It’s that time of year again. The season is over; the grand final has been won (or lost); Mad Monday has passed without anybody getting arrested; and the off-season is finally here.
The days of the off-season being just a chance to let yourself go and get drunk with the boys are long gone. Most team sports are now year-round commitments, and even though you might not be playing at this time of year, that doesn’t mean you can’t keep getting better.
For people involved in social comps, the whole point is just to have a bit of fun, and that’s fine. But if you’re serious about football, or hockey, or whatever sport you play, you can’t afford to spend half the year going nowhere.
The fine detail will change depending on which sport you play and what competition you play in, but the point remains the same: to build as much strength, explosive power, and (depending on the player) muscle as possible before the pre-season begins. It is hard to get stronger during the intense conditioning workouts of the pre-season, and much harder (for an already strong athlete) during the season. The off-season is the perfect time to focus on strength and power because it is the farthest that a player will be from needing to run out on the field game-fit.
Every athlete has a limited amount of exercise they can recover from, and everything that you include in your program comes at the expense of something else. So if you’re running sprints multiple times a week trying to get ready for your first game, your strength training is going to suffer. That’s not always a bad thing, but it’s definitely something to be aware of.
What all that means is that where you are in your year will influence what you need to focus on, and what can take a back seat for a bit.
Not only does a lot of conditioning limit your progress in your strength training, but also a lot of lifting can be really detrimental to how you play that weekend. One of the reasons I generally advise against heavy deadlifts during the season is that the negative effect on performance can last for days. A player who pulls 200kg on Thursday will probably still be feeling the effects during his game.
As much as I love the weight-room side of things, the athlete’s actual sport always has to take precedence. If something in their strength program is interfering with their ability to play then it has to go. But some of these things are still great ways to get strong, and so we still want athletes to do them. The answer here is to do them at a time when the player’s performance on the field doesn’t matter: the off-season.
Not only are there certain exercises which will make an impact, the overall volume of training needs to be much lower during the season. Compare the two programs below. Both are for the same player, with one being a week from his in-season program, and the other from his off-season.
You can see there is significantly more work during his off-season. If he tried to keep up this amount of training, then he’d play like crap on Saturday. The off-season gives us a chance to do this amount of strength and power training without having to worry about the game.
Depending on the athlete, another goal of the off-season might be hypertrophy: putting on muscle. Increasing muscle mass can help with strength development, but it’s by no means necessary. For a 120kg front-rower getting any bigger might make it too hard to move well, but a skinny sixteen year old might just be too small for his position and want to put on some muscle.
For athletes who want to gain some mass, they would simply add in more accessory work after the main lifts, and probably bump up their calorie intake.
Team sports like field hockey and soccer are definitely helped by increased strength, but might not require getting much bigger. However for someone on the offensive line in Gridiron or playing as a prop, carrying more muscle can make life a lot easier. Collision sports rarely favour skinny people, after all.
The off-season is also a time when your conditioning can afford to suffer a little. As I said, any athlete only has so much recovery. Let’s call them recovery credits. If you get 100 credits a week, then any time you spend more than that you’re going to put yourself into debt, in the form of overtraining. Going for a light jog might only cost 5 credits, whereas playing a tough game might be 50.
So if you only have a limit amount of credits to spend on training, then it makes sense that during the phase where you need conditioning the least, you can spend more on strength training, allowing you to maximise your progress before the pre-season starts.
I’ll use the program above as an example. During the off-season, he still kept some conditioning in his program, but the over-all volume was quite low. Most of them are under ten minutes. That way we managed to maintain his fitness without interfering with what he was trying to achieve in the weight-room.
For a particular athlete you might have more or less conditioning work in the program, depending on a few factors, but either way the over-all volume would be greatly reduced from the pre-season and season.
The other thing that the off-season is good for is to get on top of your mobility. A lot of players end up just trying to get through the season, and they get tighter, and less mobile and all those niggling injuries start cropping up. The off-season is a good chance to finally sort out your flexibility and mobility. If you start the season already tight and immobile then your chances of injury are drastically increased. Don’t wait until you tear something to sort it out.
In summary, every off-season program will look slightly different, but for every team sport athlete this is your chance to get stronger, more powerful, and possibly bigger. You can train as hard as you want without having to worry about it effecting your performance on the field. Once the season starts you can maintain your new-found strength with much less total volume, meaning that you can concentrate on what matters the most: your actual sport.