Jan 29, 2015
Take a Load Off

Low-impact training and active rest aren’t synonyms for slacking off after the season. When planned properly, they let athletes recharge body and mind while still being challenged in their workouts.

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].

It’s a December morning in Plymouth, Minn., and a large group of sweat-soaked Wayzata High School football players are running around a padded wrestling room hurling dodge balls at one another. Meanwhile, the school’s weightroom is unoccupied, its equipment and free weights sitting in idle silence.

Some strength and conditioning coaches may cringe at the thought of their athletes “wasting time” playing games when they could be pumping iron and preparing for next season, but Ryan Johnson, CSCS, Coach Practitioner and Strength and Conditioning Coach at Wayzata, actually organized this dodge ball game. Johnson believes that after the season ends, each player needs to slow down and take some time to rest his mind and recharge his body. So he offers activities like dodge ball as a break from traditional weight-based workouts.

“We don’t want them to sit down and atrophy during the two to three weeks immediately following the season,” says Johnson, whose former players at Wayzata include Marion Barber of the Dallas Cowboys, Ben Hamilton of the Denver Broncos, and Ohio State University All-American James Laurinaitis. “But we do want to give them a mental break from the demands of the football season. My goal is to break their routine and keep them active, but not push them too hard.”

While most strength and conditioning professionals use active rest or active recovery at some points in their periodization models, these terms have a variety of meanings and applications. We talked to a handful of coaches about their methods for incorporating active rest and low- or non-impact training in their off-season strength and conditioning programs.


When football season ends at Wayzata, Johnson has his hands full designing off-season workouts for the program’s 300-plus football players. As a high school strength and conditioning coach, he works with athletes of all strength and ability levels. From 120-pound freshmen to future NFL draft picks, Johnson’s players come off each season with a variety of strength and conditioning needs. So before drawing up an off-season plan, Johnson engages his athletes in a low-impact training cycle he believes is essential for athlete development.

Though he always keeps the weightroom open and won’t turn a student-athlete away, Johnson does not issue any workouts for a couple weeks after the final game. Instead, he encourages his players to play pickup basketball, use an elliptical machine, or run the three-quarter mile cross country trail in the woods behind the school.

Recognizing a need to fuel his athletes’ competitive juices, Johnson organizes competitive games such as dodge ball to replace selected morning weightroom workouts. Another game Johnson uses is called Power Ball, in which two large garbage cans at either end of the gymnasium serve as goals. The rules allow players to run three steps before they must pass a football to a teammate or attempt to score. Johnson describes Power Ball as a running, throwing, twisting, spinning, and jumping game that uses the entire gym.

“I try to create morning activities that serve as team-bonding drills,” Johnson says. “We’ll play games two or three times a week. It’s completely optional, but attendance is always tremendous.”


When the women’s soccer and volleyball teams at Washington State University finish their seasons, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Cori Metzgar-Deacon, MA, SCCC, CSCS, is faced with an array of challenges. She needs to design the active rest portion of each team’s off-season strength and conditioning programs. She needs to allow for the athletes’ widely varying degrees of rest and recuperation time. And she needs to work around end-of-semester scheduling constraints.

“Soccer and volleyball finish in November, so depending on whether we have a postseason, we usually have two to five weeks until the kids leave for winter break,” Metzgar-Deacon says. “In all, we have about six to eight weeks before we begin our more rigorous off-season conditioning program in mid-January.”

After the athletes take a week off to recharge their mental batteries, Metzgar-Deacon begins implementing a cycle of non-impact conditioning workouts free of Olympic lifting, but incorporating a lot of body weight work. She wants her athletes to maintain their strength levels without stressing their joints, while also getting the mental satisfaction that accompanies a completed workout. Those sessions may include a number of Pilates-based movements, foam rollers, dumbbell work, med ball core work, and a long dynamic flexibility routine.

“The entire workout might take them 25 to 30 minutes, including warmup and a cooldown consisting of static stretching with partners or bands,” Metzgar-Deacon says. “They’re working their muscles and getting the blood pumping, but not stressing their bodies too much.”

Because of NCAA-mandated training dead periods, Metzgar-Deacon faces a bit of a twist the week before and during Washington State’s academic finals period. “During those two weeks, our workouts have to be completely voluntary so we plan activities that make the athletes want to come in,” she says. “I give them the same kinds of dynamic, body weight-type workouts as before, but try to make them more fun and with a quicker pace, and I don’t hound them or time their sets and rest periods. It’s a way for them to be around their teammates in a relaxed setting, but still get a good workout.”

