Nov 29, 2018
Keeping strength simple for high school athletes
By Training & Conditioning

If done correctly, strength training can help young athletes build confidence, improve performance, increase muscle, gain strength and improve speed.

J.T. Kotowski, CSCS, director of athletic performance at Game Changer Strength and Performance in Springfield, N.J., and contributor to, believes that this can all be accomplished by taking a simple approach.

Kotowski explains that with young athletes a simple strength program can reap big results. When kids are in high school, they make many improvements and see fast results because of their ability to learn and acquire new skills and increase muscle mass (muscular hypertrophy). As athletes age, these adaptations have already occurred in their bodies to a certain extent and therefore more progressive and advanced strength training is needed. But when they are in high school, simply executing the basics efficiently and consistently can lead to major improvements. Therefore, Kotowski cautions against incorporating complicated lifts or rep schemes that have been popularized by elite athletes.

Another reason to keep things simple in the weight room is because it’s safer. When Kotowski is teaching young athletes how to properly strength train, he focuses on basic exercises like the squat, floor press, kettlebell deadlift, and lunge. These movements are easier for coaches to teach and easier for athletes to understand because they are relatively simple. Spending a lot of time mastering these foundational movements is essential for athletes to move onto more complicated exercises, and they will still provide major results and lead to improved performance.

   » ALSO SEE: Strength coaches discuss training high school athletes

Many of these simple, basic movements will also help athletes beyond sports. Exercises like the deadlift, lunge, and plank will not only help with athletic performance, but they also serve as essential life skills, as they help strengthen muscles that will improve an athlete’s quality of movement in daily life. Once an athlete knows how to properly perform these exercises, they will have a foundation for staying healthy for years to come.

To give you an idea of what this simplified version of strength training would look like, here is Kotowski’s sample training program for high school athletes:

  • 3-5 sets of 4-12 reps of a main exercise; barbell movements typically in the 4-8 rep range, dumbbells in the 6-12 rep range. Fillers include core, mobility or upper-back exercises
  • 3 sets of two to three assistance work exercises addressing movement patterns not addressed in the main exercise, as well as plane of motion-specific movement
  • Exercise Choices: Barbell Floor Press/Bench Press, Goblet/Barbell Squat, Kettlebell/Trap Bar Deadlift, Bodyweight Row/Weighted Row, Lunge variations, Kettlebell Carry variations, Sled variations

This program focuses on one “big movement” per superset and pairs it with a core, mobility, or upper-back exercise. For the athletes, this approach is more beneficial from a strength gain and skill acquisition standpoint. For the coaches, keeping things simple is beneficial because it’s easier to teach these skills and coach more in-depth.

As you design your own strength training program, here are the main points that Kotowski says to keep in mind:

  • Keep athletes safer
  • Develop good movement habits
  • Increase neuromuscular connections/efficiency
  • Elicit muscular hypertrophy
  • Enable quicker, faster, and more efficient speed and agility related movement
  • Athletes will learn to work hard, move better, and be confident

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