Strength Training for High School Athletes

What we need to understand is that the greatest untapped adaptation in high school athletes is general STRENGTH. The single greatest error in most "strength programs" is relying on the community and consistency of the athlete to elicit results and failing to implement a simple, hard, effective training program.

What High School Athletes Should Be Doing for Strength Training

By: Mike Grillo

Strength training in high school comes with its challenges. Kids are pulled in multiple directions, told various training methods to follow, and influenced and pressured by social media/friendships. These distractions present a challenge for parents and coaches alike. Rarely, if ever, do kids’ social circles feed them valuable, actionable information about anything. When it comes to strength and athletics, this is perhaps even more true. Social media glamorizes winning, lifestyles, abs, quick fixes, and more or less, ignores all the hard work successful athletes put in off the field. Left to their own devices, teenaged athletes will gravitate toward what is popular or looks interesting and fun. Which usually isn’t what works.

If these athletes are lucky, they have a strength & conditioning coach or a head coach who takes charge, putting in place a program to follow. Good coaches use programs to build community and encourage consistency with their athletes. If the athletes are consistent with any form of training, they will likely see some sort of “result.” The best thing about coaching young athletes is that they are primed for building strength and athleticism, making it relatively easy for almost any training modality to “work” for them.

While community and consistency are important when seeking ANY performance adaptation, we also need to consider the WHY of WHAT the athletes are doing while training. What we need to understand is that the greatest untapped adaptation in high school athletes is general STRENGTH. The single greatest error in most “strength programs” is relying on the community and consistency of the athlete to elicit results and failing to implement a simple, hard, effective training program.

Strength is a general adaptation. To put it simply, strength is one’s ability to produce force against an external resistance. We produce force against things every day simply to function in our environment. If our ability to produce force greatly diminished, we would be bedridden. So, the goal with strength training is to train our ability to produce force. We do this by using barbells and the “big lifts” of the squat, deadlift, Press, and Bench Press because they use the most muscle mass over the longest effective range of motion, allowing the most weight to be lifted or the “greatest force” to be produced. By gradually increasing the intensity (load) of these lifts, we can cause the general adaptation of a strength increase. When we do this with 15- to18-year-old kids, we see a GREAT return on their invested time; their ability to produce force drastically increases. It is not uncommon for a genetically average athlete to add 100lbs to their squat in two to three months, especially with the community aspect and the consistent training efforts seen in team sports. It makes sense that if we can increase an athlete’s squat and deadlift by 100lbs without packing on massive amounts of body fat, we can expect previous activities to become much easier. Pushing a tackling sled suddenly becomes easier, boxing out a bigger player for a rebound becomes an achievable task, knocking an offensive lineman on his ass and sacking the Quarterback is no longer rare. See, the more force we can produce, the stronger we become. Because it applies to everything we do, this is a general adaptation.

So how does this general adaptation translate into sports? Because strength is general, we don’t strength train to be “sport-specific.” We focus on using a barbell to require the trainee to use a large amount of muscle mass and produce a large amount of force, while we progressively add weight to the bar (with good form) every session. By doing this, we can increase the number of motor units recruited AND increase the athlete’s muscle mass, making them stronger at any task associated with their sport.

Strength training isn’t something you do instead of playing your sport, it underpins the necessary physical changes an athlete needs to get better at any sport. You get stronger with proper strength training; you get better at your sport by practicing your sport. We don’t see basketball players shooting a weighted basketball because shooting is a SKILL, and shooting a heavy basketball for thousands of reps would make shooting a regular basketball really…strange. Throwing a curveball is a skill. Swinging a golf club is a skill. Now, if we can make you stronger, then your need to produce enough force to shoot the ball from the free-throw line goes down. Therefore, you should either be able to shoot the ball with more accuracy at close distances or acquire a further shooting range. One can get better at their sport by becoming stronger and applying/practicing their new ability to produce force in their specific sport.

Encourage these athletes to regularly squat, Press, Bench, and deadlift while adding 2.5-5lbs to the bar each session, and you will be amazed at what SIMPLE programming and training can do for young athletes. A skilled strength coach can not only get your athletes STRONGER, but they will help your athletes be more efficient with their time in the weight room as well. Make strength the primary training goal, and high school athletes will be better at their sport and will have developed the mental toughness to do things they once thought they could not do.

Further reading:

“Starting Sports: General vs. Specific Strength Training”

“In-Season vs. Off-Season Training for Sports”

“Sport Specific Strength Training” (YouTube video)


Mike Grillo graduated from Central Missouri State University in 2005 with a BS in Exercise Science. Mike’s passion for fitness started through competitive sports during High School and College. Although it really peaked in 1996 when Mike was diagnosed with cancer. Overcoming such a serious health issue as a sophomore in high school sent Mike on a journey to better his life and to help others do the same.
Upon graduation in 2005, Mike started his journey through personal training and absolutely fell in love with helping others change their lives. In 2007 Mike started coaching the barbell lifts and found that the simple, hard, and effective use of barbells in a training program provided a service like no other. You can contact Mike at mgrillo@barbell-logic.com.

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