Strength training: athletes need to maintain their strength and power during the in season

Failing to maintain strength levels can lead to injury and a drop in form

The most important phase of the year for any athlete is the competition season. Often, weights are discarded at this time and an emphasis – not surprisingly – is placed on competing and sport-specific training. But is this best practice?

Not unless you want your hard-earned strength and power to deteriorate during the season and experience a tail-off in performance. So often, amateur sportspeople neglect to maintain their strength levels in pre-season and in-season. This neglect can lead to injury, as the body’s resilience declines (weight training develops and maintains the strength of soft tissue – muscles, ligaments and tendons). Not continuing weight training can also – as mentioned – lead to a drop in form as the athlete begins to lose the ability to utilise the strength, power and pace that was evident earlier in the season. Skill will also deteriorate as a result. 

How to maintain strength and power in-season

So how do we go about maintaining strength and power levels when much of the athlete’s energy needs to be channelled into matches and their sport-specific training?
Power expression should hopefully be taken care of by frequent matches and by sport-specific training (sprinting, jumping, etc). But there needs to be a focus on maintaining maximum and general strength levels in the weights room.

If it is felt that lack of specific power is becoming an issue, it is possible to include a short period of training. But this phase should be of very low volume, particularly if the athlete has been involved in matches/competitions, as recovery will be a crucial factor following high-intensity training. The athlete has only so much central nervous energy to expend and factoring this in becomes a crucial consideration – see PP 261 for a detailed consideration. 

How often/how much?

It is advisable to include a strength training session once every 7-10 days, depending upon competitions.

This can be a weights session on its own, or it can be a very low volume unit following a planned speed or sport-specific session. The latter allows for greater recovery time (further into the training week) as it removes an extra-high intensity (weights session) day from the weekly training programme.

It is advisable to cease high intensity weight training (80%-plus of one repetition maximum) 7-10 days before an important competition, and low-intensity (less than 75%) at least five days before an important competition.

A situation may arise because of competition demands that weight training has to be dropped from the training programme for a period lasting more than 10 days. That is OK; it’s performing well that matters, and being fresh for competition is paramount. However, just make sure to get back to lifting as soon as possible when a break from intense competition occurs.

To make the best use of your time in the weights room, it advisable to use the core lifts whenever possible. 

Which exercises?

Remember, core lifts work the major muscle groups. Great examples are: squats, dead-lifts, cleans – all involve the ankle, knee and hip joints (triple extension).

Because a large number of motor units and muscle fibres are involved in completing these lifts, only a small number of exercises, sets and reps are required as part of the maintenance programme, particularly when the loads are of a high intensity. I prefer lifts to be performed at 80% of maximum during this phase.

The auxiliary lifts  – for example, the lat pull-down – targets smaller muscle groups over single joints and have a lower overall motor unit recruitment and are performed at lower intensities. These lifts can still be valuable during the maintenance phase, particularly nearer a major competition, when it is advisable to reduce training intensity.

SAMPLE IN-SEASON WEIGHTS SESSIONS

1. Single unit session (no major competition within 14 days)

LIFTS SETS REPS %1RM Recovery (min)
Squats 2-3 6 80 5
Dead-lifts 2-3 6 80 5
Seated row 2-3 12 65 3
Dumb-bell press 2-3 12 65 3

 

Reduce the number of exercises to 2-3 and the sets to 2 nearer to a major competition

2. Strength unit following speed/competition specific unit

LIFTS SETS REPS %1RM Recovery (min)
Bench press 2 6 80 5
Bent-over row 2 6 80 5


This unit is limited to the upper body (1 pushing movement, 1 pulling movement) as the athlete’s central nervous system will be taxed following high-intensity work

3.  Strength endurance unit – to maintain general fitness

LIFTS SETS REPS %1RM Recovery (min)
Lunges 3 10 65 2
Bench press 3 10 65 2
Dead-lifts 3 10 65 2
Front pull-down 3 12 60 2
Abdominals 3 30secs   3


Session number 3 could be substituted with body-weight circuit training, which could be performed on recovery days. This is because the intensity is low. It could also be combined with low-intensity tempo running to aid recovery from high-intensity sessions and maintain general fitness.

REMEMBER: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FIT MORE THAN 2 STRENGTH SESSIONS INTO A WEEKLY PROGRAMME DURING THE COMPETITION SEASON

 

Phil Gardiner

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