Jan 29, 2015
Pumping Up Your Program

With a little planning, any high school can implement a sport-specific strength-training program. It starts with identifying your needs and selling the idea to school administrators.

Nate Dougherty is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].

When Holly Tamm, MS, CSCS, became Strength Coach at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, an all-girls school in Milwaukee, Wis., she knew she had a tough job ahead of her. To start, the one room in the school designed for strength and conditioning was small, musty, and uninspiring.

“I realized the first thing I needed to do was change the workout space,”Tamm says. “I didn’t even want to be in there, so I could see why the athletes didn’t want to. It was stinky and claustrophobic. The equipment was old and the rug was torn. From an aesthetic standpoint, it was terrible. For the strength program to be successful, I needed to make the space look like a weightroom and then I had to make the girls feel comfortable in it.”

Now, three years later, Tamm oversees a bright, cheerful weightroom full of strength-training equipment that matches the enhanced program she put into place. It took a lot of work, she says, but she and the sport coaches are seeing it pay dividends on the playing field and courts.

More and more high schools are starting progressive, structured strength training for all sports, and they are looking to do it on small budgets. How can you do the same at your high school? The keys are: identifying needs, selling administrators on the idea, networking to find new funding sources, and getting coaches and athletes on board with your ideas.


Before you take on the challenge of starting a strength and conditioning program at your high school, you need to do some thinking about what is feasible for your situation. There is no standard blueprint for beginning such an endeavor, so you’ll have to understand what your school’s particular needs are.

At the Randolph School in Huntsville, Ala., which has only 200 students, Tracy Brookman, Physical Education Chair and Head Girls’ Basketball Coach, has been working on implementing a program for about a year. “To start, you need to do your homework,”Brookman says. “Identify what kind of program best fits your school’s mission, your athletes, and your community.”

At the Randolph School, that meant implementing a general conditioning program that could eventually be adjusted to become sport-specific. With a small coaching staff and no funds to hire a strength coach, Brookman needed something easy for head coaches to oversee. She found it in a formatted program all athletes can follow to build explosive speed.

On the other end of the spectrum, Riverside Military Academy (Gainsville, Ga.) Head Football Coach Doug Dixon wanted to transform his school’s strength-training program so it resembles one at a university. His research entailed visiting nearby colleges and becoming well-versed on the most up-to-date ideas.

“We visited most of the college weightrooms in the Southeast Conference and Atlantic Coast Conferences and designed ours to incorporate the best of everything we saw,”Dixon says. “From those tours, we decided on a triple-combo rack that features a bench, an enclosed squat rack, and a platform all in one unit. We now have 10 of those lining the middle of our weightroom, and we can have up to 90 people working out at one time.”

In addition to the triple-combo racks and free weights, the school uses leg drive, pulling, ladder, and pull-up/dip machines for a regimen intended to build explosive strength and speed. Once a strength-training program with no real structure, the research helped craft Riverside’s facility into what the coach believes is one of the best in the country.


Once you’ve determined exactly what type of program and facilities are best for your school, the next step is convincing the administrators who write the checks that the venture is worth the money. One effective strategy is to show how the program can benefit the entire school, not just athletes. At Arundel High School in Gambrills, Md., one of the district’s goals was to increase participation in extracurricular activities. Head Football Coach Chuck Markiewicz kept this in mind when he approached administrators about upgrading the school’s strength-training facilities.

“We have upwards of 2,000 kids going in and out of our weightroom, and that participation was one of our selling points,” says Markiewicz, also a physical education teacher with a certification in weight training through the International Sports Sciences Association. “If we’re going to have that many kids in there, we need to make it safe and we need to have the right kind of equipment. That argument made sense, so they supported us.”

At Lone Tree (Iowa) High School, Athletic Director Tom Squiers was able to convince administrators to upgrade the school’s strength-training facility, and hire a strength coach by making strength training part of the physical education curriculum. He is currently working on getting all students into the weightroom for gym classes, which is already a requirement for junior high students. The early exposure to the equipment teaches them the benefits of weight lifting as well as proper lifting techniques, Squiers says.

Dixon used the argument that weight lifting, like all sports, helps shape better students and leaders. “When selling your program, don’t only sell the benefits of what it can do for the athletic program,” he says. “Talk about how those who are not involved in sports will use it, too. Explain how it will touch each one of these kids, helping them develop characteristics that are important later in life. When you present those types of ideas, people listen.”

Having a clear plan and being able to articulate it through presentations is also important, especially when requesting big-ticket items. “The most important thing I did was present to our board a written proposal and give them detailed reasons why I requested the equipment I did,” says Tamm. “They wanted justification from a safety and health standpoint, and they wanted to know that what I was investing in quality equipment.

“For example, we had a carpet that was snagged and torn up, and I wanted to put rubber flooring in,” she adds. “I explained how rubber tends to last 10 to 20 years, so they knew it was a great investment. They wanted to know that even if I left in two years, the school would still benefit from these purchases.”


Ideally, all your arguments for improving your strength and conditioning program will convince administrators to budget a large chunk of money toward it. In reality, however, most schools find their coffers won’t cover everything they want. This is when you need to tap into your community.

At Lone Tree High School, Squiers and his sport coaches decided to ask local businesses for donations. But they didn’t just talk about how strength training would make Lone Tree’s athletes and teams perform better—they sold it as something the entire community could benefit from. The result was $12,000 in donations, which the school used to buy five top-of-the-line multistations.

