How to Get Athletes in Shape During a Limited 'Offseason'

Scenarios can arise when an offseason is cut short, and the training goals must be accomplished in a shorter period.

The offseason provides athletes and coaches with great opportunities.

It's a time when an athlete can do the little things that potentiate the success of the upcoming season as well as the length of their career. Depending on the athlete's sport schedule, the average offseason tends to range between two and six months.

However, scenarios can arise when an offseason is cut short, and the training goals must be accomplished in a shorter period.

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The offseason provides athletes and coaches with great opportunities.

It's a time when an athlete can do the little things that potentiate the success of the upcoming season as well as the length of their career. Depending on the athlete's sport schedule, the average offseason tends to range between two and six months.

However, scenarios can arise when an offseason is cut short, and the training goals must be accomplished in a shorter period.

Make no mistake—there's no replacement for a full offseason filled with intelligent, intense training. But if you've only got a short time to get in shape for your season, doing something is certainly better than doing nothing.

In my experience, a concurrent approach to Cal Dietz and Ben Peterson's Triphasic model can be implemented to great effect during such periods.

Whether the offseason is shortened due to travel or injury; or even if the "offseason" is something as short as a midseason break; a concurrent triphasic (CT) model can turn out good results when a coach has to deliver a training program with a one- to five-week window to make the desired adaptations.

Why Triphasic?

Let's first talk about the traditional Triphasic model for those who may not be familiar with it.

Peterson wrote a four-part series for STACK detailing the concepts behind Triphasic, but I'll attempt to give you a quick CliffsNotes version here.

The Triphasic model emphasizes one specific contraction type per training period or block. Typically, there's a focus on eccentric muscle contractions for the first block; a focus on isometric contractions for the second block; and a focus on concentric contractions for the third block.

Although the term "Triphasic" in a training context was popularized by Dietz and Peterson, their's is not the first work to stress the importance of including deliberate eccentric and isometric work in training programs.

I was first introduced to the idea of periodizing eccentric and isometric muscle contractions by Karsten Jensen in his book The Flexible Periodization Method, which was published in 2010.

Some coaches do not believe that including an eccentric and/or isometric emphasis is important in training programs, but both anecdotal and empirical evidence purport that focusing on these contraction types will result in increased concentric output.

Without providing exhaustive quotation of the literature, below are some of the big reasons I believe it's important to include periods, days or cycles with an emphasis on Triphasic principles.

Why Train Eccentric Contractions?

It's been demonstrated that a focus on eccentric contractions has a positive influence on bone mineral density as well as the strength of tendons and intramuscular tissue (think fascia and the collagen which holds the bundles of muscle fibers together.)

Eccentric training can improve the eccentric rate of force development and potentiate subsequent concentric contractions. This is great news both for strength training and for plyometrics!

Furthermore, many sport actions depend upon high levels of eccentric strength.

I believe the ability to decelerate in sport is just as important—if not more so—than the ability to accelerate. A good braking system on a car is more valuable than a good engine, and the same goes for athletes. It is ultimately the ability to decelerate in open space that allows one to be agile. Deceleration can be improved through eccentric training because it demands that muscles can quickly produce force while they are lengthening.

Why Train Isometric Contractions?

Whereas eccentric contractions allow us to better produce force while our muscles are lengthening (decelerating our own body weight or/along with the weight of an object); isometric contractions have been shown to generate a maximum amount of intramuscular tension for a longer period of time than is seen during a typical dynamic/isotonic contraction.

Because strength is influenced by the amount of time muscles spend under maximal tension, isometric contractions can increase the amount of high-threshold motor units available at that specific point in a joint's range of motion. Aside from potentially helping athletes on the field, isometrics have a more indirect effect on sports performance by helping athletes develop weak points in strength exercises (perhaps targeting the point during an RFE Split Squat where either the foot or the hip collapses, for example).

