October 8, 2015 • Strength & Conditioning

Powerline: Supporting your in-season strength program

barbellIt is the advent of the fall sports season, and with that comes the administrative details surrounding the organization and implementation of the in-season strength training program. Unlike the offseason calendar, the in-season presents a host of obstacles to maintaining an efficient, fine-tuned strength training program. Time constraints, equipment adaptability and facility availability — especially at the high school level — can prove to be monumental roadblocks.

Let’s take some time to offer some suggestions and troubleshooting strategies to help you with these dilemmas. 

Make the time

I always find it amusing, as well as disturbing, when a coach makes a statement something to the effect, “We would love to run an in-season strength program, but we simply do not have enough time.” What purpose is served when you run a very involved, highly-structured offseason program, only to push it to the sidelines during this critical period?

Make no mistake, the in-season period is just as important, if not more so, than any other time of the year with regard to strength training. When you examine the investment that is made in strength training during the offseason, it all points to preparedness for the competitive season. To paraphrase a quote from Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, the gains from the offseason are merely leased; you must continue to pay rent on them during the entire in-season if you hope to retain them.

The plan for the in-season strength training program should receive as much attention in staff meetings as any other concern — it’s that important. It represents the closest thing we have to a deterrent or mitigator of serious injury, not to mention as an instrument in more expedient recovery.

Additionally, it goes without saying that athletes must perform at their highest level during the season. Why, then, abandon anything that can contribute significantly to this outcome? Without exception, strength-trained athletes, with all else being equal, are more efficient and durable than their untrained counterparts.

All of these factors translate to optimal performance throughout the season.

Toolbox considerations

The evolution of strength training equipment is taking place at such a break-neck pace that if you blink, you might miss something. Conversely, there are several categories of equipment lines that have been merely spruced-up, cosmetically enhanced, tagged with a catchy moniker and recycled.

In either scenario, the overriding fact is that the days of simply having to choose between free weights and machines are history. Those once clear-cut lines are not as easily discernable in this new age. Take time to peruse Coach and Athletic Director’s equipment issue, and you will encounter a vast assortment of cross-over strength training pieces. And, it’s an uptrend that should be embraced, especially in the case of in-season training.

Strength training tools such as sandbags, matrix bags and TRX straps are all easily transferrable to a field setting for post-practice strength sessions. This advantage negates the need to use the weight room at times when it is inopportune for whatever reason.

Dumbbells and kettlebells are also easily transportable for this same purpose, with each being versatile pieces that can be used for a variety of movements.

We also have four chin-up and dip structures on designated area of our practice facility, with each accommodating six athletes. These two exercises in themselves are excellent post-practice strength movements that have a high yield in return.

I’ve always recommended that coaches not handcuff themselves regarding equipment choices, and to account for all times of the year and special needs situations. This flexible approach will pay definite dividends during the in-season period.

Keep workouts fresh

The tedium of the season can drain the mind as well as the body. It is vital to have checks and balances in place to avoid these pitfalls.

Here are some suggestions for keeping things fresh:

  • Occasionally change the order of exercise. This slight manipulation not only relieves mental staleness, but it can also provide some additional stimulus to the targeted musculature.

Expect better performance on the movements executed early in the workout, and earmark your top emphasized exercises of the day as a leadoff. Also, if you have movements that are slated for consistent documentation, those should also be placed up front.

When you are piggybacking two different movements that address the same musculature (e.g., flat bench press and incline press), place your most important one first.

  • Change the set/exercise emphasis. This wrinkle changes the workout emphasis from sets to exercises, or exercises to sets. In other words, if the normal scheme calls for four sets of a particular exercise, it can be modified to performing one set each of four different movements that target the same area (e.g., one set each of front squats, lunges, leg press and body weight squats).

Conversely, if the usual format is to perform single or double sets of varying movements for a targeted area, one exercise is chosen and more sets are performed (e.g., four sets of squat/press). The same amount of total work is accomplished with either paradigm, with a slight twist.

