As coaches, we all want to win. We implore our athletes to spend the off-season training to become bigger, faster, stronger. But, the moment practice begins, our focus shifts and training sessions become an afterthought. This is dangerous. Let’s take a look at in season strength training and break down the why, what, and how!
While in-season, your athletes will adapt to the rigors of practices and games, often reaching peak physical conditioning for that sport. At the same time, the absence of resistance training will always equal substantial losses of strength and power. Beyond affecting their ability to compete, this loss significantly increases their risk of injury on the field (1).
We get it, time with your athletes is precious. But, the desire to spend all your time at practice or film, at the expense of a short lift, could prove costly. The ability of your athletes to consistently perform at a high level throughout a long season will ultimately dictate your team’s success.
The point of in-season training is not to improve performance per say, rather its goal is to maintain the strength gains built during the off-season, and reduce the likelihood of injury.
A healthy team, performing at its peak all season long, is a winning team.
Let’s take a quick look at exactly why consistent strength training during the season puts your team in the best position to win.
Why In Season Strength Training?
When it comes to performance training, it’s all about consistency. The strength and power output adaptations gained in the off season through months of hard work will begin to drop off the day your athletes stop lifting. This is especially true for power (or the amount of work your athletes can produce in a given amount of time — think Olympic lifts and “explosiveness”). Following the SAID Principle, the human body will adapt to the stresses being placed on it or lack thereof, meaning if the squat or hang clean are no longer being utilized, the body will then adapt to the absence of specific stress, always choosing the path of least resistance.
Staying out of the depth chart.
In high school athletics, or any level for that matter, maintaining a stable roster is KEY. Injuries resulting in missed games and seasons change the landscape completely.
Strength deficiencies and overcompensation are often the beginning of the injury process. The human body will compensate whenever there’s an imbalance and the weakest link in the chain will break first. For example, there exists significant correlations between weak, tight muscles of the hamstring and increased ACL tears and strains and overall anterior knee pain (2, 3). Tight and weak hamstrings lead to an increase in the compressive forces impacting the patellofemoral joint and tight/weak quad muscles create a dangerous imbalance that can change the patella’s ability to track effectively (2). Even weakness/tightness within the hip stabilizers can negatively affect patellofemoral joint stability (4).
Keeping your stars on the field by avoiding injury is your best chance for competitive success. In season strength training can help!
More quality practice time.
It’s not only catastrophic injury that can derail a team. Every minute spent with the trainer or limited in practice due to strains, pulls, and soreness, is time wasted.
A common cause of overuse injury in athletics is a process called muscle dysfunction. Essentially, this refers to poor coordination within a series of muscle contractions once a movement is initiated. This is an issue regarding the relationship between the agonist muscle group (those that start the movement) and antagonist muscle groups (those that control the movement). If one muscle group is overused, the result can be inflammation of the muscle/tendon nearest the joint in motion. This is accompanied with pain and decreased range of motion.
Strength training, particularly compound barbell exercises, is one of the best ways to reduce overuse injuries. We strengthen the major muscles surrounding a joint while improving joint flexibility and muscle coordination. Contrary to the belief that lifting weights makes muscles tighter, using full range of motion under load is a great way to improve flexibility, even when compared to traditional static stretching (5).
Basic Philosophy of In Season Strength Training
Given its benefits, it is no surprise that in season strength training has been a consistent staple of great athletic programs for decades.
This training includes carefully selected strength exercises, performed at specific intensity and volume, aimed at preserving a resiliency to injury and maintaining maximal strength & power output during competition.
But what, exactly, does an in-season training program look like?
Frequency & Duration
In season weight training sessions are much simpler than their off-season counterparts.
For the most part, any lifts performed during a competitive season should be less frequent, and shorter in duration.
With hours upon hours of practices and competitions dominating the weekly schedule, we must minimize the amount of additional physical demand we place on our athletes. At the same time, though, we must keep a consistent regiment in order to see results.
