By Chris Dellasega, MS, CSCS
Posted: September 15, 2012 - 8:36 PM
How many sets? How many reps? How much weight? How frequently? Which exercises? In what phase of the training year will the program be implemented?
These are all very important questions that need to be considered when designing an in-season workout. Too many times these variables are overlooked and an inappropriate program is adopted. For example, programs that are working for a successful collegiate or pro team are often implemented at the high school level without taking into account the developmental or the genetic differences.
Ideally, high school and even collegiate strength-training programs should be structured over a four-year period with the goal of increasing strength, power, and speed each year.
An off-season strength-training program should include unilateral, or single-limb exercises, to correct muscle imbalances, gain single-limb strength and flexibility, and develop the muscles essential to the primary sport movements. An in-season training program should be designed to maintain size and strength.
In order to maintain size and strength, a combination of hypertrophy (increasing a muscle’s size) and strength methods should be used. Hypertrophy training methods (2-3 sets of 9-11 reps) on basic lifts, such as the squat and incline bench press, should be used in-season because this method helps preserve muscle mass. A loss in muscle size precipitates a loss in strength. Hypertrophy training methods are effective when used in the workout that directly follows a game, as lifting heavy loads for strength will generally be too taxing on an athlete’s body when they are still recovering from the game.
Some coaches believe that in-season lifting can further break their players down, but when an in-season strength-training program is properly implemented it can maintain and even increase strength levels! To avoid overloading an athlete’s body with more than it can handle, it is essential to reduce the total training volume while still using heavy loads.
Many coaches rely on percentage charts to guesstimate an athlete’s true one-rep max on any given lift. The downside of relying on predetermined charts is that there is a good chance the prescribed loads will be too light to elicit a strength training response. To ensure an athlete is getting a strength response, the repetitions should dictate the load used. The use of heavy weights in-season can also increase confidence levels on the field.
Generally, 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps on basic, compound lifts is a great way to maintain strength throughout the season when time is restricted. Consequently, the limited time spent in the weight room should be productive. The overall football program should allow for two days minimum of lifting (Sunday and Wednesday, for example, with a game on Friday) and the workouts should be kept to 40-45 minutes to avoid overtraining. Workouts taking longer than 45 minutes while in-season begins to tax an athlete’s recoverability.
Rarely does an athlete use just their upper-body or just their lower-body in their sport. As such, choosing exercises that isolate certain body-parts makes no sense. For an in-season program when lifting time is limited, choose 2-3 exercises that recruit a large amount of muscle mass. For example, basic compound exercises such as variations of the clean, incline barbell press, chin-up, and variations of the squat will be more effective at developing overall strength and maintaining size than machines or single-joint exercises.
When designing a program, whether off-season or in-season, the more neurologically demanding exercises should be placed first in a workout when the nervous and muscular systems are fresh; the less demanding exercises should follow. For example, an athlete should perform hang power cleans or power snatches before incline bench presses or chin-ups in order for the power exercises to be effective.
All aerobic training should be avoided off- and in-season. Football players do not need aerobic work…EVER! Football players need the ability to sustain maximal effort over a prolonged period. Aerobic work decreases maximal effort. A scientifically sound strength and conditioning program will train the energy systems responsible for sustaining maximal effort, which will indirectly improve cardiovascular capacity.
In order for an in-season program to be effective and not over-tax the athletes, a thorough understanding of how many sets, how many reps, how much, how often and which exercises to select will ensure your athletes are as strong at the end of the season as they were at the start.