Stay Strong: In-Season High School Football Training
Ryan Burgess, CSCS
FQ10 Director of Football Development
With Labor Day weekend in the rearview mirror that means one thing across this country: football is here. From Pop-Warner all the way to NFL, the regular season has kicked off, beginning the weekly march towards a coveted championship. The majority of these athletes have [hopefully] spent the last 6 to 9 months preparing their bodies for the challenges they will face. In terms of training, that leaves one important question hanging in the balance: now what?
This article is dedicated to High School football players, coaches, and parents. According to the National Federation of State High School Athletics, 1.1 million kids participated in football during the 2011-12 season. Therefore, it’s safe to say that everyone reading this article knows at least 1 person that’s deeply involved with the sport this fall. Passing this information along will go a very long way in keeping kids healthy and competitive through the entire season. In-season training has 2 congruent goals: keep the athletes healthy, and keep them progressing, so they’re hitting the crucial late season stretch stronger, faster, and potentially in even better shape than when the season began in August.
First and foremost we need to look at stress. The sport of football is incredibly taxing on the human body, so it’s imperative the weekly stresses of practice and competition are taken into consideration when setting up an in-season training plan. Every team is going to have their own variation on schemes, practice tempo, “conditioning”, etc. A fast tempo spread style offense (think Oregon) or a Defense that regularly faces opponents like that is going to have a higher volume of work over the course of a week than a traditional grind-it-out style team. At the HS level you also need to keep in mind the demands of team “conditioning”; many teams regularly utilize gassers, wind sprints, bleacher runs, track workouts, etc. in a misguided effort to develop “mental toughness” and/or punish players for poor performance. While the effectiveness of this style of conditioning is debatable, the fact is many kids will be subjected to it so the stress needs to be taken into consideration. Additionally, each position is going to face different stressors week to week and month to month. What a quarterback experiences from September to November is vastly different than an offensive lineman, so understanding positional demands is also important. Given all this information, you now have an in-season stress hierarchy:
Games > Practice > Team Demands (Scheme) > Team Demands (Conditioning) > Position Demands
Training without paying this stress its respect is a recipe for failure. While you want to have an intense, competitive training environment, you always must remember that training for football is a means to getting better at football. Managing these competing stressors and intelligently using what’s left in each athlete’s gas tank will be instrumental in keeping them healthy throughout the season.
While too much stress will lead to injury and breakdown, too little stress will leave athletes unprepared to handle the demands placed on them, which also has the potential to lead to injury and breakdown. Many teams around the country do a fantastic job preparing their kids prior to the start of the season, but once it begins the weigh-room becomes an afterthought; having kids perform lifting circuits in an unsupervised environment is a great way to be weaker, slower, and smaller at the end of the season, which translates to greater injury risk and poor performance. Continuing to develop strength, not just maintain it, during the season will help them handle the competitive demands of football and have them peaking during the most important stretch of games late in the season. Given all the other demands placed on athletes, three 45-60 minute lifting sessions per week is often going to be enough, but they have to be STRUCTURED.
– Dedicate Monday’s to a high intensity[load]/low volume[overall work] lowerbody lift so the athletes have until Friday to recover. Means will be determined by what the athletes have access to and are capable of performing at a high intensity: free squats, box squats, and trap bar deadlifts are all great bang for your buck exercises to be performed on these days. Warm-up, hit 3-4 working sets of challenging yet high quality lifts in the 3-6 rep range, finish off with some mobility work, and move on to practice. Their legs will get plenty of additional work through the week, so a ton of extra lifts on this day is unnecessary and detrimental in the long run. As for positional demands, at the HS level every athlete should incorporate this day. Simply put, if they want to run faster, jump higher, and hit harder, they need to be training to develop more force. The only possible exceptions to this would be quarterbacks and linemen due to the additional stress squatting can sometimes have on the shoulder; in those cases front squats, safety bar squats, and the trap bar are great alternatives to spare the shoulder but still challenge the lower body.
– Dedicate Wednesday’s to a high intensity/low volume upper body lift. In regards to means, I’m a big proponent of heavy horizontal pressing (bench pressing) and light(er) vertical pressing. The punching aspect of football is horizontal in nature, so it makes sense to develop strength in the same direction it would be needed on the field. Warm-up, hit 3-4 working sets of challenging yet high quality lifts in the 3-6 rep range, finish off with some auxiliary lifts (rows, pull-ups, chin-ups, db presses, etc.), and move on to practice. This is one day where positional differences absolutely need to be taken into consideration. Given the nature of their job, QB’s should be limited to dumbbell pressing and steered away from overhead pressing or a ton of volume of work. It’s crucial that they maintain their throwing form throughout the season, so doing things that have the potential to interfere with it need to be removed. As for linemen, they still need to train hard and heavy, but you really want to monitor overall volume. Giving linemen every third to fourth week off from their heavy pressing is a good way to keep the stress in check.
– Dedicate Saturday’s to a low intensity/moderate volume recovery lift. Emphasis this day should be on mobility and active recovery (lunges, squats, rows, push-ups, etc.).
In addition to following this weekly plan, backing down for a week mid season will be a huge help in keeping the athletes fresh down the stretch. This week still needs to maintain the same overall structure, but the heavier lifts will be removed; basically treat each training day that week like the Saturday’s lifts throughout the season.
There are hundreds of other variables that can go into developing a sound in-season training program, but if you or someone you know needs a little guidance this season the information in this article is a great jumping off point. As with any training protocol, you’ll only get out of it what you put in. The training sessions in this schedule are meant to be short and intense, so focus and execution are imperative (read: save the small talk for the locker room, you’re in the weight room to work!). Train hard, train smart, and watch the injuries drop and performance improve
Ryan Burgess coachburgess.com, CSCS is the Director of Football Development at Fitness Quest 10. In addition to directing FQ10’s NFL Combine Preparation Program, he oversees a staff of 6 coaches that train athletes from the Pop Warner to Professional level.