One criticism of isometric training is that the strength gained is only going to be specific to the position where the contraction took place. However, some research has shown that regardless of the joint position used, up to 50% of the gains made in that position are transferred to muscle fibers located within a 20-degree radius.

There are two classes of isometrics: Yielding and Overcoming.

Yielding isometrics are reps in which a position is held under load. Overcoming isometrics occur when trying to move an immovable object.

The former has better carryover to eccentric contractions; and the latter has a better carryover to concentric contractions. For the isometrics in Triphasic, the athlete drops suddenly into the held position, "skipping" the eccentric action altogether, so that he or she comes to an abrupt stop and must produce as much stiffness as possible while moving at a fast velocity.

Using a Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat as an example, this type of isometric can occur with the athlete leaving the ground and landing in the position he/she wishes to hold; or by dropping quickly with a super-fast eccentric action and abrupt stop with a hold. Therefore, it usually uses yielding isometrics. This is because this type of isometric can still be followed by an explosive concentric action.

Including periods of focus on eccentric and isometric muscle contractions can contribute to the ability of an athlete to produce force in a variety of contexts. This contribution does not hinder strength gains made in typical, isotonic/dynamic contractions. In fact I argue that it will only compound them and lead to more robust joint systems!

Modifying the Traditional Triphasic Model

Having looked at some of the reasons why a Triphasic training model can be beneficial, let's talk about using a modified version (which I dub, "Concurrent Triphasic" or "CT" for short) for athletes who have a very short time period (one to four weeks) to prepare for their season.

Whereas the original Triphasic method requires that one contraction type is emphasized per training block, this Concurrent Triphasic model attempts to combine the three blocks of triphasic (eccentric, isometric and concentric) into one block.

We will accomplish this by dividing the contraction types across the workout.

Certain strength exercises will be performed with an eccentric emphasis (i.e., upper body); while other strength exercises would be performed with an isometric emphasis (i.e., lower body); and plyometrics will be what we use for our concentric emphasis.

My rationale for this is that the greatest determinant for the hormonal and physiological changes incurred by strength training is load. Because eccentric and isometric contractions can handle more load for longer periods (they are less taxing) than concentric contractions, we will use them for our strength training. Remember, however, as Peterson details here, while the focus is on isometric or eccentric actions during these movements, each rep ends with an explosive concentric action!

In this CT model, the concentric/plyometric portion of training will occur after the strength training portion. This is for three reasons:

  1. Plyometrics are our most "sport-specific" gym activities, and they cannot be trained eccentrically or isometrically. If we are not using strength training to increase the amount of available motor units and potentiate our plyometric actions (which will gain us sharper control and usage of those new motor units), then we've missed the boat, haven't we?
  2. Performing eccentrics and isometrics prior to the plyometric portion acts as a form of post-activation potentiation and prepares the connective tissue to generate more stiffness. Both of these components—active motor units and stiff tendons—are important for the effective use of the stretch-reflex.
  3. Perhaps the most important reason why the plyometric portion is reserved for the end is because it is important for athletes to become acclimated to moving their body weight quickly while under fatigue. This is especially true when trying to prepare someone for sport in a short time period. The emphasis on eccentric and isometric contractions presents a novel stimulus for most athletes. As a result, the initial stages of this concurrent model can produce a high degree of perceived exertion. Athletes find it challenging to overcome the increased levels of neuromuscular fatigue. But they soon adapt and find that their work capacity and power endurance improves significantly.

In this scenario, it's most ideal if an athlete can train multiple times a day. If so, then we can train plyometrics in a separate session altogether, ideally 4-6 hours after the strength training portion. However, I do know this won't always be easy.

Concurrent Triphasic: Exercise Selection

As with any training program, our exercise categories include those such as knee-dominant, hip-dominant, push, pull and core.

In this time-strained scenario, we're still looking to use those same categories, but now we must focus on the absolute best bang-for-buck exercises inside of them.

For me, this means exercises along a unilateral continuum are going to trump bilateral exercises in most cases.

