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Stronger Enough, Part 1

If you’re reading this article, you’re almost certainly a sport coach or a competitive strength athlete or you work in the strength and conditioning community. Most of us have had both good and bad coaches and have personally experienced many different training approaches. Some of us even currently plan and implement some of that coaching and/or approaches with sports teams, other powerlifters, or ourselves. Then suddenly your son or daughter is playing a sport and you learn the real meaning of having some skin in the game.

Like a lot of you I presume, I never thought anything would surpass my personal drive to excel on the field and platform. Then one day your kid goes three for three, runs a PR even with crushing shin splints, or runs through a block and takes down a running back coming out of the backfield and you realize all that meathead time you spent banging in heavy metal gyms or reading Siff or Roman may pay off in something other than your total. If you get a chance to spend some time in high school weight rooms or at high school powerlifting meets—and I do—you will see a few really freaky strong kids. However, the majority are way behind in even baseline strength levels. Some very good athletes are extremely weak. I’m not advocating that great strength equals automatic success on its own, but getting your kid or kids in the frequent and early practice of working toward a base level of strength or just getting them “stronger enough,” will make them stronger than almost all their competitors. Using your knowledge to assess, implement, and adjust a strength program will give your kid/kids a huge opportunity in many areas. Strength isn’t everything in sports, but it may be the easiest thing to improve. You are just the person to do it.

In four or five years I hope to write the last part of this article, but in part one I’m going to share some things I’ve learned dealing with pre-high school athletes, namely my son and daughters, and the high school athletes I coach and judge. You should be careful up front knowing this is not a huge sample size, and I’m guilty of having my personal opinions and feelings involved. However, you should also be aware that I believe that if you aren’t more passionate about creating a culture of hard work and success in your own kids more than in anybody else’s, you need a double ammonia hit and a good face slap before your next meet squat.

Give me three steps!

1. The first step with any young child is to get him involved in anything involving movement. The more they move the

better. My wife has a dance degree and has taught children of all ages. The most important thing they do in dance with small kids is to get them moving in all sorts of random directions. Then they teach them to follow instructions and control their bodies on more precise rhythmic movements and improve their balance. Then they let them run wild again to finish up. It may not make them better athletes, but it’s guaranteed to make them tired and ready to go to bed, which is also the best way to guarantee they have a sibling.

2. Get kids involved in any and every sport possible as soon as they have interest. My son played T-ball, football,

baseball, and basketball and swam, wrestled, skateboarded, and ran cross country. My daughters also danced, swam, ran cross country, cheered, and played softball and volleyball. We took the eastern Bloc approach (I’ve read way too much Siff and Roman) of exposing our kids to any and all sports to build general athleticism and balance, avoid making them lazy, and let them find and decide their preferences. There are some fine lines here to note when it comes to your kid’s coaches and you. You should look out for your kid. For example, if little Johnny is a bit spacey, he may not need to be in a more risky position like pitcher/fielder in T-ball or quarterback in football. On the other hand, some self-control is appreciated. I had parents cuss me a like a bad Crossfit workout when they realized I let little Suzy hit left-handed. “The Devil is left-handed, coach!” Hmm…so was Ted Williams! But he threw righty…

3. Now the part you’ve been waiting for—the part about strength training. In my personal opinion and experience, it’s

never too early to use bands, chains, and gear in your kids’ training. Just kidding about the gear. They can let the gear lift the weight later in high school or college. If your kids have run about and been active and have played some sports, you’ll see some of their talents and some of their strengths and weaknesses. Now is the time to start mastering some simple drills like pull-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, and body weight squats. Ten to fifteen reps with proper technique is a good benchmark here, but the number that your child can do at any one time can vary based on his development as well as his training. His numbers can go both up and down over a month or year.

The body weight squats are the easiest to master, so if your kid blows by them, Bulgarian body weight squats can be substituted here. The monkey bars on most playgrounds are the great predecessor to pull-ups. Encourage them on this equipment. You won’t be sorry. Don’t rush to put iron in their hands or on their backs. Flat backed, elbows tucked push-ups (never too early to prepare to let the shirt do the work); symmetrical, chin over the bar pull-ups; and proper

knee tracking in the squat movements are skills your kid needs before he gets his first taste of the iron and a much taller order than you might think. My brother, a high school football and wrestling coach, has told me that if all his freshmen showed up able to do proper pull-ups, push-ups, and body weight squats, his job would be a lot easier. Strange but true!

