The Vital Importance of In-Season Training

Ever watched someone work hard to achieve a goal, only to backslide at the last second and have to start again from scratch?

This feeling reminds me of playing video games in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s—back when there was NO AUTO-SAVE or save points. You couldn’t save your place AT ALL. If you wanted to beat the game, you had to do it all in one sitting, without turning the game off. 

Excruciating to even think about, right? All that time—wasted.

This is how every strength coach AND sport coach should feel about strength and conditioning—specifically the lack thereof—during the season. Some (most) athletes at the high school level do not train during the in-season. It’s a travesty! Just last week I called my nephew, who plays high school football in Ohio, and asked if they’re still training. His answer? “No. We haven’t been in the weight room since the start of the season.” 

@@If you’re a coach, hopefully you are continuing to train your athletes during the season.@@ If not, you risk putting your win-loss record—and, more importantly, your athletes’ health—in jeopardy. So, why should athletes train in-season? Allow me to explain...

The Training Process

Before I get into details, here’s a quick overview into the training process during the off-season (or Preparatory Phase):

  1. Athletes learn how to lift properly (technique/movement efficiency)
  2. Athletes begin to lift heavier weights (principle of progressive overload) and become stronger
  3. Athletes move more quickly in both unloaded (sprints/jumps) and loaded movements, increasing their muscular power and rate of force development
  4. Athletes train specific movements (S.A.I.D. principle) to prepare for the demands of your sport
  5. Athletes change training movements at specific time points during your program, in order to avoid stagnation

(This, obviously, takes a lot of strategic planning on the part of the coach or strength coach.) There’s a bit more to it than this, but this simplified view allows us to look at the bigger picture. What that picture will show is that we put our athletes through this process to achieve one or more of the following training adaptations at certain, appropriate times of the year, depending on the sport:

  1. Gain muscle mass (hypertrophy)
  2. Gain strength (maximum, sub-maximum, relative)
  3. Gain power (movement velocity at varying external loads, rate of force development)
  4. Gain muscular endurance (repetition-effort at varying levels of strength)
  5. Gain cardiovascular endurance (intervals; long, slow distance work; or any repetitive movement done over a longer period)

If our well-designed strength and conditioning program accomplishes these goals, we have now developed our athletes for peak performance at the start of the season, right? So, why put in all that work and then just...stop? That’s like getting to the final boss in Super Mario Bros. and then just shutting off your Super Nintendo—why would you risk losing your progress?!

The body’s muscular and nervous systems are dynamic—meaning that they’re always changing, never the same. Why do I say this? Because while many coaches talk about “maintaining” strength and fitness during the season, I’m here to tell you that your athletes are either getting better or worse in whatever performance traits you’ve developed during the off-season. Exactly how much those traits are affected varies depending on the individual, but you can be sure that training adaptations fluctuate over the season, for better or for worse.

This fluctuation is a process that the body undergoes in its journey to function on all levels (to reach homeostasis, the body’s “set-point” or where it likes to stay most of the time). We, as coaches, are constantly trying to raise our athletes’ homeostatic level—but if we stop training at the start of the season, that level of homeostasis will begin to fall at ever-increasing rates. 

The Detraining Process (Atrophy) 

In strength and conditioning, there is a concept called “training residuals.” This is the effect of how long a training stimulus for any given performance trait will last once training has completely ceased. As an example, maximum strength (or the absolute level of strength that someone possesses in any given movement) can last up to about a month after training has stopped—that’s a 4-week training residual. So even when your athletes get a couple weeks off for holidays, they should technically possess the same strength levels when they return.

(This may not ALWAYS be the case because there is a lot more involved in this process, but that could be a whole other article, so I digress.)

My point here is that most sport seasons last longer than the four or five weeks of time that your athletes can keep their strength before these levels begin to decline. Add to that the possibility that they may do well and make it into the playoffs, when you really want them to perform at their best. If the season stretches longer, your athletes will need more training to last them through playoffs. @@You cannot completely rely on training residuals to carry your athletes through the season.@@

For the Love Of...Success

This brings me back to your win-loss record, otherwise known as the success of your season. How do we continue to train through the season? I know many of you are thinking, “There’s just no time to train in-season.” Forgive my sass, but my answer is: you have to MAKE time—this is important!

