Spencer Arnold is a High School Director of Strength & Conditioning at Hebron Christian Academy, a private school in Dacula, Georgia. Additionally, Spencer spent many years as a competitive weightlifter and continues to coach Olympic Weightlifting on an international level, with two of his disciples recently qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.
Spencer spoke with Perch last week and told us what his journey through Strength & Conditioning was like, his coaching philosophy, his favorite periodization schemes, and how he integrates VBT in his various settings. Take a read through and be sure to check out his website and follow him on Instagram @SpencerGArnold @powerandgraceperformance and @hebronstrength!
PERCH: TELL US YOUR STORY, HOW’D YOU END UP WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
SA: My story is way different than most. If you had asked me ten years ago if I’d be a high school strength coach, it never was the plan. In HS I was the athlete that did sports so I could have access to the weight room, not the other way around. I was much better at lifting weights than I was at playing sports, so I ended up picking up competitive weightlifting.
I graduated HS, went to the University of Georgia eventually and got my degree in religion and I’ll just be straight: I was a gym rat and I liked reading. Religion major made a whole lot of sense to me because you really only had to do work at midterm and finals, so I could go to the gym all I wanted and read these great books. I moved to Texas to get my masters in Theology, and all the while my competitive weightlifting career was going up. I started coaching underneath my own coaches, who were mentors to me throughout. As I got better at weightlifting, their coaching credentials got higher, so I lucked into this traveling internship of sorts. I just had great coaches and at the same time had a distinct interest in S&C.
I thought I was going to be a pastor if we’re being really honest. I was going to move back to Georgia, plant my own church and be a pastor that likes to workout. And that just didn’t work out at all. Every door that could’ve opened for me in the S&C world did. A Christian school in Georgia asked if I wanted to be a HS strength coach. It sounded like a good idea, and our family all lived in Georgia and we just had our first kid, so my wife and I moved back to Georgia. I started coaching at the high school and weightlifting and 3 or 4 people moved to Georgia to have me coach them and now 2 of them are going to the Olympics! I’ve just been really fortunate that this field is full of people who are willing to open their doors, take a guy like me under their wing, and let me ask 19 million questions.
I’ve just been really fortunate that this field is full of people who are willing to open their doors, take a guy like me under their wing, and let me ask 19 million questions.
So, really long story to say, I thought I was going to be a pastor and now I’m a strength coach.
PERCH: THAT’S A GREAT STORY! WITH YOUR BACKGROUND INCLUDING GYM-RAT LIFE, COMPETITIVE WEIGHTLIFTING, AND HIGH SCHOOL STRENGTH & CONDITIONING, HOW HAS THAT SHAPED YOUR PHILOSOPHY ON PROGRAMMING AND PERIODIZATION?
SA: Everyone starts with a classic linear periodization pattern. I can’t even write weights for [the high school kids] because they outgrow them so fast. As we get into more advanced training ages, I move in a more undulating-type periodization. Inside of a week they have a pretty linear trajectory, but inside of a mesocycle you’ll undulate volume and intensity a little bit. Depending on the sport, I can undulate a volume drop into [major competitions]. If they’re really advanced, I’m going to do more block periodization with them, inside of 4 or 5 weeks they’re gonna get a touch of everything.
The competitive weightlifters I don’t do block so much. If they’re just starting out, linear still. At the end of their cycle I’ll undulate a bit. So we’ll go high intensity, drop back into lower intensity for a couple weeks, come back to high intensity depending on how many weeks the macrocycle is. And to be fair, it has a ton to do with the athlete and what they respond really well to, we just have to figure out what works really well for them.I’m a big undulating guy. It gives me the most freedom to give an athlete what they need most, and to adapt mesocycle to mesocycle based on what the athlete’s reaction to the stimulus is. It lets me be creative more than anything else.
PERCH: WHAT ABOUT FAVORITE LIFTS FOR YOU? TO DO AND TO TEACH?
SA: When I was competing I was a snatch specialist which basically just means I was weak and couldn’t clean and jerk. No one outright told me that but my legs were too weak and I was too tall, that’s pretty much what that meant. In Olympic Weightlifting I love – I’m much more apt to teach the Jerk. Being good at the jerk makes you dangerous. In high school, we’re an olympic based program, obviously I like the clean. I’m a big fan of snatching on gameday, I think it’s a great stimulus for the central nervous system. It’s a primer, my football guys are sitting all day and from a mobility perspective, I can get everything from the ankle to the shoulder in a snatch. It’s an easy way to get some strength-speed work in and have zero negative impact on their performance on the field that evening and get some mobility work in it.