Vitamins plus iron

You can find many opinions on when it’s safe to lift weights. We had our kids doing body weight movements whenever the opportunity allowed, and they could all do a perfect push-up and pull-up by the age of ten. I read it all and started letting my kids lift at 12 years old. Do your own research on the matter and make your own decision. We started with one basic movement—the kettlebell sumo deadlift. You can replace the kettlebell with a dumbbell turned on its side. We focused on a flat back and the knees over the feet and hit two sets of five about 2–3 times a week. This takes very little time, is easy to instruct, and is easy to mix with the body weight work.

At around 13 years old, we added basic movements such as box squats, bench presses, deadlifts, kettlebell cleans and presses, and kettlebell swings and snatches. We started with a 10-lb iron bar from an old sand Sears weight set, then moved to an empty Olympic bar, and then slowly added weight. We never used PVC because we used it all in the sprinkler system. I did add a set of adjustable gymnastic rings to the power rack for pull-ups and push-ups, but the real use we got from the rings was just learning to support body weight in a ready to dip position. This progressed to leg raises and finally body weight dips. The kettlebell work is mainly for warm ups so far in training. Again, we kept the sets around 2–3 per exercise and the reps starting at five and then worked sometimes up to ten.

reps starting at five and then worked sometimes up to ten. This resulted in almost linear

This resulted in almost linear and endless improvement. Take your time and err on the side of building the motor pattern over adding weight to the bar too fast. At this age and stage of training, reps and sets are meaningless, and pushing PRs like you’re used to isn’t optimal. The PRs will come soon enough. At around 14 years old, we started pushing the weights up. This was mid-year eighth grade for us. This is only an observation. Some kids are more or less advanced. You ultimately have to know and decide these issues for your child.

Programming the workout

Simple is better here for a young athlete. Two to four times a week is plenty based on competitions, sports, injuries, and activities and if they have a program at school. We do 2–3 complex movements in a workout and then 2–3 assistance moves. But sometimes we do less. Knowing your child and his past and future schedule is how you decide on more or less volume. Complex movements are done for 2–3 sets and 5–8 reps. We use the same number of sets for assistance work, but the reps are over eight generally. To keep these workouts as brief and simple as possible. 15–25 minutes is plenty of time. You’re just building basic lifting technique and base strength here. Ninety percent of the gains are just for showing up and getting this done. Innovative training and genius concepts aren’t required here. Marv Marinovich was a genius, but he screwed up his son Todd. Don’t be another Marv.

Teaching the squat

This won’t be the first or last time you read this, but using the box to teach the squat is magic. The movement improvement and ease of saying “sit on the toilet” is beyond description for its simplicity and effectiveness. A plastic

milk crate works wonders. Make sure you emphasize that your kids shouldn’t plop on to the box but rather descend with control and sit down lightly on the box. The knees should be out over the feet, and the legs should be relaxed. Then, they should “jump” off the box.

Occasionally, check their free squat technique, but stay with the box squats until that free squat technique is ingrained. This may be the first time you read this, but chains work better for teaching box squats than straight bar weight. Kids are most unstable and weak on the box, and the deload on the box lets them get it right without causing panic over the weight they feel on their backs while they sit down. The lowered center of gravity helps with bar stability. I started with the lead chain fully let out and a load chain hung over the lead so it fully deloaded when they sat on the box. Then

I gradually shortened the chain to normal so there was half a deload on the box, and then I started adding more chain weight. Once they were comfortable with the bar plus 50 lbs of chains, we started with some straight weight and haven’t looked back.

Teaching the bench press

This is so easy to cover. What if somebody taught you to bench press to your sternum or belly from day one? What if somebody taught you to tuck your elbows and keep the forearm vertical under the wrist from the first time you ever benched? What if somebody taught you to stick your belly and sternum up in the air, set and drive with your legs, and retract your scapulae on day one? You can be the person who does this for your child. Benching may not be critical to all sports, but it will ruin a lot fewer shoulders if taught correctly. You know how to do it, so there is no excuse.

