Young athletes often come into the weight room for the first time with skewed expectations. Caught up in the desired end-results they are seeking – like increased lean muscle mass, monstrous strength gains, and enhanced performance – they often neglect to see their current athletic and physical status for what it is: young, immature and untrained, although very much rife with potential.
But this is not a bad thing at all. The athlete should be driven to see results. It is our job as coaches to maintain the appropriate focus on the process, and to incrementally and progressively develop the athlete.
Every coach has their own philosophy and will most likely find some success in whatever manner he/she implements that philosophy, so long as it is safe and they firmly believe in it. I have no right to judge any one else’s program.
But, I do however know what processes have worked for me. And, what has worked for me is a weight-training and sports performance program built upon a relative strength base.
In the past I have written on the importance of prioritizing relative strength before maximum strength with novice athletes. You can read more on that HERE. Today I wanted to share a little bit more about why I choose to develop relative strength first, how I convey its importance to my athletes, and finally, how I go about progressing my staple movements slowly during the relative strength phase.
“When are we going to lift real weights, Coach?”
When they first arrive in the weight room, nearly every young athlete asks a variation of the following questions:
“When will we start lifting real weights?”
“Will this get me bigger/jacked/huge?”
Who could blame them? Don’t we all just want to be bigger and stronger? And surely nothing about slow-tempo, body-weight, or coach-controlled training sounds or looks sexy when you’re surrounded by barbells, plates, and medicine-balls.
But, what separates the coach from the athlete – regardless of the athlete’s age – is perspective. While the athlete tends to focus on the desired outcomes (muscles, strength) the coach can and should see where the athlete currently stands physically and mentally, and the path they must take to reach those desired results.
The athlete focuses on the trees, the coach sees the forest.
So, when novice athletes arrive in the weight room for the first time with their ambitions of squatting a jillion pounds and growing to be the size of Arnold, it is the coach who can clearly see their small frames, baby faces, and awkward movements. This certainly describes what I usually see when my 13-15 year old athletes arrive in the weight room on day one, and it is for that reason that I forget about the numbers – such as body weight, rep-maxes and lean muscle mass. Instead, I seek to develop other characteristics: coordination, movement proficiency, motor control – all of which coming hand in hand with increased relative strength.
For those who don’t know, relative strength is the ratio of strength to body weight that an athlete possesses. To me, personally, it also (informally) means the ability to control and move one’s own body. This is vital in the developmental process. If you can’t handle the the joint loads associated with unloaded movements, such as a body weight squat or lunge, how can you expect to handle a loaded barbell when performing the same (or more advanced) movements?
While my athletes often times ask when we will get to the “real weights”, I will always stress the importance of slow-cooking their training. I emphasize that they will, ideally, have four years of training with me. And, with this being the case, we have no reason to rush.
My message usually goes something like this:
“I want you to walk across that stage four years from now [graduation] as a freakin’ BEAST – a MONSTER! I can’t make any one of you a monster or beast overnight, though… But, in four years we can all get there together!”
I often use an analogy to dogs/puppies:
“Right now you probably feel like a puppy on a leash. But what you don’t realize is, that leash is adjustable. Each day you come in, I’m going to give you more and more run off the leash – more freedom. Before you know it I’ll eventually pop that leash off completely – and we will unleash the beast!”
It’s silly, and the kids laugh. But, it usually makes sense to them and gives them something to buy into.
So, we start with the absolute base regressions for the staple movements of my program – primarily focusing on squats, hinges, pushes, pulls, and unilateral lower-body movements:
We hammer Body-Weight Squats wth a slow tempo – (3:3:x) or 3 second eccentric, 3 second isometric, and a controlled speed on the way up. The tempos progress from these lengthy times to more brief repetitions. The load incrementally progresses from body-weight to minimally loaded (with 10 lbs and 25 lbs plates or DB’s) and they will also progress from on-the-whistle to on-their-own.
We begin with a wall drill to teach the hip hinge (RDL), then slowly progress them off of the wall. We progress from slow tempos of (3:3:x) to (3:1:x) to (2:1:x).
The isometric hold is removed as soon as any external load is added. If there is a poor hip hinge pattern on any rep with load, the added isometric pause will only serve to exacerbate any injury risk to the lumbar spine.
We progress from unloaded to minimal loading (10 or 25 lbs plate(s) held in the hands) as well.
We also utilize the Glute Bridge right off the jump, progressing from slow tempos and long isometric holds, to dynamically performed unloaded reps. We progress from bilateral to unilateral, and from flat-ground to shoulder- or feet-elevated. We also progress quickly from unloaded to dumbbell loading.
We do a ton of High Plank Holds (holding the top of the push-up position) and progress by adding variance through movement, such as the removal of a base of support. This means shoulder taps, leg lifts, hand-walks, and A-Frame stretches. These either perturb the appropriate posture, challenging them to maintain it, or they challenge them to find the appropriate posture, move out of that posture, and then regain it.
We progress from High Plank Holds to eccentric Push-Ups (no concentric) on the floor and concentric Push-Ups with hands on bench. We also do many Push-Up complexes to challenge the whole system.
We utilize high and low Inverted Rows, progressing from slow tempos to moderate speeds. We also, progress from feet on the floor to feet elevated, although this is a long-term progression.
We also use the Chin-Up early on, starting with various holds (Flexed-Arm Hangs and sometimes Dead [or “engaged”] Hangs) and slow-eccentrics with full range of motion.
We use a combination of unloaded eccentric Split Squats with slow tempos, and moderate-speed step-ups (both in the sagittal plane and frontal plane). From there we progress by adding minimal loads. Only once single-leg proficiency is seen in these movements do we progress to more dynamic movements, such as a Reverse Lunge.
While this is only a glimpse into some of the exercises that we use to build the relative strength base for our novice high school athletes, some general progression themes should stand out:
- Progression from slow-tempo or eccentric-focused movement to moderate speeds
- Progression from minimal-movement exercises to more dynamic variations
- Progression from zero-load to minimal loading
- Progression from minimal variance to moderate variance
Something else that is progressed throughout is the freedom that the athletes earn. By freedom, I am not referring to autonomy or decision-making, but the freedom to perform exercises on their own, as opposed to on-the-whistle or on-the-coach. This freedom comes with experience, maturity, and competence.
Although the athletes may not initially love having the leash attached to them in the weight room, they will learn to appreciate it over time. And, they are certainly much better for it. Remember, it is our job as coaches to maintain perspective and see the forest, even when the athlete occasionally loses that perspective and gets wrapped up in the trees.
Working with high school athletes give us the chance to train and develop the student-athlete over the course of 4 years. Take advantage of this quadrennial cycle. Build the base first.