Off-Season Training for High School Athletes

The summer months are here, which means it’s the offseason for most high school athletes. The offseason is one of the most important times of the year in any training calendar because it affords the most flexibility and greatest opportunity to make some real improvements with your strength and health. Once practices and games start, time and energy are both in short supply, so when it comes to improving from one season to the next, the off-season is not to be ignored.
With this important window of opportunity in full swing, what should you prioritize when putting together a summer training program? Here are a few considerations to make the most out of your off-season training program.

Train to Prevent Injury

Injuries are any athlete’s worst nightmare, so it follows that perhaps the most important training priority to address during any off-season program is injury prevention. It might be tempting to think of an injury as a case of bad luck, but the truth is that this is seldom the case. Some injuries happen completely out of the blue, but the vast majority of injuries have a root cause (or several causes) that can be traced back long before the actual event. But this is good news – it means that the risk of injury can be mitigated quite significantly if you keep a careful lookout for warning signs and if you proactively strengthen some relevant muscles and motor patterns.

Strong, Healthy Knees

Entire books have been written about this one joint, so the content written here is by no means meant to be an exhaustive exploration on how to prevent all injury, or even any particular injury with the knee. Even so, some basic tools can go a long way to help to protect your knees against the demands of a long season.
Consider that when it comes to knee discomfort, it’s often not the case that something actually in your knee at the spot of discomfort is actually ‘broken’. For example, if you’re suffering from patella tendonitis, your patella itself is almost certainly fine. The problem can likely be traced back to adjacent musculature or connective tissue that’s too tight or too weak and is upsetting the balance within the joint.
So a good place to start when it comes to protecting your knees is to make sure that you’re paying adequate attention to the muscles that insert or attach at the knee joint. Your quadriceps can get plenty of work with back squats, sure, but some more pin-pointed attention with exercises like side step ups and poliquin step ups can pay big dividends. These two exercises shine a light on the vastus medialis oblique, or VMO, which plays an especially important role in proper knee tracking.
Hamstrings are quite important as well, and the important category of exercises to highlight here are knee-flexion exercises. Exercises like deadlifts and kettlebell swings are hamstring exercises, but they work primarily through hip extension, not knee flexion. For knee flexion, we’re looking for some sort of leg curl variation. Lying leg curls are my favorite because they allow for the most variety, including easy access to single-leg modifications. If you don’t have access to a leg curl, nordic curls or glute ham raises may be your best bet.
The last category of movement worth highlighting are calf raises. Calf raises are often thought of as a sort of ‘vanity’ exercise, but strong calves play an important role in keeping your knees healthy and stable, too. Be sure to include versions of both knees-extended (standing calf raise) and knees-flexed (seated calf raise), as these two categories target different muscles of the calf.

Bulletproof Shoulders

The shoulder is a comparatively unstable joint because of it’s very structure. It’s a ball-and-socket joint, which allows for a great variety of movement compared to say, your elbow. But the tradeoff for high mobility is that it’s especially vulnerable to injury if things are out of balance or disproportionately weak.
Shoulder health is another topic that’s been studied and written about so much that we could fill multiple bookcases with case literature, so again, we’re only just skimming the surface here. But generally speaking there are a few categories of exercises to prioritize to make sure that the delicate connective tissues that hold this joint together are properly proportioned and strong enough to handle an intensive workload.
The first such category of exercises are external rotation movements. Being a ball-and-socket joint, the shoulder allows your humerus (upper arm) to rotate both inward and outward. One of the most commonly injured tissues around the shoulder is the infraspinatus muscle, which is one of the four major tissues that makes up the rotator cuff. And one way to keep this important piece of connective tissue happy and strong is with external rotation exercises. The mid cable external rotation and seated dumbbell cuban press are two of my favorites from this category.
Scapular retraction is a necessary function to include in an athlete’s training as well. Much of our day-to-day activity encourages an unhealthy amount of shoulder protraction. All of the time that you spend driving, texting, typing, writing and looking at your phone pulls your shoulder blades forward, and we need to counteract this behavior by practicing movements that call for your scapulae to retract. Powell raises, single arm low cable bent over lateral raises, and row to neck are all exercises that help to train this important function.

