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Developing High School Athletes


Adrian Western, MS,ATC


With the multitude of information available on strength training, fitness, and sports it can be overwhelming to design a program for young athletes. All of that information at your fingertips makes it tempting to do it all. When it comes to high school athletes, though, less is usually more.


A typical high school student has quite the day; up in the morning between 6 and 7, attending school from 8:30-3:30, practice until 6, dinner and homework until 9 or 10 at the earliest. In between that they have to get their workout in, meet with friends and get caught up on their social lives. They also tend to have less than stellar diets and definitely do not get the recommended amount of sleep. When they come in for their workout they are generally already tired and unmotivated and throwing 90 minutes of exercise at them is not what they want to hear. So, what to do?


High schoolers need to develop the basics in their fitness or strength routines; proper dynamic warm-ups to get their body ready to go, injury prevention and isolated work on specific areas, multiple joint exercises and recovery. Their workout should not take longer than 50 minutes to perform and the tempo should be high enough to achieve a cardiorespiratory effect, as well. Depending on their season, sport and position, they may need to work on speed and agility drills, conditioning or plyometrics. It is important to make sure that the quality is performed at a high level and that they keep the overall time to a manageable length to avoid fatigue, overtraining and break down in form.


Their dynamic warm up should focus on getting them moving, elevating their heart rate, activating their neuromuscular system and improving their mobility. Due to the fact that they sit a lot in class and typically run in one direction for their sport their hips to tend to be tight and would benefit from extra mobility work. We like having them perform Monster walks, knee grabs, ankle grabs, toe and heel walks, inch worms, forward, backward and side lunges, squats, spidermans, and wall W’s. For extra work we do lunge complexes, bridges, planks and bird dogs. After their bodies are activated we do our injury prevention and isolation work.


Different sports, positions and genders have different movement patterns that can predispose athletes to injury. Spending some time to correct these movements and learn proper technique is very beneficial to keeping our athletes healthy and able to compete. For ACL prevention we work on squats and progress to single leg, vertical jumps progressing to depth jumps with the emphasis on landing. Russian hamstrings, balances and cutting drills train them how to move in ways that decrease injury risk while strengthening their supporting musculature. For ankles we do different balancing exercises with and without a foam pad as well as different reaches, hops, lateral hops, and reaction. For shoulders we work on posture and scapular stability with rows, I,Y,Ts, D2 extension patterns and reverse shrugs. Some of our athletes may be recovering from an injury so we will incorporate their rehabilitation exercises at this time. Others may have other postural or positional concerns that need extra attention such as valgus knees or overhead athletes. We use this time to focus on addressing weak areas to keep them healthy.


Once we have them warmed up and have reinforced proper movement patterns we get into our lifting. We like to keep the overall exercises to about 6 per workout. This way they are able to progress, but do not have too much volume that may lead to overtraining or burnout. While our workouts vary, we focus on developing long term strength utilizing multijoint movements. Our lifts include various forms of squatting, deadlifting, horizontal pushing and pulling, vertical pushing and pulling, and lunging. We will vary the exercises but they fall into these general categories. We also teach kettelbell swings, hang cleans, and use medicine balls to supplement our programs. We have found that when working with our high school athletes it is important to focus on the quality of their movements so we do not let our athletes lift until they demonstrate proficiency with a given movement pattern. If they are having trouble we will break the movement down into a remedial exercise and slowly progress the complexity supplementing with machines or bodyweight based exercises. We periodize the workouts throughout the year to focus on the different goals of power, strength, hypertrophy and endurance. We typically have 2 week microcycles per phase and progress the sets and reps accordingly.


After we complete our lift we do a couple of different things. Our athletes group together and do core work, body weight circuits, conditioning drills or stretching/recovery work. We feel it is important to start the workout together and end the together as a team for bonding and cohesiveness. Everyone gets a chance to see each other and know they have worked hard as a team to improve their strength and fitness.


Our approach to speed, agility and conditioning follows a similar system; we observe how our athletes move, teach and correct where appropriate, increase the speed of the movement and then make the move in an unknown environment. We focus on decelerating while maintaining a base of support and then pivoting, shuffling, or backpedaling to switch directions. We work on acceleration drills and speed drills up to about 25 yards for our field players so they can accelerate, decelerate and change direction in a short space, similar to their sport. We have found that a lot of our athletes do not lean in to make a cut or explode out of it, so we teach how to plant the foot with a flexed ankle, knee and hip and then drive out of that position toward the intended direction. After they understand what we are looking for, we increase the speed. Our conditioning workouts consist of intermittent bouts of sprints or games that involve agility drills or team exercises to complete.


With high school age athletes it is very tempting to throw everything at them because of how resilient and adaptive they are. We believe in working with them to forge a solid foundation not only for high school or college athletics, but to maintain their fitness throughout their lifetime. We strive to have our athletes learn the proper movements of the big lifts as well as landing mechanics and speed and agility drills. It is our hope that developing good habits in high school will enable them to perform at a high level throughout their lifetime.

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