Your Checklist for Coaching a Safe and Efficient Weight Room

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The weight room is a chaotic place.

For strength coaches, trainers, sport coaches, PE teachers, and anyone overseeing a training session, a systems-based approach helps to make order of weight-room chaos.

What do we mean by “systems-based”?

Systems are all about process…clear, efficient, and repeatable steps that reliably produce a desired outcome. Systems take care of the necessary, regularly-occurring work that needs to be accomplished so that more focused energy can be spent on complex and creative problem solving efforts (i.e., coaching).

Volt’s CSCS-certified coaches created a Weight Room Checklist to organize the basic steps that coaches and athletes should complete each training session. When each box is “checked,” the minimum standard of quality has been met. Over time, habitual execution of these steps will increase safety, build a strong weight room culture, and enable coaches to coach more effectively with creativity and confidence.

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
— James Clear
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Check out the

Coaching the Weight

Room PDF

 

Before Training

Before stepping into the weight room, take a few actions to set yourself up for success. Review the workout(s) that will be taking place during the session. It’s also important to identify key movements that may require more coaching, and anticipate which athletes will require the majority of your attention.

Pro tip: if there is a movement that you do not feel comfortable coaching, take advantage of Volt’s training AI, and replace it with a movement that you can confidently coach.

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The weight room is a place where sweat is celebrated, so make sure that surfaces are cleaned regularly (more on this later). Organize barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands, and medicine balls in close proximity to where they will be used, to reduce clutter and maximize space. The easier it is for athletes to find, use, and put back the equipment they need, the more efficient they can be. Ensure there are clear walkways for athletes to move about the room without endangering themselves or others, and understand your lines of sight throughout the space.

Dividing athletes into training groups has several advantages and is a common strategy among Volt coaches. From a safety standpoint, the use of training partners ensures that every athlete has access to a spotter for compound barbell lifts. Coaches may also select partners or groups in order to manipulate the training environment. For example, one tactic may involve partnering an under-achiever with an overachiever, to help raise the ability and effort of the underachieving athlete. Another tactic might be to pair a younger athlete with a couple of juniors or seniors in an effort to further develop strong relationships among the team. How you utilize training groups should depend on the structure of the weight room, personality of the athletes, and goals and needs of the team.

After athletes have prepared themselves for training, and before the warm-up has started, take a moment to set expectations with the group. Identify specific objectives, whether they be quantitative (e.g., complete all prescribed sets of hang cleans and bench presses), qualitative (e.g., high focus, high effort), or a combination of both. Setting expectations prior to training helps athletes aim their efforts appropriately, and creates an opportunity for the coach to reinforce good behavior or correct poor behavior at the end of the session.

Team culture is not comprised of the expectations we set, but rather the expectations we fulfill.
 

Warm-up

While often overlooked and sometimes skipped altogether, the warm-up is an important and valuable part of every training session. In fact, the terms “movement prep” or “skills prep” can replace the more traditional “warm-up” to emphasize the significance of this dedicated time. A proper warm-up hits all fundamental movement categories (push, pull, lunge, squat, hinge, brace, balance, and rotate). Since we start every session with these movements, it’s a valuable opportunity to PRACTICE such movements critical to human performance and sport. Attend any sports practice, and within the first ten minutes, you’ll hear a coach shouting the mantra, “Quality Reps! Quality Reps!”—that’s exactly the approach we want to take to our warm-ups. If you can begin every training session with this detail-oriented approach, not only will athletes move better, but a tone and expectation that emphasizes accurate and precise movement will be set for the rest of the workout.

Once athletes are capable of executing the warm-up with proficiency, this time can be used by the coach to check in with athletes. Ask how they are feeling, so that you can start to gauge the health and readiness of the athletes in the room. Pay special attention to in-season athletes, in case you have a pitcher who threw 100+ pitches the day before or a point guard who played 40+ minutes last night. You may even have a soccer player who stayed up late studying for a test or a wrestler that just broke up with his girlfriend at lunch. These are all scenarios where you can apply your “coaching sense” and adjust training expectations accordingly. Not to mention, showing genuine care for your athletes builds rapport and trust, and strengthens the athlete-coach relationship.

Upon completion of the warm-up, make sure athletes place equipment back in the right place, or set it up in the proper station to begin the main session. This is a manifestation of the detail-oriented approach: it’s easy to cut corners and roll the medicine ball back to the corner instead of placing it on the rack, or to put the 10-lb dumbbells back in the 20-lb spot. But doing so will cause confusion for the next person that needs to use it, or worse, may result in a safety hazard. As a coach, you’ve taken action to ensure that everything has a specific place in your weight room, so it’s important that the athletes understand and support you in that endeavor.