When working with female athletes, Metzgar-Deacon says it’s important to realize the importance they place on body image, which she takes into account when designing low- or non-impact workouts. “Because they are so body-conscious, they want to keep up with their cardio to keep their weight down,” she says. “No matter how beat their bodies are, they still want to get on the treadmill or be out running. During this rest phase, I have to constantly communicate the importance of not doing those things.”

To effectively drive the point home, Metzgar-Deacon talks about the why behind each aspect of her training program. “Every week I lay out a plan for what we’ll be focusing on,” she says. “When I’m talking to them, I also sympathize with them and explain that they will actually feel better after following my plan.

“I tell them their bodies need a rest, and a three-mile run or a treadmill workout isn’t going to do anything for them,” she continues. “As an alternative, I tell them to do a bike workout–maybe even some bike sprints, followed by a stretching routine and foam roller work, then evaluate how they feel.”

Another way Metzgar-Deacon cuts down on unnecessary pounding is by incorporating swimming and other hydrotherapy into her workouts. She also utilizes an underwater treadmill at the University of Idaho, eight miles from Washington State’s campus. “We try to get them on the underwater treadmill as often as possible during that active rest time,” she says. “That way, they feel like they’re still getting their runs in, but they’re not taking the pounding because it’s in a non-weight bearing environment.”


At Michigan State University, Mike Vorkapich, SCCC, CSCS, Associate Strength and Conditioning Coach, utilizes active rest in a variety of ways. For Vorkapich, who oversees strength and conditioning training for the Spartan men’s and women’s basketball teams, a low-impact training phase means staying active, but with minimal stress to the mind and body. For his players, active rest can take place in the weightroom, and it can also involve hard work.

Once the basketball season ends, players are given a week or two off, during which time the sport coaches tell the players to stay away from the court and the weightroom. When they return, Vorkapich designs workout programs that allow each athlete to make strength gains, but without pounding on their joints, ligaments, and tendons.

To start, he gives the Spartans a mental break by changing the location of their workouts. “Once the basketball season is over, we spend a lot of time in the football building, which is our main strength training facility–but which we don’t use much during the basketball season,” he explains. “In-season, we work out in the basketball arena and it’s a nice change to get away from that.”

To further ease the transition into the off-season, Vorkapich has his players work out just three times a week. “The athletes haven’t worked with a high volume level during the season, so we gradually increase the volume and give them a little more recovery time between workouts,” he says.

Though the workouts are intense, by limiting the team’s lifting to three days a week the players still get a break from their in-season routines. “When they’re lifting during those first few weeks, they’re not really doing any basketball or conditioning work yet,” says Vorkapich. “If all they have to do is lift and not even think about the other stuff, that’s pretty restful.

“Exactly how hard we go really depends on the exercise,” he continues. “If we’re using a machine that’s low impact, we’ll go at it pretty hard, maybe by working to concentric failure. If it’s a high-impact exercise like a squat, and we haven’t really squatted with much weight in-season, we’ll concentrate more on technique rather than lifting a lot of weight at a high intensity.”


After the final horn sounds on another season for the Montreal Canadiens, Scott Livingston, CATC, CSCS, the team’s Strength and Conditioning Coach and Athletic Therapist, knows that each player is nursing his share of aches and pains, especially in years when the team makes a playoff run. So before he hands out any serious off-season work, he gives everyone at least a week or two to rest and recuperate.

“Too many strength and conditioning people think they have to justify their existence, so they’re constantly trying to train their athletes, even during times when they should back off,” he says. Livingston makes clear that his first goal for the off-season is simply for players to heal their aches and pains by relaxing their bodies and minds.

It’s a running joke in hockey circles that players are making tee times at their local country club before they even leave the locker room after the team’s final game. Livingston encourages this habit since he feels golf is a great way for hockey players to get active rest. He says walking the course and striking a golf ball is perfect for unwinding physically and mentally while incorporating rotational movements.

After a week or two of relaxation, most of the players begin coming back to the Canadiens’ facilities, and Livingston shifts his focus to resolving any nagging injuries. “I use a four-week period at the start of the off-season as a reconditioning phase,” says Livingston, who is also President of High Performance, Inc., in Montreal, where his clientele includes Olympic athletes. “I take it slow and prepare the players for the off-season conditioning programs to come.”

By slowing athletes down during this time and working on what Livingston calls “energy leaks,” players are fully prepared for the intensive strength and conditioning and skill development they will see in the next phase of the training cycle. “A lot of times, when athletes are doing what they think is active rest, they’re not doing anything to fix their imbalances.” Livingston says. “So I prioritize assessing and correcting any orthopedic imbalances and shortcomings, which will give them a solid foundation once the intensive training phase begins. Our physical screening and assessment process allows us to look at their entire body for physical imbalances that may have led to chronic injuries, performance limitations, or energy leaks during the season.”