Teaching the deadlift

I already covered using the kettlebell sumo deadlift to start. This may or may not carry over to deadlifting with an

Olympic bar. Your kid may stay with sumo or switch to conventional. The biggest point here is kid’s upper backs are notoriously weak, so make sure they pull with a flat back to start. The deadlift is the cornerstone of the teenagers’ program IMHO. If you have watched many high school squatters both raw and in meet gear like I have, you will see that upper and lower backs lag even in very big strong kids. I own and use a glute ham raise myself, but at this age level, deadlifts are a quick and straight forward solution. I found pulling with a double overhand grip was easier to start instructing them with, and by the time the upper back is strong enough to handle heavier deadlifting, they will be ready to supinate a hand. We alternate supinating hands on work sets, too.

Adding Olympic lifts

While I’m not a fan of Olympic lifting except if you’re going to the Olympics, the background of most strength and conditioning programs at the high school and college level is heavily Olympic based. While I personally draw the line at my kid participating in a HIT based program, Olympic based training is at least better than the Total Gym or Pilates. You guessed it—my son’s coaches are Olympic guys. The good news is the damage is limited to power cleans. So we made sure he can do a perfect power clean. Find someone who isn’t just “certified” by some wackamole organization but can actually perform a power clean and squat clean with over 225 lbs. Watch him do it, and if it’s correct, let him teach your kid if you aren’t up to speed on Olympic lifting. If not, find somebody else.

I’m loath to admit this, but once we got the power clean right, my son’s deadlift really started to move up. So at least

I have that to justify it. We’ve played with front squats, but I’m not sure I’m willing to deal with wrist issues, so we only dabble there. I’m not a fan of overhead lifting, and after discussing this with Eric Cressey, who specializes in baseball athletes, neither is he. So the overheads he performs are either with kettlebells or bands.

You thought I wasn’t serious about kids and bands, but I assure you I am. Bands are great for rotator work, assistance for pull-ups, push downs, and face pulls, pre-habilitation or specific muscle work, and stretching. While I’m focusing on mainly rotator work and pull-up assistance here, you can choke a band to a squat rack and work on baseball swing rotation and throwing arm muscle groups and their antagonists. Building off the simple rear delt band pull apart, rotators can and should be frequently worked, especially for kids who throw a lot. Pulling the band apart parallel to the

floor at various levels for higher (20–50) reps along with raising one hand and dropping the other are great additions to

a thrower’s program. Choking the band to the pull-up bar can help a weaker kid do pull-ups, or let your kid do a lot more reps. You can even have him perform them dynamically. Most kids love this stuff and will make up their own exercises.

Skill

Keep in mind sports are still about sport skill. You should spend at least twice as much time honing and practicing sport skills as you do on strength training and an equal amount of time working on academics. As they move into high school programs, they will get a lot of skill training in formal and informal practices, especially football. In other sports like baseball, softball, soccer, swimming, volleyball, and basketball, most of their sport skill will be built via their club and out of school teams and camps. Carefully assess who and what your child is exposed to athletically. It isn’t that hard to find resources on the internet that will make you at least minimally knowledgeable on sport technique. If your kid’s coach looks like a weirdo, talks like a weirdo, and acts like a weirdo, he is a weirdo. Pull your kid out of there. Ask the coaches about their philosophy and approach, and then let them talk. It will be very clear what you need to do. Remember, a sport coach without a philosophy is really just like a personal trainer at a 24-hour fitness club.

I just reread Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. He argues against the concept that talent matters most when it comes to success in life. For those of us who have worked on practice fields and gyms and in meetings and who have done business with people who aren’t on the same plane as the rest of us talent wise, we would have to disagree at least a little bit. He also argues that even a person with great talent requires large amounts of practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number he suggests. He also argues that a person with great talent requires a culture that both pulls and pushes their talent toward achievement and opportunity provided by people or circumstances that give a person’s talent the chance to develop. Mr. Gladwell says achievement is talent plus preparation.

As a parent or even a coach, you have the wonderful chance to spend huge amounts of time with your child as he works hard and practices and as you set up a culture of hard work and achievement in your home and provide an opportunity for your child to go as far as he can go. Your kid gets a tremendous advantage with just a basic strength background, not to mention the relationship you strengthen. For example, if a young man is solidly and properly squatting and deadlifting 315 lbs and benching and cleaning 225 lbs upon graduation from high school, he is well ahead of his peers and shockingly stronger than almost all of them. Just this strength level is enough to give him a big advantage, and anything else accumulates advantage just at a slowing rate.

If your kid goes far in sports, that’s a great outcome. However, even beyond that, your kid gets time with you to learn the benefits of not just striving for something in general but actually becoming more skilled and stronger over and over again on a daily basis.

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