January 22, 2014 • Strength & Conditioning

Maintaining a productive in-season strength program

Some coaches are notorious for running very involved, highly-structured offseason strength training programs and nearly abandoning the entire process during the season. This is unfortunate, as the in-season period is just as important — if not more so — than any other time of year. After all, the competitive season itself is the ultimate reason for all of the hard work our athletes invest in strength training. What has been gained during those offseason sessions does not magically remain intact during the course of a grueling, competitive season. Just as with any other aspect of sports, if you slack off on any singular component, be assured that it will deteriorate rapidly.

Since many athletic teams are currently steamrolling through their in-season period, or are at the cusp of it, I thought it would be an opportune time to discuss the importance of seamlessly transitioning the strength program into a competitive season mode.

Let’s look at some the concerns that coaches face, especially at the high school level, when designing, implementing and maintaining an in-season strength training program. I’ll also offer some suggestions for keeping it running as smooth as possible.

Training frequency

Most mainstream offseason strength training programs are scripted in any one, or combination, of the following schematics:

  • Three non-consecutive days of total body workouts
  • A four-day split of two upper body and two lower body/core workouts
  • One total body workout, followed by one upper body and one lower body/core workout on non-consecutive days.

With all of the added physical stresses imposed on the players during the season, along with the limited respites that run parallel with it, it would be specious to state that all of them will be able to maintain their preseason strength levels. However, much of their strength can be salvaged and used for both performance and durability purposes with a minimal time investment. On average, you can expect players to maintain somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of their preseason strength levels with a sound, dedicated sustained in-season program.

It must be understood that this maintenance of strength levels is not always reflected in an athlete’s ability to replicate their preseason one-rep maximum (1-RM) — or reps to fatigue for an estimated maximum — on any given day. Remember, your in-season program, by necessity, isn’t wired for 1-RM testing. The physical pounding, resulting soreness and on-going soft tissue trauma incurred from practices and games normally negate that approach. The in-season program is constructed to stimulate the muscle, connective tissue and bone mass for sustained structural strength, power output and durability.

This construct calls for work weight loads in the 70 to 85 percent range, and concomitant rep assignments in the six to 10 area. Two or three non-consecutive, total body training days for at least the first half of the season would be optimal. A lot of very good strength work can be accrued in sessions lasting no more than 40 to 50 minutes.

As the season wears on, and especially for those fortunate to be involved in bowl games or playoffs, the frequency can be adjusted to one or two total body sessions per week. This decision is based upon each coach’s discretion by evaluating the physical stresses his players have endured.

Here are some considerations along those lines:

  • How many of the student-athletes go both ways or participate on special teams units
  • Whether your squad is so small that all of the players get more than their fair share of practice reps
  • Are there some younger kids who get a lot of practice time via scout team duties while seeing little game time.

My point is that the more practice and game time a player receives, the more attention that must be paid to recovery time. Two total body lifts per week is the upper limit for the high premium players in order to avoid draining their fuel tanks. Conversely, a younger athlete who is not receiving as much practice and playing time can get up to three strength training sessions per week in order to accelerate his or her development. 

Training volume

Exercise selection, sequence, equipment, and set or rep schemes are bountiful and usually dictated by each coach’s background and ideology.

Many coaches prefer metabolically based, fast-paced, circuit-type workouts that involve one to two sets of medium reps (six to eight) incorporating the “press/pull” system for the upper body. An example of this methodology is the sequencing of exercises — free weight, machines or both — so that a pulling movement always follows a pressing movement. Three to four pressing movements are strung together with the coinciding number of pulling movements to achieve a balanced workout for the anterior and posterior muscular compartments of the torso.

Another common approach is to use multiple sets of designated exercises in either percentage based range-determined pyramids or “clusters” (e.g., eight to 10, six to eight, four to six, etc.). This is a more traditional system of multiple-sets performed one exercise at a time.

In terms of lower body/core training, the sequencing and selection of exercises also can vary. Many practitioners prefer to place the multi-joint movements first (e.g., front/back squats, lunges, dead lifts, Olympic-style variations, leg presses, low back/glute ham raises, etc.) and follow them with any single-joint movements that might be on the docket for that training day. The thinking here is to incorporate the “big lifts” initially at a juncture when the musculature is relatively fresh.

A different stimulus is engaged when the multi-joint and single-joint movements are placed in an alternating sequence. For instance, a set of leg extensions may be followed with a set of leg presses, a set of leg curls and another set of leg presses. This process is repeated for one or two more cycles.

I can assure you that the degree of difficulty, especially on the succeeding sets of leg presses, is heightened significantly. Multi-joint movements naturally become intensified due to the fatigue imparted to the target musculature via the preceding single-joint movements.

Whatever exercise sequencing format you decide to implement, my suggestions for total in-season volume look like this:

  • At least five total neck/trapezius sets. This includes one set each for neck flexion, neck extension, lateral flexion each side and shrugs. The reps here are normally in the 10 to 12 range for each movement.
  • Nine total sets for the torso musculature. This involves three sets each for the shoulders, upper back and chest areas. The arm musculature is involved in these exercises for pressing and pulling purposes, but some independent arm and grip sets may also be incorporated as time permits. The reps here vary, but six to eight are most frequently used.
  • Five to six total sets for the leg, hip and low back compartments. Three of these sets would be dedicated to a multi-joint movement, and the remainder to independent low back, hamstring and ankle/calf sets. Reps schemes in the six to 10 range are most frequently used.
  • Finish with one or two sets of a core (mid-section) emphasis movement. Core reps are normally the highest for us and can be in the 15-30 range.

This is by no means a magical formula, but we have found that if the workouts maintain the proper degree of intensity, this set workload achieves the objectives we have establishes without risking overtraining and a point of diminishing returns.

You may choose to split the upper and lower body workouts into separate days, and concurrently increase the number of total sets performed for the targeted areas. However, keep in mind that this may call for back-to-back training days, which may not be as successful as an in-season design. The added physical stresses of practices and games must be taken into account. Rest is a crucial element during the in-season, and respite periods must be inserted into the week for the sake of the body’s recovery mechanisms.

We choose to perform total body workouts during the in-season, though one day might have a lower body/core emphasis while the second day might emphasize the upper body, including the head and neck. 

Maintain an in-Season program

Your in-season strength training program must be high on your priority list. If it’s not, you may find yourself dealing with more injuries and a noticeable drop-off in performance on the field as the season progresses. While there are no guarantees on either front, maintaining as much strength as possible for the entire course of the season gives your players a fighting chance.

To contact Ken Mannie about this topic or anything else you’ve read in Powerline, send him an email at [email protected].

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