My approach to Youth Training

For the past few weeks, I have received a LOT of emails about training kids. The following, from both Easy Strength and Never Let Go, represents my insights from both my experience as a kid and as a coach. I think it also represents some of the best simple advice I can give on developing a program. Enjoy.

Growing up, things were different. In school, we’d play basketball or touch football during recess. During P.E. we’d play kickball. After school we’d hit the local playground with its monkey bars, swings, tunnels, and a variety of other dangerous contraptions that I’m sure have been banned from most of America today, and then we went home to breeze through whatever school work was left.

Then, as fast as we could, we’d regroup and play street football, baseball, basketball, and a variety of games like tag, hide and go seek, and “one foot off the gutter.” By the time I entered organized sports, I’d probably been fouled ten thousand times, caught hundreds of touchdown passes and, for the record, ran into one truck…that was still moving.

In school physical education classes, we had speedball, volleyball, dodgeball, wrestling, basketball, crab soccer, soccer, swimming, and a host of other classes. In addition, I competed in several sports at the interscholastic, community, and church levels. Like all my friends, I was exposed to a myriad of sports experiences and soon discovered that the “tricks” in one sport often worked well in another. So, you get the point: we need to add some variation to our training. But, that isn’t the entire point. The idea of accumulation is to actively seek out new training concepts, not to add some simple variation, but to challenge our long held notions of “strengths” and “weaknesses.”

This is what I call Quadrant One. It is the important, and perhaps even decisive, period of a youth athlete’s training when every Quality is developed at a minimal level. Throughout a long athletic career, and the life well beyond it, the athlete will be able to enjoy a variety of sports and games in as both a participant and a spectator. Moreover, some of the Q’s will actually carryover to the mastery of the techniques of the elite athlete. Ball movement, for example, is “true” in both soccer (football) and basketball but it also is true for the puck in hockey. Lessons learned “here” provide a ramp for lessons “there.” The key to Quadrant One is the courage of a coaching staff (or parents) NOT to drool over the apparent early edge a young girl or young boy has at a skill or game at an early age. Oddly, I now believe that someone who struggles with a skill will actually soon eclipse the shooting star. George Leonard’s work on mastery has been proven to me in my years on the field, the track and the weight room. It is odd to think that “natural” talent might not manifest itself for years. If the new mantra that 10,000 hours is the secret to being an “overnight sensation,” my experience tells me that the easy learner stops improving after the first medal at the All-School Track and Field Jamboree for middle schoolers. Excellence demands time.

Everything needs progression in Quadrant One. A basic fitness test for general upper body strength assessment is the one-minute pushup test. It is a good test and can be charted over decades of the individual’s career. But, with detrained and untrained athletes, it is wise to establish some kind of progression. The plank, an isometric position held for time, is ideal at this level. Ideally, we will build on this until the athlete can do much more with bodyweight than to simply remain rigid.

An area often overlooked in schools today is tumbling. I have a short list on how to live longer statistically:

Don’t smoke.
Wear a seatbelt
Learn to fall

Oh, I agree that fish oil is great and a nice kettlebell swing is helpful, but these three things survive any hard look at the numbers (many the Freakonomics guys will take this on). Here is the actual progress I use in my class. After a basic orientation in falling and head position, we build immediately into this:

Forward Roll
From Stand
With Legs Crossed
Forward Roll to a Stand
Cross Leg Roll to Crossed Leg Stand
Roll into Leap, Turn, Repeat
Shoulder Roll
Alternate shoulders in a series
Shoulder rolls without arms
Dive Rolls
Walk into a Dive Roll
Run into a Dive Roll
Dive Rolls over obstacles (crouched people, mats)
Dive Rolls for Height (within reason)
Side Rolls
Monkey Rolls
Squat Hand Balance
Head and Elbow Handstand
Forward Roll to Squat Hand Balance
Walk on Hands
Head and Hand Balance
Hand Balance
Round Offs

Don’t worry about the names or the specifics. Just about anything works to build confidence and skill on the mats. Now, just for a moment, think about how many skills are necessary to simply bring a ball across a court and make a lay up. Progression is king at this level. QI is all about accumulation of skills, movements, rules and body knowledge.

