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April 2012

Six Essential Keys to Helping High School Athletes Maximize Their Potential

By Jim Gerard
If you’ve been thinking about expanding your client base by training high school−age athletes, your timing couldn’t be better. Two seemingly contradictory societal trends—the explosive growth of youth sports among both genders and the widespread deconditioning of our young people, plus the ever-burgeoning (and often unrealistic) expectations of parents—is inducing an increasing number of high-school athletes to seek expert guidance from personal trainers.

However, there are major differences between training 30-year-olds and 13-year-olds—the latter aren’t just mini-adults—and many complex factors to consider when evaluating and training teens.

What follows is a primer on important aspects to consider when training high-school athletes, devised by two of the leading experts in the field of youth training—Brett Klika, the director of Athletic Performance at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, Calif., and Bill Parisi, founder and CEO of the Parisi Speed School headquartered in Wyckoff, N.J.

Key #1: Use state-of-the-art techniques to build a foundation and prevent injury.

Klika affirms that exercise science, aided by corporate funding, has built a much larger knowledge base, especially regarding youth training. He exhorts personal trainers to employ that knowledge—the essential keys presented in this article are a great starting point—when working with high-school athletes.

“Thirty years ago, kids got in shape playing street basketball,” explains Parisi, an expert in youth performance who has worked with more than half a million youth athletes in 20 years. “Now they get more sophisticated skill instruction, such as programs where they learn from pro athletes, say, how to hit a baseball.” These programs, based on the latest fitness research, not only are replacing antiquated, often relatively informal, conditioning methods, but improving the quality of both high-school athletes and their sports.

Nonetheless, Parisi says that trainers should begin by building in their clients a base of biomechanical fundamentals—speed, strength, flexibility, endurance—all of which will help the youth athlete more rapidly learn sports-specific skills. “Unfortunately, many parents don’t understand this,” he says.

This foundation will also help prevent injury—an overriding concern considering:

  • The deconditioned state of the current generation of children entering high school. Parisi points to statistics showing that although 75 percent of children under 14 play an organized sport, two-thirds drop out by the time they enter high school, winnowed out by a much higher level of play.
  • The extremely low odds (according to Klika, they’re 100:1) of your high-school clients advancing past that athletic level

Key #2: Monitor each client’s growth and train him or her accordingly.

High-schoolers haven’t yet reached full physical maturity; many experience their largest growth spurt between 13 and 17, with girls starting as early as age 10. So trainers must take into account what is known as this “sensitive period of growth” when devising a workout regimen. 

“Two 15-year-olds can have completely different levels of training experience, conditioning, coordination and mental maturity,” Klika says. “So you can’t use a uniform program until at least senior year. The key concept is taking into account each athlete’s level and training him or her with a developmentally appropriate program.”

Klika and Parisi agree that to predict the eventual size of the athlete, start by looking at his or her bone frame, but especially by eyeing the parents. “You can’t alter your genetics,” says Parisi. “However, you can improve speed, skill and how to use your body, by keeping the program simple enough for the athlete to understand and apply it.”

Parisi doesn’t employ a lot of equipment. “We educate kids in basic movement mechanics—how to accelerate, explode, decelerate, use their bodies with leverage, get into proper athletic position, improve their vertical leaping ability and maximize force into the ground, because the faster they put force into the ground, the quicker they’ll be.”

Key #3: Train for speed.

Parisi feels that speed is the most integral element in improving athleticism among teens. “It helps you understand how to be strong for your body weight. If you weigh 200 pounds, you’re going to have be much stronger than the kid of 150 pounds.” Parisi feels that speed equals strength, so it’s important not just for sprinters, basketball, soccer players and the like, but virtually every high-school athlete.

Check out the following tips and exercise recommendations for training your athletes for speed:

Essential Tips

• When conditioning your athlete for speed, begin with an active warm-up that builds core strength, increases flexibility and enhances stabilization for the shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and spine.
•  Use calisthenics and bodyweight exercises.
• Make sure the exercises aren’t sport-specific (unless an athlete is competing in a sport that requires it).
• Use resistance-training exercises that emulate natural human movements.
• Focus on technique. Have your athletes concentrate on executing just a few movements impeccably.

