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Programming The Barbell With Middle School Athletes

A boy lifting weights. A middle school baseball player front squatting. A baseball player lifting weights.
One of my middle school athletes setting up for a set of Front Squats, which we use in our progression of teaching the barbell movements.

Let's admit it, everyone is barbell happy. Especially us coaches, we seem to have a special place in our hearts for the solid steel shaft which is can be used in seemingly endless ways. Last week, I wrote a blog post on how we train power with the middle school athlete population. I highlighted how we don't teach power cleans or do Trap Bar jumps or some form of squat jump. But this doesn't mean we do not train the barbell movements. We absolutely do! We just have a very simple and calculated approach to how we do it. Here's how:

When we look at using the barbell to strength train middle school athletes (those between the ages of 11-14), I find it very necessary to consider a few things.
A boy lifting weights. A middle school athlete lifting weights.
One of my middle school athletes doing some general dumbbell work, which we also use as part of our learning process.

First, we have to consider the physical literacy of the individual. If an individual has a low level of Physical Literacy skills or has a low level of General Physical Preparedness, we will start with Dumbbells before ever touching the bar. I hear a lot of coaches say we should only do bodyweight until movement is perfect, but if you have ever coached this age group of athletes, you know some bad movement patterns get fixed by adding some load. But with low GPP levels, it makes learning how to lift properly with the bar much harder.

Second, we have to consider what kids will need to know for later training, either with you currently, or at future levels. For example, all of the high schools and now even some of the middle schools in my area have weight rooms, and all of them prioritize the Bench Press and Back Squat. So while I don't necessarily think we need to Back Squat, we progressively develop squatting skills to make sure they can do it well when with their schools. If you're in the school setting and the kids will or will not be guaranteed to take any further weight training classes or be doing team lifts in the future (especially if running a PE class), consider what they need to know to be able to healthfully lift for the rest of their lives.

With this said, I'll give some context for my area, and how we progress the barbell movements with the middle school athletes I train currently.

I live in rural/suburban North Carolina. We have a lot of "old heads" in positions of authority in the school setting who hold tight to traditions, and are slow to make changes. The high school football coaches are in charge of weightrooms, and there is a heavy emphasis on the barbell lifts of Power Cleans, Back Squats, and Bench Pressing. This is not all they do, but most are heavily reliant on these as the staple of their programs. I also find it odd the correlation, though not certain causation, of how the increase in weightrooms and the increase in soft-tissue injuries in the last five years. Regardless, most of my athletes will have to know these things to be proficient if they plan on training with their teams or in the schools at any point.

With this in mind, we utilize a very simple approach to teaching and building skill or strength in these lifts.
Split Squats. Middle School athlete lifting weights. Young girl lifting weights.
Another of my middle school athletes performing Split Squats.

I'll start with the sets and reps, and the programming aspect of training barbell lifts. If you read the programming power work, you'll notice these are similar sets and reps as you may see from power output. Middle school athletes usually have low skill, so as they get tired, mechanics start to break down and they start to lose the ability to maintain form. To combat this, we utilize sets of 3-6 reps on days when we teach barbell lifts. I've used squatting as the main example for this, but we use the same approach to teaching Bench Pressing and Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs). Our main goal with teaching these lifts with these rep schemes is to train within technical fatigue resistance, or the athlete's ability to maintain technique at a given load. We will usually do 3-4 sets of the movement before doing other exercises. For athletes with lower skill, we often give less reps and more sets, allowing them to work within fatigue resistant states.

The next thing we emphasize is tempo. We actively progress long duration Eccentrics and Isometrics to help give time for middle school athletes to feel out positions and actively self-organize into the form we've instructed on. When I give time frames here, I will point out how I expect athletes to count fast, and I therefore prescribe ~1 second longer than what I expect/desire. For those with metronomes, you can shorten these by a ~1 second. But we start with a very simple 3-1-x-x Tempo (3 second eccentric, 1 second isometric, and no specified concentric or time between reps), and then progress the next week to 4-1-x-x, and then to 5-1-x-x. As we do this, we often get to add weight, because athletes are getting stronger and more skilled. We do this with our squats, our Bench Press, and our RDLs.

One of my former high school athletes doing a variation of the Dumbbell Good Morning, though loaded with a barbell in a Zercher hold.

The last thing, which is really key, is how we progress this. For our squats, we always start with a Goblet Squat. If an athlete can show proficiency on those rep schemes and tempos at 40lb+ on a Goblet Squat, we progress them to a Front Squat and repeat the process. If an athlete will not lift with their middle school, but will in high school, we spend the last six months incorporating Back Squats into their program so they're prepared for the high school. For Bench Presses, we start with Dumbbell Bench Presses, then move to pushups, then to the Bench Press. Some may note the oddity of doing Pushups after DB Bench Press, but with more and more kids not being able to do Pushups for lack of strength, we find the 5-15lb Dumbbells to be quite helpful in building strength. For the Olympic Lifts, we actually start with teaching RDL's. For young athletes who struggle to Hinge, we often start with a Dumbbell Good Morning on the Tempo, then progress to a RDL, then in the last six months prior to high school, we'll progress to teaching the Hang Power Clean or the Power Clean.

This is how we do this for our middle school athletes. Before I close, I must be open and wary of reminding you of the reality of outliers. There are kids we will skip Front Squats and move to Back Squats because the Back Squat position acts as an aid to get them into the right position. The same goes for Pushups, DB Bench Presses, and Bench Presses. The order may need to change based on the individual.

Another of my middle school athletes, utilizing Dumbbells to learn rowing mechanics and driving more output on an exercise she already had skill in.

I will also stress something else: we don't try to drive big outputs on the barbell with middle school athletes. We focus on movement skill over the load. We do, however, load up other means in order to make kids feel like they've lifted heavy or done hard work. This is usually in the use of sled pushing, dragging, and carrying variations they can do which are also non-technical.

But as a whole, this is our approach to teaching middle school athletes the barbell.

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