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In-Season Training for Athletes

In-Season Training for Athletes

One of the most oft asked questions by a majority of athletes is how to train in-season. In-season training is perhaps one of the most overlooked components of an athlete’s training. In western periodization literature, there is clearly a strong push for increasing size and strength within a general preparation cycle and a major peak for an event. However, this system is flawed for athletes who compete in sports that require multiple peaks of performance over a given season. Football, Soccer, Hockey, Basketball, Baseball, Rugby, Lacross, Field Hockey, and Volleyball seasons all usually consist of multiple “peaks” during a competitive season. If an athlete is using western style periodization they may peak their performance right before the season, and attempt to maintain their gains throughout the rest of the season.

Bigger, Faster, Stronger founder Greg Shepard in his book of the same title explains the need for in-season training stating the fact that generally most high school level athletes play multiple sports. Within that context if the sports coach neglects or puts training on maintenance levels, the athlete may not reach full potential. As a result short changing themselves in higher-level athletics (college, etc). However if the athlete works to improve their strength/power/hypertrophy (size) during the season, the end result is an explosion of strength and size gains in the off-season program due to the increased neural efficiency and (sometimes) slight increase in size.

In an in-season program, the training splits must be worked in around the sports specific training, even if that means working out two days consecutively. Typical in-season programs are generally 2-3 sessions, and a goal of no longer than 45 minutes to an hour in the gym (that includes warm ups, flexibility, core training). The training split can be a mix between upper and lower body movements or can be separated into upper body and lower body sessions. You might be asking right now, how exactly do you set up in-season sessions. Well, here it goes…

It is generally acknowledged that there are three ways in which to improve concentric strength…

1. The Maximal Effort Method- Lifting a maximal load (Heavy weight training, 1-5 Repetitions @ 80-100 % of Maximum)

2. The Dynamic Effort Method- Lifting a non-maximal load as fast as possible (Light weight training, focusing on SPEED, 1-5 Repetitions @ 40-70% of Maximum)

3. The Repeated Effort Method- Lifting a non-maximal load to failure or near failure (Moderate weight training, focusing on controlled tempo, 6-12 Repetitions @ 50-80% of Maximum) 1

The quickest way to improve an athlete’s strength and size is to utilize all three of the methods within a program. Force production is improved through the use of dynamic and max effort methods, while the repetition method is used to build size for improving potential force production and prevention of injuries.

For the high school athlete I do not feel (most of the time) that dynamic effort training needs to be addressed. However, advanced (i.e. Seniors and at times Juniors) athletes with a solid foundation of technique and hypertrophy can and will benefit from using the dynamic effort method in-season.

I prefer to use what is termed Conjugate Periodization, in my athlete’s in-season program. That means each one of the three methods is being worked within one cycle. This system was put together by powerlifting guru Louie Simmons, but has numerous applications to sport training. Traditional periodization splits these methods up into phases (Hypertrophy Stage, Strength Phase, Power Phase, etc.) this tends to lead to an increase in the target capacity, but decease in another capacity. An example is an athlete under goes a 6 week hypertrophy stage, then moves to a strength phase, by the end of the strength phase, the gains they had from the hypertrophy stage are decreasing due to the fact they haven’t been training that quality! We want our athletes to be big, strong, and powerful all season long! With conjugate periodization, we can have our cake and eat it too!

For freshmen and sophomore athletes I tend to stick to either a two or three day split with one day devoted to upper body max effort and one day devoted to lower body max effort and the optional third day is a “pump” day, where they will use a combination of dynamic effort and repeated efforts. On the max effort days, the repeated effort method is used to improve weak points. For advance juniors and seniors I tend to use a combined max effort upper and lower split on one day, a dynamic effort day one day, and a “pump” day.

