Jan 29, 2015
Pursuing Greatness

The University of Maryland men’s soccer strength and conditioning program uses a 12-month cycle to help players excel on the pitch in college and beyond.

By Barry Kagan

Barry Kagan, CSCS, MSCC, LMT, is Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Maryland, where he has primary responsibility for training the men’s soccer, women’s soccer, and field hockey teams. He can be reached at: [email protected].

The men’s soccer team here at the University of Maryland has been highly successful during the tenure of Head Coach Sasho Cirovski. His teams have earned seven trips to the College Cup (the NCAA’s “Final Four” for soccer) since 1998 and claimed two national championships in the process. The culture Coach Cirovski creates with his players embodies a pursuit of excellence.

As part of that culture, we’ve created a player development program that brings together all facets of the college soccer experience to promote success at our level and beyond. This wouldn’t be possible without coordination between the soccer coaching staff, academic support, athletic training, and the strength and conditioning unit.

Our players are already elite athletes–they come here wanting to hone their skills, and many hope to earn professional contracts when they leave. But they also want to earn degrees, so they often take accelerated course loads to allow for early departure if they’re presented with the chance to go pro.

A pleasant side effect of this is that they’re almost always around campus taking classes, which means our conditioning program can be based on a full 12-month cycle. That’s great for strength and conditioning, because while the workouts are optional in the off-season, they’re well attended and provide a sense of accomplishment and cumulative year-round progress, capitalizing on the players’ ongoing desire to improve.


Before breaking down our training approach, I must outline the goals we focus on all year long. They’re probably similar to the goals of most serious strength and conditioning programs, but it’s impossible to talk about our system without first briefly explaining them.

Injury prevention. This is our top priority. We want to keep players on the field, and if they are injured, we want to return them to action as quickly as possible. We work with our athletic training staff to address what caused the injury in the first place, and design a training approach that will help prevent a recurrence.

Efficiency. We don’t have many drills or exercises that emulate soccer-specific movements–that would create redundancies with what happens at team practices on the field. However, we want all our exercises to develop traits and skills that will enhance soccer ability.

Performance enhancement. Our predominant areas of focus are strength, balance, linear speed, and lateral speed and agility. We want players to meet individualized long-term development goals in each of those areas.

Coordination with team activities. Our workouts are structured to minimize interference with the coaches’ sport-specific skill development so the players are in optimal condition to perform at team practices. This means different things depending on the time of year and the team’s progress toward the coaching staff’s broader goals.

Smooth transitions. The players must be physically ready to move from one training phase to the next–from the summer to the preseason to the traditional season to the early off-season to spring semester training. This helps prevent injuries and ensures that everyone is prepared to perform at their best when it matters most.

Recovery. We understand that the choices a player makes after lifting or working out play a major role in his physical recovery. With that in mind, we educate players on optimal recovery methods and follow up to make sure they’re heeding our advice.


Our soccer postseason typically ends around the time our fall semester is wrapping up, so we think of winter break as the start of a new training year. Many of our players stay on campus for most of the break to take one academic course, so it’s a great time to begin working out again after taking a few weeks off following the season and around the holidays.

Because they may be somewhat deconditioned from the weeks off, this is the one time of year when I assign a long-distance steady-state run each week. Other assigned runs at this time are limited to fartlek-style aerobic running, accompanied by one weekly anaerobic session.

The end of December marks the start of winter break strength training. We think of this as a preparatory phase for spring–the lifting is not particularly structured, as players are assigned lifting cards and told to come into the weightroom when their schedule permits.

Winter in the weightroom is an opportunity for our athletes to reacquaint themselves with key lower-body lifts. Working through some degree of glute, hamstring, and quad soreness is unavoidable with the reintroduction of our staple strength work, such as squats, Romanian deadlifts, and lunge movements. Volume is moderate and the loads are fairly light, with intensity increasing only toward the end of January as spring classes begin.

Since the winter is a less structured time of year and the players have spent several weeks away from the sport after their season, they are usually anxious to start playing soccer together again. Accordingly, they reserve time in our indoor facility three or four nights per week during the winter. The coaches and I are never there, but we encourage this activity and take it as a great sign of our players’ commitment to and love of the game and the team. From what I am told, the games are quite intense–the players only have one speed, and that’s game speed.

