The Importance of a Flexible Training Program

When it comes to training your athletes for a specific performance goal, there are a few non-negotiables. If you want your athletes to stay healthy and perform at their highest level, your training program must be:

  • Specific to your athletes (sport, position, training experience, strength level, etc.)
  • Built by a certified strength coach (based on safe and proven strength and conditioning practices)
  • Periodized to peak athletes for performance while aiming to prevent overtraining
  • Focused on building general athleticism first, with special attention on mitigating sport-specific injuries
  • Organized in a year-long (or multi-year) approach to developing the whole athlete

But beyond these core principles, there’s one more key ingredient to a safe and effective strength and conditioning program: flexibility.

No matter how perfectly constructed your training program is on paper, life in the real world is unpredictable. You never know when an injury, illness, absence, schedule change, or unforeseen event is going to throw a wrench in your plan, requiring you to make some modifications in order to keep driving athlete performance. 

There are too many static, one-size-fits-all programs out there, marketing themselves as performance training plans. But a rigid 12-week program simply does not work for athletes. Period. Leveraging the expertise of our veteran strength coaches on the Volt Advisory Board, this article highlights the 3 ways in which a training program MUST be flexible in order to be safe and effective for young athletes.
 

 This flowchart concept from Patrick McHenry shows how he assigns training programs to groups of high school track athletes based on performance goals (i.e., when they need to peak for competition). Coaches can use similar flowcharts in other sports, especially sports with multiple peaking seasons, to help all their athletes peak appropriately at the right times.

This flowchart concept from Patrick McHenry shows how he assigns training programs to groups of high school track athletes based on performance goals (i.e., when they need to peak for competition). Coaches can use similar flowcharts in other sports, especially sports with multiple peaking seasons, to help all their athletes peak appropriately at the right times.

 

1. Flexibility in the Training Calendar

“Programming has to be fluid,” says Patrick McHenry, Volt Advisory Board member and strength coach at Castle Rock High School (CO). “You don’t know if an athlete is going to get injured, or if a meet is going to get rescheduled.” In other words: your entire training calendar must be flexible.
 
Whether it’s a rescheduled competition, an athlete who moved up to a varsity spot mid-season, or simply an upcoming school break or vacation you need to account for, you must be able to make changes to the length and organization of each cycle in your training program. If you’re on a static 12-week program, but your athletes need to peak in 6 weeks (or 8 weeks, or 16 weeks, etc.), you’re going to run into trouble because your calendar isn’t optimized for success. You must be able and willing to make changes after your initial plan is laid out in order to help your athletes reach their performance potential.

At Volt, we do this by constructing a 52-week training calendar that is optimized to each team’s unique schedule, yet flexible enough to allow for coaches to tailor their training along the way. Coaches can insert an Off Week during a school vacation, or a Unload week during finals or midterms, and the periodized calendar dynamically adjusts each athlete’s training moving forward, shifting blocks of training so that athletes still peak at just the right time. This flexible calendar allows coaches to make adjustments without hurting the overall integrity of the training, and the overall health and performance of their athletes.

Keeping your calendar flexible enough to account for changes will help you continue to meet the needs of your athletes, even as those needs evolve.

 

2. Flexibility in Performance Goals

Your training program must also be flexible enough to allow athletes with different performance goals to peak at the optimal times. This is especially true for athletes in sports like swimming or track and field, who may need to peak for performance several times within a single season. I asked Coach McHenry how he handles these different performance timelines with his track athletes at Castle Rock.

“As an example,” he says, “we had our junior-varsity track athletes finish early. Some of our varsity athletes are going on to State, while others are simply finished for the season.”

“It can be hard to look at a single progression for all these athletes—you might be missing the big picture,” says Coach McHenry, yet another reason why a static 12-week program simply doesn’t cut it for athletes. ”Instead, I follow a simple flow chart that shows me exactly which athletes to place on which program.”

By segmenting your athletes into groups by performance goals and peaking dates, you can optimize training for their diverse needs. With Volt, coaches can create multiple versions of the same program, each with a different periodized calendar. This allows them to help their varsity athletes peak for a state or national competition, while JV athletes peak earlier for regional qualifiers. 

However you accomplish this with your athletes, it’s important to remember that your program must be fluid enough to allow athletes at all levels, for all goals, to compete at their highest level.
 

3. Flexibility in the Training Session

Mike Nitka, 36-year veteran strength coach at Muskego High School (WI) and Volt Advisory Board member, knows how to make on-the-fly program adjustments. After all, if you’re working with student-athletes, you’re going to need to be flexible, sometimes on a daily or last-minute basis. This is yet another reason why static programs don’t work for athletes—sometimes you have to modify your training to fit individual schedules and needs.

“Every spring, I’d have several football players come up to me and say, ‘Hey Coach! I’ve got a part in the school play and have to miss our workout! Can we reschedule it?’ So you simply have to take into account the student’s individual schedule on a program level,” says Coach Nitka.

Coach Nitka accomplished this by condensing a strength session into a 30-minute workout, or staying late to make sure his athletes didn’t miss training. This is why we prioritize the most essential movements at the beginning of each Volt workout, allowing coaches to accomplish what they can in whatever timeframe they’re working with.

“And remember that more is not always better, since it can lead to overtraining,” advises Coach Nitka. “More often than not, simplicity over complexity will get the job done.”

Your training program must also be flexible enough to account for modifications at the exercise level. Volt training, for example, allows a coach to replace any exercise with one from the same movement pattern category, letting coaches tailor the training without affecting the effectiveness of the program. Whether it’s replacing a loaded movement with a bodyweight version or altering a workout based on equipment availability, there are certain changes you may need to make to keep your athletes moving forward—and your program must account for them.
 

The Takeaway

At the heart of the topic of program flexibility is the most important consideration in performance training: the safety of your athletes.
 
Let’s say you’ve got an athlete who misses a few weeks of training. If your program does not adjust for that absence of training stimulus, you may be headed for disaster. This is why rigid, off-the-shelf 4-, 12-, or even 32-week training programs aren’t a solution for your athletes. 

@@Bottom line: if your program is inflexible, then your program is not optimized for safety.@@
 
This is the driving force behind all Volt training and why we’ve built our system to allow for dynamic programming. Our mission is to make it as easy as possible for coaches to deliver safe, effective sport performance training to every athlete, no matter their training goal. Free workouts printed from a bodybuilding website—or static programs that don’t take into account age, experience, sport, season, and all the other factors a certified-strength coach uses to determine the appropriate training for their athletes—simply won’t give you the same guided flexibility necessary for seeing progressive improvement throughout balanced movement patterns—especially for athletes training for performance in a sport. A flexible, adjustable training plan that is written in pencil, not pen, is the best way to guarantee both performance results and safety for your athletes.
 


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Christye Estes, CSCS, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is an NSCA-certified strength coach and a Sport Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye