Jan 29, 2015
Let the Season Begin

Once a sport season gets underway, strength and conditioning can easily be forgotten. That’s why you need a special plan for in-season weight training.

By Abigail Funk

Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor atTraining & Conditioning.She can be reached at: [email protected].

When teams are in the weightroom for off-season and preseason workouts, most strength coaches have a nicely scheduled progression in place. The athletes come in on specific days at specific times, conforming to a consistent schedule. Everything flows smoothly: each athlete is making strength gains, the sport coach is happy to see progress, and the schedule remains consistent.

Then the season starts, and chaos ensues. One week, there is travel and several games, the next week, tough practices leave the players exhausted. Every week is a little different from the last, and sport coaches devote less and less time to thinking about strength training.

So what is a strength coach to do? How are you supposed to help athletes stay strong and healthy when dealing with constant interruptions? During in-season training, keeping your weightroom schedule organized, remaining flexible, and communicating with the coaching staffs are absolute musts.


As athletes and sport coaches adjust to their in-season demands, you should do the same. Addressing your training philosophy is a great place to start. Most strength coaches agree that once competitions and games begin, it is not an ideal time to target maximum strength gains. Instead, the main goals during this period should be maintenance and recovery. Some athletes will continue to gain strength, and that’s great, but it’s no longer the top priority.

“During the season, we reduce our volume in two ways,” says Bryan McGovern, MS, CSCS, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Binghamton University. “We decrease the number of days we work out—most of our teams go from three to two days a week. And we reduce the volume of work within the workout—if I have a team coming right from practice, I’m going to limit their volume to avoid fatigue.

“In-season, I err on the side of doing too little rather than too much, no matter the sport,” McGovern continues. “Football, for example, is a very physical sport and there’s a lot of wear and tear on the body as the season goes on. With a sport like baseball, while there is no physical contact, overuse injuries are prevalent. In-season, focusing on recovery through lighter workouts is most important for us.”

Derik Budig, MS, SCCC, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Northern State University, agrees. However, he still wants his athletes to get stronger as the season progresses.

“Often, the sport coach thinks lifting should take a back seat during the in-season, which is true to a certain degree, but it takes the average person only 72 hours away from the weightroom to see atrophy in the muscle,” Budig says. “When a team prepares so well then suddenly stops, the ‘use it or lose it’ adage comes in and poor performance results.”

Keith D’Amelio, Head Strength Coach for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, has the luxury of carefully tailoring an in-season plan for each player. “The team plays a game pretty much every other day of the week during the season, and when you factor in traveling, it’s very demanding for our veteran guys who play 35 to 40 minutes a night,” he explains. “More than anything, those guys need recovery time. However, for the younger guys and players who aren’t getting as many minutes, my in-season philosophy doesn’t really change from the off-season—they need to put in the work to become stronger and improve.

“It’s the in-between guys who play 20 minutes one night and zero minutes two nights later that are tough to plan for,” D’Amelio continues. “I don’t want to overwork them, but they can’t just slide by either.”

You will also need to decide if your in-season training philosophy includes game-day lifting. Patrick McHenry, MA, CSCS*D, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Castle View High School in Castle Rock, Colo., is a proponent of the idea. “There is research out there that shows positive effects to lifting on gamedays,” he says. “We do a light workout with full range of motion to burn off some of that nervous energy. After the workout, the athletes should feel like they could walk right out onto that court or field and start playing.”


Perhaps the most challenging aspect of administering in-season workouts is developing and maintaining a schedule. When putting together his master plan for a semester, McGovern schedules Binghamton’s in-season teams last. “We schedule our off-season teams first because they’re in at a set time three to four days a week, and their schedules do not change,” he says. “But our in-season teams’ schedules can be different every week—a weekend game and a Tuesday game, or no weekend game, but two weekday games—so we move their lifting days around to fit their game and travel schedules.”

