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Was My High School Coach Totally Clueless About Weightlifting?

Asking for my back, which hasn’t been the same since junior year

Workouts that appear to have been designed by high school coaches with no rhyme, reason or athlete-specific rationale to them have been making the rounds on social media lately

Just from taking a cursory glance at one of the workouts in question — and admittedly, without the benefit of any additional context — multiple concerns come to mind. Among the most troublesome is the highly technical nature of several of the lifts involved, the skyscraping degree of danger inherent in some of those lifts if they’re performed incorrectly, the tremendous volume of those lifts being requested in a single outing and the relatively short segment of time being allocated for completing those lifts within the context of a full training session.

Several perturbed commenters have raised these concerns as well, but they’ve also advised that no one other than a certified strength-and-conditioning professional should be designing resistance-training programs for high-schoolers (more or less insinuating — if, as with the tweet above, not outright saying — that coaches and gym teachers don’t really know shit about weightlifting). To that end, over the last four decades, it’s gradually become an expectation that virtually all competitive U.S. high school athletes will be expected to engage in some form of structured strength training, but the installation of dedicated strength-and-conditioning coaches into high school settings has been comparatively lagging.

Curious about what the expectations should be for high school strength-training programs and the people who develop them, I asked Philadelphia Eagles’ Vice President of Player Performance Ted Rath for his insights as to how he thinks teenage athletes should be responsibly guided to achieve peak athletic performance while preserving their long-term safety. Here’s what he had to say…

What are the responsibilities of a strength-and-conditioning coach as far as developing a program for teens, and making sure all of the training practices fit together properly?

The first aspect of anything that you’re considering in terms of the initial program design is safety. Whether the athlete is 14 years old, is extremely developmental and has never touched a weight before or 76 and still trying to maintain a relative fitness level, you have to look at biomechanically efficient movements and orthopaedically safe movements as well as making sure that you’re not putting a population at risk of heart disease or things like that through unnecessary cardiovascular risk. Safety always comes first.

Specifically with younger athletes, it’s developmental. It’s the development picture of movement: basic movement skills and basic biomechanical movements. Those are the things that have to be factored in when you’re talking about placing an external load onto an athlete’s frame. Their skeletal structure is still forming and changing. Hormonally, they’re still going through a dramatic shift that will either help them move on to increasing muscle tissue and lean body mass, or replacing some of the body fat with muscle tissue. You have to account for all of that. 

The posted workout came from a high school. Can you think of a scenario when it would ever be appropriate to throw a workout like that up on a dry-erase board and tell all of your athletes to do it?

For me, tracking is very important. Any time that you’re just writing something on a dry-erase board, you’re losing the accountability factor because you’re not tracking weight lifted, nor are you tracking the total volume or the total intensity of that workout. Therefore, you’re most likely not tracking it through a macro-cycle or a micro-cycle. You don’t know what that athlete did for a week versus a month. You can’t look at acute versus chronic load. You can’t look at the cumulative effect and the cumulative loading that the athlete has been under for X amount of days or weeks or months. That accountability factor helps you to isolate and really get detailed into providing the right prescription for that athlete or group of athletes. 

I have a problem with that, because if you’re not tracking, how do you hold yourself accountable from a programming perspective? That’s step one. Then we can go into the weeds of developing individual plans for athletes, specifically at that age. That would start with an evaluation and an initial functional movement screening. Then your program would consist of movements and exercises, or corrective exercises that are built around that athlete’s movement. For instance, “This athlete can load in this way, but this other athlete isn’t ready yet. We’re going to have to regress them, but we can progress this athlete.” You have to have an assessment and establish a baseline for everyone individually.

Going back to high-school-aged athletes, that’s a prime developmental time period. Even at the NFL level, we’ll get athletes in here that don’t have proper squat mechanics. We’re talking about some of the most elite athletes in the world, but somewhere along the way, they weren’t taught proper mechanics, or they were loaded and progressed too quickly just to move a certain poundage of weight that the coach wanted them to reach, or the athlete was trying to achieve. That’s where dysfunction starts, and if you continue to progress dysfunction with heavier and heavier loads, you’re going to ultimately put the orthopedic health of that athlete at risk. 

Again, you have to start with an assessment, and then you should be tracking every workout. Otherwise, how do you progress? How do you recognize whether or not you’re making the correct progressions? And how do you ultimately hold yourself accountable to the program working or not?

Some commenters have proposed that every high school should have a certified strength-and-conditioning coach and that a team’s coaching staff shouldn’t be arbitrarily throwing workouts together if they aren’t specialized in that area. What do you think?

I’d venture to say that it’s critical for every single school in the entire U.S. to have a certified strength-and-conditioning coach. We look at this from the full spectrum: The athletic training community has been going through this for more than a decade, where not every school even had a certified athletic trainer covering all the games. You look at the significant health risk and the significant life-altering types of scenarios that can happen — a high school football game is going to have an EMT crew there because of the contact and the nature of the game. The same for a high school wrestling meet or a high school swimming and diving meet where someone might hit their head on the diving board. When you think about all the things that can go wrong, it’s very important that you have a medical safety perspective there. 

Now what’s the preventative side of that? It’s strength and conditioning. It’s proper training. It might not happen today or tomorrow, but if you have a school or an athletic population that’s improperly loading an athlete, you’re creating dysfunction through their lumbar spine, and potentially through their cervical spine. We’re talking about a spinal cord that you only get one of to go through this life with. That athlete might get to 28 or 29 years old, but then they might need multiple-level fusions through their lumbar spine. 

You’re going to impact their daily life for the rest of their life. How is it not just as important to have a certified professional expert in that school training and teaching the athletic population how to move, how to stand correctly and how to prevent incorrect posture from creeping in? 

On top of that, we’re in a pandemic of health — just look at us from an obesity standpoint and what our medical costs are throughout society. In a school setting, when they’re at a developmental age emotionally, psychologically and also physiologically, that’s the most crucial time to establish the proper habits and patterns so that you can maintain a healthy lifestyle forever. So I think every school should 100 percent have a certified expert in there. For me, it’s a no-brainer.

What about an underfunded school that can’t afford a dedicated strength-and-conditioning coach, but still insists that their kids strength train because they want to be as competitive on the field as possible? What would you advise them to do?

That’s an important question, because when you look at our field in general — the strength-and-conditioning field, or the human performance field as a whole — it’s grown exponentially. There are a lot of job pathways. Even Cirque du Soleil and NASCAR have their own strength-and-conditioning professionals. You have more graduating, incoming people who are ready for the profession, and you also have a lot of high-level college students. 

So I’ll put myself in that scenario: I’m the head football coach at the underfunded school. If I realize we can’t make it fit within our budget, I’d call the local college or university and ask if they have a Kinesiology Department or an Exercise Science Department to see who is training the next generation of strength-and-conditioning coaches. I’d talk to the placement advisor for internships. I’d ask if there’s someone who’s ready to come in that’s adequately program-design trained and can run a high school program. If so, I’d ask if we could use them, and if the hours required would count as classwork, etc. 

This is just like how we do it for teachers. They go through a student-teacher position or mentorship positions, which is usually 100-percent free to the institution that’s hosting them because it’s critical to that student’s education. I would start right there.