Should I use basic core lifts to train high school athletes?

December 22, 2012

Q: I’m a coach at a local high school and have been working in the weight room with my athletes to get them bigger and stronger for lacrosse season and was wondering what your thoughts are on the basic core lifts such as the bench, squat, dead lift and power cleans. Should I always use the basic core lifts to build size and strength or are there any other suggestions that you might offer to guide me in the process?

A: Conventional wisdom says certain exercises such as squats, dead lifts, power cleans and bench presses are key to building size and strength, but when it comes to working with young athletes, that’s not always the case. Each situation may present a completely different set of circumstances, and the key to success is sizing up individuals and knowing when they are ready to progress to more difficult movements. Here are a couple things to consider when making your decisions.

Core lifts or basic movements

Every coach knows that dead lifts, squats, power cleans and bench presses are superior to most movements because they work a variety of larger muscle groups, but if the athletes are having trouble learning proper form, you’re better off switching to basic exercises that take less time to master until they build a foundation that will lead to understanding more complicated movements. A few years ago, I trained a high school lacrosse player with an excellent frame and a very lean body that needed to gain a few pounds of muscle to prepare for the upcoming season. I started out teaching him the basic core lifts - squats, bench and dead lifts - but an extreme curvature in his spine prevented him from doing these exercises with proper form, so we replaced them with more basic movements - leg presses, dumbbell chest presses and dumbbell rows - and he quickly gained 20 pounds of muscle because he felt more comfortable and could concentrate on getting stronger instead of floundering around the weight room trying to perfect his form.

Fewer injuries equal more progress

Weight lifting is a skill that should not be taken lightly, and anytime you’re lifting heavy weight, proper form is essential. Some movements take years to learn, and if you force these lifts on average people, it could be a recipe for disaster that could ruin their sports season and possible injure them for life. Take your time teaching each move correctly. Don’t allow the kids to load the bar with weights they can’t handle. Instead, cycle the intensity, adding weight slowly as technique gets better. This allows the tendons to strengthen and the muscles, ligaments and nervous system to get used to the workload, preparing the body for heavier weights and yielding much greater long-term results without experiencing persistent injuries that will derail the progress of the team.

Keep it simple

The goal of most coaches is to use weight training to build bigger, faster, stronger athletes who perform better on the field and are injured less frequently. It’s important to choose a program that’s simple and easy to learn so the athletes will find success in their training. Too often, coaches pick complicated programs with advanced exercises and complicated set and repetition schemes instead of sticking to the basics. They can end up spending more teaching form than increasing size and strength. Just because a program worked for a local college doesn’t mean it’s right for a high school, so be sure to choose 3-5 basic core movements the majority of the team can master with little chance of injury. Later, you can add more complicated exercises as they build a solid foundation and become more comfortable in the weight room.

The above advice can apply to anyone who works out. There are a lot of great programs and exercises that will help people get in shape, but it’s important to find the one that is best for you. Take it slow, and learn proper form and technique, and the results will be much more consistent.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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