The optional “pump” day is a way for athletes to increase blood and nutrient flow after a hard game. This is typically done the day after a major competitive event. The pump day works off the premise that increased capillary density improves nutrient transfer. You might be thinking WHOA, what does that all mean? Ok, capillaries are small blood vessels, whose job is mainly to drive precious nutrients into the blood stream. This is called nutrient transfer. When a muscle contracts, capillaries drive fresh blood, infused with all the nutrients into the muscle to improve recovery. Capillary density is the ratio between muscle fibers and capillaries. Increasing your capillary density improves ones recovery at a faster rate than normal. However, studies have show that in large amounts of hypertrophied muscle fiber, capillaries tend to be decreased. So it is imperative that athletes use this information to speed up recovery after a hard day of competition.2

Eccentric training is dear to my heart, but due to the nature of the method it causes the most micro-trauma to muscle fibers. Great for off-season hypertrophy/strength work, bad news for capillary density. Therefore the “pump” day utilizes exercises that are a. fun for the athlete and b. de-emphasize the negative. I am not saying to go super-fast, but to control the lowering, but do not lower the weights exaggeratedly slow. A nice controlled rhythm should suffice.

Maximal effort days should focus on lifting as heavy weight as possible for 3-5 reps for most young athletes, and 3-2 for most advanced athletes. The goal is for the athlete to exceed their previous best effort in the exercise. There is only one max effort exercise done per session for the upper and lower body. In the examples I will have some of my favorite max effort exercises to use on those days. The trick is to work up to the max, not jumping right into it. A rep/set scheme similar any of these would work great.

**All percents based on previous max**

50% x 5, 60% x 4, 70% x 3, 80% x 3, 90% x 3, 100%+ x 3

50% x 5, 60% x 5, 70% x 5, 80% x 4, 90% x 3, 100%+ x 3

45 % x 6, 55% x 5, 65% x 5, 75% x 5, 85% x 3 95% x 2

50% x 8, 60% x 6, 70% x 5, 80% x 5, 90% x 5, 100%+ x 5

Repetition effort work follows max effort and dynamic work on each of the days. This is the opportunity to increase size and tendon strength in muscles that are weak links in an athlete’s chain. For lower body days I tend to use it for a unilateral exercise (1-leg variation), and posterior chain (essentially the gluteals, hamstrings, and low back, the keys to being FAST and explosive). For upper body days I use it mainly to target the back (various pull ups, rows, etc), shoulders (various raises), rotator cuff complex (external rotations), triceps (various presses and extensions), and at times chest area (horizontal presses, push ups). Set and repetition schemes vary from 2-4 sets of 6-12 reps with around a minute to two minutes rest.

Dynamic work is trained separate from maximal effort work. This is not ALWAYS the case, but the majority of the time this is how it is set up. The key to dynamic work is to move the load with speed. Traditionally there is speed bench, where an athlete moves a loaded bar on the bench press as fast as possible while maintaining control. But there are other options such as medicine ball chest passes, explosive pushups, explosive chin ups, push jerks, all work great for the upper body. For lower body the norm is usually box squats, if there is no access to a box, a bench will suffice. There are other options such as the Olympic lifts (if qualified to perform them), jumping squats and lunges of all varieties. General set and repetition guidelines are 5-8 Sets of 2-3 perfect reps, with one minute to 45 second rests between.

Since you a have made it this far I will show you some sample splits. Here is an example of two days per week Upper/Lower Split. Meaning there is one Max Effort Upper and one Max Effort Lower session.

Day 1 (ME Lower Body)

ME Exercise (Work up to a max set of 3-5 in 7-9 sets)

Squat or Deadlift variation (Full Back Squat, Full Front Squat, Snatch Deadlift, Hex DL, Regular Deadlift, etc)

Unilateral Exercise 3 x 8-12

Pick 1…

1-Leg Squat, 1-Leg Bulgarian Squat, 1-Leg Split Squat, 1-Leg Dyamic Lunge, 1-Leg Static Lunge, 1-Leg RDL, etc.

Posterior Chain (this will make you faster) 3 x 5-12

Hyperextensions, good mornings, rdls, stiff-leg deadlift, etc.