“We sent a letter to local businesses explaining what we were trying to do,”Squiers says. “Our facility is open to the community, so if someone signs a waiver, they can use the weightroom. We wanted to show this would not only benefit our athletes, it would also be a resource for the entire community.”

Tamm suggests finding parents to help with the legwork and doing a lot of networking. “Some of the parents of my students did the work for me, which was fantastic,”Tamm says. “Also, a lot of fitness companies will give high schools discounts on equipment, so I think it’s important to get to know as many people as you can who are willing to help you achieve your objective.”

At Arundel High School, Markiewicz secured $20,000 worth of racks, adjustable benches, platforms, and rubber weights for free through a bit of serendipitous networking. The school’s former basketball coach knew an owner of a local gym that was going out of business and found out the remaining equipment was free for the taking. So the school jumped at the chance.

“That really pushed us in the right direction,”Markiewicz says. “It put us over the hump by saving us $20,000 on equipment we really wanted. It came from simply putting the word out and asking everyone to keep their ears open.” To top it off, the school then received a donation of used platforms from the University of Maryland.


Once all the equipment is secured and a program is in place, the last step is getting coaches and athletes to commit to it. Some coaches may have different ideas about what’s best for their teams, or may simply not have the time to make sure their athletes are participating properly. At the same time, some athletes may not understand why they should spend time in a weightroom, especially if they play a sport where lifting wasn’t a part of practice before.

Tamm experienced this firsthand, and countered with a lot of communication. “I went to the coaches’ meetings at the beginning of the year and introduced myself and told them what my program is all about,”Tamm says. “I also sent out e-mails to the coaches telling them what we do, what my background is, and the benefits of strength training. Now, if there’s a new coach around, I make sure to introduce myself and let them know I am always available if there is anything they need.”

By opening the channels of communication, Tamm is able to address any reservations coaches have and dispel any misconceptions about strength training for girls. She also makes it clear that she wants to work closely with the sport coaching staff.

To get athletes to buy into the program, Tamm explained how it will improve their overall fitness as well as how each lift and drill will benefit their performance on the field or court. “I show them how much stronger and healthier it will make them,” she says. “And I’m constantly talking to them about why it’s good to do something from a functional standpoint. I tell them exactly what they are improving and how the lifts will help.”

At Arundel High School, the three-times-a-week summer weight-lifting sessions are not mandatory, but more than 100 students regularly show up for early-morning workouts. Markiewicz says the good turnout is due to the positive reinforcement from the staff who run the program. The key is to make the atmosphere upbeat and structured, keeping a time limit on workouts.

“We’re not yellers or screamers. We’re encouragers,”Markiewicz says. “The kids enjoy that kind of structured atmosphere. We promise to get them in and out within two hours.”

At the sessions, Markiewicz uses the athletes’ inner competitiveness to keep them motivated. Veterans are separated from the younger players, who are in turn motivated to reach the higher level.

Among teammates, there is an even stronger motivation—competition for playing time. “We tell them it’s all about competition within ourselves,” Markiewicz says. “We say, ‘You can decide whether to come or not, but someone else probably plays your position too. If you’re okay with them getting an edge on you, then stay home.’ I tell them strength training isn’t going to necessarily guarantee wins, but if they don’t come they certainly lower their chance to win.”


A key aspect of setting up a strength program is having trained staff to run it. Hiring a certified strength and conditioning coach is the best route, but if that’s too steep for a school’s budget, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has a new initiative (to be introduced in early 2007) that could help. Called the Fly Solo Program, it will allow coaches and physical education teachers to gain certification to run a strength program after taking a course and workshop.

“We have high school coaches who don’t know enough about strength and conditioning to run a program on their own, and they need a mentor to come in and help them learn these things,” says Boyd Epley, MEd, CSCS, MSCC, Director of Coaching Performance for the NSCA. “So we’re creating a seven or eight-hour camp for high school coaches to learn hands-on how to implement their programs correctly.”

The camp will be held at NSCA-approved centers around the country, where a certified mentor will teach the four-step philosophy to coaches. The steps are based on what a good strength and conditioning program should include: testing, evaluation, setting goals, and implementing a program to achieve those goals.

Epley says testing, though one of the most important parts of any program, is too often overlooked or skipped. Testing allows coaches to learn the strengths and weaknesses of an athlete, chart their progress, and determine what sport or position they would be most effective in. Without testing, it’s also impossible to set goals, which can ultimately lead to an unfocused experience.

Testing also reveals how effective the training program is, and whether a change is necessary. “Let’s say an athlete follows a coach’s program for six weeks and there’s no improvement in speed or power or agility. Then that program doesn’t work,”Epley says. “When you re-test, you’re able to see the progress made not just by the individual but by the entire team. You can also see how they stack up to the previous year’s team.”

Coaches interested in the program will receive a “flight manual,”which acts as a study guide for the basic principles of strength and conditioning. Epley says coaches aren’t expected to simply skim through the manual, but to study it carefully. “They don’t just show up at the camp and automatically earn their wings,” Epley says. “They won’t understand the course or obtain enough knowledge by just showing up.”

Epley says Fly Solo will not only bring less-experienced coaches up to speed, but it will also give credit to those who are already working hard to maintain their programs. “There are a lot of good high school coaches handling the strength-training area who want validation,” he says. “By going through the process to get their wings, people will recognize that the coach is doing a good job for the athletes they’re working with.”


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