Strength Training in the High School Setting: How to Make Strength and Conditioning a Priority in Your School.

Published On: January 28, 2021Categories: Interviews, Youth Training


I have been teaching and coaching for more than 20 years at the high school (HS) level and for 10 years at the USport level. I have also been in the Strength and Conditioning (S&C) field for 15 years or so, both at the HS and as an assistant at the USport level. I played University Football from 1992-1996 and trained without much guidance for a long time.  

As a student, my University strength program was inadequate and poorly supervised. Those with proper foundations and knowledge were not very common or accessible. We did a lot of lifting until it hurt and then lifted some more. As far as proper nutrition went, that just meant to be sure to eat whatever was in our way.  

Soon after my playing days were done, the team hired an outstanding S&C Coach and the person that gave me my start in coaching football – Marcello Campanaro. He helped to create a training culture that led the school to multiple Yates Cup Championships and had coached and mentored many players who reached the University Level and beyond. He has been a mentor and a friend.  

When I think about why and how S&C should be a real focus of the HS Physical Education (PE) and Athletics Programs, I keep coming back to the following question – How many people will continue to play an organized sport when they leave HS? What about after Post- Secondary? This led me to the next question – How many will want to “get back in shape” when they are older? The numbers invariably point clearly to the latter. This does not mean that I think sports and athletics should take a back seat to S&C, BUT the idea that sports and athletics should drive our programming is misguided, to some extent.  

We need to create better and stronger movers. More athletic and explosive movers. In other words, better athletes.  When we do this, we will enhance our sports teams and athletic programs AND give our students a head start on being fit into their adult lives. In turn, hopefully they will instill in their children the desire to move well and continue to focus on moving well throughout life.  

While I would not consider myself an expert in this field by any means, I have made an effort to learn and expand my knowledge over the years. I have benefited from the help and generosity of many, much smarter people, who knew the value of S&C, and fitness in general, that were willing to give me assistance. This came in many forms – from ideas, to old equipment, to access to funding. I worked to make things happen and get people onside that would help make things happen, because some challenges require a team effort. Below are the ingredients of what I think it takes to make S&C a focal point in schools. 

Create your own success – When I began teaching, there were very little opportunities in PE. The first time I was granted PE classes to teach was because I created the courses and the space (with the blessing of the PE Dept). We took over the games room in the old rifle range in the basement and made it into a pretty good training space. Lots of favors were called in and we were able to make it work and grow it as we went. The new courses were fitness related, and since the other PE teachers were more sport-focused without a background in S&C, I got to teach them. One course grew into another and soon there were more PE classes to be had. This led me to dig deeper into the area of S&C and I began my journey to enhance my skills and knowledge.  

I mentioned previously that I benefitted from the help of others. I was able to successfully apply to a teaching position at a school that was offering a unique program. It was called “Sport Academy” and the focus was on helping high level, and potential high level, athletes to use part of the school day to focus on their training in order to help reach their goals. This was the brainchild of a few people, but most notably Steve Lidstone, the McMaster S&C Coordinator at the time. The Board of Education and McMaster University Partnership was created. When I arrived, the program had just finished its second year and, thanks to Steve, there was a push to continue the work that was being done. A lot went into the success of the program, but the biggest push was when we invested in an updated S&C space, getting rid of outdated equipment and focused on training both the high-level athletes as well as those with high potential. This was really made possible by help from Mark Verbeek. At the time he was the Board’s Fitness and Wellness Consultant. Mark helped us to create an updated space that would allow for actual strength training and sport conditioning. Creating this space (though small) was really an important step in making S&C part of the daily fabric. And it would lead to an even bigger investment down the line.  

We also had a unique partnership with the University that allowed us to work with their S&C staff, and train at the University facility with each grade once per week. Eventually the Sport Academy name was dropped (long story) but when we moved from a “selective, high level/high potential” type of course, we actually tripled our numbers. We eliminated the interview/application process (including testing) and instead of having one class of 24-28 students in grade 9, we ended up having 3 classes of 25-30 students, and they took two PE credits a year. Grade 10 saw a drop in numbers, as did grades 11 and 12 BUT there were still a lot of kids taking the training courses. If they dropped out, they very often took another PE course so overall our numbers were very healthy. Many of those that dropped out for a semester often came back the next year because they missed the training and all of the benefits it gave them. The change the Ministry of Education made to allow multiple PE credits really helped, but the idea of getting to train with University level S&C Coaches really made the program a success.  

The next piece that goes with this idea is that you must give something up in order to get something back. One of the things you need to be ready to give up (at least in most older schools) is gym space. Taking a gym and making it resemble a modern, private facility will get people excited about using the space. We took the small gym (also known as Gym C), which measures around 45 feet by 75 feet, and turned that into our Physical Literacy Playground (that’s the name we initially called it and have yet to change it). This was the second revamping of the training space, the first being taking over an old health room. Having the right people on your side certainly makes this an easier process, and once again, thanks to Mark, we were able to make some significant changes.  

That’s a bit of history and you may be saying to yourself that you don’t have a partnership opportunity, like we do with the University. The truth is you don’t need it to offer fitness classes that focus on S&C. You can offer regular PE classes AND S&C type classes. Many students do not like regular PE as it is game-based and often is dependent on traditional sports and games. If you are not good at these (and there are a lot of students who are not), then this type of course does not appeal to you. A course that teaches you about movement and lifting and training where it only matters how much you improve can do wonders to get buy-in from students. Students will continue to take classes they like if they are given the choice to do so.  