 

Main Session

Whether you are a certified strength coach, PE teacher, sport coach, or all of the above, a weight room full of 14-to-22-year-olds can be hectic. Athletes are asked to participate in an activity that has a much higher risk of acute injury than, say, writing an essay or solving mathematical equations, and the coach is responsible for everyone’s safety. In addition to keeping kids safe, the coach is also responsible for pushing athletes that need pushing and applying the brakes for some athletes that need to pull back. No single training session is the same, so there’s no recipe for success in the weight room. Unlike baking a cake, where the ingredients are relatively constant (for the most part, sugar is sugar and flour is flour), the variables in a quality weight room training session are dynamic and constantly evolving. All athletes are unique and enter the weight room at different states of readiness, exercises change every few weeks, and the weight loaded on the bar can vary greatly between athletes. How can we orchestrate order amidst the chaos?

Control what you can control.

The coach is responsible for being both the “thermometer” and the “thermostat” in the weight room. If the “check-in” step was completed during the warm-up, the coach will have a sense of the amount of energy and focus that the athletes are bringing into the room. On some days, athletes will be flat: they don’t want to train, or a group of them just finished an exam. Maybe you’re a college coach running a Saturday morning workout, and some kids seem a bit “sluggish.” In either case, the coach may need to adjust the thermostat upward and raise the energy of the group, in order to salvage the session. On other days, perhaps following an assembly or right before athletes go on break, the group will be bouncing off the walls with their minds elsewhere and the coach will need to encourage athletes to focus their attention on the task at hand. This is the job of the coach; to encourage athletes appropriately throughout the training session.

To maximize safety and performance enhancement, the coach must actively focus on correcting poor movement patterns. As mentioned in the Prior to Training section, if there are movements that you are not comfortable coaching, take advantage of Volt’s training AI and replace them with something else. If a faulty movement pattern is identified, there is nothing wrong with stopping the athlete in his/her place, reducing the load and coaching the athlete through the correct pattern. Remember, Volt’s recommendations are “recommendations,” and there is always room to deviate from the plan slightly to ensure safety.

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Athletes should be active throughout the entire session. No athlete should be sitting or leaning up against a wall talking with a friend, even during their programmed rest time. Particularly when sitting, athletes pose a risk to themselves and others around them because they are unguarded and outside of normal line of site for everyone else in the room. Instead, athletes should be instructed to spot their training partner, hydrate, perform active mobility exercises, ask questions of the coach, and/or encourage their peers.

Finally, if athletes are using their Volt app (which they should be!), each set should be checked off as it is completed. This will allow Cortex to adjust training loads (if necessary) and will begin the rest timer before the next set. Both of these unique features help athletes move about the weight room and execute their movements with more efficiency. Making sure that athletes consistently check off their sets also ensures the most accurate data is being collected, so the coach or athlete can analyze the training data post-workout.

 

End of Session

As the training session comes to a close, athletes should mark the workout as “Finished” in the Volt app. Even if an athlete completes less than 100% of the prescribed sets, that’s okay! Marking the workout as “Finished” indicates to the coach and the rest of the team that a training session was executed on that day. As a coach, communicate the importance of consistent participation over the sheer quantity of work completed within a single training session. In his book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear includes a quote from social reformer Jacob Riis, which serves to illustrate the power of consistency:

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.
— Jacob Riis

Next, make sure athletes put equipment away before leaving their station. In high school, our baseball team had a sign on the gate that read, “Leave it better than you found it.” It’s also a good idea to have sanitizing spray bottles and towels available to wipe off benches, stability balls, medicine balls, yoga mats, and any surface in your weight room that might collect sweat or dust. Doing this consistently will help maintain athlete health and equipment longevity.

Before athletes leave the room, review the session with the group. Refer back to the expectations set at the beginning of the session: Were expectations met, or not? Why or why not? If expectations were met, reinforce those positive behaviors. Be specific as to what factors resulted in achieving the goal. Give athletes the answers to the test!

If the group fell short of expectations, capitalize on the learning opportunity. Provide objective feedback as to why the session may not have gone as planned. At the very least, athletes should know that they did not meet expectations and they should be equipped with strategies for future improvements going into the next training session. Consistently taking this action will serve to reinforce the standards of the weight room culture agreed upon by the group.

 

Why a Checklist?

It’s likely that every step in this checklist is obvious, especially to a veteran coach.

Surgical teams use checklists before each procedure.

Pilots use checklists before every flight.

Construction companies use checklists to build skyscrapers.

Do these experts use a checklist because they don’t know what to do? Of course not!

Very smart people use checklists to avoid dumb mistakes.

They make sure all of the “small stuff” is taken care of so that they can focus their energy on solving big problems!

How would this checklist help in your weight room?

We encourage you to print off some lists, commit to using them for a couple of weeks, and see what happens. We also encourage you to make modifications, or even create your own checklist from scratch to fit your situation more specifically.

Make the checklist work for you, so that you can minimize mistakes, and maximize your training!

 
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Bo Pearson, CSCS, is a Strength Coach Consultant at Volt Athletics. With an extensive background in sport performance and team operations, he has consulted with 800+ high school, college, and professional teams worldwide. Bo earned his BS in Exercise Science and Sport Psychology at Pacific Lutheran University, where he was a captain on the baseball team. He is also an Athletic Performance Coach at Force10 Performance. Follow Bo on Twitter @pearson_bronson.