Unilateral exercises increase the demand on the neuromuscular system through three primary means. One is by recruiting more of the slow-twitch, postural/stabilizing muscles and muscle fibers. The other is by increasing the interdependence of muscles that act on a joint. For example, the adductors and glute medius operate differently and more interdependently when standing on one leg than they do when standing on two. Third, unilateral work decreases asymmetries. Also, we operate mostly with one limb at a time. For these reasons, we are going to choose mostly unilateral exercises.

Another change we're going to make to our exercise selection is to choose more exercises that stress the core eccentrically.

There is plenty of isometric and concentric training for the core in most training programs, but focused eccentric core work, especially in the transverse plane, is not as common. However, our core musculature is exposed to eccentric stress in sport whenever we throw or change direction, so we want to include exercises that will bring about this stress.

Organizing Volume in Concurrent Triphasic

Limit our strength training volume to two to four sets of four to six reps.

Use a three- to four-second hold on the isometric repetitions, and a five- to six-second lower on the eccentric repetitions.

For the isometric repetitions, this time frame is just short enough to avoid the complete negation of the stretch-reflex. For eccentric repetitions, this keeps all sets within the 25-to 35-second range that's below the threshold for hypertrophy (typically regarded as 40-70 seconds) but beyond the threshold where only the CP system would be significantly trained (typically regarded as 1-20 seconds).

We get high-intensity training that will still allow the muscle fibers to become acclimated to some acidosis; it will still allow for powerful concentric actions; and we will still be able to activate more motor units at joint positions that provide the greatest mechanical disadvantage.

The general rule of thumb is that the less often you see the athlete, the higher the volume must be in each individual training session.

Seeing an athlete only once a week may require up to four sets of work per exercise to stress the system enough for an adaptation to take place. If you see an athlete four or more times a week, you can probably get away with two high-quality work sets!

Work sets mean that the load is hard or challenging for the rep-range. Easy sets (less than an 8 out of 10 on the RPE scale) do not contribute to work set volume and should be discounted as warm-up or "ramp-up" sets.

For the strength training, pick one upper-body push, one upper-body pull, one lower-body push and one upper-body pull.

On day one/three of the training week, let the upper-body strength work be done isometrically and the lower-body strength work be done eccentrically.

On day two/four of the training week, flip flop that protocol.

Remember that no matter the emphasized contraction type, all concentric actions should be performed explosively!

Conditioning with the CT Model

Conditioning on a short time constraint means training goals concurrently.

Instead of taking the usual route of developing an aerobic base followed by the anaerobic bases, we will train all the systems simultaneously by following these protocols.

First, scheduling.

If the athlete can train three times a day, we will strength train in the morning, perform plyometrics in the early afternoon and do conditioning in the evening.

If the athlete can train twice a day, we will strength train in the morning, perform plyometrics in the afternoon or evening, and include the conditioning work immediately following the plyometric session. If the athlete can only train once a day, well, too bad! He or she must do all three workouts in a given session. Thus is life when working with an abbreviated offseason.

A critical principle of CT conditioning is to use a heart rate monitor. It is a much more accurate way to observe what is happening with the athlete physiologically. We can see how hard they are having to work, and more importantly, how much rest to provide them between or during the conditioning work.

We begin by estimating that the lactate-threshold occurs around 25 bpm below the maximum heart rate (Yves Nadeau estimates the lactate threshold occurs at 20 bpm and 30 bpm below the maximum heart rate, so we'll split the difference).

We would then create a 12 -to 20-minute conditioning session divided into two parts. Early in the program, begin with 12 minutes. Add 2 minutes to each consecutive session/week.

Part one of such a conditioning session involves different sport movements.

We will choose a short distance of 5 to 7 yards, and have the athlete perform creative combinations of the following types of movements: shuffles, direction changes, sprints, backpedals, crossover sprints, etc. Here is an example:

The goal of this first part of the conditioning session is to keep the athlete 5 bpm above or below the lactate-threshold while performing movements critical to their sport. The short distance requires the athlete to perform different types of sharp direction changes while simultaneously stringing together a variety of common movements.

