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I'm a Sport Coach Without a Strength Coach... What Should I do?

Updated: Dec 19, 2018

I have a lot of friends in the coaching industry, most of whom are sport coaches at the high school level. I don’t get a lot of inquiries on soliciting training advice... yet at least... but invariably the most common inquiry I receive is something along the lines of “hey man, we’re starting our off-season program next week, and we don’t have a strength staff, what should I be doing?” (Insert eye roll emoji...)


This is a tough question to provide a prudent, thorough response to, but my immediate thoughts are usually something along the lines of:

-How old are they, what sport do they play?

-What equipment/space do you have available to you?

-How many kids do you have, how many days a week do you see them and for how long?

-Why in the HELL did you hit me up 3 days before you start?!?!


I cannot overstate enough how eager I am to see the day where there is, at the very least, one designated, certified strength coach per county/city for high schools. But the reality is this day is probably still very far away, so I digress. Unfortunately, this is an all too common problem. In fact, I can only think of a handful of high schools in Virginia that have a designated strength coach on staff, and all but one that I know of are private schools. We all know what the more typical scenario is- whichever football coach can lift the most weight or played at the highest level assumes the role of pseudo strength coach by default, and he just does what he knows. Not only is this far from an optimal way to get the most out of your athletes in the weight room, but in a lot of cases is nothing short of a haphazard irresponsibility. Now, the purpose of this article is not to dog football coaches running weight rooms, I get it, these guys are just filling a need and doing their best. But at the same time, there are still many coaches who blatantly undermine the work that goes into being a strength coach. I don’t pretend to cut up film and know how to attack a Tampa 2 defense, so it’s no different in this context.


This is going to be a monster write-up, really just because this is one of few topics I feel very strongly about. I feel that this is something that can truly make a difference and the topic as a whole demands more attention than it has ever received. To that end, buckle up, I’m going to break this thing up in to parts for the sake of your attention span, and I’ll do my best to make everything in here as comprehensive as possible.


~Part 1: Covering Basics~

The first thing is to understand, and openly acknowledge that you are not a strength coach, you are a sport coach just trying to do the best for your athletes, and that is OK. Follow that by trying to learn as much as you can from credible sources. If you have a wifi connection, you have no excuse to not at least try to learn more about any given subject. I’m not being facetious in saying this, but you can learn a tremendous amount about S&C through YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. Here’s a list of some of my go-to guys (of course, in addition to RRSC), each of the following have social media accounts and YouTube pages:


-Eric Cressey (Private sector- Cressey Sports Performance); specializes in baseball

-Cal Dietz (University of Minnesota); specializes in football. Also founder of Triphasic Training, a gold-standard of athletic performance programming.

-Mike Boyle (Private sector- Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning); specializes in athletic performance

-Pete Bommorito (Private sector- Bommorito Performance Systems); one of the premiere NFL combine specialists

-Joe DeFranco (Private sector- DeFranco Training Systems); specializes in football

-Mike Robertson (Private sector- iFast); specializes in football

-Vernon Griffith and Virginia High Performance (Private sector); specializes in human performance

-Rugby Strength Coach (William & Mary); Director of Performance- football

-NSCA (website)

-An anatomy book. Yes, you need to know how the body works on a very primitive level. Anatomy books can be found on Amazon for as low as $15-$20.


There is an abundance of incredible information that is publicly accessible for anyone to examine. This is just a short list of guys I normally reference or refer people to. But in either case, find credible sources, and utilize the hell out of them. Email strength coaches you come across, and don’t hesitate to ask for some insight, most will be happy to at least point you in the right direction. Once you’ve done your homework, with an appropriate amount of time in advance to the program starting, outline your approach. The overwhelming priority number one for any coach, at any level, is to first do no harm to your athletes. So, in the case of the sport coach serving as the strength coach, inherently err on the side of caution. Again, I can’t overstate this enough, but these kids are trusting you to make them better, and that can’t occur if they get injured while in a controlled setting.


Just like with anything else, the most difficult part of planning an off-season training program is just that- the planning. Again, I’ll use a football reference to help things make sense, but what would you say to a coach going into a game, or better yet a season, with absolutely no game plan? Well, strength training is no different in that regard, we must have a thorough plan. If I’m tasked with running a high school off-season training program a typical approach for me would look something like this:


1.) Conduct a movement screening/evaluation and distribute health history forms. Again, you don’t need to be a biomechanist to observe egregiously poor movement. With movement screens we’re not looking to pinpoint each and every dysfunctional movement pattern, abnormal angle and every asymmetry. Think more globally. If the kid can’t perform a decent body weight squat, just know we probably shouldn’t load that kid on a back squat very heavy until he cleans the pattern up. Know that very rarely will you come across anything that is truly problematic, especially at the high school level. We are NOT performing this to diagnose, we are simply collecting information to move forward with.

