ALWAYS Do These 5 Things in Strength Training

"By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail."

As we continue in this series of things I either always do or never do, it is important to reiterate these are guideposts, not fence posts. A guidepost points the direction and you decide how to get there; a fence post is fixed and there you are.

This goes back to being a coach with 30 years of experience versus a coach with one year of experience 30 times. You learn to use your discretion on where to apply these; maybe you’re already doing these 5 things.

The purpose of these 5 things are to make your training sessions effective and “uneventful,” meaning you avoid significant setbacks like strains and pains from lack of good preparation. My advice almost always comes back to safety. The old adage of ‘by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail’--it's still true.

The fourth part of this series is highlighting the positive side of things; 5 things I always do in strength training. Let’s take a look.

#1: Always teach athletes how to properly spot

This falls in the “easy to do, easy to mess up” category and looks different for different lifts, but let’s start with the most common occasion.

The bench press (and incline press of course) is the one lift where you can get a spot at the start. In our training, a spot can sometimes be just a lift-off for a heavier set. It doesn’t have to be a max set. The goal is just to protect the shoulder since the rack should be behind the shoulders so the angle isn’t ideal for the lifter.

How often have you seen a kid spotting somebody doing the bench press and they touch the bar when they shouldn’t? How often do you see them touch the bar too late? How often have you thought, “what does he/she think is going to happen if they try to help in that position?”

I’ve witnessed many occasions where a spotter doesn’t understand their role. The first thing I teach is, do NOT allow the bar to go backward. So if a lifter goes down with the bar on a bench and as they go up it stops then starts to descend again, the spotter needs to try to prevent that.

Obviously, it is up to the lifter to not quit on the set (another thing worth teaching), but before a fail, there is often a pause - that moment where the bar is slowly ascending then comes to a stop, however brief. That is the moment a spotter needs to prevent the bar from dropping.

The catch is that most kids often give too much assistance in that situation. A spotter doesn’t have to grab the bar with both hands, take it over and just lift it back to the rack. While the lifter continues to work, the spotter uses just enough force to keep the bar moving so that it gets back up safely. Sometimes a fail is the result of just that extra 10 or so pounds. It shouldn’t take much if everybody is doing their part.

This applies to spotting a squat as well. If they are in a proper position with the “hooks,” then proper assistance should result in a successful lift.

To ensure this, a proper stance should be taught. Especially if it’s a set where the lifter knows failure is possible, the spotter should position themselves where they will be able to assist at the proper time. Don’t let a spotter get lazy where they are just watching and relaxed. The whole point is for them to be ready, hence a stagger with an athletic, knees-bent posture with hands at the ready to immediately help.

This puts some onus on the lifter. It’s not about confidence; it’s about safety. A lifter knows if they are feeling fatigue or how that weight for that amount of reps will look. They should know to go retrieve a spotter for a challenging set if they don’t already have one.

#2: Always do preliminary sets

This is the equivalent to the lead up in speed training. You can consider this an extension of the warm up. You lead into the max effort of the day by ramping up.

First, there is a general warmup. I’ll call this systematic because you want the heart, lungs and muscles to all be ready through a heating period of 8-10 minutes of gradually escalating intensity to generate some heat. For most athletes, 8-10 minutes of cardio equipment like rowers or bikes will create enough internal heat to begin a light sweat or as I like to say, get some grease pumping. Sweating means you are heating internally because the body is trying to cool itself by radiating the heat through sweat. Your muscles function better at a higher temperature.

For bigger groups, this can be accomplished through band and bodyweight protocols targeting the shoulder complex and hip complex.

After this, what is equally valuable is a specific warmup. You may be familiar with these, often called bridge sets or what I refer to as prelims. There is some fine print. A specific warmup is for the major lifts; bench, squat, deadlift, Olympics and the like. I do think large muscle exercises are worth a specific warmup. The stronger you are there might need to be a couple of bridge sets to get the neuro-drive fired up.

It is as simple as DO NOT jump straight into maximal loads.

#3: Always treat reps of olympic lifts like individual sets

I’ve touched on this before, but this is the main exception to the “lift and move” methodology.

Olympics are a very technical lift. They are also a high intensity lift.

The biggest difference between an Olympic lift and a power lift is that between reps, you CAN release the bar during a set. While there are times that you can complete a set of lighter cleans without ever letting go of the bar, there are the sets where you complete the motion of a clean and maybe a jerk, and then drop the bar.

The athlete isn’t taking excessive time; they are simply not rushing. Take a breath. Roll the bar into position. Reset the stance. Reset the grip. Get the body in position. Go.

The speed of the bar during the rep is what’s important, not the speed of the set. CrossFit has popularized WODs where Olympic sets are executed as fast as possible. This is not what we are going for. Good mechanics and control are essential.

#4: Always do some form of cuff and stuff

Cuff and stuff is the rotator cuff work and other secondary core work. Even five minutes a day can make a difference. It can be done at the beginning, middle, or end.

For the rotator cuff, when using bands, the key is to isolate the smaller muscles. You don’t want to engage the bigger muscles. Let the smaller muscles feel the burn. It’s all about the rotation.

For the core, it could be as simple as some isometric plank work, variations of crunches or other exercises to target the obliques and other oft-neglected muscle groups.

I even include wrist and forearm or ankle work into this. Some sports like baseball and softball may do more tertiary work than others, but everybody needs it.

Again, all of this can be done throughout the workout. I’ve said before it doesn’t have to be specifically prescribed. This is where I have suggested giving your athletes an opportunity to take ownership and add it at their discretion.

As a coach, you can still encourage it, which can also pose as a reminder to them.

#5: Always be prepared for the “rainy day”

I always talk about showing up with a plan. Strength training cannot be an ad lib event. Planning obviously tells you what to do that day, but it is connected to the previous workout and will influence the next workout either positively or negatively.

You never know when you’re going to have what I call the “rainy day.” The reason why it’s in quotes is because it doesn’t necessarily have to be weather related. That being said, it could literally be a thunderstorm that forces extra bodies into a facility, crowding a space.

This could even relate to a maintenance issue or some random thing that interrupts the regularly scheduled programming.

The good thing about most of these situations, like the weather, can be anticipated. Even if you get caught off guard, stick to the plan as much as possible.

Always be willing to call an audible and adjust. Sometimes you have to live to fight another day. Sometimes you’re just going to get less in. That’s ok.

So there you go. I’ve now covered things I always do and never do in both speed training and strength training. Hopefully this has helped you continue to polish the program to take it to the next level.

“Everyday to prepare”



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