Mike Nitka, MS, CSCS, USAW, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Muskego (Wis.) High School, says his favorite scheduling tool is one very large dry erase board. “Before each season begins, I send every one of my coaches a letter in which I introduce myself and ask them to send me a calendar of their season along with when they would like to come into the weightroom. I also ask for their roster size, and whether their assistants will be helping me supervise,” he says. “Then I put all of their information on a dry erase board that hangs behind my counter in the weightroom. Every team’s details are written in a different color.

The varying colors also help the sport coaches to keep things straight. “When a coach sees there are three different colors at their time slot but none at another, they might switch so they can have the room to themselves,” Nitka says. “If a team is not going to be able to meet at the allotted time, I ask that the coach send a manager over so I can erase the team from the board.”

Along with a flexible schedule, you should also keep workout plans open to alteration. “We plan out what we want to do in-season and then take it week-by-week, remaining 100-percent flexible,” McGovern says. “I understand that depending on the coach’s whims, I will have to make changes on the fly. If a coach gives his team a day off and the athletes only get one lift in for the week, that does throw me off a little bit. But missing a training session is not the end of the world.

“In that situation, it’s tempting to automatically say, ‘Okay, we’ll go at it harder next week,'” continues McGovern. “But that’s not always the right move because maybe they have three games the following week and need the extra rest. If the coach decides to skip a workout, it’s probably for a good reason.”

Then, there’s the opposite scenario. “Say our men’s basketball team has a Wednesday road game, and Thursday’s practice is supposed to be light—maybe a shooting practice before their lifting session,” says Andy Zucker, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Old Dominion University. “But let’s say the game doesn’t go well. The coach didn’t approve of the team’s effort, so Thursday’s shooting practice turns into a grueling workout instead. Then when I get those guys after that practice, they’re exhausted.

“So I’ll change what I had planned,” he continues. “For example, we’ll start with upper body instead of the lower. Or instead of six exercises, we’ll just do four. You’ve got to be able to adapt.”

Another in-season problem can simply be finding adequate time for strength and conditioning. Budig counters by sometimes bringing his workout to the athletes. “If our basketball teams have multiple games in one week, it’s not uncommon for me to conduct a quick on-court workout immediately before or after practice,” he says. “A handful of towels for manual resistance exercises is a quick and easy solution.”

When the Raptors are on the road for extended periods, D’Amelio still tries to work them out as regularly as possible. “If we’re on the road for a week straight, I’ll get the guys in the hotel gym or the host team’s facilities—even if it’s just a quick workout,” he says.

When dealing with time constraints, McHenry starts by reevaluating the content of his workouts. “When I only have the athletes for a short period of time, I have to look at my program and say, ‘What exercises are going to give us the most bang for our buck?'” he says. “Usually it works well to just stick with the major muscle groups. And I know they’ll get sport specific exercises during practice.”

During those stretches of bumpy road, McGovern says it’s important to keep in mind that student-athletes are students first. “Our student-athletes’ first priority is school,” he says. “Strength and conditioning just happens to go along with their sport. We have to remember that the classroom comes first, then the court or the field, and finally the weightroom.”


Another key to getting the most out of the in-season months is being on the same page as the sport coach. This process has to start, of course, before the season rolls around.

McHenry is moving to a new high school this year, and is re-evaluating his interactions with coaches. “As I assume my new position, I’m starting the entire process over of learning how to work with coaches,” he says. “I’ve been meeting with each of them to ask what they’d like me to help them accomplish. The girls’ basketball coach, for instance, has a team that plays at an elite level and would like to try something new with her girls in the weightroom. Meanwhile, the football coach is just trying to have his players understand intensity in the weightroom, so we’ll stick with the basics there.

“I work with each sport coach in a different way,” McHenry continues. “Some coaches say, ‘You know what you’re doing, it’s your job, you take care of them.’ Other coaches have their own ideas about strength training, so it’s better for us to work more closely together.”

