Strength training for sports is a completely different animal to general strength training.
When considering how to improve an athlete’s performance, and making them a stronger athlete, it will mean in the context of the demands of the sport - which will look different for each athletic domain (compare the difference in ultra endurance running and strongman). As a result, strength and conditioning (I’ll shorten this to S&C from here onwards) programs for different sports will look radically different. Yes there will be some similarities, but if we throw in exercises and intensities willynilly we can actually hinder our performance by focusing on non-essentials, what looks cool, or what Steve did for a completely different sport/goals.
In this, the second part of today’s two part article, I’ll take you through one method for putting together a S&C program for one of the nation’s favourite sports - football (soccer for the Americans in the audience). This is just one method, I’m not saying it’s the best or most popular, but it is effective and easy to follow along without getting super technical or crazy deep down the rabbit hole.
To see the end result, one block of S&C for football players, click **here**
To skip all the hassle, click **here** to get in touch with me to create a program that will take your performance to the next level
To peek behind the curtain, scroll onwards.
Before we even begin to think about exercises, reps and sets, we need to get an idea of what demands are placed upon the athlete as they play their sport. The mental demands and sport specific skills are also important, but not something we can properly address in creating a strength and conditioning program (a more detailed and all encompassing program can be created by working with the coaches, physios and other team members, but that is beyond the scope of this article).
We need to think both broadly, considering general aspects of the sport, and narrowly, considering the needs of the individual athlete (strengths/weaknesses, training/injury history, goals and preferences, etc).
By combining the two perspectives we have a general direction to go in when creating our program.
Evaluation of Sport
For football, we can make a few general observations from both watching people play and the research:
During a game, players can run a total distance of 10-13km (depending on position, goal keeper covering a bit less distance)
30-50% of the game is carried out at >85% max heart rate, with 1-11% of a players total distance spent sprinting (players are often required to sprint for 2-4secs every 90secs in a game on average)
A game will feature hundreds of high speed changes of direction, accelerations, jumps, and sudden stops
Considering elite players, teams at the top of their respective leagues tend to have a substantially higher VO2 max than those at the bottom end of the league - helping them to outmaneuver and outlast their opponents by tiring them out
Nearly all the work is done by the lower body, with arms being used for throw ins and to swing while running/jumping
From this, we can filter out a few key bits of info for our program:
VO2 max is VERY important, to make it to the end of the game without tiring too much and to outperform the opposition
Multiple short sprints are utilised throughout the game, so working on power/strength for the legs will enhance sprint efforts (acceleration and top speed), and improving VO2 max will boost recovery between sprints
Players will spend most of the game on one leg at a time (e.g. running, kicking the ball, jumping), so single leg exercises will be be a must alongside two legged ones
Deceleration and change of direction drills will be important to enhance agility on the field and reduce the risk on injury to the ligaments of the knees - this may or may not be covered in the sports skills sessions so is wise to communicate with the team coach on this. For the purposes of our gym-based program, we will assume deceleration and change of direction has been covered by the coach in football training days, so I won’t include any in the program.
Now that we’ve had a look at some of the important factors for moving forward in football performance (from a strength and conditioning point of view), we’ll have a look at the factors causing players to move backwards - injuries - and how we might reduce the risk of them occurring.
The biggest impediment to progress is getting injured - this will set us back (as we can’t train or maintain the previous level, so we’ll have a decline in performance) and in the time we can’t train our opponents most certainly will be, making progress while we have to sit back and heal up. While there’s always the chance of freak accidents, we can reduce the risk of certain injuries through selection of “prehabilitation” exercises that strengthen weak areas/patterns of movement that are common causes of injury in sports.
There are two things to consider when deciding which prehabilitation exercises to include - any previous injuries the athlete has had, and common injuries that occur in the sport. Previous injury is THE the biggest risk factor for future injuries, so despite an athlete feeling “back to normal”, it’s a bad idea to dismiss this information.
Previous injuries will be different for each individual, and some may require unique exercises or specialised equipment to strengthen them - instead of taking a guess it’s best to work with a physiotherapist to find the best options, or exercises to relegate, to avoid making anything worse.