Course Creation – The importance of daily quality PE cannot be understated. The traditional PE class that is games-focused does reach a good portion of students, however, there is a very large, often untapped population of students who do not like the traditional focus on games. They take their mandatory credit in grade 9 and then they never again set foot in the gym. More and more schools are offering a fitness-based credit to reach those students who do not like the traditional PE focus. This is a good way to attract more students. Not only will the students who don’t like the traditional focus take these, but the student-athletes are also likely to take these as it is another PE credit. This addition of Fitness/S&C classes can make a real increase in the numbers and help to create that focus on S&C. If students want the class, and the numbers agree, then more resources will be put towards it. We have gone from a selective program (see above) to one that is open, and the numbers have grown considerably and stayed high.  

Support – Support may be the biggest challenge in getting this done, but where there is a will, there is a way. It is essential to get your Admin (Principal) and Dept Heads on board. Without them, getting the resources and space you need will prove extremely difficult. The right Admin will support the idea of making more space for S&C type classes once you give them data on all the benefits this type of movement provides for students, and how it will improve their grades. I have seen some schools pair a math with a fitness based, S&C style course where they alternate every other day. Other programs have put a training course first, followed immediately by a math. The students are much more focused and open to learning. The benefits of movement and physical activity are far-reaching, and we need to continue to spread this message. Talking to your Admin about physical literacy being equally as important as numeracy and literacy will help. There is data to back this up. Having Department Heads’ support will also be vital. They have a say in what courses get offered and how spaces get divided up. Convincing them that this will expand PE lines is a good thing to focus on, in combination with the idea that better, stronger students make better, stronger student athletes.  

As important as it is to get the support of these groups, it is equally as important for you to provide support to anyone impacted by this change. Offering to teach, support and help your colleagues learn will go a long way to get them on board. It may be a lot of work in the beginning, but it will be worth it in the end.  

Partnerships – Without a doubt, the partnership with our local University and the passion of their Head S&C Coach was key to our success. This pushed our Board to continue with the partnership. The uniqueness of the program and the weekly visits for training are a big benefit to attending our school.  Many schools, and their Department Heads, may not have a background in S&C and therefore may not see the need to partner BUT without a partnership I think trying to build the focus on S&C is very challenging. Try to connect with your local University and College: they likely have some type of outreach or S&C program that would be more than happy to work with you. There are a lot of opportunities! Try to connect with local S&C Coaches from College and University, even if you need to travel a bit – people like Trevor Cottrell and Steve Lidstone will give you time and help you out. If you do not have a school nearby, try the private sector. There are opportunities here, but they must be a partnership, not one-sided. If you are a private business owner, come and offer your services to the schools. They will be open for a visit, especially if they are not comfortable in the S&C world. Additionally, you could work to create a club at the school. This could lead to more interest which would lead to more classes.  

This is the second revamp. We call it the PLP “Physical Literacy Playground” There are 9 racks (6 with platforms), 3 stand alone platforms and space for 4 benches in the DB/KB area.  

Resistance – What is an article on S&C without talking about resistance? Well, this may not be the resistance we enjoy discussing but it’s an important one to understand. Depending on who is in your PE Department and what their backgrounds are, there may be resistance to change. I had one PE staff member, who taught fitness, upset that I took out all the old bulky Nautilus style equipment. “Where is all of the girls’ equipment? What are they going to use now?” This took some time and energy to educate them that everyone can and should use the space AND should be taught how to use it. Its not just for one gender or another and everyone is capable of learning how to move and lift. Staff who have little knowledge and experience in S&C will feel overwhelmed with the idea of changing and teaching the skills necessary. For many of them it is hard to distinguish between good and bad information on training, and there is no curriculum guide for it. Providing the knowledge and resources to help them start out and focusing on keeping things simple will help bring them along. We got rid of the old bulky stuff and taught males and females how to lift KBs, DBs, BBs, etc. We focused on movements instead of muscles, and brought people along slowly, increasing their knowledge as they increased their comfort.  

If you get the chance to change and increase your training space, there will be resistance from coaches. They will not be happy with giving up gym space, even if it’s the “small gym”. We counter this by looking at how that space is being used and what it could look like. Most small gyms can handle 10-12 students playing a traditional PE activity, while the rest of the class sits on the sideline and watches. By making this space into a modern S&C style space, we can now handle 70 plus students training and moving in one period. We stress the fact that increasing movement skill and strength will enhance the student’s athletic ability and therefore improve the team. Athletics should not dictate space use, but proper space use will enhance athletics.  

Spin room with 28 bikes. This room used to have 5 squat racks in here after the initial revamp

Outcomes – Over the past 10 plus years there have been many positive outcomes to having gone in the direction that we did. They range from having multiple student-athletes realizing their goals of playing at the University level in Canada and the United States in football, basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, hockey and lacrosse as well as track, figure skating, tennis, water polo, snow boarding and synchronized swimming. It is very satisfying to look back and see all of the different athletes that this program has helped.  

The other positive outcome has been students who have taken the S&C path in terms of post- secondary education and part-time jobs. We continue to have incoming grade 9s through grade 12s choose the training class options and, even those students that do not follow in this path, have come back to tell us how they continue to train and feel very comfortable going into a gym setting and getting to work.  

There have been lots of people involved who have given lots of assistance, but it can be done on a smaller scale than this. Starting small and building on success will lead to more success and opportunities to grow. As we all know, growth doesn’t happen without challenge and some discomfort.  

Author Bio – Tom Pain has been a Secondary School HPE Teacher and Football Coach for over 20 years. He has been an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist since 2009 and has coached at the USport, Highschool and Rep levels.  

Share this story, choose a platform...