Building a foundation for athletic development

We all have to learn to crawl before we walk, walk before we run, and run before we sprint. Too many times I have seen coaches just throw their athletes into heavy squats, heavy bench, heavy cleans without the athletes being able to handle their own body weight. Movements like pull ups, push ups, bench dips, body weight squats etc. are skipped or neglected to get to the heavy stuff.

» Learn more: browse our movement library for videos of the exercises described below and hundreds more.

This approach is like building a house without a foundation, or a sky scraper without re-bar in the concrete. Chances are if an earthquake comes or some other natural disaster the building will be compromised in some way. All of the athletes that come into my program go through the same foundation phase. Like the same says, our goal is to set up a physical foundation that can be built upon in their athletic careers. I look at the foundation phase as the rebar that will hold the body together and bullet proof it so in the future when the heavy weights are expected of them they will complete them without compromising themselves.

A word on specific vs. general training

As I mentioned, this is the approach I use for all my athletes, no matter the sport. Last month Mike Boyle sparked a debate about sports specific training when he said that 90% of the training doesn’t change no matter what sport you are working with. Next week we will have him on the podcast to talk about the topic. As you will see below, I tend to agree. But I also need to say that the 10% of training specificity for your sport is of extreme importance. The specific demands of the sport is what you should base that 10% off of. An example I like to use is volleyball versus football. Do both sports demand explosiveness? Absolutely! However, volleyball players are training to hit between a 9 and 10oz volleyball while football players are exploding into guys over 300 pounds. Therefore, why would volleyball players need to clean heavy? Why not just do a medicine ball heave for height or a single arm snatch to develop the characteristics needed for volleyball while the football players can clean heavy to develop the characteristics needed for moving men over 300 pounds in a quick manner.

Regardless, all beginning athletes should take a proper path in order to move into what people call sports specific training. This bings us back to the foundation.

Step 1: Building the foundation

A lot of credit for my approach goes to Vern Gambetta. Vern has been a huge influence on how I put together my training and a majority of what I will be discussing has come from him and I just put a little bit of my own twist on it. I might have changed the complexes and circuits here and there, as I’ve done my adapting his leg circuit with lateral movements. The incorporation of kettlebells is also something I added. But once again Vern Gambetta deserves a huge amount of credit for my knowledge and understanding of the profession today.

The nice thing about the foundation phase is that you do not need much equipment. The exercises in this phase consist of bodyweight exercises, as well as kettlebell and dumbbell exercises. The goal is not just to make the individual have a strong foundation but simultaneously teach them proper movement patterns for lifts they will do in the future with the barbell. Dumbbell high pulls, for example, are a good introductory lift to Olympic lifting. When the foundation phase is complete the athlete should be sufficient in pulling/pushing movements that relate to the Olympics lifts and squatting/pushing movements that relate to the power lifts.

Their technique in each of the major movements are expected to be at a high level. We have a select number of movements that we use during this phase. One week might look like the table below. I’ve added links to the exercises we have up in our movement library to help explain some of them.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday
  • Active rest
Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
  • Active rest
  • Passive rest

As you can see there is a number of pulling movements that will establish proper pulling technique before moving to the Olympic movements with the barbell. You can also see there are a number of movements that emphasize body weight strength that are repeated during the week. A very balanced approach is taken as well. Whatever is done to the front must be done to the back to make sure our body is and continues to be as balanced as possible. There is a core series each day and the objective is to train the core on all three planes of movements each day. Meaning we have a frontal, sagittal, and transverse movement each day. Once again keeping with the theme of balance.

Programming for this is as follows: Duration of this phase is 4 weeks. We start with 2-3 sets of each movement and work up to 4-5 sets of each movement. When we reach the 4th week you have 2 choices. The first choice is to continue with 5 sets on the 4th week or drop back down and unload to what you did during week 1.

Step 2: From the foundation to the basics

Once the Foundation Phase is complete I have one more phase to develop work capacity before moving on to the more traditional movements and phases like maximum strength and power. This Phase is called basic strength. We keep many of the same movements as we had during the foundation phase. However, the emphasis shifts to complexes and circuits on the lower body day. The upper body day has fewer changes, but the reps are moved up for bodyweight movements, and lowered for weighted movements with the expectation that higher weights will be used. A basic strength week will looks something like the following table.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday
  • Active rest
Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
  • Active rest
  • Passive rest

As with the foundation phase, the basic strength phase lasts 4 weeks. Again we start with 3 sets of each movement and work up to 5 sets of each movement. In the final week we then either continue with five sets, or unload to what we did during week 1. Both the complexes and circuits are done with a 1:1 work:rest ratio. That means that whatever amount of time it took you to complete the complex is the amount of time you rest. We gave some additional tips when completing the circuit in our HMMR Classroom lesson on the topic.

Step 3: Building on the foundation

If these two phases are completed in their entirety, you will set your athlete up to be not only robust for the remainder of their high school years, but bulletproof. These are well-rounded training regimens that include work on all three planes of movement, are balanced throughout, and emphasize proper movement patterns and technique that will be utilized throughout their athletic and even normal lives. All these movements and more can be found on hmmrmedia.com in our movement library, with new videos added weekly, so stay tuned for more ideas on this topic.