Midway through his freshman season, after Rockhurst football player Brady McCanles was promoted to varsity, he sensed the need to become bigger, faster, stronger. He had watched the workouts of the team’s seniors. Bench presses of 300 pounds. Squats topping 400.
“As a little freshman, I had never lifted a weight in my life,” McCanles said.
Three years later, on a hot August afternoon, McCanles stationed himself in the corner of the Rockhurst weight room. He wore a shirt with the sleeves ripped off while he progressed through a workout.
As head coach Tony Severino strolled by, he referred to McCanles as the “player with the biggest guns” in the locker room, though several teammates objected while pulling up the sleeves of their shirts.
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McCanles, a running back for the Hawklets, is evidence of the workouts’ effectiveness. A year ago, he plowed through two would-be tacklers and into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown in overtime of a playoff matchup.
“The weights have been a big thing for me before I was even coaching,” said Severino, who is embarking on his 35th year at Rockhurst. “When I first started, I felt like I was way ahead of my time. When I took the job at Rockhurst, I told them we needed to build a weight room.
“It’s evolved a lot. Everybody is doing something now.”
Weightlifting programs — more frequently referred to as strength and conditioning workouts — are commonplace in high school football, along with plenty of other sports, for that matter.
They don’t necessarily present the advantage they once did on the football field. Instead, programs are just trying to keep pace.
It’s all but written into a head coach’s job description that if he wants to be successful, he must persuade his players to attend regular workouts, though they cannot be made mandatory under either state’s activities association’s rules.
The volunteer sessions have become year-round events. Across the Kansas City Metro, kids wake up before sunrise during the summer to get in a morning lift.
Bishop Miege coach Jon Holmes, who graduated from the school in 2002, said the Stags averaged 90 players during weightlifting sessions this summer. Describing his days as a player, Holmes said, “We would get maybe 20 guys per day.”
The participation is the most critical element. Severino calls roll daily.
But it’s no longer the only element. There are thousands of opinions on the best way to lift weights and build strength, and schools rarely follow the same model.
At some schools, such as Basehor-Linwood, not all athletes within the school follow the same model.
Before his promotion to athletics director this year, Ross Schwisow oversaw the district’s weightlifting program. He grouped athletes by competition level, but each student conducted an individualized workout. Tests provide their max lifts, and every workout is completed at a certain percentage of those maxes.
“Basehor-Linwood has been on the leading edge on the professionalism of (strength training),” football coach Rod Stallbaumer said. “I think you’re going to see more schools having that model of a full-time strength coach on staff.
“You lose a little bit of the team-bonding aspect, but the gains outweigh that.”
Most programs are multipurposed. Rockhurst conducts its workouts in three phrases spread out over the calendar year — strength, followed by a combination strength-and-quickness phase, followed by a phase combining strength, quickness and speed.
Although the concept of “bigger, faster, stronger” provides rather obvious benefits, many coaches refer to injury prevention when describing the design of their workouts. In 2012, the British Journal for Sports Medicine concluded that proper lifting techniques and proper resistance training can help reduce sports-related injuries in young athletes.
“We’re going to train the body (and) do stuff for injury prevention and for strength,” Holmes said. “Back in the day, you would just get in and lift.”
Liberty North football coach Greg Jones refers to that process as prehab — the inverse of rehab and essentially preventing the need for rehab. In his first year at Liberty North, Jones doubles as head of the school’s strength and conditioning program after serving the same roles at Kearney, where his football teams won a pair of Missouri Class 4 state championships. Those teams were known for their brute strength, a product of his strength and conditioning concentration.
Before he coached a down of football at his new stop, Liberty North, Jones toured the weight room. It’s considered top of the line.
He estimated more than 300 kids per day across all sports were in the weight room during June as he supervised.
“It doesn’t matter what your weight room looks like if you don’t use it,” Jones said. “If you do, it makes a huge difference on the field, especially late in the season.”
With more and more schools adopting weightlifting, Jones, who started his career as the strength and conditioning coach at Northwest Missouri State, still tries to find ways to remain “cutting edge.” There are specific workouts for in-season and out-of-season, and the concept of an offseason has been nearly eliminated.
Other programs have followed suit.
“For a long time, kids lifted a couple of months in the summer and that was it for the year,” Stallbaumer said. “Now you’ve basically got it year-round in Kansas. Even when I started getting into coaching (13 years ago), summer weights was very optional. About 20 to 25 percent of highly-motivated kids went.
“Now it’s really an expectation. It can’t be mandatory, but you can definitely tell the programs that have success are the ones where it’s an expectation.”