If the athlete's heart rate goes above the lactate-threshold ceiling described, let them rest until the heart rate drops back down to the floor of the lactate-threshold (around 30 bpm below max heart rate).

Perform this for the first half of the conditioning session. The first session can last 6 minutes, then increase the volume by a minute each week or workout depending on the training schedule, advancing to a total of 10 minutes.

In part two of such a conditioning session, the athlete's lower body will be very fatigued as a result of the work performed during part one.

Now we will bring the upper body into the conditioning session. During part two, we want the athlete to maintain a heart rate between 70% and 85% of their max HR while performing alternating sets of 30-second throws and 30-second jumps.

Alternate between Lateral Bounds, Med Ball Wall Tosses, Box Jumps, Med Ball Slams, Low Squat Jumps, Med Ball Chest Passes, Turn Jumps, etc.

Because of the fatigue that has already been developed, this style of alternating works on power endurance while still allowing the athlete to work hard without the need for the legs to rest. The heart rate range is based on my experience watching the heart rate drop during certain jumps and throws, but spike back up again during others. Try to choose exercises that won't put them above 85% of max heart rate.

Perform this for the second half of the conditioning session, starting with 6 minutes and increasing the volume by one minute each week or workout depending on their training schedule until you reach a total of 10 minutes.

In-Season Considerations and Concerns

Although using this CT model during very short offseasons can be a useful way to better prepare athletes for the stresses they encounter in sport, some coaches may want to know if CT might also be effective in-season.

Their primary concerns would likely involve the lack of heavy concentric loading and the possibility of CT creating too much fatigue and/or delayed-onset muscle soreness.

The point about concentric loading may be true.

During the season, we want athletes to have a low-volume, high-intensity stimulus to complement the high-volume, low-intensity stimulus they receive from practice and competition.

The available research supports the timely use of certain types of eccentric training in a year-round approach to maintain and even increase maximal strength.

During the season, athletes would probably benefit more from accentuated eccentric training as opposed to the slower, tempo-type of eccentric training as described previously in this article. This type of eccentric training uses weight-releasers to apply supramaximal loads (greater loads than one could lift concentrically by 10%-30%) to the eccentric portion of the lift before shedding some of that load at the bottom of the movement to allow for faster, more explosive concentrics. This increases the eccentric rate of force development and further potentiates the subsequent concentric contraction.

When it comes to isometrics, overcoming isometrics (where you try to move an immovable object) has greater transfer to maximal concentric contractions than yielding isometrics, and this may be the better option when looking to include isometric training for in-season athletes.

Notwithstanding, I think for an in-season athlete, the idea is to sprinkle in days/exercises of eccentric and isometric work alongside days/exercises of traditional concentric work to maintain robustness.

Regarding the DOMS and fatigue problem—athletes don't like being sore during the season, there's no doubt about it.

But the volume of sprinting, jumping and throwing they do during practice and games is where the bulk of their soreness is going to come from. Athletes who are acclimated to that are rarely going to get sore in the weight room as long as they are training twice a week, which is pretty typical for most in-season strength and conditioning programs. Keep the volume in the weight room low and focus on quality over quantity.

Follow that basic tenet, and I don't see that performing some eccentric/isometric repetitions will necessarily cause excessive soreness. This is especially true if athletes have acclimated to eccentric and isometric stress during the offseason. You will probably find that including these different contraction types in the weight room actually reduces the soreness athletes receive from competition.

Although this is by no means an exhaustive explanation of how a Concurrent Triphasic model can be utilized, it can be one effective way to get an athlete in shape for a season fast. I'm positive that further experimentation on the part of myself or anyone who implements a similar protocol will produce welcome criticism and areas for healthy discourse that will ultimately make our athletes better!

References

Photo Credit: CasarsaGuru/iStock

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Topics: BUILD MUSCLE | IN-SEASON TRAINING | CONDITIONING WORKOUTS