In Season Training – What to do?

By Mitch Davis

As many athletes are heading into heat acclimation, two-a-days, and preseason training, coaches are hearing the same question pop up again and again.  How should I train in season?  A pretty easy question and a very straight forward answer.  But, due to the nature of the industry, coaches have managed to take a very simple answer and turn it into a complicated math formula, hoping that you’ll hire them to solve the problem for you.  

The very first thing we must address is the idea that training like the professionals is your key to success. I would be one to say that this is one of the worst possible avenues you can take.  First, we must understand that professionals are not elite athletes because of their training.  They are elite due to their years of hard work, some great genetics, and phenomenal coaching.  The strength and conditioning plays a minimal role in their success story.  Additionally, we must understand that professional athletes are not inherently smarter than you or I when it comes to understanding exercise.  I’m sure we have all seen the professional athlete training with their private coach and wondering what they were thinking hiring someone insane.  

Finally, we must understand that at the professional level, these guys and gals have been training hard for many years.  At a certain point, you will need a tremendous less amount of work in order to stay strong and healthy.  This is where we hear terms such as “maintenance phase” or “maintaining the strength gains we’ve made in the off-season”.  For those of us not at the professional level, or with very few years of strength training under our belts, a maintenance phase is not only unnecessary, but probably counterproductive.  We must understand that the higher your strength climbs the more challenging it is to accomplish further results.  To reach a 400-pound deadlift from a 95-pound deadlift requires far less training than 400-pound deadlift up to a 500-pound deadlift.  We call this rate of diminishing returns.  At a certain point, we must understand that we have enough strength, and any further strength gains are probably taking away valuable time, effort, and energy from other aspects of our game [practice time, recovery, sleep, rest, and other daily necessities].  

If you are a high school or college athlete, especially if you don’t have many years of strength training [that is, if you haven’t been lifting consistently for the last 5-10 years] you don’t need to worry about deload weeks, tapering, or a maintenance phase.  You can hop on the gain-train and ride that puppy all year, year after year.  Now, this doesn’t mean you can expect to continue to crush yourself in the weight room during the season and expect to be at your peak performance.  There is a time and place for building mass, there is a time and place for building strength, and there is a valuable time for building power.  

Let’s assume you have a sophisticated coach who took you through a block of hypertrophy then into a solid block of strength.  You’re strong and big heading into the season.  Now is time to shift gears a bit and focus on speed, power, and finally strength.  Obviously, the sport you are participating in will require certain requirements, but looking at this from a global perspective of athletic development, we can draw a few pretty strong assumptions.  

Keep your exercise selection minimal.  You don’t need much to get strong and powerful.  Pick 2-4 exercises.  Keep these exercises fast and explosive.  We want our intensity to be high and our volume to be moderate.  This is where I believe many of us get things backwards.  We tend to shy away from heavier percentages in season and focus on “maintaining”, hitting higher rep ranges and bigger sets.  Hit 2-3 sets for 3-5 reps.  Again, you don’t need much.  

Keep your exercise selection geared toward building athletic ability.  You cannot go wrong with the S/B/D combo [squat, bench, deadlift, for those of us unfamiliar with Powerlifting jargon].  Additionally, explosive movements such as the snatch, clean, and jerk [as well as their derivatives] are a great way at building massive strength and speed.  A word of caution however.  If you are unfamiliar with the snatch and jerk, chances are you won’t be hitting these movements at a technical proficiency high enough to elicit some gnarly gains.  Stick to some hang cleans for a truly explosive stimulus.  

Don’t be afraid to repeat an exercise multiple times a week.  There is nothing wrong with hitting two days’ worth of hang power cleans.  As long as your volume and intensity are accounted for, you’ll continue to make progress.  We want to minimize soreness during the season.  If we are changing our workouts too frequently, we run the risk of getting sore.  Keeping a solid routine can help the body adapt and be less likely to suffer some negative side effects of training.  

Here is a quick check-list of my athletes’ in-season strength and conditioning programs:

  • Sprint as often and as intensely as possible.  Sprinting is not jogging.  It is not running.  It is not running fast.  Sprinting is sprinting.  It requires 100% effort, which demands full recovery between attempts. 
  • Keep your exercise selection minimal.  My athletes will hit the weight room two times a week in season and will have a combined 6 exercises across those days.  
  • Keep your intensity high and volume low.  My athletes will only have 3 sets of each exercise, but their percentages will be high.  We are looking at speed of contraction and avoiding muscular failure.  
  • Keep training sessions relatively short.  My athletes will hit the weight room for 30-45 minutes twice a week.  Anything over that, we’re just adding more stress for minimal gains.  
  • We peak for important games.  Easy rule of thumb here.  Build up in intensity leading up to your given week of increased performance, then dramatically drop the volume.  Notice I didn’t mention any drop in intensity.  My athletes will perform 3 sets of their given exercises until our most important week of the season, then, we’ll drop down to 1 or 2 very, very intense sets in that week. Same principle applies for our speed and agility training.  

This is by no means the only way to go about training, but I hope that you have gained a bit of sight into how to train during your season.  Don’t over-complicate it.  You can continue to progress [add strength and speed] during your season.  You don’t have to fall for the trap of “maintaining” during your season.  

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Mitchell Davis is the Director of Remote Coaching at Power Train Sports & Fitness.  He is a PhD candidate at Liberty University where he is pursuing his doctorate in Health & Exercise Science.  He has been a coach and educator for 13 years, serving in roles such as collegiate strength and conditioning coach, high school strength and conditioning coach, adjunct professor, personal trainer, and fitness consultant.  

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