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In-Season vs Off-Season Strength Training for Sports

By: Barbell Logic Team

Managing competitive athletes is a collaborative and often contentious effort. Competitive athletes are subject to a competition calendar and regular practice for their sport. And they must preserve their ability to perform on Game Day. This takes more careful management of the standard training variables. They must focus on the general principles that drive strength progress and adapt their training for the realities of competition.

Managing In-Season and Off-Season Strength Training for Competitive Athletes

Note: Most of the points and rationale in the article below come directly from Practical Programming for Strength Training, by Mark Rippetoe and Andy Baker. Managing competitive athletes is a collaborative and often contentious effort between parents, coaches, and the athletes themselves. For parents, Practical Programming is your best resource to educate yourself and make informed decisions that will affect your athlete’s training and possibly their health. We cannot over-recommend this book or the knowledge of an experienced strength coach if you are struggling to manage a competitive training schedule.

General Principles

“Athletes train for strength to improve performance, not interfere with it.” -Practical Programming for Strength Training (3d ed. Aasgaard 2013).

For weekend warriors and non-competative athletes, strength benefits are more generally useful, competition less frequent, and the impact of one on the other more easily managed. Competitive athletes are going to be subject to a competition calendar and regular practice for their sport. The athlete must preserve their ability to perform on Game Day. This takes more careful management of the standard training variables. They must focus on the general principles that drive strength progress and adapt their training for the realities of competition.

Level of Training Advancement

In-season and off-season competition schedules make situational intermediate lifters out of novices and situational novices out of intermediate lifters. It is important to first understand that there is no hard and fast rule about when to treat an athlete like a novice and when to treat them like an intermediate lifter. No lifter wakes up one morning a novice and the next an intermediate, shifting abruptly from the Novice Linear Progress to the Texas Method or a Heavy-Light-Medium template. The transition from novice to intermediate is always a gradual one, variables changing one at a time, moving the lifter from the novice program toward an appropriate intermediate one.

Rather than an abrupt line in the sand dividing novice from intermediate lifters, imagine instead that the novice program is the starting point and intermediate programming is a waypoint or marker along the development of the athlete’s progress. Changes to the novice program occur as a response to the lifter’s development, progress, or challenges. Those changes should move the lifter toward the intermediate waypoint, using the differences in the two types of programs as guidance for changes to training variables as they become necessary. You can see how these changes work in the way the basic program changes to the advanced novice program. You move the lifter from multiple improvements per week to less-frequent improvements as suits the lifter’s response to training.

Start by treating an athlete like a novice where appropriate. An athlete who is new to structured barbell training or who lacks any relevant training history should be treated as a novice, even if it is only for a short time. Athletes who experience big changes in their schedules (say moving from in-season to off-season) may be situational novices, able to add weight workout-to-workout for a time due to improved recovery capacity and a decrease in weekly activity. Other times it is necessary to treat them as novices to generate good training data or if they are recovering from an injury. The novice program is useful beyond merely giving new lifters a running start, it may be a reoccurring seasonal feature in an athletes’ training schedule.

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Photo: Andrew Jackson

As a general rule, as training becomes more complicated due to practices and a competitive calendar, the training variables need to be managed more carefully and with more attention to the lifter. The program is a basic framework, stress and progress being managed on a case-by-case, workout-by-workout basis. The most relevant training variables for a seasonal athlete are scheduling, frequency, and training stress (determined intra-workout by load or intensity and determined inter-workout by changes in exercise selection, volume, and intensity).

Intermediate trainees are still making relatively rapid progress and they should be allowed to do so as long as possible with minimal interference from schedule factors external to the training program. (Practical Programming for Strength Training)

Off-season, the ideal schedule will prioritize strength for the lifter. This means to treat them as strength athletes for as long as possible, prioritizing strength training and recovery. The sad reality for many young athletes is that “off-season” isn’t really a season off from competition and practice. Too many young athletes play multiple, overlapping sports and are subject to the demands of coaches who don’t care about the need for seasonal breaks, let alone the need to get stronger and prepare for a competition calendar. Some of the competitive schedules of these athletes will fall outside of what can be responsibly managed for progressive and useful strength training. If you or your athlete are so busy and so tired that there is no room for strength training in your schedule, in-season or off-season, then you may need to push back against the demand being placed on you or the athlete as counterproductive. We suggest contacting a Professional Barbell Coach if you need advice about how to manage such a busy schedule.

anna marie sports

Photo: Anna Marie

Scheduling

For in-season athletes, scheduling training around competition and practice takes some advance planning. From Practical Programming: “If a competitive calendar is superimposed on the training program at the intermediate level, the disruption to both the competitive performance and to the training schedule itself can be planned so as to be relatively minimal.” Most competitive sports have one or two possible game days each week, followed by a somewhat predictable organization of practices between games. Planning training around this schedule is necessary to allow for progress and to minimize the interference of practice and performance on training and vice versa.

In general, however, Game Day should be held sacred. The goal of training is to improve performance, so it would not make sense to schedule heavy training immediately prior to Game Day. The closest preceding workout to Game Day should be a lighter workout with the heaviest training session being the one immediately following Game Day.

Frequency

This will vary depending on the sport, but for demanding sports, once the athlete has transitioned out of novice programming, a 2-day per week strength training program usually works well to allow for progress, practice, and competition.

A two-day per week program would put the heaviest training day the day after Game Day, usually on a weekend. And it would schedule the second training day two days before Game Day. The example given in Practical Programming is for a football player who has games on Friday, hard practice on Monday and Tuesday and lighter practice on Wednesday and Thursday. For this schedule the athlete would have his heaviest workout on Saturday and the lighter workout on Wednesday, allowing for recovery before the next Game Day. This is a good organizational example that can be applied to almost any competitive schedule.

football

Photo: Matt Moore

Training Stress

The above sample schedule raises an important issue of managing intra-training stress. Some games and practices are more difficult than others. The athlete should be able to take advantage when he or she feels particularly refreshed and should be managed more carefully when a hard-fought game or difficult practice impedes their ability to train. As with any lifter, the more complicated their schedule, the more carefully managed their training needs to be. Sometimes this will mean that the load needs to vary from workout-to-workout. This variation should be the result of actual performance in the gym. Again from Practical Programming:

“An accurate evaluation of performance by titration is a much better way to assign loads, because variation … in technique, strength, and fatigue are the realities of training human athletes.”

This is where an experienced coaching eye becomes an invaluable tool for training. There is a balance that needs to be struck between stress and recovery. For young athletes, this balance is not as delicate as it is for older and more competitive athletes, but it still exists. Arbitrarily assigned or subjective loads are not as effective as determining the appropriate load, real-time based on actual performance.

Progress

Progress will depend on the degree to which a competitive schedule affects the athletes training. More advanced lifters will suffer a greater impact on their strength training from the competitive season. For the vast majority of athletes—especially young athletes—progress is still possible during the season. Changes within the program will be more frequent, not just to the loads handled but to the exercise selection volume, and tonnage as well. The basic principles of small changes—the minimum amount necessary—for steady progress should be preserved as much as possible.

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