PERCH: YOU GAVE US THAT STRENGTH-SPEED BUZZWORD. TALK TO US ABOUT HOW YOU LEARNED ABOUT VBT AND STARTED USING IT?
SA: I heard about it in 2013, so I was late to the game, and it’s because I missed it. I’ve read all the russian manuals, and I’ve read all of Louie’s writings. I just didn’t pay attention to that little “m/s” thing that showed up every now and then. I was so integrated into periodization models and accommodating resistance work that I didn’t pay attention to the speed stuff, at least not programatically.
I heard Bryan Mann speak at an NSCA coach’s conference and I remember being like “wait a minute” and it just clicked: No matter what I write, to some degree I’m writing velocity. If I write a certain workout, my intention in the back of my brain whether I know it or not, I’m writing it envisioning a certain speed. And then it was over, then I couldn’t get enough. Once it dawned on me that every bar moved at a certain speed and I didn’t have a clue what the speed of those bars were, and I had no clue what impact that had.
No matter what I write, to some degree I’m writing velocity…my intention in the back of my brain, I’m writing it envisioning a certain speed.
And for me when I was weightlifting that was my problem, I could never get my bar to move as fast as my opponent’s. So then it was off to the races! I went and visited Ryan Horn at Wake Forest (he’s doing VBT with all of his basketball players). I remember going back and finding two parents whose sons would benefit from VBT and convinced them to buy the school at VBT unit and spent the summer just playing with it. Learning what velocity profiles looked like and it took about two years of experimenting before I got comfortable enough to apply it to my elite level weightlifters.
PERCH: WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY WHEN IT COMES TO VBT?
SA: Once I got into it and realized that every strength coach, whether they realize it or not, is a velocity strength coach. They are programming velocity whether they know it or not. That’s when I realized I would be a bad strength coach if I didn’t think about velocity more. I knew what those traits were and I was programming for those traits, but nobody could guarantee that they were getting what they were saying they were getting [without velocity measures].
Every strength coach, whether they realize it or not, is a velocity strength coach.
Kids are lazy, they just are. So with APRE and RIR programming, I still couldn’t guarantee the autoregulation was happening. And that’s when velocity changed the game for me, because I could guarantee that I was autoregulating right. So one of the frustrations I always had for high school kids is they’re so hormonal. So you could have your star quarterback walking down to the weight room and he’s having the day of his life. He’s going to come in and crush it and have a great workout and then on the way down, he sees his girlfriend holding hands with somebody else, and all the sudden he’s going to have a bad day. So I had no way of guaranteeing the output I was designing, except for velocity.
And the kids love it, because it levels the playing field. I can take the 95 lb freshman in the corner, and he can compete against the 300lb senior lineman.
PERCH: SO WHERE DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF VBT GOING?
SA: Velocity is a big trend right now, but I think there’s a lot of people who are afraid to go all in on it. And that worries me because I don’t know why you wouldn’t. One of the more elite HS in our area uses VBT but won’t use it until a prerequisite level of strength is achieved. I’m not certain I know why they do that, and I’ve seen that in a lot of different programs and to some degree I understand that you need strength before working the speed side.
But shouldn’t you be able to guarantee that you are working absolute strength as a trait? And velocity is the way to do that. So my goal is to never have to write a weight on a sheet again, all I want to write is velocities. And I’m playing with how do I streamline Velocity/Load profiles for 195 athletes. I want to be able to give my athletes things that are more specific [to their level of strength] and Velocity/Load profiles are the way to do that. I plan on being at this school for 30 years, but my plan is in the next 5 years to have a program where kids never worry about how much weight they’re lifting, it’s about at what speed they’re lifting it.
But shouldn’t you be able to guarantee that you are working absolute strength as a trait? And velocity is the way to do that.
PERCH: TO THAT END, DO YOU EVER THINK ABOUT “WHAT IF THE WAY WE’VE ALWAYS PROGRAMMED IS NOT THE MOST EFFICIENT?”
SA: Right, I just think: What if your undulating model has them deloading on a week and so you’ve got them hitting 75% for some doubles, but their system has them down that week already, and some of these studies show you can be 15-18% down on a given day. So now you’re no longer deloading them at 75%, you’re actually overloading them and then you’ve got them doing doubles at 90% and then the next week you’re expecting a peak? No you’re gonna get fatigue and no compensation and you’re gonna ruin 5 weeks of training. I guarantee that happens all the time all over the country. So my jam is just to make sure that never happens.
I love using it because I can work kids out on gameday. I can train them 4 or 5 days a week and I can guarantee it won’t negatively impact their performance with data.