Since ‘qualities’ (with a big S in the plural here) are being addressed, it is important to really be free to open the vast closet of experiences in the learning of sports, games, activities, and movements. This quadrant is the epitome of generalists and there are important lessons here:

First, “exposure” needs to be used in the classic sense. I have often wondered if I would have been a world-class kayaker or saber fencer. Alas, no exposure. Ideally, all the winter sports, the Olympic sports, the professional sports and the lifetime sports should be given their due to the QI setting. If it sounds like a tough task, it is.

Second, “exposure” in the more common usage: when a group of 100 normal people get together, one is simply faster than the rest. Moreover, although my heart might be set on the NBA, my height is set on being a jockey. The more opportunities one has to be exposed, the more honest the process of discerning what sport might be right for you.

Every so often, I’ll get an email from a high school coach about teaching a group of kids to lift weights. The emails often sound like the task of getting kids to lift is insurmountable. Some of the coaches sound like they need a miracle worker to come in and exorcize the student body before they begin to exercise.

I always argue back to these fine men and women that it can be done… easily and inexpensively. I can’t claim any credit for the following program, but I’m indebted to
Mr. Dave Freeman, my ninth grade physical education coach for making us do this!

Welcome to Southwood!

After eight years at St. Veronica’s School, I transferred to Southwood Junior High to begin junior high. It was a helluva transition. From Irish nuns to public school is big enough, but I was also going to play football. At 118 pounds of pure nothing, it was obvious to everyone that I needed to lift weights.

It was at this time that I was introduced to Southwood’s lifting program. In a portable building, the school had outlaid about fifteen of those cement-filled weightlifting sets that everyone from my generation remembers as their first bar.

Mr. Freeman spent little time explaining the “rep-set” system of 8-6-4 because everybody, except me, knew what to do. That’s part of the brilliance of the program. You learn it once and then you lift. Not exactly rocket science, but who needs rocket science on the football field?

The program was very simple. First, groups of four boys were given a bar. The bars ranged from very light, maybe 25 pounds, up to nearly a hundred pounds. Each cohort of boys would lift one at a time, put the bar down, and then the next boy would lift. The four would constantly move from lifter to watcher — the bar never stopped. The three sets (explained in just a moment) wouldn’t take very long. In fact, sometimes it was hard to catch your breath in time for your next set.

The reps were very simple:

First set: 8 repetitions

Second set: 6 repetitions

Third set: 4 repetitions

The goal was also clear-cut: When you got all 18 reps, you added weight. If you started with a bar that was too light, you’d be bumped up to the next weight and a stronger group in the next workout. Of course, actual variations could include making an entirely new group with more weight, too — whatever was necessary to make the group work together.

The program involved four lifts:

1) Power clean

2) Military press

3) Front squat

4) Bench press

Each lift was done in the 8-6-4 rep format. The bar was cleaned (once) for the set of military presses, and the bar was also cleaned (once) for the front squats. So, each workout the athlete cleaned the bar from the ground to their chest 22 times. If, as some people believe, the power clean is the “king of the exercises,” that’s a lot of reps with the king!

To “hurry up” the training (as if necessary) there were times when Mr. Freeman recommended combining the power clean and military presses. One clean and one press, repeated for a total of eight reps. This was done with a lighter weight. One could also do the front squats after the clean and presses, too. I’ve only done this once, and it was an amazing cardiovascular workout.

Each day to warm-up, we had to run two laps and an obstacle course. The two laps were about 600 meters. The obstacle course had a wall, various upper body challenges, and some balance walking. All in all, this wasn’t a bad program.

The Southwood Program

To be performed three days a week in the weightroom:

Power clean
8-6-4 reps

Military press
8-6-4 reps

Front squat
8-6-4 reps

Bench press
8-6-4 reps

As I began coaching, I adapted this workout several times. One thing I’ve returned to with training groups is to no longer use the racks on the bench press. Instead, I have the two spotters deadlift the weight and bring it over the head of the athlete.

I discovered that young athletes don’t set their shoulders right when they get a “lift off,” but naturally grab the barbell correctly when two spotters raise the bar over their eyes. Also, this method insures proper spotting because you simply don’t have time to start doing something stupid.

There are three basic methods for doing the Southwood workout. The first, or the “classic” as we call it, is to use one bar with one weight for all four exercises. What holds the athlete back on this variation is the military press.

The upside of this variation, and this is something to think about, is the athletes aren’t afraid to go deep with the lighter weight in the front squat. Since I think depth is more important than weight in the early learning process, this classic variation might be the best.

