We hear it all the time from athletes, “I’ve been working out for months!” They say this with excitement and energy, as they believe that they have truly put their time and energy into a worthwhile cause. Who can blame them either? We know that working out is good for you and we all want our kids working hard in the pursuit of their goals and the quest to get better. The only concern is are these athletes putting their time and energy into the right kind of work?

Now, I know what you are thinking, is there a ‘right’ way to train? Well, to be honest, there kind of is. Let me use an example that we heard all the time growing up as a student. You have a test approaching and the teacher reminds you that you need to start studying a few days in advance. You brush the teacher off because you think ‘you’ll be fine’ and the night before the exam you look through your notes while scrolling Snap Chat and listening to music. When test day comes you look at the questions and think, ‘oh, no!’ At that moment the student knows that they probably should have prepared for the test a little better than going through notes haphazardly.

Now, we know that students can ace tests they do not prepare for and that all students can study a little different and get results. But the fact is that if these students are in front of a very difficult exam they need to prepare with focus, intensity and purpose.

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It is the same concept with strength training. Here’s how we know this to be true. When you study how the best athletes in the world prepare they follow a similar structure through their programs. They know that they need to focus on a quality warm-up as a great warm-up doesn’t just help the muscles but also the tissues that surround the muscles that prevent muscle damage during exercise.

With that being said, athletes get the biggest improvement by choosing their strength training exercises carefully and structuring them to get the most return on their time and energy investment.

For example I asked a high school athlete to share with me what they were doing on their own? His response we will use as example Athlete A:

Athlete A:  

  1. Bench Press
  2. Incline Bench Press
  3. DB Bench Press
  4. Cable Chest Flys
  5. Dumbbell Tricep Extension
  6. Rope Tricep Extension
  7. Seated Tricep Exetension
  8. Core

Here is just one example of a workout and I am sure if you ask 12 different high school athletes who are working out you may get 12 different responses. That is fine but my point is that if we have high school athletes working out and putting in all of this effort and energy to get better shouldn’t we make sure that they are getting the absolute most out of their training sessions?

Here is what we know about the example workout above:

It is very limited in encompassing multiple joints that work together to produce force. Yes, the bench press is a great exercise but doing 5 rounds of chest exercises just wears down the upper body and doesn’t promote strength building, only muscle fatigue.

They do not force the body to work together through long ranges of motion. All of these exercises are sitting down which mean that the core has nothing to do during each movement. In order to maximize the upper body transfer into sport-performance it is important to implement ways that off-load the weight, force you to stand-up or consist of different push-up variations.

The core training was all sit-up based exercises. I didn’t write down the exact variations because he told me he did about 10 minutes of crunches, twists, bicycles etc. This is a huge no-no in the strength and conditioning world because these core exercises do not help to create core stability, prevent excessive extension or rotation or help to transfer force from the lower body through the upper body.

Maybe the most important part of this workout that we can only infer is the other workouts that were based off of this one. If this is how he trains the chest and triceps how does he train his legs? I dove into some questioning and it turns out that my hunch was correct. He spends one day (sometimes) on his legs and uses mostly machines besides starting off with squats.

The problem with this programming is that you do not make the kind of progress you should by training the body part one time per week. Not only that but you severely hamper the transfer to sport by using machines to build your legs. Sports require coordinated and systemic movement from all the muscles of the legs and core working at the same time to generate speed and power. What exercise do you think produces more coordinated force? A seated leg extension or an elevated split squat? I often say to athletes is that we have to stop majoring in the minor if we want your effort to matter.

Athlete B:

Now, let’s take another example of a high school athlete that is pretty popular programming routine. Let’s say they do two upper body days and two lower body days. This programming is definitely superior than the body building method Athlete A was using.

But let’s dive into the thought process and execution for Athlete B.

  1. Squat
  2. Lunges
  3. Seated Hamstring Curls
  4. Seated Row
  5. DB Row
  6. Core
  7. Box Jumps

This is the Monday routine of the athlete. Better than Athlete A? Definitely. But here is what I tried to educate Athlete B on.

What can’t be lost in the process of getting stronger, faster and more explosive is the necessity to have a plan in place to get to your destination. While B has some solid exercises my question was, “where do you go from there?” Do you just keep squatting and lunging until you can’t squat or lunge anymore? The point being is that in order to make the weight room matter on the field and to reach new levels of strength you can’t just expect to consistently keep adding weight to the bar.

The next point is that exercise selection needs to complement each other. For instance, his three leg exercises were squats, lunges and hamstring curls. Did he have a reason for doing those particular exercises? Do you know that there are more effective ways to load lunges? These are some important questions that an athlete may not be aware of or know how to answer on their own. Which is fair because they are high school students, we really can’t expect them to be experts in performance programming.

So how do we create strength that matters on the field or court and get the absolute most out of the time and effort of the athlete?

Here are a couple of the “golden rules!”

If you are training four days per week use the two upper and two lower body split. The key here is that you HAVE to get all of the days in because if you miss one than you will have gone the week with only training a body part once, which really slows down progress.

My favorite is to train three full body days. This gives high school kids time to do other things in their life while making some serious progress. Three days is also much easier to get in during a week.

Stop using the machines. It does not create muscular and joint stability throughout the range of motion. They also do not transfer to making you faster, safer or more explosive. They just really burn your quads, calves etc. 

Stick to big exercises! Squats, deadlifts, elevated split squats, single leg squats, single leg RDLs, bench press, rows, chin-ups and anything stability for the core.

Technique has to be 100% on point! If we do not have great technique than these big exercises are useless.

Lastly, make sure the rep ranges fluctuate and that you are not just going through 8-12 repetitions on everything.

Once you can control the weight slowly than focus on moving weight out of the sticking point as fast as you can, all the time! This creates more nervous system recruitment, which establishes a faster muscle contraction. This transfers to a faster muscle contraction on the field or court!

When all of these training principles are put together they deliver the most important part of a training program… results! Athletes who train the right way feel like they are gliding down the field or court, they feel a spring when they jump they never had before. That ‘first-step’ quickness they covet all of a sudden is much more pronounced in their games. They move with more grace so they can cover more of the field or court. They bounce back easier from hits and physical contact. All of these are tangible aspects of winning which is why training is such an important part of an athletes career.

If you follow these guidelines you will see dramatic improvements in your strength training programming. What we cannot overlook is our ability as coaches to communicate this to the athlete. Athletes have the best intentions and usually work really hard on their own. How would you like it if you were told, “hey, great effort but you are doing it all wrong!” That wouldn’t really fly would it? So the message has to be one of working together to get to the end goal for that athlete. It cannot be an ego contest on who knows more but rather simply a coach looking to educate a player to take things to the next level.

When it is communicated in that fashion we have noticed that athletes get excited about the change. Athletes are like everyone else, they do not like wasting their time, and it is our job as coaches to empower them to make a change to get better use of their time. Once we do that, the results will do the rest of the talking!