For common injuries (and prehab strategies) amongst the footballing population we can take a look at the research:
87% of injuries occur to the lower limb, most common hamstring strains, ankle sprains (particularly anterior talofibular ligament (ATFL)), and knee ligament injuries (particularly medial collateral ligament (MCL))
Proprioception (knee and ankle), and strength training (particularly eccentric hamstring exercises) are reported as positive interventions for reducing injury
ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury is common in female players, but by improving jumping and landing technique this risk can be minimised
Youth players injury risk increased during Peak Height Velocity (growth spurts) - there is no prehab for this, just need to monitor training program and be careful when making progressions to avoid injuries as a result of training
Looking at this list, we can get an idea of key exercises we should include in our training program to reduce the risk of injury as much as possible:
Eccentric hamstring exercises (e.g. Nordic curls, eccentrics on hamstring curl machine)
Exercises to strengthen knee/ankle (e.g. lunges, squat variations)
Ankle/knee proprioceptive exercises (e.g. walking lunges, lunges on uneven surface, balance exercises)
Jumping/landing drills (e.g. tuck jumps, depth jumps)
Assessment of Athlete
Now that we’ve thought about the sport, it’s time to start profiling our athlete.
Thinking chronologically, we’ll start with their past - what is their training history/experience? Are they just coming off a block of training, hiatus or never trained before? What is their degree of technique experience or skill? Any injuries or movement restrictions? The answers to these questions (and many more) will determine how we move forward - the program for a complete beginner looking to start their first block of training and learn how to move will look very different to an elite athlete who is used to regular intense training utilising a variety of exercises and techniques.
For our program, I’ll assume some technique experience with a history of moderate frequency/intensity. This will mean the program will feature few complex exercises/techniques (no weird or dangerous exercises) and won’t take up too much time out of the week, meaning it’s accessible to a wider range of experience levels and schedules.
Physical Testing and Evaluation
Here we get some more current info - evaluating an athletes power, strength, speed, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance etc etc.
With hundreds of tests and evaluation protocols to choose from, it can be hard to pinpoint the ones that will give us the best data without taking too much time/equipment to set up. As this article is aimed at the average athlete, I’ll assume we don’t have access to a high tech facility or expensive equipment. This may mean our test results are a bit less accurate, but it gives us some data to work with moving forward. Tests and evaluations are performed at both the beginning and end of a program to find out how well the intervention worked (or didn’t work). If a larger year-long program is created, testing may be performed between blocks to see how the athlete is getting on.
Looking at our sport analysis, we can pick tests to evaluate a few key areas:
VO2 Max: in lieu of a lab, we can use the Cooper test or Brigham Young University Test (both will require us to do maths) to get a ballpark figure. Otherwise we could look at...
Aerobic capacity: 1.5mile (2.4km) run, 12 minute run
Sprinting: 40m sprint time, sprint fatigue tests, Loughborough Intermittent Shuttle Test, Yo-Yo Intermittent Shuttles
Maximal power/strength tests: Vertical Jump, 5RM Squat, 1RM Hang Clean
Agility: 505 agility, T-test
Balance: Balance Error Scoring System, Star Excursion Balance Test
Flexibility: Sit and Reach test
Body Fat: Skinfold method (while it may not be an essential test, by monitoring body fat we can see if changes in body mass are down to muscle or fat gain/loss)
Movement coordination/Injury Prevention: Functional Movement Systems evaluation (requires a qualified practitioner, such as myself, but it is hands down one of the best movement screens for injury reduction in the world),
This is not an exhaustive list, but gives you an idea of what kind of tests may be good to include.
Once we have our data, we can compare our athlete to normative or descriptive data to determine their strengths and weaknesses compared to other athletes of the sport. As each sport will have different desirable qualities it’s important to treat the test results in the context of the sport - footballers won’t have much need for great bench press strength, and powerlifters won’t be bothered about a low VO2 max. While it might be cool to have a freaky test result in an unrelated area, it’s going to behoove us to focus on areas that will improve our overall sporting performance the most, and minimise our weaknesses.
Normative data commonly has either the average and a standard deviation, or percentile rankings like this:
While it is tempting to skip the testing/evaluation step, doing so would mean we could miss out on valuable information such as a disproportionate or surprise weakness in our overall performance. There’s nothing to stop us going straight into the program, it just might not be optimal.
For our athlete program, I’m going to assume all areas are within the average - or at least no overwhelming weaknesses/strengths. While that might not be real-world realistic, it means I can make a program that everyone can benefit from - instead of focusing on an area that may already be a strength for some, or reducing the focus on an area that may be a weakness for others.
If you are following the program as part of your own training I would encourage you to perform some of the tests to get an idea of your current performance - even just to measure your progress from the start to end of the training block. However, don’t get obsessed with the numbers - at the end of the day the main competition is always going to be you vs you (aim for progress, not a certain value/number).
Primary Resistance Training Goal
Looking to the future, what are we wanting to improve? Before even thinking about exercises, we need to have a direction to go in - typically we choose from power, strength, hypertrophy (mass), or muscular endurance.
What we choose to focus on will sometimes depend more on the season than the athlete - while we might want big guns for the match day pics, it’s going to be more advantageous to have our muscles primed and peaked for the important competitions/matches instead of recovering from damaging muscle building sessions.
