The CPT’s Playbook for High-School Preseason Training

At most levels of performance enhancement, sports specificity is more of a marketing message than a systematic approach. The areas of strength and conditioning and performance enhancement have been increasingly researched and improved over the past 25 years. We have also learned a great deal about reducing the risk for injury.

by Chris Ecklund, MA


Conditioning can keep kids off the sidelines by improving skills and reducing injuries.

At most levels of performance enhancement, sports specificity is more of a marketing message than a systematic approach. The areas of strength and conditioning and performance enhancement have been increasingly researched and improved over the past 25 years. We have also learned a great deal about reducing the risk for injury.

Yet two areas that remain insufficiently addressed in sports training, including in high-school sports, are (1) the effective assessment of movement competency to maximize movement quality and (2) the systematic implementation of periodization and coaching methods to maximize results. Instead, we continue to see outdated, inappropriate or even risky practice methods and an overemphasis on "sport-specific" movements that lead to overuse injuries. In this installation, our focus will be on preseason programming and implementation for the fall high-school athlete, specifically those involved in football, cross-country and tennis.

Your First Goal: Assess the Athlete
Goal-setting in youth sports should focus on the needs of the sport, the age of the athletes and their performance goals for the season. To a great degree, most sports deal with significantly similar needs and movement qualities, which means that most high-school athletes have similar movement compensations and programming needs. With a few exceptions (such as swimmers or members of a rowing crew), most athletes play their sport primarily while moving on one leg at a time (e.g., running, cutting, jumping). They move in multiple planes, accelerating and decelerating. They utilize their upper body in various and frequent unilateral and sometimes bilateral motions.

Therefore, the first goals you develop for your athletes must be based on movement assessments. By assessing athletes, then addressing compensations and maximizing a stable platform, you will prepare them to develop the strength, power and conditioning needed to support them in their sport. Progressing the athlete through the NASM Optimum Performance Training™ model helps ensure that the participant is prepared. Once coaches and their athletes have addressed compensations and progressed through the OPT™ model levels—stabilization, strength and power—they can focus their effort on specialization of movements as they move from freshman to senior year.

The NASM Performance Enhancement Specialization (PES) provides fitness professionals with additional tools and techniques for working with athletes at all levels, from youth to elite to professional—a key addition being Phase 6 Maximal Power, which utilizes high-velocity training with lighter loads, accelerated through the entire range of motion, thereby allowing athletes to increase and fully express power beyond the supersets of Phase 5.

Make Assessments More Meaningful
Assuming that a health-care professional has cleared the athlete for sports participation, it is imperative to make a basic inquiry into injury history, as this is one of the top three contributing factors to injury in sport: (1) previous injury, (2) rapid increase in training volume and (3) movement compensation (Nelson & Padua 2016). The NASM PES program provides extensive evidence-based information on selecting and executing assessments specifically for athletes wishing to improve in their sport of choice. Here's a sampling of the factors to consider during assessments.

Because of the competitiveness of youth athletics, some high-school athletes may be training year-round, overtraining and feeding directly into the cumulative injury cycle. They may not have dealt with previous injuries, at the risk of being benched. Addressing the effects of injury is essential to break this cycle, in which tissue trauma can lead to inflammation, muscle spasms, and adhesions (trigger points), which can further alter movement and potentially lead to subsequent injuries (NASM 2017).

"Previous history of musculoskeletal injury is a strong predictor of future musculoskeletal injury during physical activity," according to Kucera et al. (2004). So, ask about past and recent injuries, as well as surgeries (sport-related or not), which also can lead to neuromuscular adaptations and muscle imbalances. It's worth noting that the NASM PES delves deeply into "Current Concepts in Injury Prevention," so fitness professionals can help their athletes be more proactive in this realm.

Since more than 66% of injuries in sport involve the lower body (Ambler-Wright 2016), and we know that movement compensations are one of the most common reasons for injuries, the following assessments are a great place to start.

  • Overhead squat assessment
  • Single-leg squat assessment

It's also worthwhile to assess the athlete's upper-body strength and shoulder motion as well as cervical, thoracic and lumbar motion. This is especially helpful if these areas are relied on heavily in the athlete's sport, as is true for weightlifting, wrestling, diving and gymnastics (Huang et al. 2016), among other sports.

How much, how fast, how many? There are several athletic-performance tests that are relatively low risk, provide valuable information about the quality of the program, give insights into athlete effort, and have good reliability and validity qualities. At the end of this article you'll find a list of some assessment options for football, tennis and cross-country; complete descriptions of these tests can be found in chapter 3 of NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training (2015). First, a few notes.