Abs Circuit (Pick 2-4 movements, do for rhythmic tempo 3 x 10-30 reps)

Day 2 (ME Upper Body)

ME Exercise (as per day 1)

Pick 1 from either…

Horizontal Press

Close Grip Bench Press (shoulder width), Incline Bench Press, Rack Lock Outs, Board Press, Regular Bench, Decline Bench, Dips.


Vertical Pull

Close Grip Chin Up, Wide Grip Pull Up, Medium Grip Pull Up, Neutral Grip Pull Up, Alternated Grip Pull Up


Vertical Press

Barbell Military Press, Push Press, Push Jerk, etc.

****Alternate every 2-4 weeks ME Exercises****

Horizontal Pull 3 x 8-12

Barbell Rows, Cable Rows, 1-Arm Rows, etc.

Triceps Assistance 3 x 8-12

Lying Triceps Extensions, etc

Shoulders Assistance 3 x 8-12

Raises of any kind, rotator cuff work, etc

This is an example of a combination of ME Upper and Lower and DE Upper and Lower.

Day 1 (ME Upper/Lower, Work up to a max set of 3-5 in 7-9 sets, once a max is reached do 2 x 8-12 @ 70% of NEW Record.)
****Alternate every 2-4 weeks ME Exercises****
ME Exercise Upper
Pick 1 from either…

Horizontal Press

Close Grip Bench Press (shoulder width), Incline Bench Press, Rack Lock Outs, Board Press, Regular Bench, Decline Bench, Dips.


Vertical Pull

Close Grip Chin Up, Wide Grip Pull Up, Medium Grip Pull Up, Neutral Grip Pull Up, Alternated Grip Pull Up


Vertical Press

Barbell Military Press, Push Press, Push Jerk, etc.
Super Set with Upper Back work- 4 x 8-12 (Rows, Pull Ups, Chin Ups, etc)

ME Exercise Lower

Squat or Deadlift variation (Full Back Squat, Full Front Squat, Snatch Deadlift, Hex DL, Regular Deadlift, etc)

Unilateral Posterior Chain work- 4 x 8-12 (1-Leg RDL, 1-Leg Stiff-Leg Deadlift, 1-Leg Deadlift, etc)

**Note** After Each Max Effort Exercise, you will do 1-2 Back-Off Sets, in which you’ll use a lighter load and move it with SPEED.
Day 2 (DE Lower/Upper)

DE Lower

Explosive Squat- 5 x 3 @ 50% load

DE Upper

Explosive Push Ups- 5 x 3 @ BW

Unilateral Quad Dominant- 3 x 8-12 (1-Leg Bulgarian Squat, Dynamic Lunge, Static Lunge, Step Up, etc.)

Upper Back Work- 3 x 8-12 (Rows, Chin Ups, etc)

Posterior Chain- 2 x 8-12 (Hyper Extensions, Prone Cobras)

Shoulders- 2 x 8-12 (External Rotations, Raises)

Generally guidelines for the “pump day” are one to two exercises per muscle group (this is one of the few times I actually target muscle groups!), two to three sets of 12-20 reps with a load of about 40-50% meaning REALLY light weight and de-emphasize the negative. Pick some fun exercises or exercises that they don’t usually get to do, curls, pressdowns, leg press, etc. Just don’t go overboard! They should target the whole body, and be out of the gym in less than 45 minutes.

In conclusion I feel that training in-season is one of the most important factors in the athletes development. If they continuously break records and gain strength, there is no doubt that they are improving as an athlete as maximal strength is foundational to all other qualities utilized on the field. It is my opinion that the conjugate method is far superior to any other method for use in-season, especially with high school multi-sport athletes. Let me know what you think at [email protected]!

Sources & Further Study

1. Cosgrove, Alwyn The Professional Fitness Coach Program Design Bible: A Unified Theory of Program Design (Self Published) Santa Clarita, California 2005.

2. Waterbury, C. (2003) 100 Reps to Bigger Muscles Breaking through size barriers with endurance training. [Online]. Available at http://www.T-Nation.com