Strength Training for the In-Season Athlete

The question athletes ask themselves when heading in to a competitive phase, how on earth am I going to maintain my strength and size over the course of the season?

Competition is incredibly tough, there is no denying that. There will be times heading to the gym to train feels like a drag, levels of fatigue are just too high, and lifting will only compound the issue. So how can we go about strength training when skill and tactical training takes up the bulk of the training schedule?

The Training Method

One of the methods I like is to have a two-day per week lifting schedule (assuming game day is Saturday to Saturday each week).
Day one will fall on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and this will be the main heavier lifting session of the week. For main strength exercises, the protocol will be 1-3 sets of 2-8 reps depending on the week, whilst accessory work will be 1-3 sets of 5-10 reps. The reason we keep heavy weights programmed in-season is because maintaining strength is vital for the maintenance of power production, if an athlete is getting weaker, they are also losing the ability to produce maximum levels of power and speed.
In addition, it is important to have some higher rep work in periods of slightly higher training volume to help maintain muscle mass, because muscle mass is one of the key variables to strength development. Put simply, the more muscle mass an athlete has, the more potential they have to generate force.

The second day will fall on the Thursday or Friday before a match. This will involve very low volume, but intense, explosive power and rate of force development work, as the goal here is to ramp up the sensitivity of the central nervous system and have it prepared and ready for battle, so to speak. The reps for the main power exercise will be kept between 2-5, with sets being at 1-3, with assistance exercises being 3-6 reps for 1-3 sets.
Doing low volume, explosive power training will not cause high levels of fatigue or muscle damage which is crucial so close to a competitive match day. This is because the exercises utilised have next to no eccentric phase, and this will also allow for a faster recovery after the session.

Training Volume Recommendations

It’s important to note that dropping the training volume too low will result in losses of lean muscle mass, but having training volume too high will slow down the recovery process where demand is already extremely high due to the nature of intense skills training and competition. Therefore, it’s imperative the overall training volume and levels of fatigue be monitored closely.

Remember that athletes can only tolerate so much training stress, and it’s also important to remember that life stressors, such as family and work, will also impact the ability to recover and adapt. If the plan is to increase strength training volume for the next 1-2 weeks, then volume from other areas of training must be decreased, such as skill or conditioning training.

Selection of Load

When selecting the load to put on the bar during the competition phase, using the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale is an effective method. Using percentage-based loads are fine, however, in-season this may not be so wise because levels of fatigue in athletes will vary greatly from week-to-week. Therefore, their 1RM is going to probably change on a weekly basis depending on their fatigue levels.
RPE is great because it allows for some wiggle room within the programming, if an athlete is feeling good then they can train with greater intensity (8-9 RPE), or if they don’t feel so good then knocking the intensity down a notch is important (6-7.5 RPE). Using this method, the relative intensity will still be very similar between each athlete, provided they’re honest in their feedback for RPE and aren’t just looking for the easy way out.

See the RPE scale provided below on selecting loads using RPE.

RPE Value

Level of Effort

10

Max Effort

9.5

No more reps, but can increase load

9

1 repetition remaining

8.5

1-2 repetitions remaining

8

2 repetitions remaining

7.5

2-3 repetitions remaining

7

3 repetitions remaining

5-6

4-6 repetitions remaining

3-4

Light effort

1-2

Little to no effort

Example Program

I’ve provided a basic program for you to see the application of the above information.

Day 1 – Strength Focus

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Weight

Recovery

1a. Box Jump

3

3

Bodyweight

2 minutes

2a. Back Squat

2

4

RPE 7.5 or 82%

3-5 minutes

3a. Bench Press

2

4

RPE 7.5 or 82%

N/A

3b. Chin-Up

2

4

RPE 7.5 or 82%

3-5 minutes

4a. Single-Leg Hip Thrust

1

6

RPE 7

N/A

4b. Pallof Press – Anti-Rotation

2

10

RPE 8.5

1.5-2 minutes

Day 2 – Power Focus

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Weight

Recovery

1a. Bound

3

3 Continuous Bounds

Bodyweight

2 minutes

2a. Hang Clean High Pull

2

2

RPE 6.5 or 85%

3-5 minutes

3a. BB Push Press

2

4

RPE 6.5 or 80%

3-5 minutes

4a. DB Single-Arm Row

2

6

RPE 7 or 76%

2 minutes

How Should this Program be Periodised?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question, however, during the in-season phase and depending on where the current competitive fixture is, program variation should take place every 2nd to 4th week.
During bye weeks, or fixtures against weaker teams, training volume may be increased to help with muscle hypertrophy maintenance and allow for a more strength/power focus during fixtures against stronger teams or competitions. During a finals series, or bigger and more noteworthy events, training volume will back right off because this is the period athletes need to peak and be able to perform at their best. The goal here is to minimise fatigue whilst maximising fitness, and reducing the training volume for up to four weeks can yield gains in athletic performance without compromising fitness.

Conclusion

Strength training during the competition period is vital to maintaining optimal performance, and not doing so can have serious consequences in terms of strength, power, and speed losses. Utilising a 2-day per week schedule for strength training is sufficient to maintain strength and power gains, with Tuesday or Wednesday being used for strength/hypertrophy maintenance, whilst Thursday or Friday should be used to maintain power and rate of force development traits. Most of the time volume should be low to moderate, and RPE used to prescribe the loading strategy. Finally, be sure to vary the training stimulus over the course of the season to ensure optimal adaptations and maintain performance.

References

  1. Baker D. Applying the In-Season Periodization of Strength and Power Training to Football. Strength Cond J. 1998 Apr 1;20(2):18-27.
  2. Murach KA, Bagley JR. Less Is More: The Physiological Basis for Tapering in Endurance, Strength, and Power Athletes. Sports. 2015 Aug 21;3(3):209-18.
  3. Zourdos MC, Klemp A, Dolan C, Quiles JM, Schau KA, Jo E, Helms E, Esgro B, Duncan S, Merino SG, Blanco R. Novel resistance training–specific rating of perceived exertion scale measuring repetitions in reserve. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jan 1;30(1):267-75.

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