However, the kids really know that they can do much more in the bench press. I usually find them doing lots of extra sets on their own after the formal workout is over. I don’t see the issue of athletes doing extra work on their own as a real problem.

The second variation is to change the weights for each exercise. The front squat will still be held back by the power clean, but I think that an athlete who’s early in the learning curve can get by with less weight on the front squat.

I’m still a believer in “movement over muscles,” and I believe more in correct movement over weight. In other words, I don’t think a 600-pound front squat is a “quad” exercise, as you better have your whole body ready for the hit. And, if you barely bend your knees, then don’t brag about your big squat, either.

In a large group setting, this requires a lot of plate changing and juggling of athletes here and there. But this second variation is great for a group up to about twenty, as well as being ideal for individuals.

The final variation I use is to simply use the Southwood workout as a warm-up. Now, I know that everybody in the world is advanced now, but there’s something about doing four big movements to get the body going. Like Alwyn Cosgrove’s complexes, there’s going to be some fat burning in all of this whole-body lifting.

For fun, try doing the eight power cleans, military presses, and front squats back to back to back. Then continue with the six reps and finish by tackling the four rep sets. I tried doing the bench presses in this cluster, but I found that I was wrestling with the bar too much getting up and down. Certainly safety is a concern, but I just found it too taxing for a warm-up.

From the Southwood Program, we progress to the Big Five workout. It’s a simple linear progression workout using five sets of five reps of the same four lifts, with deadlifts added to the mix. I’ve commented in the past on the Five by Five here at Testosterone.

I have my athletes simply add weight each set, so that they finish the fifth set as heavy as they can go. With young male and female athletes at any level, you might find that they can lift within ten pounds of their max single for five reps. This doesn’t happen to lifters with more than two or three years in the gym, but for a young lifter this isn’t uncommon.

So, the next workout looks like this:

Power clean
5 x 5

Military press
5 x 5

Front squat
5 x 5

Bench press
5 x 5

Deadlift (any variation)
5 x 5

This Big Five workout is one that anyone would recognize from the annals of bodybuilding history. The late Reg Park used this with great success and his devotee, an Austrian bodybuilder with political ambitions, followed a very similar program.

The 5-3-2 Workout

Every fifth workout, we change one small thing by playing with the reps and sets. We shift to just three sets. A set of five, add weight, a set of three, add weight, and then a heavy double. This is the 5-3-2 workout. The goal is to go as heavy as possible on the double.

The problem with going heavy on singles with the young athletes is that you run into an old phrase called “fuzzy logic.” It’s one of those phrases that got beat to death a decade ago, and seems to have fallen into the same bin as “have a cow, man” and “I didn’t inhale.”

Basically, when most people go heavy with singles, the spotters help “a little” and the depth gets suspect on squats. The legs work harder on military presses, and well, the list just goes on. With a double, I can always be assured that at least one repetition was really a rep. We don’t want fuzzy maxes in the weight room.

There will be nothing fuzzy in the weightroom. Ever.

The reason I moved to the every fifth session 5-3-2 workout is simple: I started to see my athletes really improve as the volume of the five by fives built up. An easier test day every two weeks seems to keep the athletes enthusiasm high and keeps them coming back for more. I don’t worry about boring my athletes when they’re making progress. There’s nothing worse than a program that’s both boring andnon-progressive. Sadly, “boring and non-progressive” defines most training programs.

After three, or at most, four weeks of the Southwood program, I shift to the Big Five. After two months of work on the Big Five with the chance of maxing four times during the two months, and with a final max day at the very end, the athletes can now move onto other programs.

There’s a level of mastery in the five major lifts that’s evident to the eye of any visitor. There’s also a lot of weight on some of the bars as I’ve had sophomores sneak into the 200’s on power cleans for a set of five. That’s some good lifting for an adult and amazing from a 15 year old.

The Southwood and the Big Five are just two of the many things I do to indoctrinate my students into the world of lifting, fitness, and health. I’ve had many students who’ve really bought into the program. They’ve supplemented their diet with fish oil capsules multiple times a day, and tossed back a protein shake before, halfway through, and at the end of their workouts. The gains in hypertrophy and strength are impressive.

After a few weeks of doing battle with the weights, my students are ready for anything.

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