Oct 20, 2015
From the Ground Up
R.J. Anderson

When training high school athletes, the weightroom focus is on building a foundation of movement. In this roundtable, five veteran strength coaches at this level share their methods.

The following article appears in the November 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.


Mark Asanovich, MA, CSCS, spent 14 years in the NFL, including five as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and seven in the same role with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s in his third year as a Physical Education Instructor and Strength and Conditioning Coach at Minnetonka (Minn.) High School. Asanovich, one of the first 15 coaches to become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, is a former Minnesota State Director for the NSCA and served on the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Health and Physical Fitness.

Carol Happ, CSCS, is in her third year as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, where she is contracted through Community Health Network. Previously, Happ spent eight years as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Minnesota, where she worked with women’s track and field, women’s cross country, and women’s tennis. Prior to Minnesota, Happ spent two years at Ball State University as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach.

Darnell Clark, MS, CSCS, RSCC*D, has been the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Day School since 2004. He is responsible for the development and implementation of strength and conditioning programs for 64 middle school, junior varsity, and varsity athletic teams. Clark has been the NSCA’s North Carolina State Director since 2013, and he was named the NSCA’s National High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 2014.

Richard Lansky, CSCS, has been a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Physical Education Teacher at Manatee High School in Bradenton, Fla., since 2010. Prior to his time at Manatee, Lansky conducted an NFL Draft preparation program and designed offseason strength and conditioning workouts for various professional athletes.

Lansky has been an Advisory Board Member for the Florida High School Athletic Association and served on the NSCA’s Florida State Advisory Board, as well as the USA Weightlifting Board of Directors. This year, Lansky was named a Samson Equipment High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year.

Kevin Vanderbush, CSCS, RSCC*E, has amassed a number of honors and accolades over 32 years as a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Physical Education Teacher at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. Currently the Chair of the NSCA High School Special Interest Group Executive Council, Vanderbush was named the 2008 Samson Equipment High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year, 2007 NSCA High School Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year, and the Professional Football Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society’s National High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 2001.

While some strength coaches may consider a high school position as merely a stepping-stone to other opportunities, there are plenty who view it as the ultimate destination. Though they don’t receive the same amount of attention as their colleagues at the professional and collegiate levels, these coaches are no less impactful. Working with a variety of sports, teams, and coaches, high school strength coaches have unique opportunities to positively influence a large number of young athletes.

In the following roundtable discussion, we talk with five leading high school strength and conditioning coaches, some with experience in NCAA Division I and the NFL, who have found that working with high school athletes is exactly what they want to do. From training philosophies and motivational tactics to advice for taking over a new program, they offer a diverse collection of viewpoints. Though their situations and circumstances vary, a singular theme unites them all: being a high school strength coach is all about the kids.

How did you end up working at the high school level?

Kevin Vanderbush: I started at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis fresh out of college 32 years ago. Our school was the first in the area to have a full-time strength and conditioning coach.

As strength coaches, our egos might suggest that a college position would be more desirable, but I tell people high school is the ideal age for athlete development. You basically are handed a lump of clay and get to mold it. The college and pro coaches are the ones who put the glaze on afterward.

Not only do you get to help high school athletes develop in their sport, you’re also counseling, mentoring, and constantly teaching them life skills. I regularly have kids come back and tell me how much they appreciate the discipline they learned in my strength program.

Mark Asanovich: I’ve kind of come full circle. I got my start as a strength and conditioning coach in 1986 at Anoka [Minn.] High School. I began the strength training program there, became completely enamored with that aspect of coaching, and went on to pursue a master’s in exercise science at Ohio State University. Eventually, I ended up in the NFL as a strength coach for the Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2012, my wife and I decided we wanted the stability afforded by the high school level, and I wound up at Minnetonka [Minn.] High School.

Richard Lansky: I had coached at Sarasota’s Booker High School in the early ’90s and really enjoyed working with that age group. Prior to coming to Manatee High School in 2010, I owned a performance training facility where I worked with college and professional athletes, but I eventually realized I wanted to get back to the high school level. I love this setting because I’m able to expose athletes and non-athletes alike to strength and conditioning principles they can use their entire lives.

Carol Happ: After working as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Minnesota and Ball State University for a combined 10 years, I moved back to the Indianapolis area for family reasons and began working for a local hospital network that provided strength and conditioning services in a variety of settings. A contracted post at Lawrence North High School opened up six years ago, and I’ve been here ever since. I love working at this level because I get to watch the kids really grow. The progress they make at these ages is so dramatic.

Darnell Clark: When I was pursuing my master’s degree at Arizona State University, I found myself working in a weightroom three levels under the football stadium-going to work in the early morning when it was dark and returning when it was dark. Recently married and starting a family at the time, that kind of grind wasn’t appealing to me, and I viewed the high school level as a way to find better work-life balance. In 2004, I saw a posting on the NSCA website for my current job at Charlotte [N.C.] Country Day School. The school was two years old with great facilities, and I jumped at the chance to work here. I’ve never looked back.

