How do you train an athlete?
I want to take a long trip through the year of an athlete to show you, first hand, how to break up a year of training to prepare for their sport.
You will come along with me and understand the basic principles of athlete training and how to structure a year to get the best bang for your training buck.
This is not an article filled with scientific jargon, studies, or even the occasional pie chart. It is merely devised from years of playing sports such as rugby, coaching sports, and training football players, baseball players, and rugby players.
This is in no way diminishing the importance science has to our field, but the proof is in how you apply it to the gym setting and not in how you manipulate controlled variables.
What athlete do we start with
What sport do you choose?
You can choose any sport you wish but I will choose football.
Why not rugby since I played it? Because football is more popular.
Football has 22 positions on the field and those 22 are broken down into these segments:
- Running back and Fullbacks
- Offensive Line
- Defensive Line
- Kickers (are they really FB players? Tune in for more at the end)
These 8 position clusters have their own unique training needs, conditioning needs, and recovery needs.
If you are going to attempt to train football players, you will need to understand the specific needs of each position cluster in order to be a good Strength Coach.
Today I will choose a linebacker.
In case you live in a bubble, a linebacker is the second line of defense on the defensive side of the ball. They are responsible for pass rushing, run stopping, short pass coverage, and are often the “play callers” on the defensive side because of their position on the field to see formations happening and the ability to communicate to both down linemen and the secondary positions.
The demands of their position include:
- Fighting off Offensive Lineman (OL) during run blocking and making the tackle
- Being able to be fast enough to beat an OL and strong enough to fight through their blocks on a pass rush
- Tackling ability (power and speed)
- Good lateral movement to be able to shuffle, change direction, and react to plays as they form
- Good speed to cover a RB or TE if they branch off into a pass play
- Having a combination of speed and size which allows for the above because mass moves mass
This is a quick and dirty breakdown of this position which is all you need to know as a Strength Coach.
You do not need to help them tackle, run plays, analyze film, talk about the game as a strategy, or be a FB coach whatsoever.
We constantly berate sport coaches for trying to do our jobs and the reverse is true. Respect their job also.
Let us go even further down the specificity trail and say this particular linebacker is in high school.
Their playing season runs from late August or early September to late November or even into late December if your team is lucky enough to advance into state playoff games.
That leaves anywhere from 10-14/16 weeks of games with a bye week, or two, in some cases. For the sake of argument and discussion we will use a uniform season length of 12 playing weeks.
Football camps start anywhere from early August to middle of the month. Depending what state you live in, the rules will change. We will assume a 3 week time period for this preseason camp.
This is 15 weeks with pads on, contact, drills, playing, and the recovery needed to be ready to play again.
37 weeks are left in the year with a lot of time and training to fill which can make or break an athlete if you do it wrong.
What should I do for a year?
Below is a table of a year in the life of this High School Linebacker from Florida.
I say Florida because Ohio is too cold and Texas doesn’t like beans in chili.
2. Fix imbalances
3. Gain back size lost from season
4. Aerobic Conditioning (Oxidative System)
1. Continue to fix imbalances
2. Gain back size lost from season, add strength work
3. Oxidative System work
1. Start to incorporate more strength work into program as you start to minimize hypertrophy work
2. Continue to monitor imbalance to implement correctives as needed
3. Oxidative is lessened as the base is being built and you begin to phase in Glycolytic
1. Continue strength progressions while using hypertrophy work to continue to build muscle in support, start to add in power movements
2. Oxidative work is less and less - maybe 1 long jog/row/bike per week while you ramp up glycolytic work
1. Camp is 12 weeks
2. Continue strength work, power work, and lessen hypertrophy work to a state of maintain.
3. One LISS session per week of bike riding, some glycolytic work and add in a day of speed work
|1. Camp is 8 weeks away
2. Continue with lifting as per month of May
3. Add more speed work while you phase out Oxidative work and transfer that load to glycolytic work. We will revisit oxidative work during camps and seasons.
