By: Matt McManus
Every off season, young athletes around the country will devote themselves to the weight room in preparation for their upcoming season. They’ll make great gains, blowing their coaches away by arriving for the first day of practice stronger, faster, and more explosive than ever. The trouble is, for many athletes, the start of their season also signals a hiatus to their time in the weight room. They will turn their attention exclusively to their sport, neglecting to maintain the qualities that made them so impressive that first day of practice. This is a mistake for two main reasons.
First, in all sports the end of the season is the most critical time. It doesn’t matter how strong and powerful you get in the off season if the majority of gains are lost prior to the postseason. Continuing strength training during the season will allow you to maintain the improvements made throughout the off season and ensure that you are strongest at the most important time of the year.
Additionally, the scope of an athlete’s training must not be limited to the current season. For athletes striving to reach higher levels of play, it is imperative that they not take prolonged breaks from training. Allowing an individual to miss extended blocks of training throughout the year will result in regression of physical qualities and severely stunt the long-term development of the athlete. The average high school season lasts three to four months, depending how deep into the postseason a team gets. One competition season alone therefore represents 25-30% of an athlete’s yearly training time. Given that many high school athletes play multiple sports, a young athlete who forgoes lifting during the season could potentially miss out on eight or nine months of development.
Obviously playing the sport is the priority in-season, and the reason many athletes decide not to lift is because they don’t want their play to be negatively affected due to excess fatigue. If in-season training is structured and monitored responsibly, however, this should not be an issue. Follow the guidelines below to get the most out of your in-season training program.
Frequency and duration- There are always going to be more demands on the athlete in-season. Practices, games and, in many cases, higher workloads in school, will take away from the time and energy an athlete can devote to the weight room. Because of this it’s not plausible, or sensible, to continue to commit an hour, four days per week, to lifting. Cut back your training to two full-body sessions per week, lasting no more than 45 minutes each.
Periodizing your week- The athlete must be as close to 100% on game day as possible. Because of this, the more demanding lift of the week should be scheduled furthest from the competition. If a team plays on Friday and lifts Monday and Wednesday of every week, Monday will be the more challenging of the two days, with a slightly higher emphasis on the lower body. Wednesday will focus more on the upper body, with a low volume of assistance exercises like step ups or leg curls for the lower body.
Exercise selection- Because your weight room time is going to be cut back so significantly, you obviously can’t cram in everything you were doing in the offseason. Continue doing the big, compound movements and select accessory work to maintain body balance. Doing lots of variations of exercises (front squat/back squat, or lots of different Olympic lifts) and hitting muscles from a lot of different angles (incline bench/flat bench/DB flyes) may not be possible with the time you have. If you want variation, try rotating exercises throughout the season, but also keep in mind anytime you change an exercise it could result in increased soreness. Plan ahead and make sure you don’t include too much volume on new exercises too close to an important competition.
Intensity- You must lift heavy weights to get strong. You must lift heavy weights to maintain strength. There is no way around this. Intensity must remain relatively high during the season. Keeping intensity between 70-85% will be enough to maintain, or even improve, strength levels. Venturing higher is certainly possible and beneficial a handful of times during the season. It’s not uncommon for some athletes, especially beginners, to even set new PRs in-season.
Volume- While intensity should remain high, the number of repetitions you perform at any given intensity, and the overall volume of the program, must be cut down to help regulate fatigue. Take a look at Prilipin’s Chart and make sure you’re staying on the low end of the recommended rep ranges most of the time. I like to stay under five reps per set on the big, compound movements and most lower body work in general. Upper body accessory exercises like DB bench press and DB rows can be done for more reps, but I’ll still rarely program more than sets of eight.
Recovery and regeneration- More of a priority should be placed on things like stretching and foam rolling in-season. Doing little things like this after workouts and practices can go a long way to promoting faster recovery and help athletes consistently feel fresh.
Monitoring- If you’re a coach, observe how your athletes look when they walk in the weight room and communicate with the sport coaches and trainers about what’s going on at practice (if you’re not there yourself). If you’re an athlete, monitor how you feel. Some practices are going to take more out of you than others. Sometimes, in order to conserve energy and come back the next day strong and ready to go, you will have to cut sets, reps, or entire exercises out of the program. In these situations, do only what you absolutely NEED to get done, get out of the weight room, and do what you can to prepare for the next day. If your coach buries you at practice with extra conditioning, it may not be in your best interests to deplete your body even further by lifting weights.
Turning your attention to your sport in-season isn’t wrong. That should be the priority, but completely turning away from strength training during this time is not rational. With a properly designed in-season strength program it’s possible to maintain the gains you worked so hard for in the offseason with minimal time investment. If you follow the guidelines above, game and practice performance during the competition period should not be negatively affected to a great degree and you’ll be in a better position to return a stronger, faster, and better athlete. the next year.