Slow Down

With programs that focus on athletic development, I often find that there’s an obsession with exercises that focus on power development. Lifts like the power clean and jumping squat come to mind, but very often this takes the form of simply moving way too fast with core lifts like back squats and deadlifts.
This isn’t to say that power development isn’t important, but with many high school athletes it’s a case of putting the cart before the horse. The technical definition of power in this context is the application of force over time. In other words, strength applied with speed. Strength is a necessary prerequisite for power, but oftentimes I see attention shift towards fancy, speedy movements far before the necessary base has been developed.
Building strength (and competence) with certain core exercises is critically important with high school athletes, and controlling the cadence of a lift is an important way to achieve this. When we refer to the speed and timing of a lift, we call it tempo.
Focusing on moving slowly on the way down, or at least slow as compared to what many trainees are accustomed to, yields several important training benefits. Firstly, it helps to learn and enforce good mechanics. Trying to pay attention to important mechanical cues in something like a back squat is virtually impossible if you’re simply falling to the bottom and bouncing back up. Taking a few seconds on the eccentric contraction (the way down) gives the trainee enough time to actually observe and feel if the lift is being performed correctly.
And not to bury the lead, but controlling the lowering phase of the lift is also crucial to, you know, maximizing strength and muscle gain. You may have heard that one of the mechanisms that makes weight training effective is that your muscles actually get damaged during a training session, and then they knit back together and get stronger as you recover- two processes known as microtrauma and supercompensation, respectively. What’s less well-known is that the majority of potential microtrauma happens during the eccentric contraction, but only if you train it properly. Simply moving at the pace of gravity as you lower a barbell means you skip a huge portion of the potential strength benefit.
And as far as actual athletic performance is concerned, consider that virtually every highschool sport places significant demands on the eccentric capacity of the athlete. Landing after a jump, planting your foot and changing directions, absorbing and counteracting an impact from an opposing player are all instances that place extraordinary demand on the eccentric capacity of an athlete’s musculature. It’s surely a function that’s worth training, and slowing down is low hanging fruit.
And in case you’re wondering, no, moving slowly during the eccentric contraction of a lift doesn’t hinder an athlete’s explosiveness. If you spend too much time training slowly through the concentric contraction (the way up), then you can possibly mute your power potential. But when it comes to controlled lowering this is nothing to be concerned about.

On-Field Performance > Weightroom Performance

This might sound like an obvious one, but even so I regularly see both athletes and coaches making decisions that either subtly or overtly subvert the primary goal of an off-season training program. That goal, of course, is maximizing performance in the athlete’s sport. And it’s important to realize that this isn’t always the same thing as maximizing output in the weightroom.
Take the example of tempo from above. Moving with control on the way down often results in the comment “But coach, I have to use less weight!” And my answer is “So what?”. Unless you’re a powerlifter or Olympic Weightlifter, maximizing weight on the bar at all costs is simply not the desired goal. The goal is the training effect – how the workout forces your body to adapt. And optimizing the training effect means controlling for many different variables like tempo, mechanics, range of motion, rest periods, volume and intensity. As soon as you start sacrificing the integrity of one variable (like tempo) for another (like weight on the bar) you risk blunting the training effect itself.
Another example accidentally prioritizing weight room performance over training effect concerns the question of range of motion. When training a back squat, an athlete might ask if their squat was ‘deep enough’. It’s an honest question to be sure, but the subtle thing to consider is that deep enough to count and deep enough to yield the desired effect aren’t the same thing.
For better or worse, most athletes that spend time around the weightroom have an idea of how far the barbell has to move for a rep to ‘count’. For a squat, your thigh has to get parallel to the floor. For a bench press, the bar needs to touch your chest. If you’re competing in a powerlifting competition, then making sure that your lifts count is quite important. And finding ways to maximize weight on the bar while still having the lift count is an important training consideration. The mistake comes when we apply these same often-nebulous rules about what counts to a training program that’s meant to optimize on field performance.
In an effort to make sure that athletes are training with optimal range of motion, I’ll often use modifiers in a squat (like heel elevation) that help for them to reach well-below the standard of what might ‘count’. And since we’re manipulating the lift to reach even deeper, it follows that the lift becomes harder, which means less weight. Now if we were to take an athlete who can squat 185 pounds while reaching well below parallel, does it then make sense for them to stop at parallel if it means they can add another 15 pounds to the bar? If you’re a powerlifter, the answer is ‘yes, absolutely’. You don’t get bonus points for moving further than you need to, so it makes sense to curtail the range and add more weight.
But if you’re training for the sake of being a better athlete, then no, of course not. It doesn’t matter what ‘counts’ for an entirely different sport. Getting to parallel is just drawing an imaginary line at a particular spot, but that doesn’t mean that stopping there makes any sense if you’re looking to build strength that translates to the field. We don’t manipulate the athlete to produce a stronger lift – we manipulate the lift to produce a stronger athlete.
This is a tricky one to wrap your head around. I discuss the same distinction between maximizing weight on the bar and training effect as it pertains to the bench press right here.
Building a proper training program for developing athletes is complicated stuff. And the issue is made more complicated by the fact that high school athletes are at a stage of life where growth is almost guaranteed.
Now in one sense, this is a huge asset. I love working with high school athletes because they’re at a developmental stage where the potential for improvement is enormous. But at the same time, it’s easy to look at a young athlete and think “Wow, that training program really paid off”, when really they just improved because they were virtually guaranteed to get bigger and stronger just because of their age. Even a lackluster training program and poor coaching can produce results with high school athletes, which makes it rather difficult to identify if the program truly was any good.
Or to put it another way, the enormous growth potential of athletes in their teenage years can mask what’s actually a substandard training regimine. But just consider that because something is working doesn’t mean that it’s working as well as it should.
And hopefully by keeping some of these considerations in mind, your training program won’t just be working, but working as well as it should.
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