facility, we have, on average, eight athletes per group. Some groups might be four athletes, while at certain times, there are 15–18 athletes. Training 60–90 athletes at one time requires you, as a coach, to be much stricter with your standards and training options.
Simple Training to Maximize Results
While training large groups, I had to become adept at simplifying the training and the explanation of exercises. Having large groups and limitations in terms of space and equipment, I learned to make choices in our training that were easy to teach and easy to learn. This does not mean you’re a lazy coach. It means you must find ways to produce results rapidly and build a broad base of strength and athleticism.
For example, instead of me getting into the fine details of sprinting, I had to take the groups outside to hill sprint and get them to race each other. By racing others or chasing to tag a partner, the athletes began to understand the effort needed to run fast and produce power. It’s easy as a coach to get overly complicated—if you’re short on time, you must make sure you spend time training and getting the athletes better!
Hill sprints became a regular for my athlete groups at the high school. Getting athletes to perform hill sprints is one of the most effective methods to increase their strength! I began with large groups racing each other. Then, I started to make simple changes, such as different starting positions. From there, we began chasing a partner.
All of these small changes improved speed and power. It wasn’t fancy or complicated, but athletes got faster and stronger. If you sprint regularly, you will learn how their sprint work directly relates to improving their strength in the weight room. We have a hill of about 125 feet directly outside our weight room. I keep the volume low, but we sprint 2–3 times per week for 3–5 all-out reps.
Most teams train 2–3 times a week with me in the off-season. Athletes quickly learn that we will never train in the weight room alone, and we often sprint hills, throw med balls outside, and do a wide variety of jump training.
Video 1. Belly Hill Sprint
We sprint from different positions, and I get the athletes to race in some shape or form. They might have to tag someone who starts three steps ahead of them; they might have to race against teammates or another team. I might split the groups between first- and second-year students and juniors and seniors. The key here is getting them to sprint hard and learn to exert force. This has an immense impact on their sports performance, regardless of their sport. I also noticed that regular sprinting boosted their strength in the weight room.I learned long ago that the athlete who lifts the most weight is not the best athlete. I place a premium on sprints, jumps, and calisthenics. I like to see an element of speed in our training. Click To Tweet
I learned long ago that the athlete who lifts the most weight is not the best athlete. The days of chasing the 1RM to become a better athlete are long gone, but athletes still think it is helpful. This is why I place a premium on sprints, jumps, and calisthenics. I like to see an element of speed in our training. Without any technology at my school, I use the coach’s eye and RPE, emphasizing leaving a rep or two in the tank on barbell lifts and minimizing reps that are grind reps.
Video 2. Hand walking.
After 6–8 weeks of dumbbell training with new athletes at the high school, I usually introduce the trap bar deadlift. Slow and steady is how I get new athletes going. Teaching the trap bar deadlift is easy because they’ve spent six weeks performing the kettlebell farmer’s walk. The start of the farmer’s walk looks the same as a trap bar deadlift. Squat down with a flat back and line up the feet, knees, and hips. Lift! I am essentially reverse-engineering the training system for the athletes.
At my private facility, I am not training 50+ athletes, so I can add sled drags every training session (both during warm-ups and as a finisher), back extensions, sandbag/D ball carries, and lots of band pull-aparts, face pulls, etc. All of these basic exercises build up a tremendous base of strength and stability and help me progress the athletes much faster toward barbell lifts.
At my high school, I have four sleds, but when groups have 60+ athletes, I tell athletes to sneak one or two sets of sleds before the end of the training session. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. The goal is to accomplish the work, not so much to have the most perfectly organized training plan. It’s an emotional understanding in your own mind as a coach that the training is flawed, but you’re getting the crucial aspects of work accomplished.
Athletic Warm-Ups for Strength, Power, and All-Around Athleticism
The power of an athletic warm-up is underrated—I have seen how power skips, hopping, and hand walking (bear crawls, lateral push-up walks) improve an athlete’s power and coordination. The athletic warm-up is not something you want to rush through.
In my early years of coaching, I used to view the warm-ups as exactly that—a warm-up, nothing more. We did 10 reps of squats, lunges, push-ups, ab work, and band pulls for shoulders, and it was all to prep the athlete to train with the weights. Through the years—and now the decades—of coaching, seeing athletes showing up weak and under-muscled, I now view our warm-up as something that builds strength and hypertrophy and preps the mind and body for the work ahead. I call the warm-up a “Prep,” and the athletes understand that it is a crucial part of our daily training.I now view our warm-up as something that builds strength and hypertrophy and preps the mind AND body for the work ahead. Click To Tweet
Some athletes are so tight in the ankles, hips, and hamstrings that bodyweight squats are not suitable for them. Instead, we use lunges as an exercise to strengthen the legs, stretch the hips, and improve ankle mobility and stability. Sled pushes and sled drags also improve ankle mobility and leg strength. I never imagined in my early years that a bodyweight squat would be a struggle for athletes, but the past 10+ years of coaching have proven me wrong.
When the freshman football players begin training with me at the high school in mid-June, we exclusively do bodyweight and dumbbell workouts. Almost everything is for sets of five, and then as we progress, I teach kids how to determine if they can do eight or 10 reps on a bodyweight or dumbbell exercise. The good ol’ 5 x 5 is GREAT for athletes, especially if you have a crowded weight room and need to keep the flow of the training session going to avoid kids waiting too long between sets and getting distracted.
