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 are unable to maintain the required training volume and intensity needed.
Furthermore, in attempting to do so, they will often find that rather than continuous improvement, they start to backslide and strength as well as enthusiasm declines rapidly. The extra demands imposed in-season on the body necessitate increased rest and recuperation, and by seeking to emulate a program designed for the off-season, overtraining and decrements in performance are the inevitable outcome.
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, as well as auxiliary skill sessions on Wednesday and Friday. These are the priority in-season as developing technical skills will do more to bring success than just being strong. Depending on the intensity of team sessions, some low volume speed training could also be implemented between Tuesday and Thursday.
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. This is no time to use isolation exercises to work on particular muscle weaknesses (or training our egos).
Minimising eccentric work - Eccentric exercise, emphasising the lowering rather than lifting of weights can cause greater muscle damage and soreness than concentric exercise, which refers to lifting the weight. Although eccentric 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 the need to spend hours in the gym trying to train individual muscle groups in isolation. 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. When employing a full-body routine, we need to reduce the volume per session to manage energy levels and avoid overtraining.
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.
By considering these five factors, we can present a sample template for an in-season training program which can be adjusted according to the player's position and current level of fitness.
Sample in-season training program
We will assume games on Sunday, full team practices on Tuesday and Thursday, with skill sessions on Wednesday and Friday. Our strength training program will work around these constraints. Of course, if you have less or more time available, you could adjust the program somewhat. What follows is only one example of a way 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 exercise 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 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 even for those players intensity should be low, 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 we can schedule the week's heaviest session as it is not so close to Sunday that significant soreness remains. The soreness produced from today's workout should dissipate by the coming Sunday (either 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.
For players whose schedules did not permit training on Wednesday, they could perform Wednesday's workout today with the proviso that they could reduce the workout volume if needed if they feel they will not be recovered 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.
With a game or full scrimmage on Sunday, today should be a day of complete rest from all exercise.
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 3 or 4-week block of free time became available, players should avoid the temptation to try to increase training volume and intensity as this will inevitably 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 on the applications of training protocols for their sports. He can be contacted through his Sports Nutrition site.