Besides the recreational and team cohesion benefits of these pick-up sessions, they also help return the athletes to the conditioned state they’ll need for the upcoming spring. Playing increases their substrate storage capabilities and sport-specific endurance, and because soccer requires both prolonged low-intensity movement and intermittent intense bursts, it provides an ideal blend of aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. Plus, with all the starting, stopping, accelerating, and other required movements, the players’ adductors, knees, ankles, and core remain engaged and “practice ready” throughout the winter period.


The NCAA limits teams to five competition dates during the spring semester. With so little focus on competitive soccer, it’s an ideal time for some of our most intense, multi-faceted training of the year based on progressive overload principles.

Our spring program leads off with a hypertrophy phase, which typically lasts until roughly one week before the start of full spring practices. At that point, when overall physical demand increases for the players, we shift to a strength and power phase. The transition normally occurs a week before the start of full spring practices, but it varies depending on our meetings with the coaching staff and evaluation of the team’s strength needs.

One of our top priorities in the spring semester is lower-body development, which is obviously paramount in soccer. To balance that with our broader objective of never interfering with the players’ readiness for team practices, we follow a carefully planned schedule to avoid overtaxing their legs.

In a typical week, we have three lifting sessions: Tuesday is full-body lifting with high intensity but limited volume; Thursday involves upper-body lifts combined with lower-body explosive movements; and Friday evenings feature heavy lower-body training. Each Tuesday and Thursday session begins with a plyometric warmup consisting of:

• Skate jumps (4 x 16) • Skips for height (4 x 20 yards) • Lateral single-leg hurdle hops (2 x 12 each leg) • Front/back single-leg hurdle hops (2 x 12 each leg) • Push-ups, sit-ups, and other calisthenics between the plyo sets.

After warmup, Tuesday workouts begin with an Olympic-style lift super-setted with an upper-back movement and a prehab exercise. This is followed by a squat movement supersetted with a major upper-body movement (usually the incline press) and two to four sets of prehab or core exercises to allow for recovery between squat sets. Loads vary in relation to exercise difficulty–for example, pause squats may be conducted at 55 percent of one-rep max for eight reps, while regular squats may be at 72 percent. After the primary upper-body and lower-body exercises, we perform three sets of a barbell lunge (forward, reverse, lateral, or a combination) supersetted with a dumbbell pressing movement and more prehab.

Tuesday’s workouts are the most taxing due to the quick pace we maintain in the weightroom, but the actual volume of upper- and lower-body work is not overly fatiguing. There is no time to sit and rest, but the interspersed prehab supersets allow for adequate recovery.

For Thursday’s workouts, we typically incorporate an Olympic movement such as the hang snatch, five sets on the bench press, and a dumbbell pressing movement, again with intermittent prehab and stretching work such as partner hip stretches, side lunges, and ladder work using ankle bands. Like on Tuesdays, the complete workout takes less than 50 minutes.

Friday’s workouts are the longest of the week in spring, often lasting around an hour and 10 minutes. They usually include five sets of squats, a single-leg strength movement, and three to four sets of RDLs combined with hamstring prehab and flexibility exercises. We expect the players to be sore after Friday’s sessions, but they don’t practice or lift again until Monday morning, so there is no interference with soccer development.

Tuesday’s and Thursday’s workouts are always conducted prior to practice, a schedule we prefer for two main reasons. First, it allows the players to perform weightroom work while completely fresh, so I know that any technique flaws or weaknesses I observe are not simply the result of an especially fatiguing team practice. That helps me to quickly identify and address any problems on an individual basis. Second, because the players practice right after lifting, active recovery is built into their routine, which is one of the best ways to limit next-day soreness.

For Coach Cirovski and his staff, our schedule means they get players with fresh legs on Monday, only slight fatigue on Tuesday, possible minor residual soreness on Wednesday, and fresh legs on Thursday and Friday mornings. It’s a schedule that has served us well over the years, so we maintain it until the end of the semester when the players go through a spring testing battery that includes shuttle running, sprints, vertical jumps, bench pressing, and squats.


