In-Season Strength Training for American Football
Reggie Johal considers how we can undertake an in-season strength training program while working around team practice and games.
American Football is a sport where a high level of strength and speed plays a significant role in achieving success on the field. Players should focus diligently on these attributes during the off-season when the absence of team practices and games allows for the recovery time needed to make substantial improvements.
However, once the season has started, a player attempting to implement the same program that worked well in the off-season is liable to find that they cannot maintain the required training volume and intensity.
Furthermore, in attempting to do so, they will often find that rather than continuous improvement, they start to backslide, and strength and enthusiasm decline rapidly. The extra demands imposed in season on the body necessitate increased rest and recovery. By seeking to emulate a program designed for the off-season, overtraining and decrements in performance are inevitable.
This poses a challenge. We cannot stop strength training and see our off-season work wasted, but how can we implement a program that allows us to train in-season, working around team practice and games?
In developing a solution, we must first explore the non-strength training demands faced in-season. Assuming a game on Sunday, most teams will have at least two team scrimmages on Tuesday and Thursday and additional skill sessions on Wednesday and Friday. Depending on the intensity of team sessions, speed training could be implemented between Tuesday and Thursday. These are the priority in-season as developing technical skills will do more to bring success than just being strong.
A priority for the team strength coach is to maintain improvements generated in the off-season while working around the other training sessions faced by the player. Consideration should also be made to limit the potential for causing injuries or soreness in the gym using strength training methods, as no head coach will appreciate an athlete turning up injured or sore on gameday.
We need to develop a program that balances these different factors.
Key Factors in developing an in-season program
Based on the constraint above we can look to implement a program utilising the following key elements:
Low Volume - We have already discussed how much extra work a football player faces in-season, so any program must have a much-reduced volume of work. The emphasis is on doing just enough to maintain the player's strength levels without causing any unnecessary extra demands.
Compound Exercises - By employing compound, multi-joint exercises, we can hit all the major body parts with the minimum number of sets needed to achieve a training effect. There is no time to use isolation exercises to work on particular muscle weaknesses.
Minimising eccentric work - Eccentric exercise, emphasising the lowering rather than lifting weights, can cause more significant muscle damage and soreness than concentric exercise, which refers to lifting the weight. Although abnormal patterns help produce muscle growth, they should be de-emphasised in-season so as not to jeopardise recovery for team practice or games.
Adopting a total body program - A full-body program lets us hit all the major body parts at a high frequency ensuring adequate stimulation without spending hours in the gym trying to train individual muscle groups in isolation. When employing a full-body routine, we need to reduce the volume per session to manage energy levels and avoid overtraining. By training the whole body together, we can be assured of maintaining some training effect in the event injury or soreness prevents players from visiting the gym as often as planned.
Auto-regulating Program - This is just a fancy way to say that the training program needs to be capable of being modified to reflect the fact that the player's fitness levels can vary significantly in season. Rather than following a training program slavishly, the program needs to be adjustable in volume, exercise selection, and intensity.
Considering these five factors, we can present a sample template for an in-season training program adjusted according to the player's position and current fitness level.
Sample in-season training program
Our strength training program will work around these constraints. We will assume games on Sunday, full team practices on Tuesday and Thursday, with skill sessions on Wednesday and Friday. Of course, if you have less or more time available, you could adjust the program somewhat. What follows is only one example of how to structure a training program during the season.
Straight after the game, the last thing many players may want to do is to train in the gym. Still, while it isn't the time to push big weights, some light exercises employing light weights and high repetitions will help the recovery process, with the increased blood flow bringing nutrients to sore muscles.
These exercises should be performed with sub-maximal weights so that even on the second set, trainees keep a few repetitions in the tank. Going too heavy would cause even more muscle soreness when the purpose is to enhance recovery.
Most people will feel better after Monday's training session and hopefully be better able to participate in a team session on this day. Depending on the time available, some light technical work could be conducted in the gym, which will not cause fatigue, but help with technical proficiency.
Today's session is optional and only for those with exceptional recovery abilities, but the intensity should be low even for those players. No more than 80% of the player's 1RM should be used. Again, we are focusing on technique, not strength, in this session.
Wednesday is the day where depending on the player's current fitness, and we can schedule the week's heaviest session as it is not so close to Sunday that significant soreness remains. The soreness from today's workout should dissipate by Sunday (a game or the most intense team scrimmage of the week).
In today's workout, players should push themselves by training with the heaviest weights possible while permitting good form. However, they should avoid straining with maximal loads, which could lead to forming breakdown, as well as causing undue strain on the central nervous system given all the various football-related activities for which a high state of preparedness is required.
Players whose schedules did not permit training on Wednesday could perform Wednesday's workout today with the proviso that they could reduce the workout volume if needed if they feel they will not recover for Sunday. Otherwise, for those who already trained on Wednesday, it would be better to rest fully from the gym today.
Most teams will only have a light skill session today. With only two days before Sunday, now is not the time to perform a full-blown training session. Instead, we can implement a session similar to Tuesday, enhancing skill patterns and focusing on a high rate of force development with minimal eccentric work.
The focus should be on rapid, explosive lifting, using no more than 80% of 1RM.
Today should be a day of complete rest from all exercise with a game or full scrimmage on Sunday.
Total rest before and after the game/scrimmage.
By implementing an in-season training program based on the principles enshrined in this article, we should be able to maintain strength levels to a large extent. Depending on the frequency and intensity of games and scrimmages, the program can be adapted to allow for more or less training as recovery abilities permit. However, unless a three or 4-week block of free time becomes available, players should avoid the temptation to increase training volume and intensity as this will inevitably lead to overtraining. However, so long as they integrate their in-season strength training program with their other training demands, they should be able to maintain their physical abilities throughout a long season.
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About the Author
Reggie Johal is a former international American Football player for Great Britain with a lifelong passion for strength and speed training and has assisted many athletes in applying training protocols for their sports. He can be contacted through his Sports Nutrition site.