The Importance and Execution of In-Season Strength Training

Perhaps the biggest mistake an athlete can make in their development and performance is to stop strength training outright when their season begins. While no physical quality in the gym trumps sports-specific skill, practice alone is not sufficient for maintaining whatever strength and power you developed in the off-season.

Ideally during the off-season you trained for several different physical qualities:

  • Hypertrophy (muscle size)

  • Absolute Strength

  • Rate of Force Development/Power

  • Work Capacity (conditioning)

Each quality has an effect on the other:

  1. Greater work capacity allows you to train harder and longer which can stimulate more muscle growth

  2. A larger muscle is capable of producing a greater power output so an initial focus on hypertrophy is needed to maximize strength and power

  3. Increased relative strength (strength vs. bodyweight) raises your potential for power (i.e. if your Back Squat improves from 225lbs to 315lbs while your bodyweight only increased from 165 to 168, then you will likely be able to jump higher)

How long does it take for you to begin to lose these training qualities?

Age, experience, the demands of your sport, and nutrition all factor into the equation. Depending on what research you site and how it was conducted, results show that you may begin to notice a decrease in muscle and strength after a period of as little as 1 week without strength training. You’ll definitely notice changes following a 2-3 week absence from the weight room.

While there is no shortage of research that supports the importance of in-season training, science aside, do you want to be your strongest or weakest when playoffs begin?

Assessing an Athlete’s Level of Fatigue and Readiness

In addition to an athlete’s perception of their energy level, bodyweight is one metric that can be easily tracked to make sure an athlete is properly nourishing their bodies for the increased workload and reduced window of time to eat that the season brings. This won’t necessarily provide any insight into their level of Central Nervous System (CNS) fatigue but if bodyweight is decreasing then it is likely that they aren’t fueling themselves with enough calories to properly recover from a full strength training session.

Additionally, eating enough calories to maintain your bodyweight will help preserve as much muscle size and strength as possible during periods of time that you can’t strength train as frequently.

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Readings from a handheld dynamometer can provide a fairly accurate indication of CNS and hormonal fatigue. Due to the frequent gripping and high intensity repeated efforts that involve the forearm musculature in baseball, the dynamometer results may be slightly skewed based on the amount of throwing/hitting done in the days prior to taking the dynamometer test. Overall, it is a time-efficient way to get a fairly reliable metric.

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Vertical Jump performance appears to be a reliable indicator of Neuromuscular fatigue. Similar to the handheld dynamometer, it requires little time and is an effective way of assessing whether an athlete is fresh. After a proper warm-up, athletes can take 3 to 4 jumps on the Just Jump Mat to get a reading.

We will use the athlete’s feedback, the numbers from these three tests, and their competition schedule to determine whether they have the green light for a full training session. If he or she is testing lower than average or claims to feel beat up, than we can pivot and focus more on restorative work and very low volume strength training.

Training Protocols

There are a few guidelines that we follow when putting together an in-season training program. These should be used to influence your selection of movements, sets, reps, and load.

1.) Frequency of Competition – Depending on whether your sport requires you to compete frequently or peak for a specific event should dictate how you program in-season training. If your season begins but the main event is still months away, you should continue to train hard and maximize every opportunity to get stronger; provided that it doesn’t negatively impact your skill practice. However, if you play multiple games per week then you may need to reserve more time in the gym for recovery work. Understanding this, the following considerations should be made:

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2.) No Novel Stimuli – I am less concerned with whether an athlete Back Squats or Trap Bar Deadlifts in-season and care more about whether the work they put in during the off-season has prepared them to continue training the specific movement. Novel stimuli (something your body isn’t accustomed to) will increase the amount of soreness you experience for up to 72 hours after the session and could negatively impact your performance in subsequent practices and games. Don’t choose exercises, choose movement patterns (hinge, squat, press, pull), and continue to strengthen them with exercises that you are familiar with. Soreness and unnecessary fatigue will be minimized and the time needed to learn new movements will be saved.

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3.) Minimize Eccentric Load – The eccentric portion of a movement is when the muscle is being lengthened. During certain phases of training we emphasize this to increase time under tension and accumulate more muscle damage. However, in-season, the approach to this is the opposite; we want to shorten or completely omit the eccentric portion of an exercise to reduce soreness. One exercise isn’t necessarily better than the other but in following this guideline you should also be adhering to #2; for multiple reasons, in-season lifting is not the time to experiment with new exercises.

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4.) Specific Mobility Work – Certain sports are very repetitive in their movement patterns (i.e. jumping in basketball, throwing in baseball, etc). This means that certain joints are being stressed more than others. Understanding what mobility and soft tissue work would combat this is important to reducing the risk of injury. Athletes who approach mobility work with the same intent as strength training are rewarded with substantially better results and less discomfort from training.

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5.) Velocity-Based Training (VBT) – VBT is a method of training that focuses on the speed of a lift more so than a specific load. We use a PUSH band to measure the velocity of the barbell. I may prescribe Back Squats at 0.8 meters per second instead of a percentage of one rep max. If an athlete is fatigued, the load associated with 0.8 m/s may be 165lbs; if he or she is fresh, the weight may be closer to 185lbs. It removes the guess work, prevents overshooting and accumulating unnecessary soreness, and allows us to account for fatigue as well as target a specific training effect.

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The following graph shows the different qualities that are addressed with the barbell moving at a given speed. In-season we focus on power work; the speed stays above 0.8 m/s and reps remain low so force output doesn’t decrease during the latter reps of a set.

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Summary

If a sports season lasts 12 weeks and you would usually train twice a week, you’d be missing out on 24 training sessions by removing strength training from your routine. Over the course of a high school career this is nearly 100 sessions; that is, if you’re a one-sport athlete. Multiply that number by 2 or 3 if you play multiple sports and you’re missing out on a few hundred hours of development.

The importance of remaining consistent with strength training should be clear. Your concern should be less about whether strength training will negatively impact your immediate performance and more about how you can intelligently train during the season and set yourself up to be successful throughout the course of a 3 month season. Hopefully this write-up will give you some strategies to do so.

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