Part 2: Beginner Training- Form the Foundation

Post by Mark Ehnis

Progression begins with technique. An athlete should never progress until his technique is adequate. Notice I didn’t say perfect technique. You can always work on perfecting your technique and in most athletes, they’ll never be perfect- part of being a solid strength coach is knowing when to say “that’s good enough” and move on without risking injury. That being said, when working with beginners, be cautious when adding weight or making the exercise more difficult, until they have shown they can perform the exercise properly again and again.

Varsity PSTS athletes performing some handwalks at the end of their warm-up. Keep the basics in your program and continue to build the foundation even with “strong” athletes!

Remember, we’re “building the foundation” for strength. If your foundation is weak, the rest of the structure will fall. In a beginner’s case, skipping the foundation phase is catastrophic. Without a strong foundation, strength gains will be limited and the body will be more susceptible to injuries. “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe” is a phrase commonly used when describing the foundation.
***This also applies to speed for beginners. Little Timmy’s dad wants little Timmy to get faster and is worried about his speed. Little Timmy can’t even do 10 bodyweight squats (weak), or stand on one leg (no balance or coordination), or touch his toes (bad mobility and flexibility), and is chubby (poor body composition). Little Timmy is also 12. Speed needs a foundation just like strength does. Get stronger. Get mobile and flexible. Turn that baby fat into muscle. And I bet Little Timmy gets faster. There, I just saved  you $600 for those 8 “speed” sessions you were going to buy. You’re welcome.
Once the foundation is built, my goal is to get athletes to the big lifts- bench, squat, deadlift, press- and be able to perform them safely. These LIFTS give you the best results and every beginner should strive to reach an appropriate level of strength to start incorporating these (some variations of these exercises are appropriate for beginners).

Pedja Lazic (European Professional Basketball Player) performs Split Squats during the opening month of PowerStrength
When building the foundation, there needs to be a rhyme and reason to the movements in the training program. I like to use progression with certain movements. For example, why would anyone teach a hang clean before they teach a deadlift? Don’t take for granted that the beginner knows how to pick-up the weight off the ground and put it back down safely. I’ve seen some terrible, spine-busting examples of this. Below is a sample progression I tend to use if I know I’ll have an athlete for a significant amount of time. I’m usually in no rush to teach a beginner to squat before they’re ready, but always try to teach them the technical side of the lift before they leave my watch. The exercises below can be done in this order or you can train a couple of them at once for more reinforcement. 
Sample Squat Progression
BW Squat Hold à Wall Squat à BW Squat  à Goblet Squat with Kettlebell à Walking Lunges à Split Squat with back leg elevated à Box Squat
Explanation of Progression
Most beginners can’t hold the bottom of a bodyweight squat position for 10 seconds before they start rising up- try it if you don’t believe me. The wall squat forces them to initiate with their hips first and teaches them to push their knees out while keeping a “big” chest. It also improves mobility in their hips and upper back, and flexibility in their hip adductors. The goblet squat teaches how to keep tension in the core and upper back and reinforces proper breathing patterns important in bracing. Both walking lunges and split squats train unilateral strength. Walking lunges are also for stability on one leg and more bracing to train the core to stay tight. Split Squats train stability and balance, but also for flexibility in the hip flexors and quads. Once all these movements are sufficient, I feel confident in introducing a complicated exercise like the box squat. It’s always an easier transition as well- believe me. If you have an athlete train with you long enough to follow a progression such as this, I highly suggest you do so. It will pay off big time in the long run.
This is only one exercise but it’s an example of progression and how important it can be. Remember you need to have benchmarks in your program. Every exercise and movement can be made more difficult; it’s up to the trainer/coach to decide when the athlete is ready to move on. Remember coaches; check the ego at the door when dealing with beginners. DO NO HARM is a good thing to keep in mind as a coach. The last thing you want to do is load up a beginner before their ready, resulting in an injury from training that just ruined their season. 
Once an athlete progresses enough to start performing the big lifts then progression takes on a new face- adding weight to the bar. This is a large topic for another time and like everything else with a beginner, it’s key in knowing when and how much to add to the bar. 

PSTS athlete Bobby Halso (high school sophomore) performing dips for 4 sets of 10 at a bodyweight of 250lbs. Bobby has built a strong foundation of strength.  In doing so, has benched 315lbs. 
Building the foundation starts with bodyweight movements and a strengthening of the muscles, joints, ligaments, and bones to lift weights. What’s the point of having a beginner bench 65lbs and learn a complicated lift with terrible form when they can’t even do 10 push-ups? I’m all for lifting heavy weights. But I don’t have my athletes do it just to do it- and definitely not before they’re ready. Some build the foundation faster than others and it will always be like that. It’s also important to state that just because an athlete is in high school and seems to have a solid foundation, chances are they are still weak in some areas and should keep bodyweight movements and different exercise variations in their program for extra strength and variety. Follow a program with benchmarks for strength and proper progressions and a strong, healthy foundation will be built.
These two installments of forming the foundation only contain the tip of the iceberg when dealing wit ha beginner. I highly recommend all young, beginning athletes (and their parents) to get with a knowledgeable strength coach that will help guide them throughout their athletic careers.