In Season Strength Training for the Athlete

In Season Strength Training for the Athlete: Program Design, Nuances and Focal Points


Strength and conditioning while in season can be tricky business. If done well it will separate you from the boys, but if done badly it could end your season or even career with a major injury.  So if you are a not experienced in program design and periodization, get some professional help from a personal trainer for athletes or a strength coach with a lot of experience.


Program Design

First things first, every person and every sport is different.  Individual sports like Track and Field lend themselves to a more straight forward, linear style of periodization as you really just need one good event to qualify for nationals, and then you can train for nationals (or a conference championship, then nationals). Team sports are different and more complex for 2 reasons: every game matters, and they tend to be harder on your body. This requires a different approach.


The first thing that you need to do is set some goals and timelines if they apply. Next, you will plan your program…backwards. Yes, you read that correctly…Plan Backwards from your goal.  So we will use track for this example because the plan is more straight forward than many other sports.


Goal: win the 2020 Olympic games. This will include peak strength and power at each highlighted event.

It is a good idea to set specific strength and power goals for each season and each event.
  • Now, bust out a calendar and make a rough plan from then to now, making sure to include the highlighted events such as seasonal conference championships, national championships, USA’s, and qualifying events (events that lend themselves to qualifying with a big performance, these normally are not “important” but often include good competition that will inspire a better effort).
  • Then, plan the taper for each highlighted event (Olympics first). Next, plan the peaking workout before each taper (backwards, Olympics first).
  • Plan the build up (or build down since you’re planning backwards) for each peaking workout.
  • Plan the off season build up (build down) to in season.
  • Adjust each phase as needed as you come to them, adjustments should keep in mind that phase’s purpose but correct for planned and unplanned changes that you have observed in your athlete. (a minor or major injury for example).
  • Build ups may include a mix between core work and auxiliary exercises for several sets.
  • Use linear and undulating periodization as suited through the off-season and in season.
  • Peaking phases typically minimize auxiliary work and focus on lots of sets (6-30 depending on the workout and chosen program design) of your core exercises.
  • Taper weeks typically utilize 30-60% intensities of core exercises, few exercises, low reps, extremely low failure, several sets (10-20) and explosive intent, plus moderate volume “rehab or pre-hab” work on selected auxiliary exercises.
  • Use linear and undulating periodization as suited through the off-season and in season.
  • Off season tends to lend itself to be better suited for more pure linear periodization
  • In season tends to require more undulating periodization to peak for and recover from events, or a blend of the two.  (I call this semi-linear undulating periodization, linear periodization to each peak with undulation across the week and then a step back after the peak)


If the concept of periodization and it’s basic forms are foreign to you, I suggest reading one of Tudor Bompa’s books on periodization. The subject is beyond the scope of a blog, hence, the 300 page book on the subject.




DeeDee Trotter-olympics

DeeDee Trotter- One of my athletes from my strength and conditioning days at Tennessee “Trotter is a former NCAA national champion in the 400m, and competed in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Summer Olympics. She was a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 4x400m relay (2004 and 2008), in addition to a bronze medalist in the 2012 400m event. She place 5th in the same event in 2004. ” wikipedia



The wonderful thing about individual sports is that they can be approached relatively straight forward. This allows for a “simple” plan designed to build strength, power and performance through the season with some “mini-peaks” for big performances at key meet (and practice peaking), then a big peak at the end of the season when it counts most.


Aretha Thurmond, 4 time Olympian, lifetime friend, one of my post collegiate athletes and workout buddy while at UT. The strongest women, physically and probably spiritually as well, that I have had the pleasure to know.



Team sports add another dimension because your record is more important for getting into the post season.


This requires that strength and power be primarily built through the off season and maintained during the season, though a few team sports that only compete once per week do allow for a weekly peak. These programs fall in between individual sports and team sports like basketball and volleyball where you can have 2-4 games per week.



Cof C volleyball. One of my most successful teams. We won the conference championship every season that I coached them in a dominating fashion. They advanced to NCAA’s every season and went the deepest into NCAA’s in team history in 2005, my last season as a strength coach. A feat that took almost a decade to duplicate.


High game volume,  team training  in season program adaptations

  • Strength and power maintenance and injury prevention become the primary goals.
  • Fitness is best developed on the playing field for most of these sports (except softball and baseball which both elicit minimal fitness responses from play).
  • Volume must be kept low during most phases to prevent over training. This is best accomplished by eliminating sets.
  • The off season should be treated more like the In season for individual sports.
  • 1 set to failure, otherwise known as HIT or High Intensity Training is useful on particularly rough weeks as it will maintain strength without requiring much physiological work for recovery (some teams may require this through the season if it’s particularly grueling).
  • Each phase should focus on a few core exercises done weekly for strength maintenance.
  • Auxiliary exercises are best for the bulk of workouts as long as weight is kept relatively light to moderate and volume is kept in check.
  • 3 week stretches of “easy games” can lend to a “mini” peak, with a hard and heavy week or 2 and a recovery week. These are especially good if they precede a big game like a championship or rivalry.
  • An emphasis on recovery work is important.



Reggie hopkins- stades dunk

Reggie Hopkins, Professional Basketball Player that I have trained.  FIBA Europe



If you’ve paid attention to the fitness field for very long, and you’ve paid attention in this post, then you’ll notice that I’ve recommended 2 competing philosophies or systems.


The multiple set system and the 1 set to failure system or HIT, sworn enemies.


Advocates of these 2 strength and conditioning systems have fought over which system was better for decades. Yet in their own biases have failed to recognize the merits of the oppositions approach. In the long run, multiple sets (repeated efforts or repetitive efforts) are better for building both strength and more importantly strength fitness (the ability to maintain a given strength intensity of multiple efforts, like an offensive lineman needs to do). But during particularly grueling portions of a season, 1 set to failure is better for maintaining strength with out contributing to further recovery problems. You just have to do an honest assessment and determine which approach is most suitable for your athlete for the training cycle. In some cases, a mid week shift from one to the other is appropriate, for instance when an expected “easy” game turned out to be a hard one.


CofC Sailing, my most successful team, winning a sloop/match national championship in 2003.


The single most important rule for a strength coach is that an educated plan should be made, and then reassessed daily, changing things when appropriate based on newly gathered intel and observations.




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  • Exercise Videos search for videos of a specific exercise or look for new videos to add variety to your workouts.


  • Mendeley Research Library See what I have been reading lately. This is agreat link for research on fitness, weight loss, diet, exercise, supplements and health.