Here’s a good rule of thumb to get you started.
Schedule, in advance, two In-Season “Lifts” per week of competition (not including recovery sessions), each of roughly a half an hour in duration. Account for this training time with small concessions to volume and intensity at practice on the same day.
Think of it like the see-saw – the more time athletes are spending on the field doing high-skilled, high-volume work, the less time they should spend in the weight room – and vice a versa.
Not surprisingly, it is the direct inverse to our approach in the off-season.
Intensity & Volume
Additionally, in season strength training lifts are low on volume and high on “intensity”.
During a competitive season, athletes are already demanding a heavy volume of work from their bodies via daily practices and games. Time on the field is already training repetitive, sub maximal power movements, muscular and cardiovascular conditioning, as well as sport-specific energy demands.
What they do not get on the field, though, is consistent resistance training at maximal capacity.
Thus, off the field and in the gym, we want to add a consistent program of strength, power, and continual injury prevention. Generally speaking, we want to perform compound, weighted movements at “intensity” (aka high loading relative to 1RM), with minimal volume (only a few reps).
As such, we want to focus on just a couple of weighted movements during any given lift, while supplementing with a few select injury prevention exercises, mobility, and accessory work.
Example In Season Weight Training Workout
For example, we would begin an in-season lift with a brief dynamic warm-up, coupled with targeted mobility, activation, and pre-hab. We must warm up our bodies for the work ahead for maximum return, while also continuing to take care of the little things and prevent injury on the field.
Then, we may grab a barbell and work rate of force production, or peak power, through a variation of our Olympic Lifts. The high hang power clean, for example, performed at moderate load (70-85% 1RM) and high velocity (fast bar speed) for just a handful or two of quality reps, works to maintain that explosiveness we built in the off-season.
We then move on to strength maintenance via one of our Power Lifts, like the Back Squat. Here, the loading is even greater, focusing on weights 80% of 1RM and above. Again, we keep the volume very low, 10-15 reps at the most.
Lastly, we may add in some small elements of hypertrophy, durability, and strength/power endurance if time allows.
Bonus Content! Featured is a sample demo video of a back squat, a commonly found movement in an in workout.
In Season Strength Training For Young Athletes
Many arguments for in season strength training center around not “losing” the hard work put in the off season. This leads many coaches with young athletes who haven’t been a part of off season workouts to brush away in season workouts for their freshmen, JV, or even “inexperienced” varsity teams.
“They didn’t do anything over the off-season, so why start now?”
While you might be temped to practice, practice, practice with your young athletes to maximize sports performance, you are doing a disservice by completely ignoring strength training.
In season workouts are one of the best places to introduce students to the fundamentals of resistance training (form & technique) and teach students the importance of it so that they in turn do show up in future off seasons. Maybe your in season strength training program isn’t as advanced as what was described above, but you can still accomplish a lot! Check out more on intro to weightlifting opportunities here.
What About In Season Workouts For Recovery?
While in season strength training workouts may be less frequent and shorter in duration, that does not mean we only “train” with intent twice per week.
We must also include the concept and practice of “Active Recovery” into our weekly schedule, while also planning in rest and recovery periods.
If the intent is to maximize sports performance throughout the entire season – then there must be a delicate balance between effort to maintain peak capacity, and intentional rest meant to allow athletes the ability to get back to neutral during times of high physical (and mental) stress.
In general, when it comes to a high school athletes, we recommend following three basic principles:
For every “intense” training session, allow 48 hours before repeating, or engaging in a formal competition.
For every competition, build in a recovery session within 24hours, and a rest period (deload of volume on & off the field) for the following 48 hours.
Try to perform lifts as far away from the competition day as possible to ensure players are able to fully recover and perform maximally on game-day.
These principles might be easier to follow with football athletes, where games are once a week. For other sports like basketball players, soccer players, and other sports that have multiple games a week, some concessions to the principles might be necessary.
