As a professional coach, I have written extensively on a multitude of topics related to strength and conditioning. Whether I am talking about programming, the emotional aspects of training, or the nuts and bolts of coaching, I always come back to the importance of strength.
Strength is, in my opinion, the single most important physical attribute that an athlete can possess; it is quite literally the precursor to all expressions of athleticism. Speed, agility, quickness, explosiveness, and endurance all require strength in different forms. Strength training greatly enhances all of these qualities, which is why adopting a strength-training program that utilizes upper- and lower-body compound movements is perhaps the most effective path to athletic success and longevity.
One of the biggest challenges athletes encounter with strength and conditioning programs is that all the benefits they gain from training are reversible. All the hard work and performance gains an athlete makes during the off-season or pre-season can evaporate when this type of training is not maintained for prolonged periods of time.
The realities of In-season:
People are often surprised and have trouble accepting that they can lose their gains, especially young parents and athletes. The cold, hard truth is that more often than not, practices are simply not focused or intense enough during the season to stress a young athlete’s body enough to develop or maintain strength and fitness levels.
A head coach is, more often than not, focused on his or her own “one thing” during the season: winning. Simply put, priorities change once the season starts! Head coaches are instead more focused on tactics, plays, and improving whatever deficiencies were revealed in the team’s last game than they are on fitness and strength gains.
Let’s consider a basketball team: If they did not recover enough rebounds during the last game, that coach is definitely going to have the athletes work on lots of ‘box out’ drills in order to re-enforce technique and try to remedy the situation. Likewise, if the team’s offense wasn’t functioning properly, chances are that same coach is going to spend a significant amount of time in practice that week walking through all the plays at a moderate pace in order to “iron out the kinks” and fix any confusion.
What does this mean from an observational and practical standpoint? Most likely, the five starters on the team will go through the plays at a moderate intensity (at best) while the remaining 10 players stand around and watch from the sideline for prolonged periods of time. The truth is, almost any team’s in-season practice is going to consist of a lot of standing around, talking, and direction from the coach, with much less time dedicated to all-out scrimmages or drills attempting to simulate game-day conditions. This is supported by a scientific study conducted by Wellman and colleagues (2007) that compared the differences between pre-season and in-season practices and game times among NCAA Division I football players.
Whether discussing the height of collegiate sport or your average middle-school or high school team, studies like this one show that athletes simply do not experience the same kind of workloads during the in-season period compared to pre-season. The result is that players get weaker – literally losing strength.
In a study performed on elite male rugby and football players, McMaster and colleagues (2013) found that strength levels have a tendency to decrease after a three-week period when no form of strength activity is maintained. In addition, according to Meylan and colleagues (2013), the decay rates of strength parameters for youth athletes can show an even more marked difference, especially for those athletes who have not yet hit their growth spurt. According to the researchers, these athletes lost more strength and lost it even more quickly as compared to their peers who had already hit their growth spurt.
The Good News:
There are some very practical solutions that athletes can employ in order to mitigate the negative effects of the paradoxical in-season strength and fitness loss. If the mantra ‘use it or lose it’ applies – and it does – the simple solution is to ‘use it’ by strength training in-season. This does not mean that an in-season strength program should be the same as an off- or pre-season program. We know that athletes are spending a lot of time in practices and games, all of which require physical resources and take a toll on the body.
In a study conducted on male handball players (Hermassi et al. 2017), researchers found that as few as two sessions per week were sufficient for athletes to maintain their performance gains, while another study found that so long as intensity was kept high, athletes were able to maintain their performance gains with as little as one session per week (Bell et al. 1993).
Call to Action:
What can you do to safeguard and maximize your son or daughter’s performance gains that they worked so hard for during the off- and pre-season?
The answer is this:
Maintain an in-season strength and conditioning routine that can be executed in a little as one hour per week.
Our experience – and the experience of the athletes who train with us – confirms that this is all it takes to make sure they finish the season just as strong as they were at the start. In addition to meaning these athletes perform well during the season it also means that their strength improvements do not have to be regained at the end of each season, effectively accelerating their performance at a rate greater than their peers.
Bell, G. J., Syrotuik, D. G., Attwood, K., & Quinney, H. A. (1993). Maintenance of Strength Gains While Performing Endurance Training in Oarswomen. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology,18(1), 104-115. doi:10.1139/h93-010