As December rolls in, so does the end of high school football season. Some teams continue with playoff runs, hoping to make it to the coveted state championships they’ll talk about for the rest of their lives. Trust me, every year the 4th quarter comeback gets more dramatic and the number of tackles in that final game go up. Now is also the time many more high school teams are sitting at home watching the playoffs and will soon enter a strength and conditioning program delivered by the football coaches. These programs will become the primary mode of training for these teams until spring begins. These training sessions will lay the foundation for the next season. Off-season training at this level always begins with high energy and even higher hopes. But once the fallacies of a poorly thought out program begin to show through, the energy dissipates and hope turns to despair.
High school is the most anabolic time in an athlete’s life! This can be an amazing opportunity for an athlete to grow into a beast if done properly! It is also can have the reverse effect if the athlete is put through a strength and conditioning program that does more harm, than good. We’ve put together a list of five fallacies many high school football programs are guilty. The goal of a high school strength program is to develop young athletes with the goal to put them into a position to succeed on the field. And ensure those athletes are not dealt setbacks the could plague their budding careers.
What does an assessment at the high school sport level usually entail? Height, Weight, and testing 1 rep maxes. The purpose of an assessment is to identify an athlete’s limiting factors; what is holding them back. If there is huge number of common limiting factors across the team, this helps to determine the training focus addressed in their strength program.
Most off season football high school programs are on the right path. A program steeped in training for Strength, Power and Speed is the ultimate goal. However, only a handful of players will benefit from this stimulus. If limiting factors are not identified early on and addressed, they will affect the athlete's performance and prevent them from reaching their full potential. Height and weight measurements are not indicative of instability, imbalance, biomechanical issues, unidentified previous injury, or any other potential setbacks for success. The off season is the time to identify potential limitations in a controlled environment, and provide a place to address these problems before they bleed into next season.
Another assessment high school football players are subjected to is testing of 1 rep maxes. This is single minded in a sport coaches eyes, because it only identifies ‘weak’ and ‘strong’. The funny thing about these tests is that they are not accurate with many of their athletes. Why does this assessment not represent a true picture of each athlete’s strength? A true 1 rep max requires a trained, efficient Central Nervous System (CNS), which young developing high schoolers do not have. What is your CNS? Simply put, it is the central computing system of the body that includes your brain and spinal cord which process incoming information and sends out commands the rest of the body follows (2). The quantity of muscle mass involved in a lift is not the only thing that determines muscular strength, but also the extent of individual muscle fibers firing within the muscle and muscles groups working together (3).
The importance of the CNS in training according to Dr. Fred Hatfield,
“You have to learn how to coordinate your movements- the dozens muscles involved as prime mover, synergists, and stabilizers- so that maximum usable force is applied to the resistance, and minimum negative forces are generated.” (1)
Dr. Squat refers to this as strength coordination. These athletes need reps and time to learn the movements, gain coordination of their bodies, and muscles need practice firing when called upon. 1RM testing may be effective towards the end of a high schooler’s career, as their training age increases, but not for the initial training years. It truly takes years.
2. Application and Execution
The success or failure of implementing a strength program at all levels is determined by the application of the program, and execution of the movements. More often than not, the sport coaches are the ones who are in charge of program application and instructing the kids how to execute the lifts contained in the program. These coaches are often limited by their personal experience in the weight room. Pulling a quote from CrossFit, "We fail at the margins of our experiences." Instructing and teaching athletes with little training experience how to move is not as simple as putting a bar on their back and telling them to ‘just squat.’ This method does lead to some weight being moved, but doesn’t teach the athlete how to control and use his body to generate force to an outside object or resistance.
The sport coaches may have an eye for detail on the field, but could be missing improper positions during training in the weight room and field drills. The number one cause of injury to this age group during strength training is due to improper technique (3). These missed issues could lead to greater problems when the stress on that limiting factor is greater during the football game or during an ill advised 1 Rep Max lift or field drill.
