November 26, 2013 • Strength & Conditioning

Powerline: Keeping athletes strong all season

September is the time for the sights, sounds, colors and excitement that football ushers in — in addition to being the starting point for a host of other fall sports. The long, hot summer months of conditioning drills, strength training and skill enhancement have led us to these very special days of the competitive season.

Coaches normally keep some strength-training sessions on the docket, albeit in a substantially modified format —during the camp stages of their programs. Even with the obvious time constraints and emphasis on practices, meetings and other hectic details, at least a couple of minimized sessions per week are normally slated. In this day and age, most coaches and athletes are aware that an on-going, organized, progressive strength-training program can assist with sustained performance over the course of the season, and play a role in mitigating the incidence and severity of some injuries.

Those sports that report for summer camp in August, such as football, must deal with intense practices held in sweltering heat and with sparse recovery time. When collegiate football mandated that two-a-day practice sessions could not be held on consecutive days, it provided the players with multiple physical and mental advantages, in my opinion, such as:

  • Allows for more physiological recovery in soft tissue areas and joints from the collisions that football entails.
  • Reduces the probability of injury from both exposure and overuse standpoints.
  • Permits more time for appropriate hydration, which is paramount, especially during this time of year. Dehydration does not always present itself with pomp and circumstance; on the contrary, it can sneak up on athletes in an unannounced, cumulative fashion. Since thirst is not always a prime indicator of its imminent ambush on the body’s regulatory systems, the prevention of dehydration via rest and encouraged hydration practices is crucial.
  • Gives athletes a little more time to spend on the mental aspects of their game, which we know is crucial to proper and efficient execution of their responsibilities on the field.
  • Presents an opportune time to insert a moderate lifting session that, at worst, can help the players maintain some of the strength values they accrued over the preceding months of off-season training.

Camp workouts

These camp sessions need not be marathon affairs, nor should they. Remember, recovery is at a premium during this period, so you certainly do not want to cross the line with a workout that is too high in volume. A solid, productive workout can be accomplished in 30 to 40 minutes, as long as it’s highly organized and administered with expedience.

With all of the added physical stresses imposed upon players from the start of camp and throughout the season, it would be specious to state that all of them will be able to harness all their preseason strength gains. Much of their absolute strength (based upon weight and rep documentation leading to the in-season program), however, can be salvaged for performance and durability purposes with a minimal time investment.

Dead Lift

For instance, here’s a sample camp workout (all workouts are preceded with a “dynamic warm-up” period for about three to five minutes:

  • Four-way neck (forward flexion, extension, side-flexion right and left): One set of eight each way. This work is imperative for football and any other sports (ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, etc.) where collisions are possible or imminent.
  • Shoulder/power shrugs: Two sets of eight.
  • Front squats: Three sets of eight with moderate weight.
  • Glute/ham or hamstring curls: Two sets of eight.
  • Bench press/shoulder press: Three sets of six with moderate weight (e.g. 75 percent of estimated max).
  • Dumbbell row/lat pulldown/seated row (or any other movement that targets the upper back and posterior-shoulder musculature): Two sets of eight.

While simplistic in design, this relatively brief workout entails six neck (trapezius) sets and 10 total sets for a good deal of the major upper- and lower-body musculature.

A second plan is as follows:

  • Four-way neck: (same procedure noted in first workout).
  • Dead lift or leg press: Three sets of eight with moderate weight.
  • Push press: Three sets of six with moderate weight.
  • High pulls/power pulls: Two sets of six with moderate weight.
  • Incline press: Two sets of six with moderate weight.
  • Chin-ups: Two sets of maximum reps.

A third workout is more of a bodyweight (manual resistance) upper-body arrangement. When performed properly, as with any type of resistance training, this can be a very productive and time-friendly alternative to the weight room. The beauty of this training style is that it can be executed right on the practice field, as an entire team, immediately after practice. The players can work in partners and either alternate exercises one-for-one, or an athlete can take his partner through the entire cycle before they switch responsibilities. Depending upon the time allotment, one to two cycles of the listed movements are recommended.

  • Manual flexion/extension for the neck: 12 each direction.
  • Manual forward shoulder raises: Eight to 10 reps.
  • Manual side-lateral shoulder raises: Eight to 10 reps.
  • Upright-rows/shrug combo (using a rolled-up towel or sandbag): Eight to 10 reps
  • Manual resistance push-ups: Eight to 10 reps
  • Chin-ups (or sandbag standing chest presses if you do not have field chin or dip stations): Eight to 10 reps.
  • Dips (or sandbag rows if you do not have field chin or dip stations): Eight to 10 reps.


Two non-consecutive training days per week for at least the first half of the season is optimal. A lot of good, productive strength work is accomplished in sessions lasting no more than 30 to 45 minutes.

Once camp ends and you are into the season full-scale, a few more sets of lower-body work (e.g. various squat and leg press movements, lunges or clean variations for those who implement them, etc.) can be added to the equation on one of those days, preferably earlier in the week. Exercises and their set combinations vary from coach to coach but my recommendation for total sets within each workout is approximately 12 to 15.

For instance, if your primary lifts on a designated day are three to four sets of either a barbell supine or incline press, and three to four sets of barbell squats, you now have around six to eight sets of secondary movements to insert. I recommend exercises for those sets that complement the primary selections (emphasis on anterior musculature) with ones that balance the scales (i.e. those that emphasize the posterior musculature). In this case, pulling movements for the upper body, and hamstring (or low-back) movements for the lower body, are in order.

As the season wears on, and especially for those who are fortunate to be involved in bowl games or post-season playoffs, the frequency can be reduced to one day per week. Obviously, this decision is based on each coach’s discretion and the evaluation of the physical stresses imposed upon the players under these special circumstances.

High school coaches

There are several key indicators the high school coach should identify when attempting to discern in-season training frequency:

  • In football, identify the players who go both ways or are on several special teams units.
  • Keep track of practice reps, especially if your squad is relatively small and everyone has to assist each other as a result.
  • Conversely, there may be some younger players who get their fair share of “scout team” practice reps, but very little game time.

My first point here is that the more field work and game time a player receives, the more attention you should pay to the recovery process. Two lifts per week is the upper limit for the high-premium players to avoid draining their fuel tanks.

Secondly, a younger athlete who is not getting much practice or playing time can actually get up to three non-consecutive strength-training sessions to accelerate his development.

Final rep

In-season strength training is an often-overlooked, yet vital component for the long-term success of your program. Having spent 10 years at the high school level and the past 25 years at the collegiate level, I can state with conviction that the in-season period is an important — if not the most important — time to keep the iron moving.

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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