Recommended Exercises

• Incorporate basic jumps, such as the pogo jump, jumping jacks and seal jump. Make sure that the athlete’s feet hit, but don’t pound, the ground on every jump, and monitor how long their feet stay on the ground.
• For hip mobility, have the athlete perform the following exercises with hands and knees on the ground: hip rotations; bent-knee hip circles; “paintbrushes”—in which the athlete imagines the knee as a paintbrush and uses it to draw the greatest number and variety of strokes possible; and cobra stretches.
• Utilize acceleration and deceleration exercises that involve controlling one’s body while running, stopping and changing directions. Klika favors a 10-yard dash during which the athlete must stop when the trainer blows a whistle. The athlete should end up in a position with hips low, knees bent and chest up.
• Increase speed with weight training. Parisi and Klika agree on the primacy of deadlifts, pull-ups, squats and a variety of lunges (e.g., multidirectional, walking). Klika also emphasizes various forms of the bench press, rotational exercises such as cable, dumbbell and medicine ball chops and, for injury prevention, single-leg lateral lifts and hops.















Key #4: Train for anaerobic endurance.

Endurance is an important component of fitness and, according to Parisi, often neglected because “many sports involve just five or six seconds of explosiveness, followed by recovery (jogging) or true recovery (standing).” However, he argues, endurance is crucial for a wide range of athletes, including long-distance runners, cyclists, and soccer and basketball players.

Essential Tips

• Rather than emphasize cardiovascular endurance−specific exercises, use speed, power and strength movements in ways that build anaerobic endurance. (Exceptions are long-distance runners, but their coaches are expected to handle the aerobic aspect of training.)
• Keep your athlete’s heart rate high for the duration of the training bout.
• Make sure your athlete isn’t standing around during practice. Talk to the athlete’s coach(es) and observe the tempo of practice.
• Be practical. Gauge what the athlete is willing to do and the extent to which injury may be limiting him or her, and devise the regimen accordingly.
• Don’t let any single exercise exceed 45 to 60 seconds.

Recommended Exercises

• The 300-yard shuttle is an excellent way to train your athletes for endurance. Place marker cones and lines 25 yards apart to indicate the sprint distance. Have the athlete start with a foot on one line. When you give the signal, have the athlete run to the opposite 25-yard line, touch it with his or her foot, turn and run back to the start. Repeat this six times without stopping (covering a total of 300 yards). After a rest of five minutes, repeat the exercise.
• Have the athlete do a 20-yard dash with a recovery time of 10 seconds, then repeat.











Key #5: Train for power and explosiveness.

Power and explosiveness are crucial in sports such as football, hockey, wrestling, tennis, baseball and basketball. Even if your basketball-playing client has a naturally strong vertical leap, power training can improve it.

Essential Tips

• Make sure the athlete has sufficient upper-body strength and training experience to execute your chosen “power” movements.
• Keep each power movement under 15 seconds.
• Klika recommends that you employ upper-body plyometric exercises one day and lower-body exercises the next.
• Parisi believes that your plyometric exercises should emphasize the stretch-shortening cycle, involving the two phases of muscular contraction—the eccentric, in which the muscle lengthens under tension, followed by the concentric, in which the muscle is shortened. The muscle(s) involved should recoil immediately.

Recommended Exercises

(from Parisi)
• Jumping jacks
• Jumping rope
• Hurdle jump
• Box jump
(from Klika)
• Medicine-ball throws
• 10-yard dashes









Key #6: When it comes to strength training, stick to the basics.

The most popular high school sports—football, basketball, wrestling and hockey—require functional strength in their athletes.

Essential Tips

• Realize that, as Parisi says, “the starting point when training youth athletes is much the same as training adults” in that they need to learn the basics of good form and should gradually increase resistance over time.
• Klika advises that all strength-training exercises last between 20 and 45 seconds.
• As you might expect from the experts’ comments, stick to the basics.