Regardless of your set-per-exercise protocol, the key factor in volume determination is the total number of work sets performed. Work sets do not take into account any warm-up sets performed — they constitute the sets that meaningful work is being accomplished.

While it can vary, the following represents an overview of a typical in-season training script:

  1. Neck/trapezius: Five total sets — one each for neck forward flexion, side flexion each way, extension and trap shrugs.
  2. Torso: Six to nine total sets — two to three sets each for the shoulders, upper back and chest areas. Some independent arm and grip work should also be evident on occasion.
  3. Legs/hips/low back/bore: Three to four sets can be dedicated to multi-joint leg/hip movements (squats, leg press, lunges, dead lifts, etc.) or Olympic-style movements, with two to three targeted posterior chain (low back/gluteal/hamstring) sets. One or two sets of specific core work can round off the session. Ankles/calves should be addressed at least once per week, and can be easily inserted between the aforementioned multi-joint sets.
  • Change the bilateral/unilateral emphasis. If you check your workout scripts closely, you will probably find that most of the exercises are bilateral (i.e., both limbs working in unison). While we are great believers in multi-joint movements (i.e., those that work musculature crossing more than one joint) performed bilaterally, we also liberally incorporate exercises that allow for independent limb movement, or in a unilateral fashion. Barbell lunges or a unilateral leg press fit the bill nicely for the lower extremities.

An exercise that is a staple in our program, and particularly efficient and useful during the in-season, is the front squat/press. It engages the major musculature of the lower body in the front squat phase with a concomitant stimulation of some upper body musculature on the ascent.

  • Manipulate rep schemes on a weekly/bi-weekly basis. Perusing the scientific literature on repetition management will reveal that no one set protocol — periodization or otherwise — meets every single individual’s neuromuscular requirements. However, there are some very good indications that that muscle fiber types (i.e., the volume and distribution of slow twitch versus fast twitch muscle fibers) can be influenced by rep assignments. Simply stated, predominately slow-twitch athletes tend to respond better, at least in the initial stages of a strength program, to higher reps (12 to 15). Predominately fast-twitch athletes couple better with moderate (eight to 10) to lower (six to eight) reps early on. We undulate our rep assignments for everyone, as there are definitely crossover benefits to exposing both groups to variable reps.
  • Frequency and duration of each training session. Due to the seemingly overwhelming physical stresses endured by athletes during the season, it would be inadvisable to sustain the regular offseason training regimen. Most athletes would have difficulty recovering from three to four 60-minute sessions per week during the season. The exception, of course, would be for the younger players who see little game action and could use the additional work for development.

Most athletes will do very well in a detailed, highly organized in-season strength program that entails two 35 to 45 minute sessions per week. A little more time — up to around 50 minutes — can be implemented early in the training week, but that would be the top end. Sessions lasting longer that should be evaluated for flaws that can be corrected to improve tempo, flow and efficiency.

Mid- to late-season considerations

As the season progresses, attention must be given to the fact that athletes are going to get “nicked-up,” and a few alternative plans must be put into place.

In football, for instance, linemen are notorious for spraining fingers, wrists and elbows. When this happens, they are sometimes unable to handle certain implements in the weight room such as barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and other rigid tools.

With the use of specially designed machines (e.g., unilateral and “hands-free” models), stretch bands, TRX straps, medicine balls, sandbags and manual resistance, we have designed several “no-hands” or limited-range-of-movement exercises that work the proximal (above the injury) and distal (below the injury) musculature.

We also have lower extremity alternatives for hip, knee and ankle injuries that keep the surrounding muscle compartments strong, while also providing a neural stimulus known as “cross-innervation” to the affected areas that can expedite the rehabilitation process.

For example, in the case of a knee sprain, the athlete will continue to work hip flexion/extension, abduction (outer thigh/hip), adduction (inner thigh), and ankles and calves.

Whether you follow a format similar to the one presented here, or use a system that better fits your experience, background and philosophical convictions, it is important to understand that in-season strength training must be a “no-excuses” proposition.

Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine. 

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