PERCH: DO YOU THINK THAT’S ESPECIALLY TRUE IN THE HIGH SCHOOL SETTING? CAN YOU INCREASE THE FREQUENCY OF TRAINING WITH THOSE KIDS AND STILL GET GREATER OUTPUT?
SA: I think two things are more true in high school than in collegiate or professional and that is that: They need more development which means they need more frequency and training time Coaches out of fear of losing performance just don’t give them the reps or the training load they need out of fear of hurting performance
In HS, most of their initial growth is neuromuscular and you have more hormonal changes and variability at the HS level than you do anywhere else in life, and nobody is accounting for it. How many conferences have you been to where you’ve got a collegiate strength coach with his program on the board and HS coaches are trying to copy it down and apply it to their high school kid? That’s not even apples and oranges that’s giraffes and oranges!
In HS, most of their initial growth is neuromuscular and you have more hormonal changes and variability at the HS level than you do anywhere else in life, and nobody is accounting for it.
Your 9th grade boy isn’t anything like your star wide receiver that’s running a 4.3. So I think the variability of a high school kid makes velocity even that much more important. If velocity belongs anywhere it belongs in high school in my opinion. As they get older and their training age increases and their frontal cortex develops they have more control over their bodies and they’re more aware of their bodies. Like “hey this is a bad day, I don’t feel right, I’m gonna back it down a little bit” whereas a 9th grader is not going to do that. He’s gonna look across the rack and see his training partner crushing it and he’s gonna go after it, he doesn’t have the maturity to know he should back it down.
PERCH: HOW CAN YOU MAKE VBT MORE ACCESSIBLE FROM A KNOWLEDGE AND EQUIPMENT PERSPECTIVE?
SA: It’s changing, but a lot of high school strength coaches are football coaches, so some of that has to change where they see strength & conditioning as a profession, not as a bi-product, so that’s step 1.
Step 2, is the software price point. I’m able to access it because I can go to a few donors, whereas the public school guys don’t necessarily have that. Where public school guys need to be educated is the grants that are out there if they title this under STEM. If they put this under STEM education as a technology inside their classroom and they start changing their language from meathead language into classroom language and start talking about differentiating assessment using STEM, that’s a goldmine for a county administrator, and they’ll find the money for you. They just need to be educated on what kind of proposal they need to produce.
If they put this under STEM education as a technology inside their classroom and they start changing their language from meathead language into classroom language and start talking about differentiating assessment using STEM, that’s a goldmine for a county administrator, and they’ll find the money for you.
Step 3 is you have to have high school strength & conditioning become a profession that people choose. I think we’re getting better at it, there’s only like 2 or 3 states that are really doing it well. Georgia being one of them. The more that organizations like the NHSSCA get better at what they’re doing the more people will choose high school over college, ten years ago that wasn’t the truth, now there’s money and there’s jobs and we have S&C professionals coming to the high school realm.
PERCH: HOW DOES VELOCITY CREATE BUY-IN WITH HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETES?
SA: Why velocity creates buy in with high school athletes is:
- It’s technology so they love it, they love that it’s a screen so it’s giving them a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I think it’s an easy buy-in for high school kids because they use technology all day long.
- Secondarily, it allows me as a strength coach to put everybody on an even playing field, and that makes the competitiveness a little more robust across the room.
So if I can toss all of that stuff on a flatscreen on the wall and the guy that’s normally killing everybody is all the sudden in third place, two things are going to happen:
- The guys that’s usually killing everybody is going to have to try a little harder where maybe he hasn’t had to try for a year.
- That little pipsqueak at the top of the leaderboard is going to get really really good. Because he’s finally winning at something and he doesn’t want to lose again.
So I think what it does is it creates a competitive environment where I can say hey the goal is to hit 80% of your max today at 0.5m/s and whoever is moving it the fastest is gonna be at the top of the leaderboard. Well 80% is 80%, it doesn’t matter if you’re a 300lb front squatter or a 100lb front squatter, but it’s gonna give a little bit of an edge to the kid whose squat is not as big. And it helps me as a strength coach with selecting exercises so it allows me to circle around the room to give wins and confidence to athletes regularly and consistently around the room rather than just the 2 or 3 that usually dominate. So that’s how we create buy in with that and we’ve already seen that. It’s a new way to challenge our athletes to be great and they love it.
PERCH: ANY LAST THOUGHTS?
SA: I do hope more high school guys get into this. It’s a way to transform the profession I think. It takes us out of the dark ages of meathead with mirrors and dumbbell curls and banging our heads against the wall, and brings us into the new age of being professionals.