Often the focus of training will change from season to season, or block to block - traditionally moving from hypertrophy, to strength/power, to maintenance (linear periodization) - but we also see programs that utilise a mixture of training priorities within each block (such as daily undulating periodization). While it may offer more variety, using a mixture can be trickier to coordinate and harder to adapt to depending on the athlete’s training history and external stressors, so for our block I’ll select one main goal to prioritise for our core exercises (more on these later).
Now we’ll need to make a choice:
Hypertrophy - building lean muscle size or increasing body mass as a whole (muscle and fat). This we can immediately eliminate (for this block at least). The extra muscle won’t necessarily mean faster sprinting, and the extra mass will weigh our player down, making it tougher to last the whole match at a high intensity.
Muscular endurance - the ability of a muscle to repeatedly exert force against resistance. This refers more to a sustained/constant effort, such as a set of reps with a weight on your back or climbing an incline in cross country running. This isn’t quite the same as VO2 max (which is cardiorespiratory muscles), so I would put this at a slightly lower priority as we can work on VO2 max separately for the recovery and running endurance benefits - focusing on another aspect of performance in the gym for this block.
Strength - the amount of force a muscle can apply to resistance. One of the biggest factors for sprint speed (aside from technique) is the vertical force we apply to the ground, so by increasing our strength we can also increase our sprinting speed (assuming no differences in technique/aerodynamics). Focusing on strength will also help to increase our joint stability (strengthening the ligaments and muscles/tendons surrounding them) and carry over to power (being a combination of rate of force development and force).
Power - the rate of doing work, ie a combination of the rate of force development and the force being applied. By focusing on power, we can build our explosiveness - meaning greater acceleration into a sprint, higher jumps and a more explosive kick.
For our program I’ll go with strength as the main focus. This doesn’t mean every day will be nothing but strength sets, merely that strength will be the main priority for the core exercises.
What do we mean by core exercises? Let’s take a look.
Based on our general sport considerations, and refined by the individual needs of the athlete, we can now start to pick exercises that will suit these demands.
Narrowing down these exercises is no mean feat, there are literally hundreds of exercises to choose from, each with their own unique variations and tweaks to make them work slightly differently, and despite the Broscience there aren’t really any “must have” exercises - everyone will respond differently to different exercises and their applications (sets, reps and variations) depending on their background, biology and biomechanics. The only exception are for sports that have a specific motor pattern, such as powerlifting, where the main exercise is the one tested in competition (squat, bench and deadlift).
Fortunately we can separate the wheat from the chaff by taking a few things into consideration.
Movement Analysis of Sport/Sport Specific Exercises
As per the concept of specificity (or specific adaptation to imposed demands - SAID), the more similar an exercise or training movement is to the movements made in the athletes sport, the greater the likelihood that there will be positive transfer to sport performance. Or, more simply put, doing things that are similar to the sport will be more effective than things that are not used in the sport - e.g. a lunge or single leg squat will have more carryover to running sports than an overhead press.
This lets us rule out totally unnecessary exercises, but what about exercises that are similar? Considering basketball, which exercise will have more carryover for jumping - the back squat or the power clean? While both will work the legs, the power clean is more similar to a jump in that it has a high rate of force development (RFD). We might be able to move more weight with the squat, but jump height depends less on absolute strength (which can be relatively slow to activate all the necessary fibres) and more on how quickly the nerves are activated and force is applied (RFD). That’s not to say squats have no place in the program, making the muscles stronger they can then apply greater force when activated to help us jump higher (as long as we have a good RFD) - we just need to think about what they develop and their role in the athlete’s performance.
For our footballer, we can identify a few key movement patterns, and exercises/movements that work the muscles in a similar way.
Running - (steady state, intervals, Fartlek, hill sprints, sprints)
Sprinting - (sprints, hill sprints, power clean, hang clean, snatch, front squat, forward step lunge, step-up, leg extension, leg curl, toe raise, standing calf raises, sled pushes)
Jumping - (tuck jumps, depth jumps, box jumps, hang clean, snatch, back squat, front squat, standing calf raise, KB swing)
Kicking - (unilateral hip add/abd, single leg squat, forward step lunge, leg extension, leg raise)
Throwing - (overhead triceps ext, DB pullover, straight arm lat pulldown, skullcrushers, ab wheel rollouts)
The big compound movements will constitute our core exercises (aka our main priorities), while the rest (and more in addition to the above list) will be our accessory exercises - aka exercises that help to build the muscles used in the sport specific/core movements (or the more isolation-orientated exercises). The accessory exercises will be performed at a lower intensity than the core exercises, but there will be more on this later.
