The strength and conditioning program at Waukee developed like the suburb itself.
After years of being overlooked, the demand and desire to expand lit a spark. Buildings went up, money came in and suddenly the Warriors had kids that expected to compete.
And they shot the football team forward. Fast.
“When I came to Waukee we didn’t have a weight room,” Waukee head football coach Scott Carlson said. “We had a broom closet that had a universal machine in it. We would set up a couple bench presses in the gym and that was taking the program to the next level.
“Now we’ve seen a lot of improvements. But the weight room is only as good as the kids that use it.”
Weight lifting has long been associated as part of football preparation, but Waukee and plenty of other high schools have improved by adapting their programs for all-around athletes in the last decade.
The evolution of training has changed how players look, perform and recover, which has altered the course of varsity football competition in Iowa.
“To me it came in three phases,” Carlson said. “First, nobody lifted because it was bad for you. Then there was kind of the Olympic phase, with Olympic power lifts, which made a big change. Now, at least around here, it’s about building athletes. And we spend as much time outside the weight as in it.”
Training regimens, repetitions and traditional lifts have been tweaked or refined. Even greater than the facilities arms race is the rush to create “functional athletes” instead of single-focused football players.
“I think we’ve all gotten away from worrying about how much a player can bench press,” Valley coach Gary Swenson said.
“The leading thing right now is training that converts to functional athletic movements for any sport. To me that’s probably been the biggest change in all programming. Finding traits that carry over to the field or the court or the diamond or the mat.”
The broom closet is now a wide and bright room with seemingly endless rows of equipment and stacks of weights and banners featuring Waukee’s most athletic alumni hanging from the ceiling.
It’s still not enough space for everything Jay Dahl and Chad Vollmecke have in mind. The strength and conditioning staffers have created a detailed and almost intimidatingly comprehensive program that goes way past doing five sets after school.
“We’re never going to be happy unless we have a ton of space and a lot of equipment. But it’s definitely helpful here,” Vollmecke said.
Traditional lifts remain – bench press, hang clean, squat – but they’re engulfed by exercises for movement, agility and flexibility, which are planned out by the day, week, phase and semester for every athlete. Heavy weights aren’t even half of the equation.
“There was so much imbalance in kids in the past, just doing curls or bench press,” Carlson said. “That leaves other parts of the body vulnerable to injury, if you don’t have the core strength or leg strength to match up. Our staff does a phenomenal job of looking at the big picture for an individual athlete and how they’re doing each movement.”
Nothing is entirely position- or sport-specific. Instead, Dahl draws up long-term logs based on schedules and game days, meaning running backs and girls’ basketball players are doing similar plans at different points in the season.
“They’re high school kids, so they’re not that different,” Dahl, a certified specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association, said. “They just need strength, period.”
Even with these major changes from 20 or even 10 years ago, Waukee is hardly walking alone.
“There’s nobody that’s got the corner on some new, secret training ideas,” Swenson said.
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“It really isn’t even a question any more. Everybody competitive is doing something and we’re all probably doing similar stuff.”
Swenson has seen the training days of bodybuilding and the wildly popular Bigger Faster Stronger go by. The most versatile athletes from top-to-bottom are being built right now.
“I think the turn-key approach is pretty much understood as not working, where you just hire somebody to supervise the place and program and hope the kids know what they’re doing,” Swenson said.
“Right now if you’re not doing a great job in player development and strength training specifically, you’re falling behind. You have to look at it as you’re helping them be better athletes. And for me, that means better football players.”
Jeff Lietz at Colfax-Mingo had no choice but to keep up with the curve.
Without much in the way of size, resources or tradition in Class A football, the third-year head coach got creative.
“Back in the day, you went in and hit the bench press, some curls for the girls, did some squats and you left,” Lietz said.
“Now there are so many different lifts and so many different programs out there, you have to sift through and find what’s going to translate to the football field.”
Offseason workouts became of the utmost important to the multi-sport Tigerhawks, to stay in shape and build camaraderie around a senior class that has played together since third-grade, including Lietz’s son, Jake.
They figured they’d better compensate for the fact that only one player on this season’s roster is listed as greater than 6-feet and at least 200 pounds. And that’s star quarterback Jared Myers, a senior in Iowa’s all-time top 10 for total yardage.
“We’re not the biggest team up front, but if we have the proper fundamentals and the proper strength and conditioning, we don’t need to be,” Lietz said. “You form what you can do around what you have. So we use our quickness, agility, and balance in our blocking, which of course all comes from our strength training.”
An efficient spread offense and 3-5 base defense compensates for Colfax-Mingo’s lack of size. But year-round time before or after school in the small weight room makes it all go.
“They don’t get much time between seasons to let their bodies recover, so the more they can be in-shape and be in the weight room to get their bodies accustomed to different tasks, the more accustomed they’ll be,” Lietz said.
On a much greater scale at Valley (which lists 19 varsity players larger than 6-0 and 200 pounds), Swenson thinks the philosophy is the same. The kids have improved as the off-field training has.
“If you go back 20 years there were some schools that just weren’t doing it,” Swenson said.
“I look at that as one of the more important parts of my job, seeing that my players become better athletes through a developmental program.”
Dahl credits the increase in instruction at the high school level, the sharing of knowledge across programs and sports, and even a boost from a company in Iowa high school football’s backyard.
Power Lift in Jefferson produces weight equipment and racks featured in training facilities around the NFL and college football. That allows small prep teams across Iowa like Aplington-Parkersburg, Boone or Van Meter to have similar platforms and setups to those used at Alabama, Baylor, or even with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Waukee has 20 racks, and program developments have players working all around it, from barbells to rubber bands to seated stretches.
“I firmly believe it’s not about what you do, it’s how you do things,” Vollmecke said. “We’re just trying to make the kids the best they can be.”
And perhaps that attitude is one of the greatest changes from the stereotypical testosterone-driven view of strength training. Education and health are at the forefront of the evolution, and should benefit a safety-conscious football in the future.
“I absolutely notice it on the field. Games are being played at a higher level because these kids are better overall athletes,” Carlson said. “They’re able to go out and do things and endure things because of what’s going on in the weight room.”