Usually, every play called on the field has a purpose, just as every movement in a strength training program should have a purpose. Why should the emphasis on position and proper execution only be reserved for the field? Invest in the time to instruct kids on proper execution of movements. This will not only make for a more effective strength program, but also a more body aware and coachable athlete on the football field.
If YouTube clips of your high schooler benching 400 pounds is the highlight of the year for the football program, you’re not doing it right. Getting the kids strong is one thing, but developing the ability to use that strength is another. Numbers are important as biomarkers for improvement, but they should never the end all be all of a program. Coaches should be bragging about amazing plays on the field, taking the third stringers and developing them into starters, or scholarship offers for their athletes! Not what a player put up in a halfdeadlifted “bench press” or a quarter, broken squat.
Let’s put this into perspective. Imagine the strongest squatter for a high school football team is able to "low bar/goodmorning/roundback" squat 450 lbs at a weight of 250lbs. His teammate maxes out at only 315 lbs, one time, and weighs the same 250lbs. The 450 lb squatter lines up at defensive tackle and the 315 lb at offensive guard. During one on one blocking drills in practice there is a distinct difference between the two’s performance. The 315 lb squatter is manhandling the 450 pounder. Why? He is using ALL of his 315 lbs strength developed in the weight room. In theory, the stronger athlete "should" have won the battle. Problem is, many times an athlete is unable to reproduce the weight room strength on the field due to poor position and posture.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You get what you emphasize in a program. If all the coaches care about are numbers, then so will the kids. If your goal in the weight room is to get athletes to squat 450 lbs, that number doesn’t mean anything unless they can use it. Power Athlete emphasizes the posture and position in the weight room as a way to increase performance on the field. While numbers are important, they are less important when compared to to developing reproducible movement patterns for young athletes. These patterns pay dividends on the field; true skill transfer.
This concludes Part 1 of the Fallacies most associated with a High School Football Off-Season Strength and Conditioning. We listed these three first because of their focus on immediate impacts and direction the coaches put into place during the beginning phases of developing and implementing an off-season strength and conditioning program.
The standards and goals of any program will always accompany the highest of expectations. With this in mind, what is the definition of insanity? If you are a coach who is consistently sitting and watching the playoffs every year, you need take a look at the core values of your program. And this begins with the off-season program. The culture and success of each team or player begins with the development of a solid strength and conditioning program built around improving strengths and identifying and addressing weaknesses. Development means nothing though without effective application by coaches and the athletes properly executing what is required of them. But what if you don't know where to begin to develop your program into a powerhouse through effective strength and conditioning practices?
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Part 2 will tackle fallacies within the guts of off-season strength and conditioning programs, but until then we want to here from coaches in the field and strength coaches working with high school level athletes. Does your program lead to success on the field? Did it help the team? Why did you choose those movements and drills? What are some barriers you've faced from other sport coaches to changing strength and conditioning practices? Looking forward to writing a Best Practices for Off-Season High School Football Off-Season Training!
(1)Hatfield, F.C. (1989, pg. 208). POWER: A Scientific Approach: Advanced Musclebuilding Techniques for Explosive Strength!. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, Inc.
(2)Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. (2009, pg. 71). Supertraing: 6th Edition. Rome: Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
(3)Zatsiorsky, V.M. & Kraemer, W.J. (2006, pg. 193). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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Former collegiate lacrosse defensive midfielder, 4-year letter winner and 3-year team captain. Coached strength and conditioning collegiately with Georgetown University football, Men's and Women's lacrosse and Women's Crew, as well with the University of Texas at Austin's football program. Apprenticed under Raphael Ruiz of 1-FortyFour-1 studying proper implementation of science based, performance driven training systems. Head coached CrossFit Dupont's program for two years in Washington D.C. Received a Master's in Health Promotion Management from Marymount University in 2010, and has been a coach for Power Athlete since October, 2012.
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