Ask The Trainer

Should high school athletes stick to core lifts?

August 2, 2014

Q: What are your thoughts on high school athletes concentrating on core lifts like squats, deadlifts, and clean and jerk to prepare for sports season? My son is a high school football and lacrosse player, and sometimes I think he has a hard time doing these lifts because he lacks coordination. Do you think these lifts are right for him?

A: In every high school weight room across the country, coaches will preach core lifts like squats, deadlifts, and clean and jerk to students as a way to increase strength and muscle size. They will say you must do these lifts with heavy barbells to become bigger, faster and stronger, but the problem with this philosophy is sometimes kids don’t have the motor skills or coordination for such complicated lifts, and time is wasted on teaching Olympic lifting form rather than gaining quality muscle and strength.

Don’t get me wrong; I cut my teeth on heavy deadlifts, squats and bench presses when I was young and was training for high school football. For many young athletes, these lifts will produce great results, but sometimes it makes sense to teach basic lifts and build a foundation of limit strength before you get fancy. In other words, sometime simpler is better. I stumbled across this approach many years ago while training a young athlete named Tom for lacrosse season. At first I too concentrated on squats, bench presses and deadlifts, but Tom was tall and had not quite yet grown into his body. He had weak hips and an extreme curvature in his spine, and for these reasons he could not squat, deadlift or even bench properly. I began to think we were spending more time teaching form and technique than getting bigger and stronger, and that’s when I decided to hand pick a series of exercises that were simple, effective and required less coordination. Seated cable rows instead of deadlifts, leg press in place of squats, and dumbbell chest instead of benching were some of the changes we made. What happened next was nothing short of amazing.

During the summer, Tom packed on 25 lbs. of solid muscle and became bigger, faster and stronger than even I anticipated. He quickly filled out his tall, lanky frame and became strong and explosive. Not because we used any magic exercises or special programs, but simply because he could connect with the exercises I chose for him. He was going through a growth spurt, and the weight training exercises were perfect because he didn’t need hours of direction to isolate the muscles he was working, and in the end his progress was accelerated.

Tom has since grown up, and he is quite a physical specimen. His frame is loaded with lean muscle, and he looks like he spends most of his day in the weight room. He no longer has trouble squatting, deadlifting, benching or doing any type of cleans. In fact, he is very good at all of these lifts, but I believe it was the simple exercises that were the foundation of limit strength, and the bridge to greater and more complicated workouts and exercises. In the end the lesson taken was that teenagers mature at different ages, and the exercises and programs that are best for them are individual and based on their abilities at the time.

As mentioned above, I used core lifts - squats, bench press, deadlifts and power cleans - to successfully prepare for high school and college football. I think they can be excellent exercises to train athletes to prepare for their respective sports, but I don’t believe there is one foolproof, cookie-cutter program or selection of exercises that will transform every high school kid into a better athlete. Each athlete has different needs that should be evaluated individually, and coaches should not be afraid to take more complicated movements that have been the measuring stick of successful sports programs and trade them for exercises that are simple and easier to perform when needed.