We also want to consider exercises that will keep our athlete’s risk of injury low:
Eccentric hamstring exercises (Nordic curls, eccentric on hamstring curl machine, eccentrics on the glute-ham-raise machine)
Strengthening the knee/ankle (squats, front squats, lunges, split squats, single leg deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts)
Proprioceptive exercises (single leg exercises, single leg exercises on unstable surface)
Jump/landing exercises (tuck jumps, box jumps, depth jumps)
Once we have our main core, accessory and injury prevention exercises, we can think about a few other areas that we might want to include.
Many injuries occur due to a muscular imbalance, as do issues with posture and joint pain - we can correct this by making sure muscle groups are trained relatively equally - or at least as much as their opposite group. While the biggest risk factors for footballing injury have been addressed, we might want to think about other areas, i.e. the upper body as we’ve included some upper body movements in our initial considerations.
When choosing exercises we should consider what muscle groups are involved or the movement pattern (horizontal push, vertical pull, etc), and then include exercises that compliment these (their opposites). This can be in the same session or at another point in the training week, just be sure to include them. This doesn’t mean each muscle/pattern needs to be exactly as strong as its opposite, just that it gets a similar amount of work - by matching the number of working sets for example. The exception to this is if there is a large discrepancy between the two creating a great imbalance, in which case the weaker group should be be assigned more working sets to bring them up to scratch.
Exercises to Promote Recovery
We also have the option of adding some active recovery exercises to the end of the session - much like the cool down portion of a cardio session. These are any movements/exercises that are low intensity (light weight/low stress) and are used to get blood and nutrients into the muscles, tendons and joints, and help to wash out any remaining metabolic wastes and by-products. While not essential (compared to the core exercises), they can help get the recovery process started sooner.
Once we have a pool of exercises we might want to include, we need to start whittling them down to what is realistic for our individual athlete.
Exercise Technique Experience
A backflip may look cool and work explosive power in the legs, but how many people are comfortable performing them? How long will it take to teach someone safe and effective technique? Few and a while.
How about the box jump, or broad jump (jump forward as far as possible) - how many people are comfortable jumping onto a box/forward? How long will it take to teach safe and effective technique? Many and not long.
Both the backflip and the box/broad jumps will work the legs explosively, so don’t complicate things just to look cool or appear “innovative”. The faster we can master an exercise the faster we can start building muscle and power. This often means sticking to basic/foundation exercises, but they are the foundations for a reason - they WORK.
This doesn’t mean we should never ever try anything new or complicated - variety is the spice of life and we may find something that works better for them in experimenting. Just weigh up the experience/confidence of the athlete, the time and energy costs of teaching/learning a movement effectively and how much it will actually carry over to the sport in question.
For our program, I’m assuming the athlete has some experience - familiar with general gym movements (no backflips).
Availability of Resistance Training Equipment
The trap bar is a wonderful piece of kit, but not every gym or training facility has one (shame on them). If this is the case, there’s no point programming trap bar lifts. We need to do our research to find out what the athlete has available to them, and work with it.
This will take a degree of creativity with some facilities, but that’s the fun part.
For the sample program I’ve assumed the facility has basic equipment - barbell, dumbbells, bench etc. An additional consideration is how popular each piece of equipment is - we’ve all seen queues for a bench/squat rack - and so may need to factor this in for our athlete (are there alternatives if there’s a long wait? Could they do other exercises if something is booked out/broken?).
Available Training Time per Session
Often athletes are short on time, so if an exercise takes half the workout to set up and prepare for (I’m looking at you max reverse band high box squats with appropriate number of spotters), we should reassess how important the exercise is to the workout.
Contrary to the tone of the brackets, I love variations that let us handle big ass weight (it’s just fun), but that doesn’t always mean time efficient. Here partial squats to safety pins would be much quicker to set up and have near enough the same effect (exposing the body to a heavy weight in a squat movement).
For our athlete I’ll assume they have a life outside of the gym (can’t relate), so sessions will be about 45-60mins in length (depending on time to wait for equipment to free up, warming up etc). This will let us get in a good amount of core and accessory work without having to spend all day hitting the iron.
Taking all this into consideration, we’ll use the following exercises to put out block of training together:
Here we’ve omitted some exercises as they require special equipment (eg the eccentric Glute-Ham Raise), and some because they require a specific set up that may not be possible at all times in all gyms (eg boxes for box jumps, partner for Nordic Curls), instead including exercises that should be possible in all gyms. This may make it less “exciting”, but it means it is possible to implement for as wide a range as possible.
