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High school weight rooms reflect changes in philosophy, scale

Lakewood Ranch, Braden River football reflect changes in off-field training for this generation.

Lakewood Ranch junior Angelo LaFrese gives the bicep curls his all during a voluntary workout.
Lakewood Ranch junior Angelo LaFrese gives the bicep curls his all during a voluntary workout.
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Lakewood Ranch High’s football players weren’t hustling to their weight room stations fast enough for coach Chris Culton’s liking on July 5.

“Let’s put some speed into it, let’s go!” Culton said.

His players picked up the pace. This came toward the end of Lakewood Ranch’s voluntary workout, which put players through a circuit of workouts including dips, box jumps, bicep curls, pull ups and bent-over rows.

The circuits, which change daily, are a part of the Mustangs’ new approach to weight room workouts, concocted by Culton and strength coach Graham Anderson. Junior Angelo LaFrese said the team's abdominal-focused circuits can be "harsh," but said he has felt a difference in his fitness and core strength since starting summer workouts. 

Anderson, whose previous stops include the University of South Florida, the University of Hartford and internships with the New York Yankees and Jacksonville Jaguars, said the weight room is a much different place now than it was 20 years ago, especially for football players. At Lakewood Ranch, the days of simply lifting as much as you can are over.

“It’s the idea of building a total athlete, not just a football player,” Anderson said. “It’s doing what is best for the student versus trying to get (big) numbers.”

Culton said he never asked what the Lakewood Ranch lift records are, because he doesn’t care — but in case you do, 2005 graduate Cody Hughes holds them all, including a 550-pound squat, a 460-pound bench press and a 380-pound clean and jerk. The Mustangs’ training plan, which Culton calls a fusion of football-specific workouts and crossfit ideas, is an attempt to create “fourth-quarter strength” versus “first-quarter strength.” It doesn’t matter how much a player can lift if he can’t do it all game. Culton is more focused on things like grip strength, which is harder to measure in numbers.

Culton said his father, Bain Culton, played at Georgia Tech University under coach Bobby Dodd in the ‘60s. The Yellow Jackets’ summer workout consistent of being handed a jump rope, with Dodd telling players not to return it until it frayed in two from overuse. Culton said workouts at all levels of football have slowly evolved from that time to something completely different, and it may surprise people who don’t follow the game’s inner workings.

Lakewood Ranch is moving into the next age of workouts with ancient equipment — ancient in the world of weight rooms, at least. The Mustangs’ room hasn’t been renovated since the school opened in 1998. The equipment is showing rust, and the walls feature the same white, green and black brick pattern that lines the rest of the school. Braden River High is in a similar situation. Its weight room also has not been updated since the school opened in 2005.

That may not seem like a big deal, but in other sports-crazy parts of the country, weight rooms aren’t just rooms, they are entire facilities. Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High unveiled a 41,000-square foot training facility in 2012 which included an 11,500-square foot weight room and cost approximately $20 million. Kimberly High School in Kimberly, Wis., opened a $5.5 million, 6,500-square foot weight room in 2017 — to complement its original 4,000-square foot weight room. Unless Braden River or Lakewood Ranch get private donations, their dreams of matching these exquisite facilities won’t come true. Culton wants to update the Mustangs’ room, but said he doesn’t need the best room in the country, or in Manatee County to run the program he wants.

“It’s not an arms race,” he said.

Pirates strength coach Richard Lansky isn’t worried about it either. When Lansky, who came to Braden River from Manatee High this offseason, attended Livingston High School in Livingston, N.J., the school didn’t have a weight room, period. He had to go to the local YMCA to learn to lift, where he used a “universal machine” instead of specific equipment. He’s an old-school guy, he said, and the facilities at his disposal are adequate for teaching his program.

Braden River rising senior quarterback Bryan Gagg is put through his paces during offseason workouts.
Braden River rising senior quarterback Bryan Gagg is put through his paces during offseason workouts.

What Lansky, who in 2014 was named one of Samson Equipment’s seven Strength and Conditioning Coaches of the Year, teaches is the basics he learned in his youth. He still values the bench press, power clean and squat, and knows who on the current team has the biggest numbers in each.

Lansky said the current team's bench press high is 365 pounds, and multiple members of the team have power cleaned 300 pounds and squatted 500 pounds. Those numbers, and the numbers of Hughes at Lakewood Ranch, may seem eye-popping to those many years past their high school days, but Lansky said they aren’t even the biggest change in the world of weightlifting over the last 20 years.

That belongs to the number of kids maximizing their potential. In his day, Lansky said, around six kids on a team could bench press 250 pounds. Today, that number is between 40 and 50 students.

“Kids get started earlier now,” Lansky said. “The county has done a good job making sure gyms in the area have basic equipment. There’s also better coaching. It used to be that the offensive coordinator or another assistant would act as the strength coach. It’s more professional now. People are certified to teach it and they know the science behind it. I’m jealous, honestly. I wish I had access to the stuff and training kids today have.”

Whether your training is heavy on the old school, like Braden River, or new school, like Lakewood Ranch, every school has to have an elaborate training program in order to compete. Lansky and Anderson both said the weight room is just as important to on-field success as learning the playbook and practicing drills. If practicing grip strength helps a center hold onto his block a second longer, or if sheer power allows a defensive end to bowl over a tackle, that’s a win.

Neither school uses music in the weight room, either. They want athletes to hear the instructions, the sound of barbells hitting the floor and the grunts of their teammates as they all work toward the common goal of becoming better athletes.



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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