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Gym rats: High school athletes intensify training sessions in summer months

Doug Gulasy
| Sunday, July 2, 2017, 10:06 p.m.
Trainer Dan Helgert works with Emily Cochran during a recent strength training work out.Friday June 23, 2017.
Trainer Dan Helgert works with Emily Cochran during a recent strength training work out.Friday June 23, 2017.
Trainer Dan Helgert keeps time as Emily Cochran and her brother Luke toss a medicine ball during a recent strength training work out.Friday June 23, 2017.
Trainer Dan Helgert keeps time as Emily Cochran and her brother Luke toss a medicine ball during a recent strength training work out.Friday June 23, 2017.
Trainer Dan Helgert keeps time as Luke Cochran works on the ropes while his sister Emliy waits her turn during a recent strength training work out.Friday June 23, 2017.
Trainer Dan Helgert keeps time as Luke Cochran works on the ropes while his sister Emliy waits her turn during a recent strength training work out.Friday June 23, 2017.

As national signing day approached in February, a sharp realization struck Brittany Palla. Not panic, necessarily, but a sobering thought regardless: She needed to hit the gym.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God. I actually have to start getting in real shape and getting strong and fit and conditioned,' ” said Palla, an Indiana State soccer recruit who graduated from Kiski Area this spring. “I told (Kiski Area coach Melisa O'Toole), ‘I need to start working out with you as much as I can.' ”

Far from an outlier, Palla fits into a trend among high school athletes. Although offseason training long held importance, it's ramping up for athletes preparing to head to college and those who hope to stay in shape for their next season.

“You can tell who does their fitness, who works in the offseason, and who doesn't,” Palla said. “Whenever you come in for the preseason, you should come in fit instead of trying to get fit. You can tell the players who are trying to get fit compared to the ones who are already fit from lifting and working and training in the offseason.

“Freshman year, I remember my entire class came in so out of shape and not fit because we weren't really working in the offseason. We were younger and didn't really know how to use the gym, so everyone was just in not the best shape they could have been in. Now as you get older, you're starting to realize you need to be fit to play, and you need to be fit and strong to succeed.”

Palla started lifting and participating in speed workouts at age 12 with Riverhounds Development Academy, but she decided to take it up a notch recently. Twice-weekly workouts doubled to four, working with O'Toole and her husband, Ryan, who operate RM Performance.

As she prepares to leave for Indiana State next month, Palla is working three times a week in the weight room with the Kiski Area girls soccer team in its summer sessions and with the O'Tooles.

“It's definitely taking off because I think people are starting to better recognize the value of it,” said Ryan O'Toole, also a Kiski Area football assistant.

“For a long time it was, ‘If you lift weights you're going to stunt your growth,' or ‘You're too young and can get hurt.' I think now people are starting to see the value of it, and, when you do it correctly, it's not any more dangerous than playing the sport itself.”

The increase in offseason attention holds true for strength and conditioning and sport-specific skill work. Deer Lakes boys basketball coach Terence Parham runs Triple Threat Training, which focuses on basketball skills.

Group sessions are geared toward dribbling, form shooting, agility-form shooting and shooting off the dribble. Individual sessions are tailored toward the client.

“It's amazing how this has really grown,” said Parham, a former four-sport athlete at Shady Side Academy who played football at Bucknell. “When we came up, we played football when it was football season, basketball when it was basketball season and baseball when it was baseball season. But now the focus (is) on one sport and almost cutting off everything, putting the blinders on and (saying) this is it. You're all in with one sport.”

That often means there is no true offseason for athletes. Travel teams take up many of the months when high school teams aren't playing. Training takes up more time.

“There's so much spotlight on the younger athletes to get into college, and so it's becoming so competitive, especially in the offseason,” said trainer Dan Helgert of Harrison. “I have basketball players that play basketball 10, 11 months out of the year. Baseball players play 10 months out of the year. It's so competitive. Everybody's just trying to get that extra edge.”

Helgert opened Dan's Gym — “I couldn't think of anything else,” he said — in 1985. Originally open to the public, Helgert now caters exclusively to individual clients, about 20 of whom are high school athletes. He said high school athletes became more serious about training in the past eight years, but it intensified in the past two to three.

“A majority of people do because it takes more than just your everyday practice to become a strong everyday athlete,” said Emily Cochran, a rising senior softball player at Highlands who works year-round with Helgert, but more intensely in the summer. “We go hard all year long, but definitely in the offseason it's a lot harder. He pushes me way past my limits. I have a little bit more leeway to be sore or be a little fatigued and not have to worry about, ‘I have a game next week,' or, ‘I have a game tomorrow.' ”

O'Toole said he gets more work in the summer when athletes can build strength and conditioning levels, where in-season work is more about maintaining.

“Some kids now play three sports on seven different teams all year round, so it's kind of one of those things that as a trainer privately or as a coach for a team, you have to take all that wear and tear and shock to their body into account with what you're doing,” O'Toole said. “Summers for us are crazy because that's when everyone's not playing their sports, so it's really a time when they can focus on it and make some huge improvements with it. You can structure everything the way you want and not have to work it around everything.”

Rather than focusing on familiar workouts — squats and bench presses, for instance — O'Toole said he gears workouts toward often-ignored muscles and joints like the upper back, shoulders, hamstrings and gluteal muscles.

Helgert said he works with core muscles and joints.

“When you play sports, your whole body is interconnected,” O'Toole said. “You're using your whole body for everything. You kind of have to train it that way to perform that way.”

Cochran, who hopes to play softball in college, said she notices a marked improvement since she began working with Helgert about two years ago.

“I last longer in games. My speed has improved tremendously,” said Cochran, a pitcher. “I can go days and days and pitch and don't really get tired anymore. My legs are what I rely on. They're strong enough to get me through that.”

More than that, Cochran touted the mental benefits of training as well, specifically in helping her push through hurdles during games.

That ability to focus can help athletes on and off the playing field.

“It obviously makes you stronger and fitter, but then it's discipline,” Palla said. “You drive yourself there. You voluntarily go work out and put yourself through a difficult workout. It's good because you know it's going to pay off in the end.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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