For the muscle balance, the lower body is well covered by the core/assistance exercises, but the upper body (thinking about the shoulder), is less so. To keep the muscles reasonably in harmony (to counter potential shoulder injuries from muscle imbalance), I’ve included a few extra upper body exercises to work different movement patterns (horizontal push/pull, vertical push/pull). We have a bit more room to play with as there are few sport specific movements to consider for the upper body (compared to the lower body), so we can include more varied exercises for the upper body if we so choose.
We can delve far deeper into what individual exercises are better for our athlete’s sport (eg lunges vs split squats vs single leg squats vs single leg on leg press), but I feel this would be a bit much for this article. Partly because the answer is different for everyone (as always), our athlete may not have the equipment/experience to effectively implement all the “best of the best”, and because it’s a whole new rabbit hole, and ain’t nobody got time for dat (yet).
From here on out I’ll just be referring to the resistance based exercises - as I feel including all the cardio programming factors steps into endurance programming territory which is also beyond the scope of this wee S&C article. I have included cardio suggestions in the final sample program (click here), which are designed to help improve VO2 max and steady state performance, but like the “best of the best” exercises I’d rather save the nitty gritty research for a separate article, instead of bloating the size of this one.
Now we have a rough idea of the kind of things to include in our block of training, we need to see how we can spread it out throughout the training week - aka the training frequency.
How often can the athlete train? Ignoring the hours in the day, we need to consider what kind of experience they have (ability to recover), what season they are in (off season strength and conditioning will look very different to competition or in season), and what other training they have going on (skills or sport practice, additional activities/hobbies, etc).
We also need to consider the training loads (intensity) to make sure we’re spacing the training sessions out enough so that the athlete will be recovered and can make the most of the next training session, instead of being run down and risking injury.
Thinking about the athlete’s training history, we can start to plot out an appropriate number of training sessions per week - someone completely new to training will likely become overwhelmed with a great number of sessions per week, and someone used to a high number of sessions per week may not get the enough stimulus from a greatly reduced number of sessions.
This can be represented like so:
Beginner (little to no training experience) - 2-3 sessions per week
Intermediate (some training experience) - 3-4 sessions per week
Advanced (lots of experience) - 4-7 sessions per week
Ideally these sessions would be evenly spaced out from each other to allow for adequate recovery, but this will depend on the athlete’s schedule.
For our athlete we’ll assume they have some training experience, and can manage 3-4 sessions per week.
In general, an athlete’s sport can be split into 4 seasons: off-season (getting ready for the coming competition period), pre-season (transitioning period to get ready for competition), in-season (main competition period), and post-season (active recovery or holiday mode). How long these respective seasons last will depend on the sport, but they will all play a role in determining the frequency and intensities of S&C training throughout the athlete’s program.
In the off-season, we don’t have to worry so much about resting for important matches, so we can build strength, power, mass or muscle endurance with a vengeance in preparation for the next block of competition. To maximise the the S&C progress, our athlete may hit 4-7 sessions per week in this season.
In the pre-season, the athlete is starting to transition into more sport skill specific training to prep for competition. As there is a rise in sport skill training, there will be a slight reduction in S&C sessions as there’s only so many hours in a week. This may mean dropping to 3-4 sessions per week, but this will depend on the athlete’s schedule.
When the athlete is in competition or important game mode (in-season), they will benefit from shifting more time away from S&C, and into practicing the sport skills. Depending on their schedule, the athlete may be able to maintain the same number of strength and conditioning sessions, but if the choice is between a S&C and sports skills session, they should prioritise the sports skills. Typically athletes will drop to 1-3 S&C sessions per week, either peaking or maintaining progress made in the previous seasons.
Once the main competition is over, we enter the post-season (or active rest) and the number of sessions drops further - with the goal being to let the athlete recover or have fun in any training they do before the next season begins. Here they may have 0-3 sessions per week, with the focus being on recovery or something non-sport related to give them some variety and a break from intense training.
For our athlete we’ll assume they are in the off season, or preparing for friendlies, and so can utilise the full number of S&C sessions.
Training Load and Exercise Type
The type of training the athlete engages in will have an impact on the number of sessions they have in a week - those operating with maximal weights (eg heavy singles or rep maxes) will require more time to recover between intense sessions. This doesn’t always mean less training sessions per week, as we can alternate heavy and lighter days, or upper body and lower body days so that a greater number of sessions can be planned for the week without the athlete burning out.
The exercise type within these sessions can also play a part, as we recover quicker from isolation/single joint exercises than we do from compound/multi joint exercises.
Finally, we must consider what the athlete has on outside of the S&C program. This could mean other training, such as sport skills having a large degree of aerobic/anaerobic work, or if they have a physically demanding job, such as a manual laborer. Factors such as these can impact an athlete’s recovery and preparedness for S&C sessions, and so should be considered carefully - for example, scheduling the heaviest session for the weekend after they’ve had a chance to rest, or an upper body session if they’ve had a rough running session the day before.
