The days are getting shorter and the temperature is dropping. Fall sports are right in the middle of their respective competitive seasons. It’s also that time of the year where athletes that play strength and power sports notice a pretty sharp performance decline. The reason? They got weaker.
Athletes, especially football players, spend all off season trying to get as big and strong as possible. Numbers are everything… who benches 300 lbs, who cleans 315, squats 400 , etc. However, ask the typical High School football player how much or how hard he has been lifting, and you may not get a very straight forward answer. The demands of the sport, coupled with family and school, usually means that lifting time is hard to come by. Furthermore, the rigors of practice leave many athletes with no motivation to lift hard. Two and a half hour full contact practices will zap the lifting desire right from even the biggest weight room freak.
Once strength erodes, there is less pop on tackles. Running backs lack the same burst. Offensive linemen don’t get the push they were getting in training camp. Multiply this effect by 11 other guys on the field, and you have a recipe for a mid-season slump.
I am here to tell you that if you have a solid gameplan, it is possible to maintain strength. It is also possible to have short workouts that complement the activity done on the field. Follow my tips, and I guarantee you will be just as strong and explosive as you were in the off season.
The most important thing you can do during the season is to maintain your body weight. Since you will be practicing, playing games, and lifting, this means you have to eat a lot. Eat more than you think you should, just to err on the safe side. If you lose weight, there is a chance that the weight loss was muscle mass. All things being equal, a smaller muscle does not have the same strength capability as a larger muscle. It cannot produce the same levels of force. Don’t give your body a chance to drop muscle mass. Eat plenty of lean protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates.
2. Focus on strength MAINTENANCE, not strength gain
Your in season goal should be to keep your off season levels of strength. You won’t be able to PR every day, but the idea is if you had a few extra days of rest, then you can attain close to your off season numbers. Athletes encounter numerous unknown variables during a season. One game your arm may get dinged up, and during the next game it might be your leg. As long as you are keeping your lifts in the ballpark of your best numbers, you are doing a good job.
Some athletes get way too aggressive with their in season lifting and attempt to gain a lot of strength. This will only lead to injury and burnout. Increases in strength should not be a direct goal. Rather, it should be a pleasant side effect of smart workouts designed around strength maintenance.
3. High intensity, low volume
Intensity (load) should be kept high in order to keep your strength. If you stop using the high loads that made you strong in the first place, you get weaker. It is that simple. The secret to in season lifting is to cut your volume (total work – sets x reps) much lower than the off season. This is because your body is doing a ton of volume already – on the practice field. A good rule of thumb is to cut your total volume in half. So if you are usually doing 5 sets of 3 heavy sets, stick to 2-3 sets of 3 reps. You can fluctuate volume a little bit from week to week, depending on how your body feels.
4. Stick to compound movements
Stop wasting time by doing isolation exercises such as triceps extensions, bicep curls and calf raises. Stick with squats, deadlifts, presses, pull ups, etc. Heavy compound movements hit many muscles groups at the same time. Doing many exercises with lighter loads won’t maintain strength (due to the low load) and take more time (due to each muscle being isolated). Training economy (doing quality work in a small amount of time) is crucial.
5. Training frequency should be kept to two lifts max
You do not have to lift 4 days a week in order to maintain strength. Strength is not just a physical quality… a large contributor to your strength potential is how efficient your motor system is. Strength is a highly trainable skill. You can train your body to get stronger just as much as you can train your body how to throw a football or tackle. Obviously genetic potential is a factor, and people have different skill ceilings and floors. Once your body learns how to lift a certain weight or perform a certain way, it doesn’t take a huge effort to keep that skill, much like you will not forget how to throw a football or tackle overnight. Two days a week is plenty of work to allow your strength skills to stay up to par. Some sample ways to break up a training week are:
Day 1 (Push)
Day 2 (Pull)
Olympic lift variation
Day 1 (lower)
Olympic lift variation
Day 2 (upper)
6. De-emphasize the eccentric
Eccentric muscle actions (the lowering portion, or when the working muscle is lengthening) is responsible for most of the muscle damage and soreness encountered when lifting. Soreness and damage are the enemy of the in season athlete. That is why tempo training, or any exercise that intentionally accentuates the eccentric muscle action should be avoided at all costs while in season. Better yet, try to do accessory work for some movements that completely remove or significantly lessen the eccentric. Sled drags, tire flips and some ring work would all be great options. The exercises listed can also be used in addition to the normal workouts you are doing twice a week if you feel that a certain body part or movement is lacking too.
Upper Body Eccentric-less Exercises
- Horizontal rows with a sled
- Rear flies with a sled
- Sled chest press
- Ring Rows (stand up after each rep)
Lower Body Eccentric-less Exercises
- Tire flips
- Backwards sled drags
- Forwards sled drags
- Prowler pushes
- Manual treadmill pushes
- Deadlifts (drop the weight at the top)
- Olympic lifts (when able to drop the weight after each rep)
7. Address problematic areas in the gym during a warm-up
The weight room has numerous tools that most athletes do not have at their disposal at home or on the field – tools that can help address mobility restrictions and sources of pain such as lacrosse balls, foam rollers, massage stick, etc. Use this access to get healthy.
Pain is usually a lagging indicator of a mechanical problem (you are performing movements with inefficient mechanics), poor range of motion or tissue tightness. Perform some detective work on your body. Have a qualified coach observe your movement patterns in the weight room and then come up with a plan of attack.
If your groin has been killing you all season, make sure to foam roll, and to do some glute activation drills to make sure your lower body muscles are all firing properly. If your ankles have been holding you back, take 10 minutes and roll your calf muscles on a lacrosse ball and do some basic ankle mobilization drills. Ask a coach if you run with your ankles rolling in. Everyone’s issue is different, but the message is the same: find the cause of the problem and take time in the weight room to do the things that you are too lazy to do or do not have the capability to do at home.
8. Be adaptable
Some days you have it, and some days you don’t. Be able to pick your battles. If you had a rough game and you are feeling really banged up, then do not go crazy in the gym. However, be sure to bring the intensity up the next time you lift. I am not a big believer in a rigid, pre-planned in-season workout structure because the rigors of the season affect everyone differently. I rather give every player guidelines like the ones mentioned in this article, and let them listen to their bodies and do what is best for them. Unfortunately, some players will take this as an invitation to dog it, so coaches will still need to be on top of certain players during the season in the weight room.
Keep it simple. Get in, get out, and stay healthy. Stick to the plan outlined in this article and I guarantee that you will dominate on the field while your opponents are getting weaker.
Mulligan Fitness and Hylete.com
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