In Part I of this series we discussed some of the initial considerations that must be made by sport coaches before designing a strength training program for their high school team (that is, without the help of a certified strength coach).
To reiterate some of the main points from Part I here are some important questions to ask before looking at the details of program design:
- What are the needs of your athletes? Typically, most high school athletes need very similar things; for example, general strength and movement quality.
- What is most important to you and your program? What exercises and movements will you emphasize, and how will you go about teaching them?
- What are your means as a coach in the weight room? What are you comfortable and confident in coaching while in the weight room setting?
Now, with these overarching questions considered, in Part II we will discuss the X’s and O’s of laying out the training program.
Step 1: Lay out the yearly/seasonal calendar
As a strength and conditioning coach, one of the first things you learn in terms of program design is the importance of dividing the annual plan into more manageable pieces. We call these Macrocycles, Mesocycles, and Microcycles. For all intensive purposes, we will define these very generally, as to be easily consumed and digested by the sport coach, and we will do this below.
The first step in writing a training plan is to a) know how to best separate the macrocycle into individual seasons, and b) define the goals for each season.
The Macrocycle is, for the purposes of most team sports, the timeframe of one calendar year. This encompasses all seasons that a sport may experience throughout a year. Using the example of high school baseball, a macrocycle can be further separated into a handful of seasons:
- Competitive Season (Spring Baseball)
Every season is bound to have multiple goals*, but each will also have an emphasis or priority objective:
- The off-season’s focus is on making major physical changes and improvements
- The pre-season’s main goal is preparing to compete
- The competitive season’s primary focus is putting the athletes in the best position to compete on the field
*It should be noted that, at the lower levels of sport (i.e. high school is a lower competitive level than collegiate and professional baseball) the more ambiguous these goals are.
In other words: while in a perfect world, the goal of the “off-season” is to focus on physical development sans competition, the reality is that amateur baseball knows very few true off-seasons – games are played nearly year-round, thus athletes still must be prepared to compete. On the other hand, even though wins and losses matter during the high school competitive season, this level in general is for overall physical development, thus the athletes should still strive to make physical progress during this phase.
After defining the seasons within the macrocycle, the next step is to determine when those seasons actually occur, or their timeline.
- Pre-Season: January 7th – February 14th
- Competitive Season: February 14th – April 21st (as late as May 21st – dependent on post-season play)
- Off-Season: June 14th – January 1st
Now, take into account holidays, testing weeks, homecoming, prom, summer break – whatever periods you can expect to give your players time off. When all of this is determined, you will be left with a flexible framework for each season of training.
For the purposes of practicality within this article, let’s take one season and use it for mock program design: the off-season.
Step 2: Determine the monthly/weekly schedule
With the off-season’s goals and timeline decided, we can proceed to determine the structure of the mesocycles of the training program. A mesocycle can be considered one actual training phase or block, with multiple mesocycles or training blocks making up each season.
In our mock program design example, let’s use the following hypothetical off-season timeline, separated by using the “natural” breaks occurring due to holidays and such:
- September 1st: 3rd week of school, tryouts have been conducted for fall-ball, workouts begin
- November 21st: THANKSGIVING BREAK
- December 1st: continue workouts
- December 14th: Finals then CHRISTMAS BREAK
- January 7th: continue workouts (Begin PRE-SEASON)
As you can see, with the breaks in place, we now have some easily definable windows for training. The first, occurring from the beginning of September through Thanksgiving, lasts around 11 or 12 weeks. Following a week off for Thanksgiving, the players will then have roughly two weeks for training.
You can then use these timelines to determine your mesocycles, or training phases. This is where it gets more subjective, now up to the coach to make decisions that best work around their circumstances.
If it were up to me, I would begin with higher volume work at lower intensities in order to a) build work capacity, b) stimulate muscle building (hypertrophy) for the more mature athletes, and c) to teach technique of my fundamental movements through repetition prior to loading them heavier.
Progressively, I would like to target strength gains by incrementally increasing the intensity of our foundational movements, while lowering the training volume. Altogether, these are the goals I will be looking to accomplish during the off-season.
So, I might choose to break up these timeframes into the following mesocycles, with their corresponding goals:
- Weeks 1-4: High Volume, Low Intensity – Goals: Work Capacity, Technique, or Hypertrophy
- Weeks 5-8: Moderate Volume, Moderate Intensity – Goals: Technique, Tissue Tolerance, Strength
- Weeks 9-12: Low Volume, High Intensity – Goals: Technique, Strength
Each of the 4-week sections above constitutes a mesocycle, or training block, with its own unique goal.
TIP: within each training block, the exercises should generally remain the same, such that the athletes can familiarize themselves with and learn the movements, and then progressively add load or volume to them.
At the end of each training block, the corresponding goals should be accomplished:
- Weeks 1-4 should yield better movement quality and tolerance for training;
- Weeks 5-8 should lead to increased strength;
- Weeks 9-12 should conclude with your athletes obtaining peak strength for that off-season
If you keep clear goals in mind, designing the training will be as simple as possible.
Let’s now take the final step by determining the training parameters for each mesocyle. For the purposes of this article, we will practically look at just one mesocycle: Weeks 9-12.
Step 3: Set the parameters for each training block
The beauty of working with young trainees is that just about any training stress can lead to positive adaptations in strength. So long as the training is safe and structured, it can also be highly effective while remaining incredibly simple.
Thus, the goal of this final step of developing a training program for a high school team is to achieve each training block’s goal as simply (and safely) as possible; don’t make the process any harder than it needs to be.
If we are programming for the hypothetical training block covering Weeks 9-12, our goal is primarily strength. The first “ training parameter” we must define is frequency, or the number of training sessions we will have per week.
- How many days per week are you able to train? At the high school level, weight room scheduling and staffing demands may dictate training frequency, and that is okay. Let your available weight room times dictate how you go about scheduling your sessions; for strength purposes, 3 total-body training sessions will do the trick (M/W/F), or a total-body, lower-body, upper-body split (e.g. M/Tr/Fr).
After determining the schedule for the weeks within your mesocycle, you now need only determine what your microcycles will look like. The microcycle is simply each individual training session. Here are some questions to ask yourself when beginning to program a training session:
- What fundamental movements are you going to use? Typically, during a strength phase with novice trainees, complex, compound movements tend to be the best for effectively gaining strength (e.g. Squat, Deadlift/RDL, Lunge, Presses and Rows). Keep it simple, you don’t need to have 100 exercise variations to stimulate strength with beginners.
- What volume (sets and reps) will you prescribe? Volume should be dictated by the goal for the training cycle.
- How much rest do my athletes need? In order to optimize strength development, 2.5 to 5 minutes of rest in between sets is typically prescribed in order to allow adequate recovery in between sets.
While programming can be way more complex than this, again it is important to remember that simple is best for the context in which we are discussing: a sport coach training high school athletes (i.e. non-experienced coaches [in terms of strength-training] working with non-experienced lifters). In this case, simple is safe, and simple is effective.
While there are many other factors to consider when designing a training program for athletes, the goal of this article series was not to address each and every one. Rather, the purpose of this post was to touch on some of the most important and beneficial concepts and methods for program design, such that a sport coach can safely and effectively train their high school athletes, despite the many constraints they will face.