For our athlete we’ll assume they have some additional stressors, eg some anaerobic running as part of sport skills training and a job that keeps them on their feet, but nothing that impacts S&C training severely.
All these considered, for our hypothetical athlete we’ll create 4 S&C sessions per week (plus one cardio session that can be done either separately or after a workout). This will give us enough sessions to make solid strength gains (even if only 3 sessions can be attended if other commitments take priority), while leaving room for sport skills sessions/friendlies/life outside training.
When thinking about structuring an individual session, we can optimise or impair the effectiveness of the day through the order of exercises. Throughout the session the athlete will become more fatigued and the muscles will become less effective at contracting as the fatigue accumulates, so we need to get our priority or biggest bang per buck in first. This is most commonly our plyometric/explosive or heavy compound exercises, that are best performed when the athlete is fresh and can exert the most power.
From there, we can taper down the exercise intensity by reducing the number of joints involved (using isolation exercises), the relative weight (sets with more reps, forcing the athlete to use a lighter weight), or reducing the degree of instability (utilising machines or extra support such as a raised bench), or a combination of these factors.
Now you may have heard of a bodybuilding technique known as pre-exhaustion, which is generally hitting an isolation exercise before a big compound one (eg leg extensions to pre-exhaust the quads before squatting). This is unnecessary for strength work, because strength work trains movement patterns and the muscles to make this more efficient, bodybuilding is about hitting the muscles as hard as possible, regardless of movement pattern.
To spice things up from a straightforward taper taking compound to isolation, we can order the exercises in slightly different ways - the most popular being: alternating opposites, alternating upper and lower, super and giant sets.
Opposites - If a session features movements or muscle groups that mirror one another (eg horizontal push and pull, biceps and triceps), putting them in an alternating order will help to make sure the muscles around a joint are kept in balance as both recieve a similar amount of work. If we complete all exercises for one movement type/muscle group before moving on to the next, we may be too fatigued to hit the opposites efficiently and safely, especially if they feature a heavy compound exercise.
Upper and Lower - If a session features upper body and lower body exercises, we can benefit from alternating them in a similar fashion to the opposites described above.
Super and Giant Sets - grouping exercises together into supersets (two exercises back to back) and giant sets (3+ exercises back to back) save precious time and dial up the intensity. Normally they will be exercises that compliment each other, such as a vertical push and a vertical pull exercise back to back, but if we are looking to torch the muscles we could also use exercises that work the same muscle group/movement - just keep in mind we will be more fatigued as the sets progress, so stick the harder or more intense exercises at the beginning and follow them with simpler/more isolation style exercises. Super and giant sets are great for saving time and improving conditioning, just make sure the exercises use similar equipment or are quick to jump into.
For our program we’ll order our exercises like so:
Here we have complimentary exercises grouped together so that they can be performed as a superset if time is short, with each day featuring: 2 core exercises, 2 assistance/muscle balance exercises, 1 injury prevention exercise and 2 (abdominal) core exercises. The exercises gradually become less intense (relatively): moving from heavy complex movements, to moderate complex/isolation movements, to bodyweight movements.
We also have different exercises for each day to give our athlete variety throughout the week - this isn’t necessarily superior or inferior to having less variety, as always it will depend on the individual athlete. I’ve decided to go for more variety so that anyone following the program will get to experience a few different exercises, finding which ones work for them and to break up the monotony of training. This can be taken further by changing the exercises/order week by week, but can be a bit bamboozling for those with less training experience (trying to juggle learning solid technique alongside getting into the rhythm and habit of training).
TRAINING LOAD AND REPETITIONS
Thinking about the workload for each effort (set), we need to consider the weight to use and for how many repetitions to work towards the desired goal (total sets will come later). We can’t just assign weights at random, we need to asses the athlete to see where they are currently to plan and assign an appropriate amount of weight (or resistance) that will force their muscles to adapt and grow beyond their current capabilities.
To get an idea of the athlete’s capabilities for chosen exercises, we can test them in the gym to find their 1 rep max (1RM), or a multiple rep max (e.g. 5RM, or 10RM), depending on the goal of the exercise - we won’t need to worry about a 1RM if we’re using an exercise to build muscular endurance or as a prehab exercise.
Building up to a 1RM or multiple rep max uses the same process, only the multiple rep maxes will stop at a lighter weight. The key for both is safety, so if you are doing a max test make sure to use appropriate safety measures (safety pins, spotters, bar clips, etc), erring on the side of caution at all times.
