Improving Strength During the Season

There seems to be somewhat of a controversy on whether or not a coach should try and improve the strength of his or her athletes during the season. In this quick article we will mention some of the strategies that teams are implementing and the factors that will determine the success of each of those strategies.

As background in this matter we want to look at what typically happens to athletes during the season. For the ones that spent the off-season in strength and conditioning training program (developing their speed and agility alongside their strength and conditioning), the demands of the season usually hit them the hardest. The reduction in strength training combined with the typical increase in aerobic and anaerobic conditioning (typically in the form of running and interval based work) will cause the body to shed some of that muscle due to the body’s perception that it is no longer needed. Thus, the athlete gets weaker. The weaker they get the less power they produce (speed, vertical, and agility). They will tend to get in better shape (aerobically), but they start to feel weaker, slower and not as explosive. By the end of the season when the coach sometimes will cut back on conditioning to save the legs for big games, the players tend to also start to lose some of their conditioning. By the time the season is over, they feel weak, tired and out of shape. In this article we will look at some combative strategies and possible solutions for this problem.

High Volume / Low Weight Strength Training:

Some trainers have suggested a more hypertrophic solution, where the athlete will basically use body building strength protocols designed to build (or keep) muscle mass. They will keep the reps in the 8-12 range and pick various exercises to maintain as much muscle as possible. This makes sense from a combative strategy when you look at the rate of muscle loss during a season. Especially in sports like American Football where maintaining size and is a factor. But I think it comes up a little short when you start to look at maintaining strength, power and speed.

You want to maintain as much strength, power and speed as possible during the season. And not only that, but you want to be able to use it in a sport specific way (soccer – repeatable bursts of power and speed with little to no rest, basketball – repeatable bursts of power and speed with 30 second rests every 3 trips or so up the court). I think that the Hypertrophy Strategy of high volume / low weight may work to keep the players size/weight up during the season, thus improving confidence and leverage. But I think over the course of the season you may find that they are loosing the explosiveness, and overall strength that they had at the beginning of the season.

Low Volume / High Weight Strength Training:

This strategy would seem to be the best fit if the above approach was not. We could maintain the strength that we have developed over the off season and not have to worry about the potential soreness associated with high volume training. Proponents of this approach will tell you that the reduction in overall volume will help ward off fatigue and overtraining while helping you maintain your strength and power during the season.

But now the issue is time. To successfully run a program focused on keeping the load high you always have to be focused on a good warm up and a safe environment in the weight room, not to mention having access to the equipment at the desired time. This type of training would typically be best before your practice or on off days as opposed to after practice when the legs and neuromuscular system are fatigued, and the body is dehydrated, hungry and not very focused. The athletes may not have much left to put into this type of training, nor will they want to put in the effort. Even if you keep the volume low in most peoples standards 2-3 sets of 3-6 reps, you still will have warm up sets and then have to go push a load of 85-90 percent of maximum. Sometimes during the season, the body just doesn’t want to control that type of load.

Periodized Undulating Volume Strength Training:

On paper this strategy might be best if you can adjust your type of training to meet the competitive demands of the season. Weeks of heavier loads mixed with recovery weeks, peaking weeks, and then weeks of higher volume. This would allow you to provide continuous stimulation and recovery mechanisms to the program which would give you set peaking periods interspersed with set recovery / peaking periods. This would allow you to maintain strength and size and not have to worry about hurting your performance.

The problem comes in the form of scheduling. In your individual sports like track and weight lifting you have a developmental period, followed by your competitive season, where meets gradually build in importance as the season progresses allowing for peaks at the end of the season. In team sports like soccer, volleyball, football, etc, the goal is to make the playoffs, therefore making every game important and not simply focused on progressing and peaking for 1 or 2 events. Periodization was developed primarily for advanced athletes that are able to focus on building to a peak. It was not designed to peak a young athlete that is growing and developing new skills and abilities every day.

With our young athletes it is hard to go off set percentages due to the fact that they are gaining strength at such a fast pace. If you put them on an 8 week program, with undulating, percentage based loads that are based on a 1 rep max; you might be selling them short. By the 5th or 6th week they may be much stronger than originally thought due to improvements in technique, confidence and understanding.

