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Connor Kruse, a freshman offensive lineman at North Dakota, returned to his high school in Waconia in mid-December on break from classes but seeking quality football workouts.

His alma mater’s new state-of-the-art weight room, a striking example of a growing commitment to strength and conditioning at the high school level, proved more than accommodating.

“You can do all the workouts I’ve been doing at North Dakota,” said the 6-6, 298-pound Kruse.

Waconia senior Tyler Wagener, who visited Augustana University in Sioux Falls and signed with the Vikings wrestling program, said his high school facility “is definitely right there with Augustana. This weight room is nicer than most colleges.”

Big fellas such as Kruse once were a weight room’s main inhabitants. Likewise, a few repetitions of heavy weights once passed as a workout. No more. Weight rooms and workouts today entice more athletes across a wider sports spectrum to prime their bodies. Training them requires a mix of universal movements and sport-specific workouts designed to improve performance.

Greater emphasis on strength and conditioning has triggered changes in high school weight rooms throughout the metro area. More strength and conditioning coaches are pursuing national certification, allowing them to design and teach more efficient, athletic movement-based workouts. Doing so reduces athletes’ risk for injury in their sports, more important than ever in the age of specialization.

“That’s become a major driver because parents don’t understand sports-skill balance,” said Wayzata’s Ryan Johnson, named the 2017 High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). “If you don’t train outside your one sport, you’re setting kids up for failure.”

Fueled by hundreds of thousands of dollars of upgrades approved by voters in school bond referendums, weight rooms at Dassel-Cokato, Stillwater and Waconia have evolved to best accomplish these tasks. Other schools are reconfiguring existing spaces.

In all cases, strength and conditioning coaches are cutting the cord on pulley-and-cable machines in favor of more open, multipurpose space.

Two premiere facilities, Waconia and Wayzata, feature a swath of artificial turf where student-athletes hone their movements. On each side are squat/bench press racks as well stations to accommodate Olympic lifts such as the power clean.

Waconia installed Perform-X Training Systems to its racks and stations. Wildcats strength and conditioning coordinator Josh Anderson said the NFL’s Tennessee Titans recently installed the band system, which helps maintain resistance throughout the full motion of an exercise.

“There is a real ‘wow’ in regards to what’s happening now,” said Anderson, who joined Ridgeview Sports Medicine and began working with Waconia in 2013. “When you look at how far strength and conditioning has come, what we can do with athletes is amazing — as long as you know what you’re doing.”

Benefit to athletes

Waconia junior Courtney Freeberg played up on the Wildcats’ basketball freshman team as an eighth-grader. When coaches encouraged her to get stronger and become a presence inside, Freeberg said she initially worried that she would “have to max out every time and be sore in the morning.”

The workouts convinced her otherwise. Last summer she eased younger players’ nerves about hitting the weight room.

“You are tired when you work hard for 45 minutes,” said Freeberg, one of Waconia’s scoring leaders this season. “They were sore, but it was a good sore, not like, ‘I don’t ever want to do this again.’ ”

Weight rooms these days resemble laboratories where athletes can strengthen their bodies in myriad ways. Beyond pumping up “beach muscles” such as pectorals and biceps, athletes use a variety of repetitive movements, increasing weight gradually as they build overall strength and explosiveness.

Wagener, a Class 2A state champion at 145 pounds last year, credited Anderson for having “a great workout program for us. Even for the days we’re feeling sore, he’ll have us do agility workouts to get lactic acid out. It’s a lot smarter now and more efficient. I think it’s safer, too.”

Fighting the unintended consequences of sports specialization — muscle imbalances that can lead to knee or arm injuries — is a priority for Johnson, Wayzata’s strength and conditioning coach. He stresses the need for strength and conditioning beyond sport-specific skill training.

“Strength and conditioning training makes you a better athlete, not just better in your sport,” Johnson said.

By March 2013, six Waconia girls’ basketball players had suffered ACL tears in a year’s time. Wildcats coach Carl Pierson said he “told them about doing more with strength and conditioning, but Josh brought it to the next level.”

No players have been lost to an ACL tear since, Pierson said.

Bigger, faster, stronger, better

Johnson said the aim of strength and conditioning goes beyond “let’s win some games.” But success within sports remains an important gauge of effectiveness.

St. Louis Park made its football state tournament debut last fall after its first winning season in more than three decades. Strength and conditioning coach Jessica Gust, in her eighth year, moved the focus of workouts from brute strength to efficient movements that sustain power.

Reaching the state tournament “showed the buy-in,” Gust said. “They were dedicated to strength and conditioning as well as the development of their football skills. That built a community over time and when the season came along, they were ready to dive in and compete.”

At Stillwater, assistant strength and conditioning coach Ryan McCauley said the girls’ lacrosse players “at times outnumbered the bigger sports” in the weight room. And that Ponies team has made seven consecutive state tournament appearances.

Farmington’s Scott Meier, National High School Strength Coaches Association state director, said Tigers junior Lauren Peterson’s rise to become one of the state’s top distance runners coincided with getting in the weight room.

Investments in strength

While lauding Waconia’s weight room, Anderson gushed, “We’ve got everything we could want.”

The weight room upgrades, totaling about $250,000 for turf installation and new equipment, were part of a $75 million bond request approved by school district voters in 2014.

Stillwater’s new Pony Activity Center, a 5,600-square-foot weight training facility with an indoor track, was part of a $97.5 million voter-approved bond request.

Dassel-Cokato christened a new weight room in 2016, a $264,000 construction project made possible through fundraising, in-kind donations of time and materials and dollars from the school district capital budget.

St. Louis Park School District voters recently approved a $100.9 million bond referendum, a portion of which will go to updating the weight room. Farmington and Minneapolis Washburn are reconfiguring space to enhance their weight rooms.

“As far as the inner city goes, we have one of the biggest spaces,” said Tracy Byrd, a 1989 Washburn graduate who coached at Wayzata before returning this fall to direct strength and conditioning for the Millers’ football program. “The facility is there to build soldiers. Now we just have to get them in there because success usually follows strength.”

More strength and conditioning coaches are pursuing national certification such as Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA.

“A certified strength and conditioning coach is just as important as a certified athletic trainer,” said Amanda Berg, strength and conditioning coach at Dassel-Cokato.

Said Johnson: “As a profession, we’re getting better. Twenty years ago, the football coach unlocked the door to the weight room and told players, ‘Get stronger.’ Now, coaches are saying to strength and conditioning coaches, ‘Teach us how to get stronger.’ ”