Many high school freshman and sophomore athletes become obsessed with ways to gain muscle mass. For some, getting physically stronger and bigger is a means to improve their sports performance. Others are interested in getting jacked simply to attract the opposite gender. But young athletes cannot focus solely on getting those percolating pectorals and massive "guns." They must develop a wide variety of skills, such as strength, speed, agility and endurance—while also gaining muscle and filling out their frames.
The truth is that most high school strength and conditioning programs are non-existent or severely underfunded. Many young athletes are forced to figure out the training aspect under the guidance of their parents or team coaches, who unfortunately are often unqualified as strength coaches. This leads many young athletes into training programs that are better suited for Mr. Olympia bodybuilders than high school athletes who need to build a strength training foundation by developing important motor skills needed for their specific sport.
The following is not a complete workout program, but it does provide training and nutrition guidelines that coaches and parents can follow to help their young athletes gain muscle and develop as athletes.
1. Develop basic human movement patterns.
Quite simply, every athlete, regardless of sport, should be able to squat, hip hinge, pull, push and carry—per Dan John's basic human movement patterns. These movement patterns are the foundation of every exercise you can perform in the gym. By the end of freshman year, every high school student-athlete should be able to perform at least bodyweight variations of the squat (Bodyweight Squat), hinge (Bodyweight Hinge), pull (Inverted Row or Chin-Up), and push (Push-Up) patterns.
2. Use bodyweight movements before progressing to loaded variations.
I see many team coaches try to teach 13- and 14-year-old kids the big three compound lifts (Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift) without having them master their own body weight. How can these young people be expected to perform under load when many can hardly control their own body weight? Moreover, since this is a new stimulus for their bodies, kids see muscular adaptations occurring using just their body weight. Not only will they gain muscle, they will also learn to move their bodies more proficiently before working with external loads.
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3. Transition to compound lifts after mastering your body weight.
If they can control their body weight, high school athletes should gain a decent foundation of strength. Most of them achieve this during their sophomore year. This is when multi-joint barbell lifts, such as the Front Squat, Back Squat, Deadlift and Bench Press, should be introduced. These exercises are beneficial for strength and muscle gain, and they prepare the body for multi-joint athletic movements in a controlled environment.
4. Use submaximal weights in the 8-12 rep range.
Young lifters should use weights that are light enough to control so they can perfect their technique. One-rep max percentages are not applicable at this stage. Athletes should focus on lifting a weight they can lift for 12 reps. The set(s) should be challenging, but not a struggle. This rep range ensures they develop the proper motor patterns for each exercise, since it gives them enough practice with each movement. As an added benefit, studies indicate that the 8-12 rep range is the sweet spot for hypertrophy or muscular gains.
5. Less work, more results.
The average high school student-athlete does not play only one sport, but is involved in different team sports throughout the year. With such constant activity, recovery is at a premium. To ensure proper recovery and training volume (the total number of sets and reps), training should be started with the bare minimum required and happen on three non-consecutive days each week. I typically recommend starting with 2 to 3 sets in the 8-12-rep range per movement pattern.
1. Eat three main meals per day.
For most young athletes, food availability and choices are limited to the school cafeteria, the local deli and their parent's cooking. Preferably, each meal will consist of a serving of a protein-dense food (beef, chicken, fish, pork, lamb, eggs, yogurt); a portion of starchy carbohydrates (brown rice, quinoa, couscous, sweet potato, regular potato, whole-wheat pasta, squash); unlimited fruits and vegetables; and some healthy fats (grass-fed butter, olive oil and nuts). All of this will ensure you have nutrient-dense food that will help you grow and provide you with the fuel you need to perform optimally on the field.
2. Consume 1 to 2 supershakes per day.
This is a concept borrowed from John Berardi at Precision Nutrition. Young athletes need lots of calories to support the physiological changes caused by puberty, their caloric expenditures via sports and activity, and the energy to build muscle. Obviously, this is extremely difficult to achieve just by eating whole foods. Enter the supershake! Combine your favorite protein base (Greek yogurt or kefir); two servings of fruit (strawberries, blueberries, bananas, cherries, peaches, etc.); one or two tablespoons of peanut butter or almond butter; and two servings of vegetables (spinach is good because it takes the flavor of the other ingredients). Mix them all together for a calorie-dense smoothie packed with minerals and vitamins.
3. Ensure adequate caloric intake for growth.
I generally don't advise young athletes to count calories unless they participate in a sport that requires them to compete at a certain weight class, such as wrestling. I strongly believe that this is overkill for most growing adolescents, who struggle to gain weight. Instead, I suggest they weigh themselves once a week. If the scale hasn't moved up by a pound within two weeks, I advise them to slowly increase their carbohydrate intake by adding a few more carbs to each meal.
4. Ensure adequate fiber intake.
Let's face it—most Americans don't get enough fiber. The recommended fiber intake is around 25-30 grams per day. Although fiber will not make or break athletic performance, it is a factor in overall health and well-being. After all, a healthy athlete is one who is primed to perform. If you follow the steps above, you should easily hit your fiber intake!