Record the results. Whichever testing battery is chosen, make absolutely certain to keep accurate records of your testing protocols (surface, indoor/outdoor, conditions, time of day, etc.), adjustments (changes to standard equipment, distances, heights, loads, etc.) and scores. Having these notes to reference will maximize the reliability for mid- and postseason testing.

Be mindful of testing order. Ideally, the performance coach will conduct tests in an order that will allow the best results for each test and will not affect the results of other tests performed later that day. This means the order should be: power, then strength, then conditioning; if conditioning tests precede power tests, the results for the power tests will decline. Further, it is recommended that balance tests be included at the latter stages of the testing battery, giving the performance coach a better understanding of an athlete's motor control ability under fatigue, which provides strong correlations between loss of motor control under fatigue and subsequent injury.

Skip the 1-RM testing, if possible. When assessing high-school athletes, the question is always there: "Should we test max loads for squat, bench, clean, etc.?" In most cases, the simple answer is: No. It puts the emphasis in the wrong place from the start. That said, some coaches really want the 1-RM tested. The NASM PES provides additional information on conducting such tests safely. If you have to test, test RIGID and test STRICT. If you are able to hold off on 1-RM testing, you'll find that most maximal loads will increase in time as your athletes develop. By the time your athletes are getting solid in lifts and patterns by their junior and senior years, the loads/reps/max numbers will be evident in their training sessions and won't require "testing" or "max" days.

Making Use of Assessments in Team Corrective Programming
Corrective programming to maximize quality and limit compensations is a preseason priority, but individualizing corrective programming in a team environment can be challenging. A simple approach is to choose 3–5 areas to focus on in the warm-up period and then focus on the top 1–3 of those areas throughout the workout. These should flow directly from the movement assessments. This way, you can manage timing of each pattern, allow your athletes to hit their hot spots, give extra individual work where required, and keep training on schedule. Let's take a look at how that might look.

This warm-up focuses on 5 areas, with 1 (30-second) set of each exercise.

Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)
Foam rolling can be introduced as part of the warm-up.

  • Hip: piriformis
  • Lower leg: peroneals
  • Thigh: adductors
  • Shoulder: pectoralis minor
  • Spine: thoracic spine

Flexibility Exercises (Static Stretches)
Both dynamic and static flexibility training involving both large and small muscle groups is recommended for young athletes (NASM 2012). Note that static stretches are recommended here because it is difficult to do active-isolated stretching with large groups of high-school players.

  • Hip: static prone pigeon (piriformis stretch)
  • Lower leg: gastrocnemius stretch
  • Thigh: standing adductor stretch
  • Spine: side 90/90 thoracic spine stretch
  • Shoulder: doorway stretch

Creating a Systematic Training Program
Next, the training session would be designed to focus on 1–3 hot spots from the warm-up: in this case, the lower leg, spine and shoulder. For the lower leg, that might include explosive and balance exercises and SMR of the peroneals. The thoracic spine may be targeted with the upper-body pull, lower-body squat and SMR. And for the shoulders, upper-body push, lower-body hinge, and doorway stretch exercises may be used. See the chart for a more detailed sample workout for cross-country athletes. (Click for sample preseason workouts for football and tennis players on the NASM blog.)

Implementing a systematic approach creates efficiency. Understanding athletes' primary preseason goals, movement compensations and qualities you are training are the first steps in the right direction. In keeping with the NASM OPT model, programming should flow from Phase 1 (Stabilization) followed by Strength (Phases 2, 3 and 4) and progress into Phase 5 and, for the higher-level athlete, Phase 6: Maximal Power (as introduced in the NASM-PES). Progressions should, of course, match the level of the athlete and the sport.

Preseason Hell Week: Is It Worth It?
Over the last several decades, coaches have used the idea of a Hell Week or Two-A-Days early in the preseason training with the goals of getting their athletes into quick playing shape as well as testing the mental/emotional durability of players. The reality: These traditions come with a danger of increasing injury and even getting into more severe health and medical trauma. Excessively increasing volumes and intensities of training also leads to increases in orthopedic injury (Nelson & Padua 2016; Aune & Powers 2016) as well as more severe situations like exertional rhabdomyolysis (Hamer 1997; Smoot et al. 2013; Rawson, Clarkson, & Tarnopolsky 2017; Lin, Chie & Lien 2006; Ehlers, Ball, & Liston 2002).