|1. 4 weeks to go until camp starts, continue strength and power work, use hypertrophy sparingly.|
2. Focus almost exclusively on speed work while having one glycolytic session per week
|1. Camp Starts, contact is minimal yet as most school districts/states have rules on this|
2. Strength maintenance, continue to develop power, and small amount of hypertrophy
3. Oxidative work for recovery as practices are enough work
|1. Start of the season and we are now officially starting in-season mode|
2. Strength maintenance, maintain power, minor bit of hypertrophy work.
3. Oxidative work for recovery because practices and games are demanding.
|1. Continue in-season mode||1. Continue in-season mode||1. Continue in-season mode if in playoffs but if you are off this month, this is the time to rest. Take 2-3 weeks off of the gym entirely, allow healing, and start back up with very light DB work and correctives to start to prepare for the next season.|
This is a table you can print out and use for yourself.
Now let’s break it on down a little bit for you and attempt to explain what I mean, without getting deep into the rabbit hole of actual program design.
1. Recovery – your player is beat up, the season was long and arduous. You need to have them be sure they are on the track to recovery. Sleep, diet, rest days, etc. You are the Strength Coach, this is your job. If you are the athlete reading this, no you will not “rest when you are dead”, you should know better.
2. Fix imbalances – the brutality of the season will have aches and pains. Fix them. If you can’t assess this, find a qualified professional who can accurately assess if it is just an imbalance or an injury and act accordingly.
3. Gain back size lost from season – one word here; hypertrophy. Now is not the time to work on rebuilding top end strength because the athlete is still recovering from a season. If they played into November or December, it is only a few weeks off before the training cycle starts again. Add to that the fact that you cannot train like you want to during the season so we need to work on adding back size and muscle.
4. Aerobic Conditioning (Oxidative System) – the base of your entire energy system. This is not debatable. If you want to be a better athlete, you will need to improve your aerobic capacity for a myriad of reasons. The least of which is faster recovery during training, practices, and games.
1. Continue to fix imbalances – keep working on that stuff so you can make those imbalances into strengths. This is how you improve from year to year. You assess little things and fix them.
2. Gain back size lost from season, add strength work – time to start adding strength work while keeping the hypertrophy rolling along. Chances are you didn’t lose a lot of strength because of how we will train during the season (more to come, so stay tuned), so we will start to work on regaining the little you may have lost while adding more strength.
3. Oxidative System work – continue aerobic work. Use a bike, jog around the track, run on grass, just avoid concrete because that will cause wear and tear you do not need to have right now.
1. Start to incorporate more strength work into program as you start to minimize hypertrophy work – now is the time to start to lower the volume more on hypertrophy work while increasing volume on strength work. Why? Because you have an athlete here, not a lifter. There is more to do that just JACKED AND STRONG!
2. Continue to monitor imbalances to implement correctives as needed – by now a lot of the little issues will start to be cleared up (barring an injury that may be found) but keep an eye on them and make sure your training plan includes exercises that are designed to not only keep working them but also add muscle/strength where needed.
3. Oxidative is lessened as the base is being built and you begin to phase in glycolytic – now we start to add in glycolytic work. Glycolytic work is essentially doing longer sprint work, bike intervals from 20 to 60 seconds, or using another type of conditioning apparatus to work this energy system. We are working backwards and creating the base for what is to come. Work on running form while starting glycolytic work because the more practice you have shoring up bad running form, the more it will pay off when we start speed work.
1. Continue strength progressions while using hypertrophy work to continue to build muscle in support, start to add in power movements. – we will keep on the plan you started in March and continue it. Build strength, keep building muscle, but using a lower volume of hypertrophy work as you had in the beginning of the year, and watch as the athlete starts to mold into a better version of what he was last year. Start to add in exercises like box jumps, other jumps, throws, power cleans, or high pulls to work on power development.
Why not earlier?
These are high school kids, getting stronger WILL help their power over anything so we do NOT need to hammer these movements year round, but rather focus on the more important aspect of a high school football player’s training which is strength and size. This is the difference between training men and training boys.
Analyze, my friends, analyze.
2. Oxidative work is less and less; maybe 1 long jog/row/bike per week while you ramp up glycolytic work – use oxidative work one day a week as a maintenance mode and recovery as you keep on the glycolytic work.
