While every year, off-season, month, and week of training is vitally important to the development of the athlete, not all years are created equal. In fact, many might say that the training cycles that carry the most weight and significance are those that occur later in a career, when a player has achieved elite or professional status, and their job is on the line.
Of course those years are important, but one could argue that the inaugural year of training in the primitive stages of a career (i.e. high school) can carry just as much meaning, if not more than any other training period in a player’s career.
If you possess any knowledge on the topic of performance training, you might already know that just about any kind of resistance training can elicit a positive strength training adaptation in a novice trainee. It is true, getting stronger in the formative stages of strength-training isn’t the most difficult. So, why would we deem this the most important time period in your training career? Let’s discuss…
There is no silver bullet for performance enhancing training, especially when it comes to the novice trainee. In fact, you could say that even a shotgun spray method in the dark could work just fine in the pursuit of gaining strength and size for a young trainee. I am not saying this is optimal (the goal of this discussion is to make a case for the opposite) but it is a plausible method.
That is because just about anything can work – even faulty, unfocused, and/or misguided training methods – when the body has yet to be exposed to the stressors of external loading and resistance. That is why you could put a first-year trainee (like a high school athlete) on P90x, CrossFit, or anything in between, and he/she will still get stronger.
In the primitive stages of training, the athlete’s body is ripe for the picking in terms of neurological adaptations. As soon as the body experiences significant external loading that perturbs homeostasis for the first time, it is quick to adapt. The nervous system begins to make more connections to the muscles, and those connections in turn become more effective, firing at a faster and more appropriately synchronized rate.
If an athlete could bodyweight squat their way to improved neurological efficiency; if they could haphazardly progress to advanced exercises and perform them without technical proficiency, yet still get stronger; if we could skip the “get the athletes to buy in” part, and give them the sexy exercises they want whether they are ready for them or not; if we can do all of this and still make gains in the weight room during that first year, why go through the trouble of doing it the “right” way?
Let’s discuss two of the many, many reasons why:
Above all else we must consider safety and the risk of injury. Our number one goal and mission as strength and conditioning coaches (and even as sport coaches) is to reduce the likelihood of injury. Personally, I see this as a two-pronged approach:
- Reduce the likelihood of injury during competition
- Avoid causing injury or doing harm during training
Through appropriately sequenced, progressed, and scripted training, we can help the athlete avoid injury on the field. Failure to do so not only increases the likelihood of injury, it can actually encourages it. Loading the body in a non-progressive or overly aggressive manner – especially on top of faulty movement patterns – can cause fatigue to inappropriately accumulate, leading to increased risk of injury on the field. It can also damage or weaken the system as a whole, again increasing the risk of injury during competition.
What’s more, if a coach fails to take control of the development process in the weight room and allows his/her athletes to do whatever they want without proper progressions/regressions, they are opening the door to injury in training. Not only is injury in training bad, it is illogical and nonsensical; our goal in training is to reduce the likelihood of injury during competition, so we surely must not allow them to occur during training itself.
While “anything” can get an athlete stronger as a novice, not everything can accomplish the prioritized goal of every performance training program: to reduce the likelihood of injury. In fact, improper training can actually enhance the likelihood of injury during competition and training.
Efficiency of Training
If nearly “anything” can work to enhance a novice trainees strength, then spending our time only gaining strength would be a very inefficient use of training time.
There is more to performance training than just strength or “lifting”. For instance, there is movement quality found in the ability to perform a variety of movements safely and efficiently. There is postural awareness and alignment, joint mobility, and trunk stability, among other aspects.
Simply because we can, in theory, get stronger without much thought during our first year of training doesn’t mean we can improve any of the above aspects as easily. In fact, without focusing on say, movement quality, movement can actually get worse.
While many high school weight rooms (or commercial gyms, or private facilities) around the country see athletes allowed to perform abhorrent movement patterns under significant load for the sake of getting stronger, you, the thoughtful and passionate coach/athlete can be different: you can make the most out of your training by putting some thought and diligent effort into developing more than just strength.
For example, by beginning with a bodyweight squat and appropriately progressing up the ladder to more advanced squatting exercises, the athlete can not only get stronger, but they can actually learn how to squat – and not just squat, but squat safely and with the utmost effectiveness. This will have major carryover to sport as well, as the athlete is not only getting stronger, but also learning how to control their limbs in space, and to do so under progressively challenging circumstances (whether that be varied loads, tempos, etc).
Another example would be upper body pushing strength. Many coaches write “Bench Press” into the program on day one, oftentimes without even teaching how to bench press. While their Bench Press numbers no doubt go up and signify increased strength, their reliance on momentum from the chest-caving bounce the bar might be making on the sternum will too probably increase, while their ability to utilize full-body tension or to stabilize the shoulder girdle during the press will probably remain nonexistent.
Teaching a proper push-up first, though, could not only improve strength of the upper body, it can also improve trunk stability while also drawing attention to postural awareness and the scapula’s role in shoulder movement.
Shifting the training approach from strength without regards to dysfunction, to a more focused approach on performance enhancement and injury reduction can not only enhance training, it can make the first year of training one of the most important of an athlete’s career, as it has the potential to carry some serious bang-for-the-buck.
While there are an abundance of reasons to take a logical, methodical, and progressive approach to training the novice athlete, one overarching piece of rationale presides above the rest: it is one of the most influential periods of time for an athlete during their training, and thus is arguably the most important.
For this reason, we must not be willing to accept just any type training methods (or a lack of true methods) just because we can easily progress the strength of a novice athlete. On the contrary, the fact that strength increases easily is all the more reason to take advantage of this great window of adaptation by developing more qualities than just strength (such as movement quality) all the while working diligently to reduce the likelihood of injury on the field and in training.