2.) Introduction to fundamental movement patterns (i.e. bench press, back squat, lunges, carries, body weight exercises, etc.). Be very thorough in your demonstration/explanation, treat even the simplest movements as if they were completely foreign to the athletes; regardless of how rudimentary it may seem, or how “advanced” the athlete may appear to be.


3.) Personally oversee each and every athlete perform these movements with very light or even no external load. Ensure that they are in a safe and effective position. Remember that assessing movement in the weight room is no different than assessing their play on the field- it is a constant, ongoing process, you’re not simply checking a box and moving on.

4.) Be thorough in the expectations and cover ALL safety topics, including demonstrating how to spot correctly on exercises that require a spotter, using clips on barbell exercises, where to stand when not actively doing something, and how to correctly rack and un-rack weights. All of these may seem intuitive, however, bear in mind that this is likely all brand new to at least half of your athletes, so it’s important to set sound principles and form good habits regarding weight room safety right from the jump. Never overlook the significance of weight room etiquette, and never undermine the importance of weight room safety.


5.) Identify goals, both as you see them for the athletes, but also the goals the athletes may have. This again is another subtle way of developing ownership and autonomy in the weight room. If their goals aren’t important to you, why should yours be important to them? If you’re working with 80 kids on a football team, I obviously understand going through one-by-one to ascertain goals may not exactly be practical. But nevertheless, there should be some dialogue between athletes and coaches to convey what they would like to get out of their training. Also note that when I say goals I’m not referring to “I want to bench 300 lbs. by the end of the summer.” That’s fine if that’s someone’s goal, but just know it extends way beyond that. “Staying healthy for my junior year” is equally a prudent goal to set.

6.) Finally, introduce the general overview of the workouts they will be performing. Everything from the appropriate attire, when they should be ready, proper fueling before and after workouts, to the warm-up protocol, how the training sessions will be organized, and so forth. The point is, when working with young athletes the standard and expectations set at the start will normally be the ones met; we don’t want to set a low bar and have them hit exactly that, then be pissed when things start to come unhinged.

It’s imperative that you utilize all resources imaginable, and one of the best resources you have at your expense is more governing bodies, because more governing bodies means more eyes for oversight. Empower your athletes to actively observe each other and be able to correctly identify inefficient, and moreover haphazard technique. I would also strongly encourage you to have at least one other coach in the weight room with you at all times. The rule of thumb for certified strength coaches is to never be in a situation where the athlete:coach ratio is beyond 20:1. So for someone who is not certified, we can say that a 10:1 ratio should be a hard cutoff. Again, even if someone is totally uninformed on strength training, most sport coaches should be competent enough to be able to identify potentially dangerous exercise technique. An added bonus to this, is that more bodies should result in more energy contribution. Remember that strength training (and even conditioning) should an invigorating experience for coaches and athletes alike. There’s nothing worse than a weight room that sounds like a funeral home, and especially for younger athletes.


If there’s one overarching goal for strength training with high school athletes, it should be to teach them to enjoy, if not love, the weight room. One of the most flagrant errors we see far too commonly today is using exercise as a means for punishment and reprimand. If you don’t teach them, or allow them to enjoy their time training, then how can we expect them to accel with it, and ultimately their sport? As I hope you can see by now, safety, empowerment, and enjoyment should be the primary foci for your training. Shit like getting stronger, more flexible and faster occur secondary to this. That part of it is easy, relatively speaking. But the former, the energy, empowering athletes, these are the intangible aspects of strength training that are most frequently overlooked, and in my opinion, by far the more important qualities of a good S&C program.


~Part 2: Putting Your Workouts Together~

Ok, so now that we’ve covered the subjective overview of how to approach the situation of running your athlete’s strength and conditioning program, let’s delve into some more tangible material on how I would organize a high school S&C program. Please understand that this is by no means a cookie cutter template to copy, paste and implement. Again, without physically observing athletes and seeing the facility/equipment I have to work with, there is no way I can devise any sort of plan. That being said, this is something you can use to at least understand the framework of organizing a training session. We’ll start with the basics, the warm-up.