But don’t panic! Let’s go over some ways you can implement in-season training with your team, despite the high volume of games and practices.

An easy way to continue adding positive stimulus to your athletes’ training during the season is to dedicate at least one session per week to strength and conditioning. Ideally, you would have time to squeeze in two. Before you decide you don’t have the time, keep in mind that these are very brief, focused sessions. These are not the beast sessions from the off-season where the training volume was through the roof—THAT is the type of training for which you have no time, because it is time-intensive and will leave your athletes too sore to perform at their best.

These brief training sessions are focused on those most-important performance traits for your given sport (usually one to two traits). The reason I used maximum strength as an example for training residuals is because most, if not all, performance traits can be traced back to maximum strength. In simpler terms, if your athletes possess a high level of max strength, all of their other performance traits will increase. So, if max strength decreases due to the cessation of training, all other performance traits will likely decline as well.

An in-season training week for football athletes might look something like the workouts below. Note that it’s not much—but even these quick workouts will continue to add a training stimulus and is certainly better than nothing.

Session 1:

  • MB Reverse Overhead Throw 3x5
  • BB Back Squat 3x5
  • DB One-Arm Row 3x8 ea
  • DB Step-up 3x5 ea
  • Band Pull to Face with External Rotation 3x10

Session 2:

  • BB Hang Clean 3x5
  • BB Towel Bench Press 3x5
  • GHD Reverse Hyperextension 3x8
  • DB Half-Kneeling One-Arm Press 3x8
  • SB Leg Curl 3x8
  • Band Standing Anti-Rotation 2x30-45 sec ea

Your Athletes’ Health

Your team’s health is obviously of the highest importance to you. Training during the season helps your athletes’ connective tissues (muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc.) stay strong in order to handle the forces they must overcome on the field/court/etc. Even if your sport is considered non-contact, we must always be aware that athletes are always overcoming forces: gravity, change-of-direction, jumping, throwing, any type of movement. These all require forces of varying levels to be created and absorbed. Non-contact injuries happen not only because of faulty movement patterns, but also because of connective tissues that cannot maintain tension (due to a lack of strength) to overcome internal forces. (This may be an oversimplification for injuries like ACL tears that have more variables at play, but this certainly is one reason for problems that arise.)

If we look at contact sports, it should be easy to see why strength training during the season is important. Sports like football and rugby involve bodies smashing into each other, so each athlete needs to possess more strength and power to counteract these external forces. The explanation on connective tissues above is even more important in contact sports, as well. The stronger (and bigger—hypertrophy) these tissues are, the more resilient they become to these external forces.

Lastly, we can consider actual muscle size within contact sports. We can think of larger muscles as pillows, or cushions, in the simplest terms. Dan John, one of my favorite coaches and sources of information, calls hypertrophy training “Armor Building,” because it truly helps the body absorb impact from external forces. Strength training during the season will help prevent the muscle mass built during the off-season from declining, working as a natural safety barrier for your athletes.

Wait, one more “lastly”! Strength training during the season improves your athletes’ ability to maintain proper movement patterns for longer periods of time (through increased movement efficiency) before they break down. When athletes are tired and begin to break down in their movement integrity, their risk for injury escalates at a much greater rate. Strength and conditioning can help prolong the time before fatigue, helping to actually decrease the likelihood of injury. How about THAT for helping preserve the health of your athletes?!

Long Story, Short

The bottom line is: your team will be weak, slow, and more prone to injury than those teams that are training during the season. If I still haven’t convinced you, just observe when you play against a team that has an established strength and conditioning program and see how much stronger, more explosive, and “fresh” (greater work capacity/endurance) they are against your team that is not training during the season. @@Don’t put all your off-season progress at risk—get in the weight room during the season@@ to help your athletes perform at their best and stay healthy doing it.


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Doug Berninger, MEd, CSCS*D, RSCC, USAW is a guest contributor to the Volt Blog. Having served as an Assistant Strength Coach at the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) Performance Center in Colorado Springs, CO, and Director of Weightlifting at NC Fit in Santa Clara, CA, Doug is now an instructor in Seattle University’s Kinesiology Department. Learn more about Coach Berninger at Monumental Strength.