From the Ground Up

Our sister magazine, Training & Conditioning, held a roundtable discussion with five top high school strength and conditioning coaches—some with experience in NCAA Division I and the NFL—who have found that working with high school athletes is exactly what they want to do.  The rountable participants discussed provide tips for high school strength and conditioning programs.

The roundtable participants are:

Mark Asanovich, MA, CSCS, spent 14 years in the NFL, including five as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and seven in the same role with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s in his third year as a Physical Education Instructor and Strength and Conditioning Coach at Minnetonka (Minn.) High School. Asanovich, one of the first 15 coaches to become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, is a former Minnesota State Director for the NSCA and served on the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Health and Physical Fitness.

Carol Happ, CSCS, is in her third year as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, where she is contracted through Community Health Network. Previously, Happ spent eight years as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Minnesota, where she worked with women’s track and field, women’s cross country, and women’s tennis. Prior to Minnesota, Happ spent two years at Ball State University as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach.

Darnell Clark, MS, CSCS, RSCC*D, has been the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Day School since 2004. He is responsible for the development and implementation of strength and conditioning programs for 64 middle school, junior varsity, and varsity athletic teams. Clark has been the NSCA’s North Carolina State Director since 2013, and he was named the NSCA’s National High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 2014.

Richard Lansky, CSCS, has been a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Physical Education Teacher at Manatee High School in Bradenton, Fla., since 2010. Prior to his time at Manatee, Lansky conducted an NFL Draft preparation program and designed offseason strength and conditioning workouts for various professional athletes. Lansky has been an Advisory Board Member for the Florida High School Athletic Association and served on the NSCA’s Florida State Advisory Board, as well as the USA Weightlifting Board of Directors. This year, Lansky was named a Samson Equipment High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year.

Kevin Vanderbush, CSCS, RSCC*E, has amassed a number of honors and accolades over 32 years as a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Physical Education Teacher at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. Currently the Chair of the NSCA High School Special Interest Group Executive Council, Vanderbush was named the 2008 Samson Equipment High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year, 2007 NSCA High School Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year, and the Professional Football Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society’s National High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 2001. 

Here are the panel's responses:

What’s your training philosophy for high school athletes?

Happ: My programming philosophy is very similar to what I did at the college level. Every athlete starts with the fundamentals, and I keep it pretty basic. After they learn the fundamentals, we might get a little more specialized, but my program is not as sport-specific as when I was in college. 

Vanderbush:  We know that all high school athletes are coming to us with really limited backgrounds in movement skills and strength. Our goal is to make them better overall athletes and limit the risk of injury.

Clark: I’m really big on training flow and work capacity. So when an athlete comes in, they need to know exactly what to do and how to do it. Every athlete understands the process and what to expect.

Asanovich: It may sound a little silly, but I don’t have one. A philosophy is a system of beliefs, and I choose, instead, to take a science-based approach to resistance training using nothing but the most recent research.

How is your program structured?

Asanovich: Generally, we train the entire body twice a week, and our athletes can come in a third time if they choose. But if they’re busting it out twice a week, that’s usually all they need. In-season, we’ll cut that back to one total-body workout and one upper-body workout each week.

I always tell other strength coaches to look for the irreducible minimum: If you’re training the athletes four times a week, reduce it to three times and see what happens. If you get the same results, why go the extra day? When I first got here, our athletes were training three days a week. I cut it back to two, and our results improved.

Happ: I teach 90-minute strength and conditioning classes at Lawrence North, which is when I implement most of my program. I teach three classes a day, and athletes attend two or three classes each week. I also do supplemental work with them after school. They all do the same program for the most part, but I change up the sets and reps depending on whether they’re in-season or out of season.

Vanderbush: I teach a course called Advanced Weight Training, which is limited to athletes. They train with me five days a week for 35 minutes a day, and we do additional work after school depending on sport coach preferences. 

What do your workouts entail?

Vanderbush: We do two days a week of upper-body lifting and two days of lower-body lifting. On the fifth day, we do circuit training that includes footwork ladders, medicine ball exercises, and core work. For upper-body workouts, athletes will do a chest exercise, a lat pull, a shoulder press, a bicep, a tricep, low back, and abs. 

For lower-body work, I think it’s beneficial to include a triple extension exercise, so we do a hang clean two-thirds of the time and a power clean the other third. In addition, I think front and back squats are important, as well as balance-coordination work that addresses hamstring flexibility and stability. One exercise I really like for this is a single-leg dead lift with a kettlebell on a box. 

Happ: My program is almost completely Olympic-based. The athletes start each class with foam rolling, and then progress to agility footwork drills and a dynamic warm-up before proceeding to a full-body workout. I don’t do bodybuilding programs, and I don’t really use machines—it’s all barbells and dumbbells. We do a push and a pull, a squat variation, a glute exercise, core work, and we do explosive work with cleans, snatches, and kettlebells. Each workout finishes with static stretching. 

Lansky: The bulk of my workouts center on free weight training—multi-joint, ground-based exercises and Olympic lifts. I have spent a lot of time on the USA Weightlifting Coaching Committee, and I have extensive experience teaching Olympic lifts. We use a bunch of 15-pound bars and plastic plates to teach proper bar mechanical position for Olympic lifts because we won’t load athletes if they have faulty movement patterns. Most kids start with bodyweight exercises, then med balls and light barbells before we start loading them with weight.

Asanovich: What is the most catastrophic injury a kid can suffer in any sport? A cervical spine injury. Since we strength train mainly to help athletes avoid injury, my go-to exercises in the weightroom are neck flexion and neck extension. In addition to building muscle with these movements, athletes are strengthening their connective tissue and increasing bone mineral density in the cassettes of their cervical spine, which leads to a more structurally sound neck. I see building a stronger neck as a critical concussion prevention tool.