Structured Recovery Sessions
Regardless of sports, when it comes to intentional, structured recovery sessions, we generally offer two different choices:
1. First, an “Active Recovery” session which focuses on lightweight or bodyweight training performed at low intensity.
2. A “Pre or Post-Game Mobility” session that contains super light, low-impact, monostructural aerobic activity with dynamic and passive mobility, SMR, and static stretching
How do you choose?
Which one you perform is entirely up to you and your athletes. It really all comes down to how they are feeling and what fits your schedule best.
For athletes that are feeling good, with minimal residual soreness/fatigue, this Active Recovery session is a great option. It can also be an excellent tool for PE schedules, or sports that play multiple times per week as a day-before-the-game activity.
For athletes truly “feeling” the effects of the night before, we recommend the pure mobility session. The combination of super low intensity movement, mobility, and SMR can spur recovery without increasing fatigue.
This is also a great option for athletes that have a game, but are still required to get a training session in during class time.
Key Takeaways On In Season Strength Training
In-season strength training is a must for any high school athletic program. Benefits of in season strength training are not just for football players or high-level athletic performance. When every athlete participates in in season workouts, they will see a wide variety of benefits.
If nothing else, take a closer look at the case for injury prevention. That is something we can all get behind! If you need more proof, a well regarded study of youth athletics found that athletes were 3x MORE LIKELY to be injured during the course of a season if a weight training program was not utilized as part of the typical in-season routine (6). Another study found that use of balance training, strength training, and a proper warm up saw a decrease in injury rate by over 50% (1). Over and over, in-season training has been proven to effectively decrease the risk of injury (1) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11).
Teams that stay healthy, and are able to perform at optimal level all season long, are ultimately the teams that have the greatest chance for enduring success.
- Olsen, Odd-Egil, et al. “Exercises to Prevent Lower Limb Injuries in Youth Sports: Cluster Randomised Controlled Trial.” The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 24 Feb. 2005, https://www.bmj.com/content/330/7489/449.long
- “Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome – OrthoInfo – AAOS.” Frozen Shoulder – Adhesive Capsulitis – OrthoInfo – AAOS, orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/patellofemoral-pain-syndrome/.
- Leetun, Darin T, et al. “Core Stability Measures as Risk Factors for Lower Extremity Injury in Athletes.” Clara Barton: Angel of the Battlefield, June 2004, insights.ovid.com/pubmed?pmid=15179160.
- Donatelli, Robert. “Muscle Imbalance and Common Overuse Injuries.” Sports Injuries, Treatment and Performance Information, 2 Dec. 2017, www.sportsmd.com/performance/muscle-imbalance-common-overuse-injuries/.
- Morton, Sam K, et al. “Resistance Training vs. Static Stretching: Effects on… : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.” LWW, journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2011/12000/Resistance_Training_vs__Static_Stretching__Effects.22.aspx.
- William, Hejna, et al. “The Prevention of Sports Injuries in High School Students… : Strength & Conditioning Journal.” LWW, journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Abstract/1982/02000/The_Prevention_of_Sports_Injuries_in_High_School.6.aspx.
- “Avoidance of Soccer Injuries with Preseason Conditioning.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/03635465000280050601?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&.
- Olsen, Odd-Egil, et al. “Injury pattern in youth team handball: a comparison of two prospective registration methods.” The BMJ, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, 19 May. 2005, www.bmj.com/content/330/7489/449.
- Paterno, Mark V., et al. “Prevention of Overuse Sports Injuries in the Young Athlete.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3796354/.
- Wingfield, K. “Neuromuscular Training to Prevent Knee Injuries in Adolescent Female Soccer Players.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23989384.
- Faigenbaum, A D, and G D Myer. “Resistance Training Amount Young Athletes: Safety, Efficacy and Injury Prevention Effects .” Resistance Training Amount Young Athletes: Safety, Efficacy and Injury Prevention Effects , 20 Jan. 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3483033/