For example, we have five adjustable benches at my high school. If we’re dumbbell benching or performing chest support rows, and I prescribe 10 reps instead of five, the wait time doubles. The athletes get distracted waiting their turn, as four or five kids might be in line for a bench. I came up with a simple system for training large groups where I can divide groups into two sections, and I vary where they start: sometimes they start with the main lift of the day, and other times they start with the assistance work. At the high school level, the world will not end if your athletes lunge before squats or do assistance work before benching or overhead pressing.
Below is an example of a lower body session:
- 1A) Pause front squat 4 x 4.
1B) ANY jump 4 x 4. (Athletes have a list of jump exercises they can choose from. Beginners do a basic vertical squat jump.)
1C) Push-ups or pull-ups/recline row (alternate each set) 4 x submax reps.
2A) Bulgarian split squats 4 x 10 / 10 (New athletes go bodyweight only.)
2B) ANY kettlebell carry 4 x turf. (New athletes farmer’s walk, experienced athletes choose from a variety of carries.)
2C) Biceps/triceps 4 x 10–15 reps. (New athletes perform hammer curls or push-ups, experienced athletes have a variety of exercises to choose from.)
I will review the workout in front of the whiteboard rather quickly to keep the athletes focused. My buddy Craig Fitzgerald spoke to me about this, as I told him how kids were fooling around as I broke down the daily training. He asked, “How long are you in front of the whiteboard?” I replied, “About 90 seconds.” Fitz said to me, “That’s too long. They get distracted too easily.” As a high school strength coach, you will constantly evolve as you learn more and experiment with what works and what doesn’t.
You will notice there is freedom and flexibility in exercise selection for experienced athletes, which the kids enjoy because it gives them the power to make choices. I encourage the athletes to have at least one partner so they can coach each other and help decide what exercises they want to use when they have the option to choose.I encourage athletes to have at least one partner so they can coach each other and help decide what exercises they want to use when they have the option to choose. Click To Tweet
If a dumbbell exercise is subbed for a barbell lift (such as front squats), you simply double the reps, so goblet squats would be eight reps in this example, where the front squat is four reps. The training is focused on the lower body, but high school athletes like to get an arm pump, so this is another opportunity to make them happy, which keeps them coming back. Athletes who are happy and having fun will return to train and be more consistent. Our school trains after school, so even if a coach organizes team training, it cannot be made mandatory. Some athletes can’t get a ride, and others have to go to work, etc.
Building Body Armor
Today, when an athlete tells me they know how to back squat, clean, or bench, I jokingly ask them, “Are you TikTok certified or YouTube certified?” The kids who train with me regularly know you must earn your way to the barbell. This standard might be viewed as “too much” or “he’s not nice,” but my first job as a strength coach is protecting the athlete. This means safety and consistency must precede complexity.
Video 3: Hill Race. We implement hill sprints on the regular, even during the winter—which, as I mentioned earlier, has proven to be one of the simplest and most effective ways to develop speed, strength, and power. Sprinting is good for ALL athletes, even if they are not field athletes.
At the high school level, don’t get overly specific with your hill sprints. Sometimes I cut the distance for the big football linemen, but Jim Wendler said something to the effect of, “If you’re in high school and you can’t run a mile or do 50 push-ups, what special program do you really need? How can your teammates trust you if you’re out of shape?” This reminded me how powerful and important it is for high school athletes to have a solid base of all-around fitness.
When I explain to parents at the pre-season football meeting that my number one job is to protect their son in a sport where kids have broken bones and even been paralyzed, I explain to them how this is accomplished. We get your son stronger, faster, and more confident, and we build muscle, aka body armor. I explain to them that this is a team effort, where Mom and Dad must cook and stock the fridge like their son lives on a farm. I expect their son to do extra stretching and calisthenics at home. Commitment and consistency must be present if results are expected.Commitment and consistency must be present if results are expected. I can’t protect an athlete who lacks consistency, has poor listening skills, and tries to do their own program. Click To Tweet
I can’t protect an athlete who lacks consistency, has poor listening skills, and tries to do their own program that they learned from Uncle Bob in the basement. Dumbbells and calisthenics are a must, and they are highly underrated. When an athlete shows that he is upset that he can’t bench or squat with his friends, I tell him, “Don’t be upset; go ahead and bench or squat the 100-pound dumbbells. Prove to me that you’re strong!”
Another tip Paul Kolody emphasized to me after I mentioned to him that some of my groups have up to 90 athletes was this: “Tell every athlete that they are a coach! You spot each other, coach each other, and help each other with proper technique.” Now the athletes tell each other to squat lower, keep a flat back, etc.
Getting Athletes to Believe in the Program
Today, we not only use speed and agility training (I prefer to call it game speed, like Tony Villani) to better prep athletes, but these game speed activities also get athletes to “believe” in the program. Why do we use “speed and agility”? Because this speaks the language of the athlete. This is what they see all day on social media, so we need to make an emotional and psychological connection with the kids.
Field athlete or not, we implement game speed. Sprinting and an athletic warm-up are among the best ways to develop athleticism (training that has transfer to sport).
- Hill sprints (various starting positions, races, etc.)
- Power skip (height, distance)
- Frog jumps and broad jumps
- Hopping on one foot
- Jumping rope (a lost art form!)
- Racing against others
- Tag games
- Hurdles coupled with sprints
When training large groups at the high school level, focus on training that is easy for you to teach and easy for the athletes to learn, especially in the beginning. This allows you to deliver results for the athlete, and in turn, they believe in you and the program and want to show up consistently. Once consistency and a solid foundation of strength, muscle, and athleticism are developed, you can begin teaching more complex movements to your advanced lifters. It’s easy to get caught up in what other coaches are doing, but it’s crucial to look at your situation and coach accordingly. At the end of the day, it’s ALL about the kids!
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