Most players stay in town over the summer while taking classes or completing an internship. They come in for strength training when possible, and we try our best to schedule times when the entire group can work out together.

We spend very little time on sport-specific fitness through the first half of the summer. The exception is on Fridays, when we often integrate a high-tempo soccer-like agility training session that lasts 20 to 25 minutes, typically incorporating fartlek and standard agility work.

Some strength coaches may question the generalized fitness regimen we follow in summer, but we have seen consistent success with this approach, especially when combined with competitive timed runs on the track and anaerobic shuttle drills. Fitness level determines a player’s capacity for concentration and crisp play in the late stages of a game, so besides all the physical benefits, being in great overall shapes gives our athletes an important confidence boost and mental edge.

My goals during this phase are continued athletic development, substrate storage, and team building. Near the conclusion of the summer training cycle, workouts become more game-specific and lifting gets more intense. We usually build in an offload week in mid-July to coincide with final exams for the summer academic session.


In early August, as we transition to the preseason period, we perform extensive testing. We use a version of the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test, which involves a series of 40-meter runs (20 meter out-and-back shuttles) performed with 10 seconds of recovery between reps. We also time each player individually in 3 x 300-yard shuttles with 50-yard increments and two minutes’ rest between runs. In addition, we measure vertical jump to assess lower-body power and one-rep max in the bench press for upper-body strength.

Coach Cirovski makes clear to everyone that playing time isn’t determined by the test results. But having conducted the same tests with only a few alterations for the past 15 years, the data is valuable for tracking player development and comparing progress from one season to the next. We use it to show players tangible evidence of their hard work paying off, to identify individual training needs, and to compare our current roster with past players who excelled at the college level and moved on to national or professional teams.

One other note on testing: We do not test squat max in the preseason. I assign in-season squat maxes based on summer lifting performance instead, because the injury risk and muscle soreness associated with a squat max test at this time is too great.

Preseason serves as our transition period from off-season lifting (aimed primarily at strength gains) to in-season lifting (focused on strength maintenance). The loads are very light–for instance, players may squat 2 x 8 with 135 pounds and perform RDLs with 88 pounds–and lifting is completed right before practice along with prehab exercises, including flexibility work and foam rolling.

Once the season begins, lifting sessions are shortened to a maximum of roughly 20 minutes, still performed immediately before team practices. We cover the bare minimums–workouts normally start with weighted jumps, various squats and lunges, and an Olympic lift. As the season progresses, we phase out the squats and lunges for players who log 60 or more minutes per game and replace them with prehab assignments to reduce physical stress during the long soccer season.

All players perform RDLs twice a week throughout the season–one day with moderate weight (110 to 132 pounds) and the other day with light weight (88 pounds) and with both feet on Dyna Disks to add a proprioceptive component. The RDLs are supersetted with hamstring stretches and rolls, and we always perform iliotibial (IT) band rolls at some point in the lifting sessions–this was recommended by our team physical therapist, who noticed tight hamstrings and IT bands on many players visiting her for rehab after injury.

Prehab circuits during the season are customized for players as needed, and typically include two or three exercises for each body part that is most at risk for injury. This usually means flexibility, strength, or foam rolling work targeting the adductors, hamstrings, core, ankles, and knees. Many of the exercises integrate a proprioceptive component, and almost all are performed on one leg at a time to eliminate the risk for bilateral compensation.

Our year-round strength and conditioning program builds in enough variety and customization to keep the players engaged and motivated all year long. We hope that a continued commitment from the players will result in continued team success, and that those with the talent to reach the pro level will leave here with the tools necessary to make it happen.


While our goalies train with the rest of the team most of the time (sometimes with modified versions of agility drills), we also have a set of strength drills for them to perform twice a week to develop a few position-specific attributes. The sequence includes:

• Rotator cuff movements: in/outs, up/backs, empty cans, D1/D2 (12 each) • Vertical jump + plate punch-up, 22 pounds (2 x 12) • “Ready position” plate holds (33 pounds) with teammate tapping the plate after two weeks (45 seconds) • Cross-body one-arm med ball throws (12 each side)

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