Nitka begins by asking each new sport coach for his or her training philosophy, which starts a season-long dialogue. “Many coaches will bring what they did in college to our level and tell me they want to do this, that, and the other thing in the weightroom,” he says. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘Well Coach, we don’t have this, that, and the other piece of equipment you need for those exercises.’ Then I show them how we can work around those shortcomings and substitute exercises that will still get at the same goal.

“I try to be as patient as I can with our coaches and remember that I once was that young guy just out of college,” Nitka continues. “I will never confront or embarrass a coach in front of his team. I will let them finish the workout and then ask to speak with them. I’ll say, ‘Here’s why I think this won’t work, and here’s what I think might be a better choice.'”

In all his discussions with coaches, Zucker makes sure his ears are open as well as his mouth. “Every head coach knows the ins and outs of their sport, and you have to listen to the objectives they want to achieve with their team,” he says. “It doesn’t work to be negative toward the coach and say, ‘No, this is what is right and this is what we’re going to do.’ You can still stand for what you believe in as long as you have professional flexibility.”

Nitka agrees. “If a coach goes to a clinic over the weekend and brings me back something he learned that he thinks is just the latest-and-greatest thing in training, I’ll certainly look at it,” he says. “Then I’ll ask him or her, ‘How much better is it than what we’re doing?’ I’ll again listen to what they have to say. I’ve argued with a couple of coaches, but ultimately they’re the sport coach and I’ve got to let them do what they want—as long as their choice of exercises is safe.”

McHenry tries to encourage back-and-forth dialogue. “If I find a good research article, I’ll put it in the coach’s mailbox,” he says. “Sometimes a coach will bring back some literature from a clinic and we’ll talk about the positives and negatives of the program. And sometimes a coach will come back from a workshop really excited about the great program they learned about, but it’s for a Division I college athlete, so I’ll suggest a modified, almost watered down version for our athletes instead.

“Ideally, some of our ideas will overlap,” McHenry continues. “Our volleyball coach, for example, uses some of the stretches and exercises I do in the weightroom as part of his warmup, and that supports what I do with his team when I’m working with them later on.”

Budig meets with each sport coach at mid-season to go over players’ strengths and weaknesses. He gives the coach a progress chart, equipped with a comment section for each athlete, and the two brainstorm ways to continue improving.

Zucker feels it’s key to get the sport coaches on his turf as much as possible. “I encourage the coaches and assistants to give me a hand when I have minimal staff,” he says. “Having the coach in the weightroom is a huge symbol of accountability. It shows the kids how important the strength training program is and that it’s part of the overall package. It doesn’t have to be the head coach, the entire coaching staff, or even for the whole session, but the support of the coaching staffs is huge for my programs.”

Budig also encourages Northern State’s coaches to at least stop in during team workouts. “If athletes see the sport coach at the workouts, they assume the coach buys into my program,” he says. “But I communicate to the coaching staff that if they come down to the weightroom, it’s only to help motivate and monitor progress—It’s not a time to pull kids aside and ask them about their grades or something else.”

So what if you’re stuck with a head coach who doesn’t communicate their goals and philosophy ideas to you very well, or at all? “If a head coach is a poor communicator, that shouldn’t make you one,” Budig says. “I constantly communicate with our coaching staff on test results, performance, attendance, injuries, attitude, and effort when their athletes are working with me.

“If the head coaches choose not to respond, I still continue on,” he adds. “The in-season can throw you a lot of curve balls, but you’ve got to continue being patient and making choices that are best for that particular team.”

Sidebar: Seasons Change

How should the intensity of workouts vary from off-season to in-season? Derek Budig, MS, SCCC, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Northern State University, offers his standard protocol for percentage increases (of rep max).


Weeks 1-3: 57-65% Weeks 4-6: 70-85% Weeks 7-9: 90-97.5% Weeks 10-12: 85-105%


Weeks 1-3: 55-60% Weeks 4-6: 62.5-77.5% Weeks 7-9: 72.5-90% Weeks 10-12: 77.5-92.5%


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