1. Camp is 12 weeks away – almost go time.
2. Continue strength work, power work, and lessen hypertrophy work to a state of maintenance – Continue with last month’s programming.
3. One LISS session per week of bike riding, some glycolytic work and add in a day of speed work – erase one day of glycolytic work, start to add in speed work (ATP-PC work for the science-y types). ATP-PC work is everything from 1 second to about 12/15 seconds. This is speed. Pure, nasty, beautiful, gorgeous speed. The stuff that makes ESPN salivate and college recruiters come knocking at your door. You are building strength and power, now it is time to show off what you got.
1. Camp is 8 weeks away – Kid is probably aching to play at this point.
2. Continue with lifting as per month of May – keep on keeping on. Strength, power, maintain hypertrophy.
3. Add more speed work while you phase out Oxidative work and transfer that load to glycolytic work. We will revisit oxidative work during camps and seasons – now we will phase out aerobic work for now as we really ramp up the speed training and improve recovery on glycolytic training. Hopefully you have built a base where this will start to transfer over nicely with those glycolytic runs. This is where your training really starts to pay off when you see your times improve on the longer sprints, your speed improve more, and your rest periods are shortened after the longer sprints.
In layman’s terms this means you recover faster between plays and this linebacker is ready to crack pads with each play.
1. 4 weeks to go until camp starts, continue strength and power work, use hypertrophy sparingly – it is time to shift away from hypertrophy work and focus on peaking the strength work before camp starts.
2. Focus almost exclusively on speed work while having one glycolytic session per week – phase out glycolytic work to one session a week for maintenance and focus on speed work solely. They will test the 40 in camp, so regardless how you feel about testing 40 times in camp it doesn’t matter. Get them ready to test great so this means you eliminate barriers to recovery like extra hypertrophy work, volume, and glycolytic work.
1. Camp Starts, contact is minimal yet as most school districts/states have rules on this – this is a nice rule to know as it will dictate how they train with weights during this month. If your state is cool with contact, minimize extra lifting volume and focus on maintaining strength and power. If your state minimizes contact practices you can keep a little hypertrophy work in for the time being.
2. Strength maintenance, maintain power, and small amount of hypertrophy – see above.
3. Oxidative work for recovery as practices are enough work – they will be running their faces off now, so have them do one oxidative session a week to recover. Zone 1 is ideal here.
September – November
1. Start of the season and we are now officially starting in-season mode – critical info to remember. Games are demanding, kids get beat up, practices are still demanding as they learn plays for the week. Act accordingly.
2. Strength maintenance, maintain power, minor bit of hypertrophy work – now it is time to keep maintaining strength. It is possible to even gain a little strength because we will be keeping overall volume lower so don’t be surprised if you hit a nice bench press PR. Power maintenance will be in the terms of throws because they are less demanding on the body over power moves such as jumps and power cleans.
Training efficiency is vital. We are NOT training lifters or freaks of nature here, it is our job to keep these kids healthy and ready to play, not to work them to the bone at the wrong time.
3. Oxidative work for recovery because practices and games are demanding – a session of Zone 1 recovery work per week. Saturday works well for this one as it is the day after a game.
1. Continue in-season mode if in playoffs but if you are off this month, this is the time to rest. Take 2-3 weeks off of the gym entirely, allow healing, and start back up with very light DB work and correctives to start to prepare for the next season – if the team made the playoffs, great, keep on the in-season plan.
If they didn’t make it, they will need to rest a couple of weeks after the season. They just worked hard as hell, played a physically demanding position, made some big hits, and need the rest.
Kids are not machines, they will ache like everyone else does but they will also not understand the importance of rest. It is your job to make sure they know that importance.
This is, in no way, the definitive guide on training an athlete, but rather it is a pretty solid way to break down a training year.
This could be construed as using the classic Block Periodization to develop the training year, but I prefer to call it by a simple name:
Why common sense?
Size builds strength, strength helps power.
Aerobic builds anaerobic capacity and recovery.
Athletes need to be created from the bottom up, build your base of work before you start to chisel away the details.
Go forth and build your machines.
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