Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Novice Program for High School Athletes

by Nick Delgadillo, SSC | February 25, 2016

chase at the bottom of a squat

Training athletes, especially football players, is a giant pain in the ass.  Three days a week, I have a group of high school kids that come to the gym for training.  They all run a novice program and continue to get stronger week after week, as long as they’re doing what they’re supposed to do.  As we all know, the fact that these kids are pretty big already and ranging in age from 14-18 puts them in absolutely the best possible situation for being able to capitalize on the potential benefits of a simple and hard barbell program.

Most of them have run a linear progression the year before, spent a season playing football, and then picked up almost where they left off with another linear progression in the next off-season since they have grown a couple of inches and gained weight during the season.  Continually adding weight to the bar over really long periods of time can be done with almost minimal effort by the trainees I deal with in this group as long as they just show up to the gym, since they’re literally growing right in front of my eyes.

The pain-in-the-ass part isn’t due to the simple fact that I’m training teenagers. It’s usually, almost without exception, due to their high school’s “athletics” program, that requires them to strength train or participate in powerlifting at the high school.  The moronic shit-show that occurs in North Texas high school athletics takes many forms: power cleans with bands, circuits of 30 power cleans and squats, constant rep-max testing , and running.  Lots and lots of running.  One kid reported that they did jumping squats during athletics training one day.  Jumping squats.  As in putting a barbell on a kid’s back and having him jump and land in a squat. Awesome. Elite almost.

This presents a challenge. The kids who come to WFAC to train want to get strong.  And while I understand that there are difficulties in conducting weight training sessions with large numbers of teenagers, budgetary constraints preventing the hiring of an actual strength coach, ego trips, and myriad other factors that have prevented the high school coaches from getting kids strong who want to be strong, it’s incredibly irritating that for the few who go out of their way to find better coaching, there occurs what essentially amounts to sabotage by the high school coach.

This situation in the near term is not fixable. The advice I give our kids is to sandbag at school so that they can actually get on with the business of training after school at our gym – 16 and 17 year olds being 16 and 17 year olds, this rarely occurs.  What actually happens is that they go balls out with whatever crap they have to do in athletics because they’re competing with their teammates and being part of the team, and then, depending on the damage, struggle to complete their workout on the bad days – usually the ones involving lots of running.

Every once in a while a kid will do things right, though.  Chase has been coming to WFAC for nearly 5 years. He started training with Bryan Fox as a tiny, underweight 14-year-old with Type-I diabetes. He decided early on that getting strong was a priority for him and in the time he’s been training at the gym has missed fewer training sessions than can be counted on one hand.  Seriously. No shit. He quickly got stronger than everyone in his class. When he was told he needed to sandbag, he sandbagged. When he was told he needed to gain weight, he gained weight.

I haven’t tested Chase’s vertical jump or his 40 yard dash, but I don’t think he’s an extraordinarily gifted athlete. To say that he’s a freak, in some respects, diminishes the amount of incredibly hard work he’s put in over the years. I think he’s an excellent example of what is possible for someone who is dedicated and disciplined in realizing his potential.

I took over Chase’s training last spring. He was squatting in the low to mid 300s at around 190 lbs. He was coming off of a back injury that he had suffered during a squat, and we spent some time rehabbing it. I added a bunch of volume to his press and bench press, added lying triceps extensions and weighted dips to keep his upper body lifts going. His deadlift and squat continued to go up workout to workout almost up until the 2015 season started in August. He finished off-season training with a 420x5 squat and a bodyweight of 205.

During the season, I had him come in twice a week and do a single set of 5 of squat and press on one day, and deadlift and bench on another day. He also continued to do dips and chins. I had him de-load a bit in-season, but I regularly saw him squatting over 400 through those 4 months of football.

When the season was over, I took his squat down to 365x5x3 and deadlift to 405x5 and told him to run an LP again. He quickly got up to 415x5x3, but he was squatting too deep and had a lot of trouble staying tight at the bottom (at some point during the season, he discovered he could do a full front and side split. I didn’t ask how he figured this out.) His bodyweight was around 210, up from around 200 after the season ended.

I worked with him to find a weight where he could consistently hit proper depth and stay tight. It was around 385 for sets of 5. He started working his way up from there and started eating spoonfuls of peanut butter throughout the day. This was about a month and a half ago. As of Monday, February 22, at 18 years old and a bodyweight of 224 his current lifts are:

  • Squat - 435x5x3
  • Press – 225x5
  • Deadlift – 465x5

He’s still adding weight to the bar twice a week on the squat, and he continues to gain a few pounds every week since his last season of football ended.

If Chase is an outlier, it’s due to the fact that most kids lack the focus to stick with anything year after year, season after season during their teenage years. He represents an optimal situation as a lifter and for his coach – a teenage athlete who will train and eat properly. But, the potential for progress made by kids following the Novice Linear Progression, even relatively haphazardly and with significant interference from high school athletics, can’t be dismissed.

It’s important to understand that even under suboptimal training conditions, the growth that’s occurring during the high school years provides for a situation in which a kid really can Do The Program for 2-4 years. Just make sure they drink their milk and eat their peanut butter. 

Here’s the bottom line on training high school athletes. Two scenarios are possible. First, high school coaches will suddenly figure out what is painfully obvious to the rest of us: that they are handed a group of kids who are growing, that barbells are the most effective tools with which to gain strength and thus increase athletic performance, that the simple process of adding a little bit of weight to the bar each workout works better than anything they can come up with during their lunch break in the teacher’s lounge, and that they can potentially continue this process for most of a kid’s high school career. 

More likely, these kids will come to us to do what their coaches are unable or unwilling to do. And we’ll have to find creative ways of ensuring that the goofy stuff occurring at the high school doesn’t interfere too much with the business of getting them strong. Then, we’ll take pleasure in the knowledge that a kid’s success in getting strong and becoming a better athlete has occurred in spite of their high school’s athletics program. 

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