Inside the Mid-Prairie Strength Program

By Pete Cavanagh, Mid-Prairie AD
Posted 2/28/24


I was recently watching a JV basketball game at Mid-Prairie when I heard an opposing fan ask one of our parents, “What do they feed those Mid-Prairie boys? They’re …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Inside the Mid-Prairie Strength Program



I was recently watching a JV basketball game at Mid-Prairie when I heard an opposing fan ask one of our parents, “What do they feed those Mid-Prairie boys? They’re big!” Even though that was great to hear, a few moments later I was also questioned by an MP parent about our weight program, and if we do enough to get our athletes stronger. Both of these comments made me realize that it’s time to talk about our philosophy of strength training at Mid-Prairie.

Let’s start with the basics. Our weight room is open 3 days a week in the mornings for any student to come in and train, and it’s open after school 3 days a week, usually for our teams to train.

We also have a strength training class during the school day that kids can take for a PE credit one semester per year. School administration expectation of our coaches is that all sports lift 2 days a week in-season and 3 days a week out of season. The program can also be modified for athletes lifting on, or around game days.

We have 4 full squat racks, 4 half racks, two full sets of dumbbells, 3 platform areas for Olympic lifts, a lat machine, leg extension, and a variety of bands.

The maximum capacity of our room is approximately 33 lifters. During the summer, we typically average 60-80 kids a day over 3 shifts. Many of the Mid-Prairie coaches help supervise the strength program with the help of our strength coach, Jeff Swartendruber.

Jeff was hired in 2017 to be our strength coach at Mid-Prairie. The following is an interview with Jeff that explains his job, our philosophy of strength training, and general information about training athletes:

Q: What is your background in strength training and general schooling (degrees and certification, when and where?)

A: My undergraduate degree was in Biology/Pre-Professional Health Studies with the plan of going to Physical Therapy School. After graduating undergrad in 2010, I went to the University of Iowa and earned my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree in 2012. While in PT school, I became more interested in exercise and strength and conditioning and became certified through the National Strength and Conditioning

Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. To obtain this certification, you must have an undergraduate degree and pass the certification exam. I also completed this in 2012. I began working as a Physical Therapist with Performance Therapies after graduating from PT school. I worked at the Cedar Rapids location from 2013-2017 and moved to Kalona in 2017 and began working as a PT full time at our Kalona clinic at that time.

Q: How many years have you been strength coach at Mid-Prairie?

A: In 2017, when we moved to Kalona, I began working at Mid-Prairie as a strength coach in the summer and have enjoyed working as a strength coach for the past 7 years.

Q: Can you describe the program that is being implemented at Mid-Prairie?

A: The program used at MP has been developed and modified over the years by the owner of Performance Therapies, David Williams, and modified over the years in conjunction with the various strength coaches within our organization. The program used at Mid-Prairie utilizes concepts to build an all-around athlete while utilizing research-based concepts of strength and conditioning to most efficiently and effectively build strength and power while still being specific to each individual sport while in-season.

One concept used is periodization, which is intended to target various aspects of muscle function such as neuromuscular endurance, strength, and power. Our program is organized into different phases where these facets are targeted to prevent plateaus in strength and focus on aspects of muscle function most necessary for the athlete’s given sport. Set and rep ranges are manipulated to accommodate for this. Our program is also structured with in-season programs for each specific sport as well as off-season programs.

During the off-season, there is higher volume and training frequency and is typically performed 3-4 days per week. The in-season programs are 2-3 days per week and intended to maintain strength, peak the aspect of muscle function most necessary for the given sport at the height of the season, but remain lower volume to avoid excessive fatigue or compromised sport performance.

Our programs are also designed to take some of the guesswork out of lifting. I have personally used a variety of programs throughout the years and for a novice lifter, it can be difficult to know what weights to be using, how many sets, how many reps, etc.

Our program utilizes percentages of an individual's 1 repetition max for 3 main lifts (bench, squat, and power clean) to estimate appropriate weights for the exercises each athlete performs. This takes the guesswork out of lifting for young lifters and ensures they aren't doing too much or too little. It also allows us to more easily periodize the program to allow progression of strength during a given phase.

Q: Why do you think this is a quality program for HS athletes?