Livingston’s postseason evaluation includes watching how an athlete performs a variety of movements, such as single- and double-foot jumps, looking for ability to complete the tasks and any compensation patterns. He also does manual tests that delineate range of motion and strength levels for muscles and joints. Livingston says it generally takes 60 to 90 minutes to evaluate an athlete.

“We’ve found that if we don’t work on the imbalances, when they start training, the little things that were bugging them during the season start creeping up again and we end up trying to fix those things in the middle of a training phase,” Livingston adds. “It’s much more difficult to do it then because we’re trying to manage two different goals at once: one, fix the problem, and two, get the athlete in peak physical condition.”

Once he locates the leaks, Livingston draws up plans addressing individual athletes’ problems while balancing their reconditioning and recuperation. Cross training is usually the key to striking the proper balance.

“For example, an athlete with a back problem might swim for their active rest and an athlete with an upper-body or trunk injury might do some cycling,” Livingston says. “You want to combine the therapy with low-grade activities that permit active rest but don’t impair the athlete’s reconditioning.

“Most of what I prescribe is not physically taxing,” Livingston adds. “If it addresses an injury or corrects an imbalance, it might be mentally taxing because they have to focus on a lot of things at once, but it’s not a high-intensity or overload type of training. I definitely don’t want them to over-train during that period.”

When the more rigorous workouts begin later in the off-season, Livingston hopes the four to six weeks spent doing low-impact conditioning will pay off in the form of symmetrical movement. He considers that an ideal way to construct what he calls the three pillars of physical capacity: mobility, basic strength, and stability.

“Because I lean less toward strength development and more toward recuperation with my athletes, a low-impact conditioning and active rest period fits perfectly within my off-season training philosophy,” Livingston says. “I feel my job is more about keeping these guys from getting injured than transforming them into training beasts.”


Low-impact training is a vital part of the Michigan State University men’s and women’s basketball teams’ summer and preseason conditioning workouts. With an eye on minimizing stress fractures and other overuse injuries, the Spartans’ three-day-a-week on-court agility workouts are patterned in a two-weeks on, one-week off cycle.

“We follow that cycle because research shows that after two weeks of intense exercise, the risk of stress fractures increases,” says Associate Strength and Conditioning Coach Mike Vorkapich, SCCC, CSCS. “So from the second half of summer into the preseason, we really start watching how much pounding our kids take between their conditioning workouts, individual skill workouts, and playing in an open-gym environment.”

Vorkapich is a big believer in using cross training as a substitute for cutting and agility work during rest periods. He replaces on-court work with pool and spin bike workouts. In addition to swimming, his pool workouts include underwater variations of running and jumping movements.

Prior to 2007, Vorkapich implemented the three-week cycle at the beginning of preseason, but last summer the Spartan athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches wanted to try something new and began following it in July. “Part of the reason was that we had four freshmen join the men’s team, three of whom were going to see significant playing time,” says Vorkapich. “Freshmen suffer the majority of stress fractures we see, because they’re not used to the work intensity and the amount of pounding and cutting they have to do in college.”


High school strength and conditioning professionals often struggle to set aside active rest periods for multi-sport athletes who go from one team directly to the next. For example, when the Wayzata High School football team from Plymouth, Minn., made a playoff run that went deep into November, players also competing on the school’s basketball, ice hockey, and wrestling teams were forced to switch sports with little or no layoff between seasons.

One challenge in these cases is integrating football players into their new team’s preseason weightlifting program. To make sure they don’t over-train, Ryan Johnson, CSCS, Coach Practitioner and Strength and Conditioning Coach at Wayzata, decreases those athletes’ workloads significantly in terms of weight, volume, and intensity. “That’s when I have to be really careful, because the other hockey and basketball players come in chomping at the bit and ready to hit it hard, especially when we’re doing our preseason baseline testing,” he says. “But we can’t take the guys coming off a tough football season and throw them right into the squat rack to do a max test.

“For those athletes, we strictly control their workload,” Johnson adds. “If the rest of the team is doing three sets of eight, the football players will do one or two sets of eight. We want them to work alongside their teammates and get that team bonding experience, but we don’t want them to do so much that they over-train.”

Johnson says getting young, eager athletes to buy into the value of rest is another challenge. “The hardest part is that the kids feel they have to be gassed after every workout,” he says. “It’s tough to convince them that rest is just as important as those really hard workouts.


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