The First 365 Days of Strength Training

This article is a follow up to my last post “How To Evaluate Your High Schools Strength Program”.  In that article I discussed building a developmental or GPP training phase for all incoming athletes.  In this article I will cover what that phase should look like.

*Please note that this article looks at it from a standpoint of ‘in an ideal world‘.  Not every athlete will be able to go through a full year of GPP strength training due to other sports (which they should be doing), academics, and family/personal commitments.*

As stated in almost every one of my posts – The number one cause of injury with youth and high school athletes is completely preventable.

I know that is a bold statement but I believe it whole heartily to be true.

Young athletes are always taught to be faster and stronger but never taught to stabilize, control their body, and decelerate properly.  Coaches don’t take the time to truly develop athletes in a manner which will set them up for long term success.

This causes athletes to lack in the ability to absorb force, lift with improper technique, and not have the proprioception needed to avoid faulty movement patterns.

Everything is based on – “how can we win NOW?

When the goal should be – “how do we get this kid a strong foundation so he/she wins long term?

The length and quality of any athlete’s career can be determined by three factors.

  • Genetics
  • Intrinsic Motivation
  • Quality of Coaching at The Youth Level

The first two factors are inherent and cannot be controlled.  You either have it or you don’t.

The third one, quality of coaching at the youth level, is so incredibly important that most sports have implemented coaching oversight comities to insure this is quality is kept high.

I have the unique opportunity to work with athletes from almost every high school, club team, and youth organization.  As I assess the training protocol of any athletic program I assist with I continue to see the same thing over and over again, athletes lifting heavy weights way too early and with improper technique.

Most young athletes completely bypass their General Physical Preparation (GPP) phase and jump right into an extensive strength program.  When describing the strength qualities of any athlete you look at relative strength and absolute strength.  Relative strength refers to the athlete’s strength compared to their bodyweight whereas absolute strength refers to the total amount of weight and athlete can lift.

The great majority of athletes jump into a strength program when entering high school or in some cases even earlier.  That puts them somewhere between 12 and 14 years old and every single one of them is at a different phase in their physical development.  There will also be a large, I mean large, gap in athletic ability and previous athletic experience.

When thrown into the fire of a new team at the club or high school level young athletes want to compete, prove themselves, and lift like the upperclassmen.  A quality coach must pull the rains back on them and insure that he or she implements a comprehensive GPP phase for every incoming athlete.

This should be a non-negotiable.

It’s like taking a freshmen football player and putting him in a hitting drill against the varsity without teaching him how to tackle.

So what does a good GPP program look like?   

A GPP phase for introducing athletes to serious strength training should last at least one year broken down into four phases.

1) Bodyweight and Stability

2) Bodyweight Competency

3) Strength Introduction

4) Strength Competency

These four phases are essential for building an athlete towards a long, healthy, and productive athletic career.  Each phase has a specific predetermined goal and when implemented correctly should produce great results.

Phase 1: Bodyweight and Stability – How well does an athlete control their body and what is their starting relative strength?

  • Goal is to teach the athlete how to move properly with strength movements, how to control the body under stress, and what firing patterns need to occur during each lift.

Actual weight should be kept at a minimum with high reps at bodyweight and isometric holds.  No strength movement should be done explosively in this phase of initial GPP.

Phase 2: Bodyweight Competency – Can the athlete perform bodyweight lifts for high reps properly and can they control their body under stress?

  • Goal: The ability to perform quality reps in the pull up, push up, lunges and single leg squats, as well as plyometrics.

Actual weight should still be kept low and the focus should still be on quality of movement and developing great relative strength.  When implementing dumbbells, which should be kept to a reasonable weight, focus needs to be on stability through the movement and range of motion.

Phase 3: Strength Introduction – How well can the athlete move their body when introduced to dumbbell and the introduction of minimal axial loading?

  • Goal: To continue to build the athletes movement proficiency with the implementation of an external load (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.).

Focus should be geared towards quality of movement, range of motion, and continuing to build relative strength.  Weight increases should be progressed slowly and the athlete should never fail on a rep.  Slow, smooth, and controlled motions are paramount.

Phase 4: Strength Competency – Can the athlete transfer their relative strength, stability and body control to training with a barbell and a heavier external load?

  • Goal: To transfer the athlete’s base of relative strength and begin to build absolute strength. The athlete must be ready for barbell training before you begin heavier axial loading with a barbell. 

Movement quality and joint stability must be taken into consideration before progressing to this phase.  Barbell weight should only be increased if the athlete can perform the movement properly and with full range of motion.

In addition to these four phases of the first 365 days for a lifter the athlete needs to go through some form of a functional movement evaluation to test for asymmetries in the body and some form of injury prevention protocol needs to be utilized.  I always recommend the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) as it is the most widely used and highly researched model for screening an athlete for asymmetries.

The quality of strength training implementation for a young athlete will not only yield immediate gains, it will also help the individual obtain a longer athletic career.  The injury rate of high school athletes is as high as it has ever been and this is directly related to not giving an athlete the proper strength they need in order to stay healthy during competition.

Remember, the best ability is availability. 

By using a progressive model for starting a GPP program with a young athlete you will see a great decrease in the number of injuries as well as more productive athletic careers.

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