Across a row of squat racks, high school students are in position, each with a classmate as a spotter, attempting to improve their maximum lifts.

Their grades, after all, could depend on it.

A generation ago, many high schools — especially smaller ones — didn’t have weight rooms at all. Schools that did were largely limited to the basics, such as benches and squat racks. Now, weight training classes are a course option at every Johnson County high school.

A few of the old standby machines, such as benches and squat racks, still are very much in use in today’s weight rooms, but trainers and athletes have countless new ways to improve their fitness and athletics performance. Teens aren’t just doing squats, pushups and situps anymore.

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Johnson County’s four largest public high schools, Center Grove, Franklin, Greenwood and Whiteland, each have weight rooms with at least 5,000 square feet of space as well as a dedicated strength and conditioning coordinator. Indian Creek also has a strength coach for the first time this year.

By year’s end, Center Grove’s new activity complex will open, which will expand the school’s old weight room by more than 50 percent to 8,100 square feet.

Weight training has become part of the regular course load at every school in the county; even Edinburgh, with fewer than 300 students, offers classes for its athletes and other students during the school day.

“We don’t have a 20,000-square-foot weight room, but we can get in here and still get after it too,” said Lancers football coach Derrick Ball, who oversees much of the school’s weight training in Edinburgh’s 2,160-square-foot space.

Bigger and better

The arms race has been going on in college sports for almost a generation now — in an effort to lure top recruits, especially in big-money sports such as football, the power programs invest millions of dollars into cutting-edge strength and conditioning facilities.

In 2013, the University of Alabama opened the doors to a 37,000-square-foot weight room designed almost as much for style as it was for substance. To a lesser extent, that same mindset has trickled down to the high school level. Recruiting isn’t a priority like it is for colleges, but each athletics program still wants to have the best facilities it can manage, with the hope that those facilities can help produce the best athletes possible.

Franklin and Whiteland already boast relatively new and spacious training facilities, and their county rivals are in the midst of a significant overhaul.

In January, Greenwood opened the doors to its new activity complex, which houses three basketball courts and an indoor track. The Woodmen will continue to do their weight training in their current room, which covers about 5,500 square feet.

In November, Center Grove hopes to open its new activity complex, which will have four courts and a track in addition to expanding the Trojans’ weight room space significantly.

During the construction process, Center Grove’s weight training is being done in an auxiliary gym space that is actually a little bit larger than the old weight room.

The new weight room, which strength and conditioning coordinator Marty Mills says will be modeled after the facilities at the University of Indianapolis, will include a new package of equipment that eats up roughly $200,000 of the $10 million going into the activity complex. Between that and the current temporary space, which is expected to be used as a conditioning and agility training area as it had been previously, 120 Trojan athletes will be able to work out at the same time.

“We need space,” Mills said. “We had 600 kids trying to train in 5,000 square feet. That’s tough. It’s a little better with 6,000. … (Next year), I’ll be able to spread everybody out.”

The larger spaces make it possible for county schools to handle weight training classes of 40 or more students during the day. After school, entire football teams can work out together.

“I can work with 40 kids at once on the big lifts and kind of split up lower body between some form of squat and some power movements,” Greenwood strength and conditioning coordinator Brian Smiley said.

Size isn’t always the biggest issue. For Whiteland strength and conditioning coordinator Luke Harris, now in his second year, equipment is a bigger concern. Though he has 12 squat racks and 12 powerlifting platforms in his weight room — double what many of his county counterparts have to work with — Harris still doesn’t have enough equipment to make full use of all of his space, and he’d like to change that someday.

“We are blessed in space,” Harris said. “Now equipment — we’re always fighting the battle of a public school, money and getting new equipment.

“A room that size, to fully outfit and fully renovate, would cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Getting with the program

Beautiful, state-of-the-art training facilities are great for show, but the key is making the most of them. That’s where the hiring of full-time strength coaches comes into play.