Inseason Strength Training for Young Players:

As we have just stated when dealing with young players, they improve at such a rapid rate that it is sometimes pointless to try and periodize a program. Not only do you have developmental aspects, but technical aspects are also involved. You also have to deal with interruptions in the linear progression of the training due to social conflicts, scheduling conflicts, scholastic conflicts. In other words, training is not the usually the most important item on a 16 year olds schedule. With all that the young players have going on in their lives it is a wonder that they can even make a training session 1x per week.

But there is an upside. The young player will improve at such a faster rate than that of an older, more advanced player. They need less time to see greater results. For instance a beginning lifter will get roughly the same strength gains at roughly the same rate by lifting at 35% or 1 rep max as opposed to 85-90% of 1 rep max over the course of the first few months. So if you are taking a young player, with little to no experience in the weight room, and you introduce some light strength training (even body weight based) at the beginning of the season you will see great results regardless of how much weight is being used.

This is where a lot of speed and agility coaches make their money. By setting up a “speed and agility” or “fitness” sessions 1x per week during the season (maybe before or after practice), they introduce a new stimulus of training (foundational or functional strength based) exercises, and the kids respond with huge gains. These gains are due primarily due to the new stimulus and the rapid rate of neuromuscular absorption of the young body. They grasp the new stimulus and adapt quickly. This can be achieved with balance exercises, body weight squatting and jumping exercises, low level plyometric based drills where the athlete has to jump over cones or have quick feet through a ladder. But soon the novelty will wear off...and now what.

Improving the Strength of Young Players as they Advance:

Before too long the stimulus of body weight training and quick foot drills will start to wear off and the body will start to plateau. This is where the program has to adapt to the player. Once again, if you only see these kids during the season, and they are not participating in any other program that focuses on getting stronger, faster or more explosive, then the quick foot drills and body weight exercises will be enough. But without exceptional athletic ability, that individual’s progress will most likely be stunted by the lack of stimulation. The program has built the player up over the course of the season only to let it all deteriorate in the off season, then the process will start all over again.

Let’s say you started in the fall season with on-field body weight training and quick foot drills. This would be an example of the high volume - low weight type training and the player would reap the benefits of the increased neuromuscular stimulation, new movement pattern work, dynamic stabilization and body control. Then you would need to progress. Let’s say the same team took part in a winter off season program where they lifted weights, go stronger and faster.

Now it is time for the spring season. If you go back to the bodyweight training you will loose you strength and most likely your speed. If you stay with the heavy lifting protocol you will most likely burn out due to over training. This is why I think that a very focused low volume – higher load program is the best for the continuing athlete. Not the best for the beginner, and not the best for the sporadic lifter, but more accurately, the best for the dedicated year round athlete that wants not only to maintain what they have built, but increase what they have built as well.

So, to sum this all up...

Beginners and small players that want to maintain size and weight, or athletes in sports that need to maintain muscle mass would benefit from the low load – high volume approach to in-season strength training. Advanced athletes and players looking to increase their speed and power as they get into better sport specific condition will benefit from the higher load – lower volume approach to in-season strength training. And if the coach and trainer are on the same page, and the competitive schedule allows you can take an advanced athlete and start to periodize the program towards peaks and recovery periods to ensure the players are at their physical best at just the right time using energy system based approaches, neuromuscular recovery schemes, technical and tactical periods scheduled with different types of strength, power, speed and conditioning work. But this would only work in the absolute controlled environment (a vacuum if you will), and is very, very hard to pull off in today’s world.

Scott Moody acts as the director of the SoccerFIT Academy in Overland Park, KS and has spent the last 10 years developing a curriculum that bridges the gap between the physical and the technical developmental aspects of soccer. His website, is designed to be an educational site that promotes discussion, offers ideas and breaks down current trends in research and training to offer suggestions as to how it can be applied to youth player development. Scott also is a featured speaker, author and research fellow for numerous organizations, equipment manufacturers and online training magazines.

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