What is your facility like?

Asanovich: Our 5,200-square-foot weightroom is set up similar to the one I had with the Jaguars in terms of space and equipment. The majority of weightrooms today consist of mostly power racks and benches, but ours is 95 percent machines. The literature says your muscles can’t distinguish what’s providing the resistance-whether you stimulate them with a barbell or a machine, you’ll get roughly the same result. Because we have a lot of younger kids who train in our room after school, and as many as 100 athletes can be in there at once, machines are a safer, better option for us.

Clark: We have about 3,500 square feet with a dumbbell rack at each of our 11 training stations. Each station is self-sufficient. I can put four student-athletes at a station for their workout, and they don’t have to go anywhere else. That really keeps the flow going, which is important for me, because I don’t want athletes standing around.

Vanderbush: Our weightroom is 6,200 square feet, and we can fit 100 kids in there at once. Half the room has upper-body equipment, and half has lower-body equipment. I have an elevated office, so I can keep an eye on the entire room even when I have to work on administrative tasks.

Lansky: The main weightroom is 3,000 square feet and has five combo stations. We have an open area to do glute-ham exercises and one lat pulldown. The rest of our equipment is barbells, bumpers, dumbbells, and boxes. We also recently completed phase one of a new strength and conditioning area for our football and boys’ and girls’ weightlifting teams that is 1,500 square feet with a strip of synthetic turf down the middle.

What’s your training philosophy for high school athletes?

Happ: My programming philosophy is very similar to what I did at the college level. Every athlete starts with the fundamentals, and I keep it pretty basic. After they learn the fundamentals, we might get a little more specialized, but my program is not as sport-specific as when I was in college.

Vanderbush: We know that all high school athletes are coming to us with really limited backgrounds in movement skills and strength. Our goal is to make them better overall athletes and limit the risk of injury.

Clark: I’m really big on training flow and work capacity. So when an athlete comes in, they need to know exactly what to do and how to do it. Every athlete understands the process and what to expect.

Asanovich: It may sound a little silly, but I don’t have one. A philosophy is a system of beliefs, and I choose, instead, to take a science-based approach to resistance training using nothing but the most recent research.

How is your program structured?

Asanovich: Generally, we train the entire body twice a week, and our athletes can come in a third time if they choose. But if they’re busting it out twice a week, that’s usually all they need. In-season, we’ll cut that back to one total-body workout and one upper-body workout each week.

I always tell other strength coaches to look for the irreducible minimum: If you’re training the athletes four times a week, reduce it to three times and see what happens. If you get the same results, why go the extra day? When I first got here, our athletes were training three days a week. I cut it back to two, and our results improved.

Happ: I teach 90-minute strength and conditioning classes at Lawrence North, which is when I implement most of my program. I teach three classes a day, and athletes attend two or three classes each week. I also do supplemental work with them after school. They all do the same program for the most part, but I change up the sets and reps depending on whether they’re in-season or out of season.

Vanderbush: I teach a course called Advanced Weight Training, which is limited to athletes. They train with me five days a week for 35 minutes a day, and we do additional work after school depending on sport coach preferences.

What do your workouts entail?

Vanderbush: We do two days a week of upper-body lifting and two days of lower-body lifting. On the fifth day, we do circuit training that includes footwork ladders, medicine ball exercises, and core work. For upper-body workouts, athletes will do a chest exercise, a lat pull, a shoulder press, a bicep, a tricep, low back, and abs.

For lower-body work, I think it’s beneficial to include a triple extension exercise, so we do a hang clean two-thirds of the time and a power clean the other third. In addition, I think front and back squats are important, as well as balance-coordination work that addresses hamstring flexibility and stability. One exercise I really like for this is a single-leg dead lift with a kettlebell on a box.

Happ: My program is almost completely Olympic-based. The athletes start each class with foam rolling, and then progress to agility footwork drills and a dynamic warm-up before proceeding to a full-body workout. I don’t do bodybuilding programs, and I don’t really use machines-it’s all barbells and dumbbells. We do a push and a pull, a squat variation, a glute exercise, core work, and we do explosive work with cleans, snatches, and kettlebells. Each workout finishes with static stretching.

Lansky: The bulk of my workouts center on free weight training-multi- joint, ground-based exercises and Olympic lifts. I have spent a lot of time on the USA Weightlifting Coaching Committee, and I have extensive experience teaching Olympic lifts. We use a bunch of 15-pound bars and plastic plates to teach proper bar mechanical position for Olympic lifts because we won’t load athletes if they have faulty movement patterns. Most kids start with bodyweight exercises, then med balls and light barbells before we start loading them with weight.

