High school weightlifting programs have undergone vast changes over the past 20 years.
As young athletes gear up for the fall sports season, we visited Amherst Comets, Oberlin Phoenix, and Wellington Dukes weight rooms — and found summer workouts are just as much about flexibility and agility as they are about strength and power.
It’s not always about the weight
“We don’t max out at all anymore here,” said first-year Wellington head football coach Rob Howells. “Now it’s all about functional athletic movements and abilities. Our guys will never do a one-rep max. We do typical combine, multiple-rep maxes and have charts showing what your theoretical one-rep max would be.”
Howells has sent nearly 300 brochures to male students in the district entering grades seven through 12, encouraging them to give weightlifting a try regardless of what sport they play or even if they don’t take the field at all.
“The goal there was to get them in here to see this atmosphere,” he said, “to get them excited about sports. Maybe I can get a couple of football guys out of it. To my knowledge, this is the first time weightlifting has been promoted across sports in Wellington… Female athletes have come in and worked with us too, and we want that to continue.”
“I always tell beginners to worry about their core before anything else,” said the coach. “That’s where all of your strength begins.”
Mike Akers is entering his second year at the helm of Oberlin High School football and over a 30-year coaching career has had a front-row seat for drastic transformations lifting programs have undergone.
He said mastering two particular exercises often has a trickle-down effect for young athletes.
“We concentrate on the bench and squat,” Akers said. “They hit every major muscle in the most efficient amount of time. We try to get the guys strong in the major areas and they can pretty much do the supplemental stuff on their own. Twenty years ago is when the high school lifting really started. Thirty or 35 years ago, no one touched the weights, not even for football. When I was a student at Elyria High School in the late 70s and early 80s, we didn’t have a program. Now everyone does it. Your kids just become more confident with a good lifting program. It builds comradery.”
Amherst Steele football players “max out” twice a year under coach Mike Passerrello. He’s entering his second year at the school and last season oversaw the program’s first .500 or better campaign since 2010.
One of those maximum weight days is the team’s annual “liftathon,” where players’ families are welcomed to watch the Comets test their might.
“Everyone runs off-season lifting and conditioning programs now, and that’s really changed how high school athletes are compered to 20 and 25 years ago,” Passerrello said. “Whether you’re a student or adult getting started with weights, be more concerned with your form than with how much you’re lifting.”
Big gains, different approaches
High school athletes are getting bigger, stronger, and faster.
Oberlin running back Devin Randleman has seen his maximum squat weight nearly triple over the past six months, going from 115 to 315 pounds.
“I never even really squatted before January,” said the senior. “The coaches we have now really care about us. Before they came here, they only cared about the upperclassmen. I was a freshman and I felt like they didn’t care about me at all. It feels great to play for a coach like this. They work hard and expect us to work hard too.”
Teammate Herbert Ross plays on both the offensive and defensive line for the Phoenix. Like Randleman, he has seen massive gains over the past half-year.
Just before being quoted for this article, he completed a series of 225-pound bench press repetitions. At this time last year, he had never attempted the lift.
“Both sides of the line are very aggressive and it takes a lot of explosiveness to be good,” Ross said. “Offense might be a little more aggressive because it’s on you to make that first step toward the right spot in the play. Your technique has to be great. Coach Akers and his staff will help out when they see you struggling. Old coaches would just leave you behind when they only helped out certain players. I like to tell the younger guys lifting to not be scared, to just go. Everyone starts somewhere.”
Amherst Steele senior running back Khennedy Scagliozzo said he’s seen drastic improvement since Passerrello started encouraging players to lift heavier.
“We take training a lot more seriously than we used to,” he said. “Everyone’s numbers are going up across the board. I like coming here sometimes because it’s stress relief, kind of therapeutic. In the summer, we focus more on agility and athletic stuff than maxing out.”
“There’s a lot of really good energy and intensity in this room since the coaching change,” said Comets senior running back and linebacker Nathan Soto. “All of us feed off of that. You can get your mind off of other things and just be with your teammates. When you’re getting started lifting, just make sure to keep your ego in check. Just do what you can.”
Wellington sophomore Bert Parsons said he’d never lifted weights until April but has seen his strength increase dramatically under Howell’s watch.
“We put a lot of work in around here and the coaches stay on you,” he said. “We’re all really looking forward to this year. It’s not going to be another 0-10 season. I feel stronger and lifting also helps your mental focus in class, work, or life. You have to keep your grades up to come here, and I get pumped up in school when I think about coming here to see my teammates. There’s a lot of teamwork in the weight room now that wasn’t here before. With lifting, just start slow and build yourself up. Don’t think you have to rush.”
Dukes strength coach Matt Kimmich joined the staff last season and kept up organized lifting sessions between the departure of former coach Roy Moore and the hiring of Powells.
“The strength and conditioning program here hasn’t always been well-organized compared to championship teams in our area that have things year-round,” he said. “As soon as the season was over, I started a conditioning program for these guys. We wanted to make sure the young men who planned on playing this season were focused and had structure, something to work for. We’ve had a good core group, but once coach Howells got here, he generated a lot of emotion and a lot of momentum.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.