Recommended Exercises

• Push-ups
• Pull-ups (using the athlete’s bodyweight only)
• Deadlifts, including the trap bar deadlift
• Single-leg squats
• Multidirectional lunges







Putting it All Together
Klika encourages trainers to incorporate some component of strength, power and endurance each day, but “the magnitude of each depends on factors such as the time of the game (i.e., pre-/post-), the time of year and whether the athlete is training in- or out-of-season (see sidebar). As a personal trainer, you must walk a fine line between putting the athlete under stress sufficient to make progress and overtraining.

Training In- and Out-of-season

Be prepared to make sizable adjustments in your recommended training plan depending on when your athlete is actively playing his or her sport. Here are some tips from our experts:
• During the season, train the athlete once a week, for anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.
• For in-season training, use a low number of sets and lighter weights/loads at moderate-to-high intensity.
•  During the season, emphasize keeping the athlete strong (especially the upper body, since he or she will be doing a lot of running the rest of the week) and fine-tuning exercise techniques.
• During the off-season, resume the complete regimen four days a week.

Diet and Nutrition 
The fast-growing, hormonally volatile bodies of high-school athletes crave a steady—if not constant—supply of nutritionally dense food.

Without veering outside your scope of practice, you can help your athletes make sensible food choices and ensure they are consuming adequate protein, carbohydrates, fats and nutrients to meet their training and performance needs.

Parisi and Klika have established some basic rules for the young athletes they train:

1.    Drink lots of water—an athlete should daily consume at least 1 ounce of water for every 2 pounds of bodyweight.
2.    Eat at least three meals daily—ideally, five to six.
3.    Eat primarily whole, not processed, foods; avoid preservatives.
4.    If it comes out of the ground, eat it.
5.    Minimize sugar intake, especially from soft drinks.
6.    Eat 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight of lean protein: chicken, fish, turkey, lean cuts of red meat and eggs.
7.    Ask parents to consult a dietitian for their child to ensure he or she has no food allergies or other diet-related issues.

Managing Expectations
As a trainer of young athletes, a crucial part of your job is being able to manage expectations—those of the athletes and their parents.

For Parisi, the initial evaluation is critical. It should include a detailed discussion about the athlete’s history, work experience, training age, goals, sports they play and wish to play, and general enthusiasm for the sport.

Next, you should warm up the athlete, leading him or her through running and jumping tests (at which the parents should be present), chief among them the vertical leap, which Klika says is a strong predictor of athleticism.

“If someone can’t get off the ground at all, they’ll probably be at average speed and strength. The average vertical leap for a 16-year-old is 20 to 24 inches. Once they get to 28 inches, they’re probably athletes. If they hit 30 and above, you’re going to read about them in the papers, especially if they play basketball or football.”

He adds that trainers can facilitate the greatest improvements in the least-experienced athletes. “The slower and/or younger [the athlete] is, the less time he or she has spent training, and the more he or she can advance.”

Generally speaking, athletes (and their parents) can expect to see some improvement over a three-month period—if the athlete sticks to a structured program. (Parisi says his clients average a 2- to 3-inch improvement in vertical leap during that timeframe.)

However, you should be tactfully truthful if the parents have unrealistic expectations. “If the parents ask, ‘Can you make my kid a college athlete?’” Klika says, “I’m going to be truthful. If I think it’s possible, I’ll tell them I need their complete support at home, in terms of nutrition and discipline. If the parents aren’t familiar with the culture of fitness, I’ll [do my best to manage] their expectations without being demoralizing or insulting.”

Be Sure They Get Their ZZZZzzzzz’s

All high-school athletes need a lot of sleep, which is one of the main stimulators of growth. Twelve- to 18-year-olds should be asleep by 9 or 10 p.m. and need eight to nine hours of sleep every night.



Jim Gerard is an author, journalist, playwright and stand-up comic. He has written for the New Republic, Travel & Leisure, Maxim, Cosmopolitan, Washington Post, Salon, Details, New York Observer, and many other magazines. For more information, visit his site at

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