Asanovich: What is the most catastrophic injury a kid can suffer in any sport? A cervical spine injury. Since we strength train mainly to help athletes avoid injury, my go-to exercises in the weightroom are neck flexion and neck extension. In addition to building muscle with these movements, athletes are strengthening their connective tissue and increasing bone mineral density in the cassettes of their cervical spine, which leads to a more structurally sound neck. I see building a stronger neck as a critical concussion prevention tool.

How do you accommodate the wide range of ability and developmental levels with high school athletes?

Clark: It’s important to have a solid plan for progression. There are all kinds of ways to modify exercises to get different athletes where they need to be. For example, football is one of the most challenging sports to work with because there are so many skill levels. With teams like that, we group players by ability, which determines what type of workout they’ll do each day.

Vanderbush: I’m big on the idea of peer coaching. Within our structure, I might have a class of 80 kids divided into groups of eight-four of whom may have been in my class before, while the rest are newcomers. I ask the older four to take the younger athletes under their wings. We have them remind the younger athletes about good form and how we record our lifts. As a result, our younger athletes feel like someone is looking out for them, while the veterans learn leadership skills and become better at executing the movements through teaching them.

How do you motivate high school athletes?

Asanovich: Nowadays, the stereotypical strength coach is someone who yells and screams all the time. It’s really sad, because when the rubber hits the road, you motivate young people by forming sincere, unique relationships. You have to make a human connection and gain an athlete’s trust. Once you do that, they’ll do anything you ask.

Lansky: You have to get to know each athlete as a person and learn what makes them tick. Whether it’s wanting to move on to the next level, getting noticed for hard work, or even living up to an older sibling’s legacy, each athlete responds to their own motivational hot button.

Clark: For me, interpersonal relationships are key, and that starts by learning all of the athletes’ names. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. Going to their games is crucial, too. I love watching our athletes compete, and they appreciate it when they see me in the stands and when I compliment them on their performance the next day.

Happ: Athletes must know they have our full attention when they are working out in the weightroom. This means giving continuous feedback.

I’m also very honest, and athletes appreciate that. I make sure to follow every criticism with something positive. Athletes understand I’m hard on them because I know they have great potential, and I tell them as much. That can be a very powerful thing to hear.

What are the biggest challenges at the high school level?

Asanovich: Ninth graders! It can be tough working around some of their emotional immaturity. Also, there are limitations in terms of staff and budget. At the NFL level, I had a big staff and unlimited resources while working with no more than 90 players-and that was only during the preseason. Here, I’m a staff of one with 500 athletes pulling me in 500 different directions all at the same time.

Clark: For me, meeting the developmental needs of our many multisport athletes is a daily challenge. With all their in-season demands-including club sports-they never have an offseason, which makes it hard for them to progress and make gains in the weightroom. They also don’t have enough recovery opportunities-both physically and mentally-so I try to provide them resources on the importance of proper nutrition and sleep habits.

Vanderbush: It can be frustrating when kids pursue personal training services thinking it will give them a performance boost. In most cases, parents simply want what’s best for their sons or daughters and think that means paying a personal trainer or CrossFit gym to put them through additional workouts. However, those private services often don’t take into account what the athletes are already doing in their school strength program. In the best-case scenario, personal training sessions would complement the high school work, not replace or clash with it, but that’s not what usually happens.

Lansky: It’s frustrating to see our athletes for only a few hours each day because we generally don’t know what they’re doing the rest of the time. For example, a lot of our athletes get their only food for the day through the school’s free breakfast and lunch programs, which makes emphasizing the importance of nutrition difficult.

To combat that, we started a program here that lets us give our athletes post-workout nutrition like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chocolate milk.

What is your advice for coaches who are new to the high school level?

Lansky: You have to be willing to put in the time and wear a lot of hats-especially in the beginning. Then, I would recommend finding resources that can assist your program. Maybe a parent of an athlete has a nutrition background, or another works at a grocery store that can donate day-old bread for post-workout peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You can also call a nearby college or local fitness facility and see if they’d be interested in donating older weight equipment. You won’t know until you ask.

Also, it’s important to keep things simple with your training. You can have a very basic program, but your athletes will improve if they consistently do it with 100 percent intensity and effort. The reverse is also true: You can have the greatest program, but it won’t have much of an effect if your kids won’t buy in.

Vanderbush: High school strength coaches have to educate all of their constituents on what they bring to the table. They have to meet with every sport coach and show them how they can help their athletes develop and get better. This also means letting parents know how their child will benefit from being part of your program, as well as meeting with your administrators. Every time I get a new principal or athletic director, I make sure I share my thoughts, goals, and previous successes with them.

Happ: No matter what level you work at, it’s important to watch and learn from other strength coaches. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. I am still reading, learning, absorbing, and having “a-ha” moments when I watch other coaches. Sometimes young people in the profession think they know everything, but you have to be willing to take a step back and be open-minded. There are a lot of different ways to arrive at a destination.

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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