1RM and Multiple RM Testing
To test for a 1RM (or multiple rep max), the athlete must perform a warm up (general and then specific to the exercise in question - such as moving through a full range of motion with “just the bar” or other substantially light weight). From here, we estimate a load the athlete can easily handle for 3-5 reps (it is better to be conservative here, especially if the athlete is new to the exercise), rest for 2mins then increase the weight slightly (5-10kg or 5-10% for upper body, 10-12kg or 10-20% for lower body) and perform 2-3 reps easily. From here we keep increasing the weight and perform single repetitions (resting 2-5mins between reps) until a rep max is reached.
If the athlete is uncomfortable performing a 1RM, they can perform a multiple rep max and we can use rep max calculators or tables (such as the one in the next section) to estimate a 1RM. This is less accurate as someone who is explosive may fatigue quickly and struggle with rep work (so their 1RM will be higher than the expected value) or may be more suited to endurance work and lack explosive power (so their 1RM may be lower than the expected value), but this doesn’t mean we should compromise the athlete’s safety or push them too far just for our convenience.
For multiple rep maxes, it’s fine to build up with singles until a weight is reached that the athlete feels they could handle for the required reps (eg 5 reps for a 5RM), and refine from there. This will help reduce fatigue when warming up to get a better idea of what the athlete can handle.
The pattern of working up to a 1RM will differ between athletes, but ideally we will find a balance between warming up sufficiently and not becoming fatigued with too many warm up sets. If this is the athlete’s first experience working up to a 1RM for a certain exercise, we probably won’t find the optimal pattern first time - the athletes safety is priority over squeezing out every last kg in the initial testing phase. However, with the information gained from this and monitoring how they get on with the program we will be in a better position for the next time they perform a rep max test.
It is more common to 1RM test the core exercises and multiple rep max test the assistance or secondary exercises, as the core exercises will likely be using greater weight/less reps and the assistance exercises will likely be performed using less weight but more reps. This will of course depend on the exercises chosen and the desired goal - for example, a 10RM or 15RM is more appropriate for muscular endurance than a 1RM.
Relationship Between Load and Repetitions (1RM)
Once we have either 1RM or multiple rep max, we can estimate the load/reps we can perform at different intensities - these are just an estimation, individual performance will differ slightly (athletes with more explosive power will be able to do less reps at a calculated %1RM or have a higher 1RM than estimated from rep work, and athletes with more muscular endurance will be able to do more reps than estimated, but will likely have a lower 1RM than calculated).
Assigning Load and Reps Based on Training Goal
Now that we know what condition the athlete is in, we look back to the training goal to determine what kind of weight (load) we’ll be using for our core exercises.
For our assistance exercises, we need to bear in mind that our athlete will be somewhat fatigued from the core exercises, and so it may be counterproductive to include extra heavy work (low reps/high weight). Once again this will depend on our athlete/exercise choices, but in general we should keep our assistance exercises between 8-12+ as a precaution.
As we’re focusing on strength for this block, our core exercises will be in the 1-6 rep range, using 85% or more of the athlete’s 1RM (using the Relationship Between Loads and Repetitions table we can estimate a 1RM if we only have data from a multiple rep max test).
Variation of Training Load
As powerful as our athlete may be, operating at high intensities for the same movements every single training session will likely add up to an injury/burnout sooner or later (not in all cases, the Bulgarian Squat Method is brutally intense and effective, but this doesn’t make it optimal for all athletes). Instead, to break up the intensity throughout the week we can program different load days, for example Monday could be a heavy day, Wednesday a light day and Friday a medium day. For the medium/light days we would have the same rep/set structure, but with a weight that is 80% (or less) of the heavier day.
This doesn’t have to mean everything is light on the light day, as we can alternate the focus of the core exercises - for example Monday is heavy lower body/light upper body, Wednesday is medium upper body/light lower body, and Friday is medium heavy upper body/lower body.
For our program, we have a greater variety in movement patterns (single/dual leg, squat/hinge), with each day having a slightly different first, or most intense, exercise. This means we can program a higher intensity for each day (although still wanting to stay clear from truly maxing out as the majority of exercises are for the lower body each session) without our athlete getting totally fired. I’ll still program some variety into the loads - it just won’t be as diverse a range as having heavy/medium/light days.
Progression of Training Load (Timing/Quality Load Increases)
In order to stimulate our muscles to grow stronger, we need to be progressing our training load as time goes on. The most common way to do this is simply to increase either the number of reps, the number of sets or the weight/resistance very slightly each week. In an ideal world, the athlete will be able to handle weight increases consistently each week - but with outside stressors this may not always be the case. Here we turn to increasing the reps/sets (even if it’s only 1 extra rep in the total number of sets) to force the muscles to adapt. If we’re on hand, we can assess the athlete’s state and alter the workout if they’ve accumulated too much fatigue so that they can still get a good workout in without trashing their body trying to force performance that just isn’t there that day.