A: Young lifters are lucky, because most will make good gains in strength when remaining consistent with strength training. As a lifter becomes more advanced, it becomes more important to periodize training to most effectively progress. I believe our program does a great job of incorporating this.

I believe the exercises selected are also great to build all-round strength and athleticism while also specific to the demands of each sport for the in-season program. There are obviously tons of programs available with different emphases such as body building, powerlifting, cross-fit, Olympic lifting, etc. Again, our program is designed to build an all-around athlete and I feel is balanced in a great way to accomplish this. It is especially user friendly for high schoolers to avoid guesswork and undertraining or overtraining.

Q: What other schools use this program?

A: Solon, Iowa City West, Cedar Rapids Prairie, and HLV

Q: What are some of the most important factors in HS athletes getting stronger?

A: I believe the most important factor in our athletes getting stronger is consistency. If someone lifts consistently for 8 weeks and makes good gains, but then quits for 8 weeks, they will suffer a significant reduction in strength.

It is essential to remain consistent with lifting throughout the year to continue progressing. This is a reason why we provide both in-season and off-season programs to keep athletes progressing even while heavily engaged in their current sport season.

Q: What mistakes do you see kids make in the weight room?

A: One common mistake I see in the weight room is kids jumping from one program to another or even picking random workouts each time they go into the weight room.

They may jump from performing higher repetition, lower weight set/rep schemes one day to lower rep, higher weight set/rep schemes the next. While it's great that these kids are in the weight room and doing something, jumping from one concept to another is not the most efficient way to build strength and those who remain consistent with a well-designed program tend to make greater gains.

The other mistake I often see is kids self-selecting weights that are either too heavy or too light. There will be times where kids want to max out on lifts every time they go to the gym.

This is not an effective way to get stronger. This is another reason why we like to use percentages of an individual's one repetition max to estimate appropriate weights for each lift and ensure the weights used for every set are appropriate and lead to more efficient gains.

Q: Is weight training safe for everyone - girls and boys?

A: There have been a lot of studies done comparing injury rates in various sports. With any activity we perform, the more hours we participate in an activity, the greater chance of injury. Injury rates per hour of activity in weightlifting tend to be significantly lower than most sports, including recreational running, regardless of gender. Because our program also uses weights based off each individual's one repetition max, we can also ensure that weights used are not too excessive.

I am often asked about strength training for younger athletes and while lifting before puberty may not lead to profound strength gains, it has not been found to be unsafe if properly supervised. Our bodies are exposed to higher loads when running and jumping compared to weightlifting.

Weightlifting is a great way to actually help prevent injury, because it improves our body's capacity to handle loads. We become more resilient when we gradually stress our body through weightlifting.

My job when coaching lifting, is to ensure everyone is completing lifts with appropriate form to reduce any risk. When performing lifts with proper form, utilizing appropriate loads, and avoiding sharp spikes in training volume, weightlifting is quite safe.

Some recent graduates of Mid-Prairie gave testimonials about our strength program and Jeff.

“The Mid-Prairie weight room has been a place where I grew not just physically, but mentally. I built many new relationships over the years that I never would have thought to find, and had an amazing support system. Jeff along with others showed what supporting one another looks like. Jeff encourages you to try new things, throw around new weights, build new relationships, and keep showing up for yourself. The weight room has taught me so much about discipline and self-respect, but I couldn't have done it without the support.”

-Ali Bolanos, Class of 2023

“Jeff is very knowledgeable in all aspects of weight and speed training and truly cares about our success and safety. I became a much better athlete because of Jeff and the program that he had us follow. He is always open to questions and will give you honest answers to help you improve in whatever aspect you are wanting to improve in. He had a great impact on me as an athlete, and I owe much of my success to Jeff and the training he put me through.”

-Will Cavanagh, Class of 2022

“When you put in the effort, do all the lifts, and show up three or four days a week, the program works, which is one thing I like about it. Jeff is very knowledgeable about lifting and is very helpful when you have a question. You need to be willing to ask the question, though. Working hard was a majority of how I got better in high school and lifting was a large part of that. Lifting is a great way to improve during the off-season when you're not doing a sport.”

-Jack Zahrdnek, Class of 2023

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to email me or Jeff