"How to get stronger during the competitive season?"
That's a question more athletes should be asking.
It's funny how many athletes pride themselves on chasing crippling muscle soreness in the gym or throwing up while running up hills in the summer to get in shape for an upcoming season.
Yet many of these same athletes believe "maintenance training" is enough to achieve peak performance during the season. Then they run out of gas and have to fight nagging injuries late in the season or the post-season (if they even make it to the post-season).
Am I the only one who's noticing a disconnect here?
I'd rather sacrifice a few regular-season games in return for knowing my players are in top shape when it matters most: the playoffs.
Both of the junior hockey teams I coached last season reached the National Championship Final. We also had zero man games lost to muscular or non-contact injuries during the seven-month hockey season.
I believe the fact that our athletes were training for improved strength all year long played a part in their staying healthy and facilitated our deep run in the playoffs. We had guys hitting PRs (personal records) even during the last two weeks of the regular season.
So the big question then becomes: How should you train to make consistent strength gains during a long competitive season?
Here's how you do it. Four ways:
1. Raise the Bar
If you want to see big improvements and live up to your full potential as an athlete, you've got to step up your game.
Too often, I witness athletes coasting through their workouts, not pushing themselves hard enough to get better.
You know what's even worse?
The coaches who notice their athletes' subpar effort and let them get away with remaining mediocre.
You can't be afraid of putting in work.
When you walk into our weight room, you'll see every single one of our athletes doing weighted Chin-Ups. Yes, even the 15- and 16-year-olds.
For reference, we have 17-year-olds who can perform Chin-Ups for reps with two 45-pound plates.
That didn't happen by accident. Since the first day I started working with these athletes, the weighted Chin-Up has been one of our main lifts. We use it as a measuring stick for progress and perform some Chin-Up variation pretty much all year round.
First, define your "big lifts"—the movements and exercises that really matter for your performance and that allow you to make steady, trackable strength improvements in the gym over time.
Then strive to beat your previous performance. Getting strong is as simple as that.
In addition to weighted Chin-Ups, I prefer some sort of Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift variation with my guys for tracking their progress month to month.
Your choices may vary depending on your training age and the equipment you have available for lifting.
But accept nothing short of a solid effort. And continually raise the bar in how you train. It's the only way to achieve anything worth achieving.
Once you've got that covered, move on to the next step.
2. Vary Exercises Without Changing Them
Variation without change is a concept I picked up from Charles Poliquin years ago.
The possibilities and variations for any common strength exercise are nearly unlimited.
Cycling through movements that you can load with increasing resistance over time in an intelligent manner allows you to make progress month after month, even when you're playing several games every week.
For example, the Deadlift can be performed in numerous ways: from the floor, off blocks, conventional or sumo style, or with a trap bar.
For single-leg work, you could rotate between Split Squats, Reverse Lunges, Walking Lunges and Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats.
Barbell Squats, Front Squats and Box Squats fit in the bilateral squat movement category. You could also throw some Hip Belt Squats into the mix every once in awhile to give the spine a break from heavy loading.
On Chin-Ups, you can use a supinated, pronated or neutral grip, gymnastic rings or even towels to make them more challenging.
So what really changes when you cycle different exercises in a specific movement category?
Not much. We're changing limb and/or torso position and training implements, but the muscles used remain largely the same within the movement pattern in question.
Not only does rotating exercises from phase to phase help keep plateaus at bay and stave off overuse injuries, it also keeps things fresh and interesting for athletes in the weight room.
And, as we all know, an athlete who enjoys training makes faster progress than someone for whom lifting is like pulling teeth without anesthesia.
3. Set Rep PRs as Often as Possible
This really is the bread and butter of strength training.
Unfortunately, too many athletes fail to get strong because they don't train to get strong.
Whether you're doing triples, fives, eights or 10s, you want to be hitting new personal records for that rep range regularly.
For beginners, that should happen on a weekly basis.
It's trendy to analyze the nuances of complex training methods, such as clusters, post-activation potentiation and using bands and chains to alter the strength curve of a lift. But the reality is that if you're reading this, you probably aren't strong enough to get the most out of those methods.
Lots of basic, solid training is where it's at for you right now.
Once you're doing weighted Chin-Ups with two plates, Front Squats with three plates and Trap Bar Deadlifts with five plates, you can give any of those more advanced methods a go and see if they make a difference in your training.
Or not. Up to you.
Until then, just focus on getting strong by setting rep PRs in various rep ranges as often as possible.
4. Lift Above 90% of Your 1 Rep Max
When you dip into the 90-plus percent range of your 1RM, good things happen.
And they happen fast.
We always witness great strength gains once we go into the heavy, 1-3 rep territory.
It's not uncommon for us to see a guy hitting 45 pounds for 3-5 reps on Chins, then 90 pounds or more for a single after the 90-plus percent phase.
But don't get caught up in grinding out heavy singles week in, week out.
You're training to build strength, not demonstrate it.
Heavy low-rep training is extremely effective when planned properly, but the majority of your training time should be spent building a solid base with plenty of quality sets in the 5- to 10-rep range (as mentioned in point 3). This allows for fast progress on the heavy singles, doubles and triples down the line.
Now you know how to get stronger all in-season long.
The physical and psychological edge you gain from experiencing continual performance improvements in the gym provides a huge boost where things really matter—on the playing field.
Next step for you?
Get in the gym, work your butt off and leave your competition engaged in "maintenance training" in the dust.
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