The goal, obviously, is to get every athlete to max out his or her potential by working them into peak condition. Not every coach goes about that in the same way, though.

Methods and the emphases differ at each school, even if the goals do not.

Franklin’s program has laid its foundation in the basic Olympic lifts — squats, deadlifts, bench presses and the like. That applies to every Grizzly Cub athlete, whether it be a cross-country runner, softball player or an offensive lineman in football.

Mills agrees with that sentiment. At Center Grove, he trains every athlete the same way regardless of sport — because while some may need to get bigger than others, they all need to get as strong and as agile as they can.

“What muscle group needs to be weak?” he asked. “They all need to be strong. Which of the groups should be real tight and inflexible? Or should they all be flexible? Should (the athletes) all have coordination or should some of them not care about coordination? Should they all have balance? Should they all have timing? Should they have core?”

While Franklin has emphasized Olympic lifts, however, Mills builds much of Center Grove’s program around kettlebell workouts. But just like the athletes at Franklin, those at Center Grove master the basic movements and go from there.

Within that one-size-fits-all program, though, there are customizations that can be made. Mills employs a wide variety of specialty bars and other gadgets that enable various athletes to do similar workouts in different ways.

“They each have their own way to do it,” Mills explained. “If you walked in my weight room and saw 60 athletes training, we may only be doing three different things on the board, but you might see 25 different lifts.”

Smiley applies a similar across-the-board methodology at Greenwood.

“We do as best as we can to be sport-specific on some levels,” he said, “but really it’s general strength training and general athleticism that we’re looking for.”

At Edinburgh, Ball says that the Lancers employ a percentage-based program — meaning athletes will do lifts at a set percentage of their body weight. So a distance runner who weighs 120 pounds will end up getting a very different workout than a linebacker on the football team will, even if both are doing the same lifts.

“We do more to bulk up rather than to get toned or physiqued,” Ball said of his own team. “Football’s a game of being able to pack it on and bang it out rather than looking good.”

Harris does a little bit of everything at Whiteland. His top priority is injury prevention, but he uses several different training methods to accomplish that. One key, he says, is getting athletes to improve in areas where they might be lacking a bit.

“I’m not the type of strength coach that has a program every year and it stays the same until I leave,” Harris explained. “Every semester, every three weeks, I change the program, and I change it to what fits the athletes I have at the time.

“If I have a group that struggles in Olympic lifting, we’ll spend more emphasis there, because that’s where we develop power. If I have a group that struggles with joint stability, we’ll do more kettle bell work, because that’s balancing and stuff like that.”

Expansion teams

Greenwood and Center Grove are both opening the doors to new activity complexes in 2017. A glance at each:

Greenwood

Total size: 30,000 square feet

What’s inside: A new entry foyer, three basketball courts surrounded by an indoor running track, bleachers, observation deck and storage, as well as a new concession stand and restrooms that will serve both the activity complex and outdoor sport venues.

Total cost: $4,876,750 (funded by district bond issue)

Opened: Second week of January

Center Grove

Total size: 59,500 square feet

What’s inside: The original concept for the space includes a multi-purpose floor, four basketball courts, a 200-meter track and an elevated walking track. The addition will also expand the current weight room to 7,500 square feet, which will alleviate the safety concerns created by the volume of students working in the current space constraints.

Estimated cost: $10,000,000 (funded by the sale of bonds, which fit into Center Grove’s current debt structure without increasing taxes for White River Township residents). Roughly $200,000 of that will go toward new weight room equipment.

Estimated opening: November

Kettlebell classes

Though the weight rooms at county schools do not have public hours, Center Grove and Whiteland do offer kettlebell classes for the general public.

Center Grove runs School of Strength kettlebell classes in blocks of two to three months for all ages and fitness levels. For information on the next available sessions, visit SchoolofStrength.com.

Whiteland offers kettlebell classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 5:30 to 6:15 a.m. The cost to join up is $40 per month, and enrollment is open.

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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.