Locally, I have been pleased to see that sport coaches are beginning to recognize that there are more efficient ways of getting athletes into playing shape, setting the stage for healthier training expectations and opportunities. If a Hell Week is to be used, the day's session should be broken up by coaching, teaching and training techniques that allow athletes time to recover between physical bouts.

From Goal Setting to Team Scoring
As in all facets of life—starting with a clear goal in mind and assessing the steps to get there—is key. By building a training program based initially on assessments of injuries and compensations, the performance coach helps athletes break the cumulative injury cycle, address movement quality/quantity issues, and make improvements at his or her pace based on individual abilities. Using the principles discussed here is a useful way to clarify your systems and methods for assessment and training before meeting the team. Above all, keep your trainings simple and science-based. Don't let overzealous parents, inevitable time or facility limitations and other factors distract you. Keep the focus on your priorities, just as your athletes keep their eye on the ball or finish line.


Ambler-Wright, T. 2016. Assess & correct with Fusionetics: (R)evolution in movement testing and programming (lecture, NASM Optima Conference, The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, Scottsdale, AZ. Oct 2016).

Aune, K.T., & Powers, J.M. 2016. Injuries in an extreme conditioning program. Sports Health. ePub. pii: 1941738116674895.

Ehlers, G.G., Ball, T.E., & Liston, L. 2002. Creatine kinase levels are elevated during 2-a-day practices in collegiate football players. Journal of Athletic Training, 37 (2), 151–56.

Hamer, R. 1997. When exercise goes awry: Exertional rhabdomyolysis. Southern Medical Journal, 90 (5), 548–51.

Huang, P., et al. 2016. Return-to-play recommendations after cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine injuries: A comprehensive review. Sports Health, 8 (1), 19–25.

Kucera, K.L., et al. 2005. Injury history as a risk factor for incident injury in youth soccer. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39 (7), 462–66.

Lin, H., Chie, W. & Lien, H. 2006. Epidemiological analysis of factors influencing an episode of exertional rhabdomyolysis in high school students. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 34 (3), 481–86.

NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine). 2012. NASM Youth Exercise Specialist Manual. Leawood, KS: Assessment Technologies Institute.

NASM. 2014. NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training (1st ed. rev.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

NASM. 2016. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training (5th ed., pp. 283–85). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Nelson, A., & Padua, D. 2016. Fusionetics: Performance healthcare from lab to court (lecture, NASM Optima Conference, The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, AZ. Oct 2016).

Rawson, E.S., Clarkson, P.M., & Tarnopolsky, M.A. 2017. Perspectives on exertional rhabdomyolysis. Sports Medicine, 47 (1, Suppl.), 33–49.

Smoot, M. K., et al. 2013. A cluster of exertional rhabdomyolysis affecting a Division I football team. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 23 (5), 365–72.

Assessments: Football, Tennis and Cross-Country

Double-leg vertical jump
Repeat vertical jump
Broad jump, frontal and sagittal
Lateral bound (tennis only)
10-yard sprint
Landing error scoring system (LESS) test
Double-leg lowering test
Davies test
Shark skill test
Standing soccer throw
Rotation medicine ball throw
T-test (tennis only)
Lower-extremity functional test (LEFT)
5-10-5 test
300-yard shuttle*
Single-leg star excursion balance test

Single-leg vertical jump
Repeat vertical jump
Broad jump, frontal and sagittal
10-yard sprint
Single-leg landing error scoring system (LESS) test
Double-leg lowering test
Shark skill test
300-yard shuttle
1-mile run
Single-leg star excursion balance test

*For football players, do the test as written for skill players and a modified shorter test for linemen.
By assessing athletes, then addressing compensations and maximizing a stable platform, you prepare them to develop strength, power and conditioning.
Learn More About the NASM PES
The NASM Performance Enhancement Specialization provides unique training modules focused on improving sports performance, including training for flexibility, cardio, core, balance, plyometrics, SAQ and Olympic lifting. Completing this specialization will earn certified personal trainers 1.9 CEUs from NASM. The PES program is available as a self-study course or an all-inclusive option with a live workshop. To learn more, go to

Meet our experts

AFM_author_Ecklund Chris Ecklund, MA, Chris Ecklund, MA, NASM-PES, CSCS, USAW, TPI, is performance director for La Cumbre Country Club and CEO/founder of Prevail Conditioning Performance Center, both in Santa Barbara, California. ([email protected])

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