~Warm-Up~

No, a warm-up is not “optional” and yes, it should be organized and preemptively designed, no different than a workout or a playbook. As outlined by the NSCA, a thorough warm-up has the following positive effects on performance:


-Faster muscular contraction

-Improved rate of force development and reaction time

-Improved strength and power

-Increased oxygen delivery to muscles, and reduced viscosity in circulating blood


~Simplifying this, a warm-up should be designed to do the following four things~

1.) Increase alertness, readiness, and core temperature

-I know it’s easy to just go through the motions for a warm-up, trust me. But again, no different than a Thursday walk-through football practice, we can’t treat this as a mindless activity. There should be concerted focus and attention. By the end of the warm-up we should have a light sweat going, look and feel ready to move, be focused and ready to get after it.


2.) Increase tissue (muscles + soft tissue structures) elasticity and temperature

-This is generally achieved through light, dynamic stretching and movement. Foam rolling (along with other myofascial release methods) are also applicable here, just depending on your equipment selection and understanding of these modalities.

3.) Increase neural activation (waking up the nervous system)

-This is taking the slower, free-flowing dynamic stretches and movements, and adding a little speed/intensity to them. Think of it like transitioning from a light walking single-leg toe touch, to a more rapid, dynamic single-leg bound.


4.) Mimic the movement patterns that will be present in training on that given day as closely as possible.

-A good warm-up should absolutely have an element of specificity to it. So in other words, if our big lifts for that day are back squat and sprinting, we should try to mold the warm-up accordingly to prep the muscles/joints that will be utilized the most during training. In this case we would want to target the hip flexors (psoas, illiacus), ankles & calf complex, glutes, adductors and core muscles.


~Some additional big points regarding time/volume/organization~

-Warm-up should be no less than 10% of total training time, no more than 20%. I know time is not exactly at a surplus in these situations, but if we take 10% of 90 minutes, that’s 9 minutes for a warm-up. It’s hard to make a case against not having 9 minutes to allocate.

-Start slow and static, finish faster and dynamic. This should progressively build as it’s being performed and by the time you’re finished you should be at the same “speed” you want your athletes to have during training.

-Touch on each joint/body part daily; what changes is the emphasis you place on each segment depending on what’s on the training agenda for the day.

-Don’t perform anything strenuous or fatiguing, remember this is to prime them for what’s to follow, not take away from it. “Running poles” in baseball, or 3-mile runs for volleyball athletes are inherently improper selections.

-Treat the warm-up as seriously as you do your training, hell as seriously as you treat your playbook. The key point here is simple, if you don’t give a shit about it, why should your athletes?

-Use this time to set the tone for the day. Again, this should be a high-energy (socially, not physically) atmosphere. Get kids talking (without becoming a distraction), have the music bumping, be engaged with your athletes.

-Eventually, make the warm-up more and more self-regulated. Assign your captains to run the show, allow them to provide feedback and input over time, get creative. Remember, empowerment is everything.


~Workout~

Before we delve into the specifics of planning for the individual training session itself, we must consider a macro view first. The first considerations I examine are the variables I can’t control. Some examples of this would be how many days/wk. you have the athletes in the weight room, how much time you’re allotted for each session, what equipment you have available to you, and the space you are provided. All of these will serve as regulators, whereby these will create hard barriers on what you can and cannot do. There is both an advantage and disadvantage to this, the advantage being it creates boundaries and gives you an infrastructure to build from. The disadvantages, though self-explanatory for the most part, are that there are hard limitations as to what exercises you can select from, how many athletes you can have in the weight room at a given time, and so forth.


Thereafter, we look at the variables that we can control and subsequently how we would like to implement them. The variables we can control are things like exercise selection, volume, intensity, rest, and organization to name a few. This is where some coaches, even those of us who are certified strength coaches, start to panic and get thrown off course. I’m a firm believer that there are many more ways of doing something correct than there are ways to do things incorrectly. In the context of exercise programming, it’s much less of a “right or wrong” as it is a “can you justify this”. Considering the target audience of this article, I’ll do my best to make this as simple as possible.


~Key Terminologies~

-Macrocycle: The entirety of a training program. Can be anywhere from 12-weeks up to a year. For your sake, this will probably be more like ~8 weeks on the lower end, ~12 weeks on the higher end.

-Mesocycle: The various phases that collectively make up a macrocycle. If you have a 12-week program, the mesocycles will likely run between 3-4 weeks. Mesocycles are typically made up of 1-2 training modes.