When increasing the weight, it is better to do so conservatively to prevent the athlete overreaching and accumulating unnecessary fatigue. The more experience athlete may be able to handle a greater increase in weight compared to a less experienced athlete, but this will (as most things fitness do) come down to individual differences. A general starting point is:
Less experienced athlete: Upper body +1-2kg, Lower body +2-4kg
More experienced athlete: Upper body +2-4kg, Lower body +4-7kg
For our program, I won’t assign a specific weight target as this value won’t be an accurate representation of the average person reading and wanting to implement the program. Instead, I’ll note down a percentage of one’s 1RM, and those implementing the program can either build up to this weight (if they know their 1RM), or build up to a weight that feels appropriate on the day.
Not all gyms have the appropriate safety equipment/spotters for true 1RM testing, if this is the case and you want to utilise the program, don’t worry about finding out every single one of your maxes. All the progressions are fairly linear, so just work up to a weight that is challenging for the rep scheme (leaving a rep or two in the tank) and try to beat it the next time (either weight, reps or sets).
Volume refers to the total work performed in a session, or the total of weight x reps x sets. This can be taken further by factoring in the displacement (distance the weight/implement is moved by the athlete), but unless you have insane leverages (super long/short limbs) this won’t be a huge factor, so we shalln’t be considering it today.
Multiple vs Single Sets
Now that we have our training load and reps figured out, we need to assign sets of these for our athlete to perform, but how many? Studies have shown that untrained individuals or those in the first couple of months of a training program can see strength increases from one set to failure, however, after a while the body will adapt to this - so we’d need to either ramp up the weight (risky) or just include more sets (less risky). It is rare to see single set training because we need our athlete to get close to or actually reach muscle failure for it to be truly effective - both situations carry an increased risk of injury as form starts to break/muscles fatigue and others take additional strain, and ideally we want to keep our athlete’s out of harm’s way.
At the other end of the scale, doing too many sets will also allow see fatigue building up and form starting to break down as a consequence, so we want to find the Goldilocks middle ground of just enough. As always, everyone will be different, but we do have a few starting points depending on our athlete’s training goal.
The following table contains recommendations for an experienced athlete, for someone completely new it would be better to start more conservatively with 1-2 working sets and build it up as the program progresses.
For our program, we’ll have our strength focused exercises start at 4 sets each, our power exercises at 3 sets each and our accessory exercises at 3 sets each. This will provide a decent introduction to strength training for those with less experience, and allow for progress to be made by increasing the number of sets completed.
The final piece of the puzzle is to define the rest periods - and much like the final chuck of jigsaw it’s also the easiest. Here we just need to consider one thing: what’s the point of the exercise/s?
If it’s to build strength/power, then we need to give enough time to let creatine stores recover and our minds some time to relax and get ready for the next big effort, so here we can rest for 2-5 mins between sets. Going over this time limit isn’t a disaster, but going under isn’t a great idea - the effort of moving the weight is enough intensity, we don’t need to add more by shortening the athlete’s rest time.
If it’s for hypertrophy, then we need to keep the intensity a bit higher with a shorter rest time to increase metabolic stress to stimulate the muscle to grow, so allow 30-90 seconds rest between sets. To choose a specific amount, think about the demands of the exercise - for low reps/heavier weight give a bit more rest, and for high reps/low weight give less rest. If an athlete goes over the prescribed rest time, it isn’t the end of the world, but they aren’t maximising the effectiveness of the workout if they do.
If it’s muscular endurance/conditioning, then we need to keep the muscles working with as little rest as possible, so between 10-30 seconds rest (or enough to take a breather, sip some water and get ready for the next set). The short rest will mean less time for the body to clear out the acid building up in the muscles, so it will need to adapt and become more efficient to do so. With our bodies clearing out acid more efficiently, it will take longer before our performance suffers from fatigue (performance can drop due to other factors, such as inadequate nutrition, but we’re working on the muscles efficiency here).
With that, we have all the pieces we need to put our S&C program together. To check out what a finished block would look like, click **here** to be warped to Part 1 of this two part article and see an example of a block of training. This won’t cover an entire year, but will give the player a solid off-season foundation to charge into the important games with a vengeance.
Once again, this is just one method for putting a program together, and is by no means the only way our final block could have turned out. I hope this has shone some light on the process without getting too bogged down in the details - if you have any questions or would like to hire me to create a S&C program for you or your team, click **here** to send me a message, or give me a shout on social media.
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