-Microcycle: These are the individual training modes (or foci) that collectively make-up a mesocycle. Thus, microcycles typically span 1-2 weeks, and have a singular training focus (i.e. hypertrophy, muscular strength, etc.).

-Training Modes: The type of exercise modality being used to elicit a physiological response and ultimately a muscular adaptation. I will provide a chart below examining each training mode in detail.

-Training Intensity: The intensity at which an exercise is performed. This can be devised using %1RM, which is the most frequent and conventional way of ascertaining training intensity or can simply be a pseudo measure of perceived effort. If you don’t have the opportunity to conduct 1-RM testing for major lifts- which, I do NOT recommend at the high school level, then this value can just be a way of creating varying stimulus and does not have to be precise. The intensity is the most influential training variable.

-Volume: The product of sets and reps performed. The volume will be inextricably linked to the intensity. More on this in a minute.

*Intensity values are listed as percentages of 1-RM

**Volume values are listed as set range x rep range


Using this chart and taking it a step further, we can now look at a sample 12-week macrocycle.For the sake of this example, we’ll use a football team. Let’s say we have three days of strength training for 90 minutes each, two days of conditioning for 45 minutes each, four coaches and 40 kids. We’ll assume this is a fairly progressive school district, and they have all the standard equipment and sufficient square footage for training.

*GPP= General physical preparation. Essentially, this is a fancy term for describing deliberately unplanned exercise. During GPP phase, we literally just want to expose athletes to a myriad of functional/foundational movements and “get in shape”. This phase will include high reps (15-20), short rest periods (<45 sec.) and be slightly chaotic with intent. This is also a good time for games, competitions, and put a heavy emphasis on general conditioning and team building.

**Strength-speed= exactly how it’s described.. moving semi-heavy weights with a concerted focus on speed of contraction. Think of this as a blend of muscular strength and power. Whereby we still want to be under a relatively heavy load, but not so heavy that we can’t move the bar fast. This also provides explanation as to why there is a lower rep count for this phase, despite the intensity.


Coming down the stretch here. Now that we have our “10,000-foot view” of our training program, we can start to examine the weekly split, and finally, how each individual training day might look. Let’s start with weekly split:


Monday: Upper-Body Strength

Tuesday: Aerobic Conditioning (running or drills that are >30 seconds in duration)

Wednesday: Lower-Body Strength

Thursday: Anaerobic Conditioning (sprinting or drills that are <30 seconds in duration)

Friday: Total Body Strength


If you’re wondering more about the delineation between aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, I will be posting a subsequent article that gets into more detail on ways to break up conditioning. But for now, just know that aerobic (slow conditioning) is greater than ~30 seconds, with shorter rest periods (~60 seconds), and anaerobic (fast conditioning) is less than 30 second work intervals with longer rest periods (~3 minutes).


Finally, let’s take a look at what a few sample workouts might look like. Note, this is a hypothetical hypertrophy week:

~Key points to note~

-1A/1B are paired exercises, meaning they will be performed together before resting. Additionally, most “B” exercises are unloaded, or non-fatiguing exercises. This isn’t to say that they aren’t important, but you don’t want the accessory work to take away from the primary work.

-The exercises are listed in terms of priority, meaning, we want to do the most important exercises first before energy sources are depleted.

-I didn’t list any “core” specific exercises here. The reason for that is I tend to use those mostly as warm-up, or finisher exercises.

-Each “block” (i.e. 1A/1B, 2A/2B, 3A/B/C) should take about 15-20 minutes to complete.


~Summary~

-Know you’re not a strength coach, you’re a sport coach playing the role and that’s ok. Stay within your scope and do the best you can with what you have.

-Above all else, DO NO HARM TO YOUR ATHLETES. SAFETY. SAFETY. SAFETY.

-Do your homework early and often, find valid, quality sources to learn from... including your basic A&P.

-Utilize all resources you have available to you, organize a plan well ahead of implementing.

-Don’t neglect a proper warm-up, this is the opportunity to not only prep the athletes for optimal performance, but also set the tone for the training session.

-Use a variety of exercises, reserving 3-5 as your keystone primary exercises.

-Don’t neglect deliberate core work, stretching, mobilization, and soft tissue work.

-Numbers are NOT everything, and in fact, at the high school level doesn’t really mean shit in my opinion. Remember, you don’t back squat on the field on Friday night. Don’t fall into the trap of overvaluing numbers.

-Keep track of everything. Athlete attendance, weights performed, hydration and sleep status, injury management, and so forth.

-Each 12-week program should build on itself, thus, take stringent notes as you work through a program to guide the one that follows.