Written by ryan burgess
As our days get shorter and the calendar drifts from summer to fall, it means that in the good old US of A, football is here. From Pop Warner all the way to NFL the regular season is in full swing, with athletes entrenched in their weekly march towards a coveted championship. The majority of these athletes have [hopefully] spent the months leading up to and through the summer preparing their bodies for the challenges they will face. With preparation in mind, one important question hangs in the balance: now what?
As a physical preparation coach who specializes in working with football players, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with athletes from all levels. I recently had a conversation with one of my NFL clients, an offensive lineman for a team that has jumped out to a surprising 3-0 start, and he said he’s loving the fact that they’re still “getting after it” in the weight room this year. And as a former player, I’ll never forget the shock to my system when I first experienced the volume and intensity we trained at year round in college when compared to high school. I’ll be the first to admit that the methods teams currently use in this endeavor can and should be debated, but one thing is for sure: college and professional teams continue to push their athletes in both their specific AND general physical preparation through the fall.
The same cannot be said, though, for football at the High School and Youth level. Coaches spend the majority of their time focusing on special physical preparation, tactics, and schemes while leaving in-season training as a mere afterthought. It’s also safe to say that anyone reading this article is familiar with the inherently violent nature of the game. One of the biggest goals of any physical preparation program is reducing the rate of injury, so placing that part of a program on the back burner in a sport with a long competitive calendar such as football is a rather risky move.
One simple maxim when it comes to the training for sport is that the younger/less developed the individual, the more important general physical preparation is going to be. When athletes fall into this category they are still developing their ability to run, jump, cut and change direction, and display/absorb force. This is the foundation that their specific athletic skill is going to be built upon. If you neglect this phase, your athletes aren’t going to be as efficient when it comes to the specific tasks associated with their sport. Their football “house”- blocking, tackling, route running, pursuit, etc. – is going to be built on a foundation of sand.
Given that preface, in-season training for High School and Youth football players has two congruent goals: keep the athletes healthy and keep them progressing. Not only will this ensure that they are moving along the developmental continuum accordingly, it will also mean they are hitting the crucial late season stretch stronger, faster, and in better shape than when the season began in August.
My initial focus here will be at the High School level, and first and foremost we need to look at stress. The sport of football is incredibly taxing on the human body, so we can’t begin discussing in-season training without taking into consideration the weekly stresses of practice and competition. Every team is going to have their own variation on schemes, practice tempo, “conditioning”, etc. A fast tempo spread style offense or a Defense that regularly faces opponents like that is going to have a higher volume of work in practice over the course of a week than a traditional grind-it-out style team, therefore exposing their athletes to a greater degree of stress.
The demands of team “conditioning” also need to be addressed. Many teams regularly utilize gassers, wind sprints, bleacher intervals, and long distance runs in a misguided effort to develop “mental toughness” and/or punish players for poor performance. Mental toughness isn’t about practicing until you vomit, or about how many low quality gassers you can perform. Togetherness is toughness. Building and fostering an environment where every individual is committed to improving themselves day in and day out is toughness. Nothing is tougher than a team that is motivated from top to bottom, forged together through dedicated, purposeful training, taking the field in top physical shape, ready to work and compete side by side towards the common goal of victory. This comes from culture, not conditioning.
You also need to remember that 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 a very important part of developing your in-season training plan.
Given all this information, you now have an in-season stress hierarchy:
Games > Practice (Team Demands + Position Demands) > Training
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 track and weight room become an afterthought. Having kids come in 1-2 times per week for an “open gym” after last period 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 power, speed, and strength, not just maintain it, during the season will help your athletes 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. It’s important to note that this is geared towards your athletes that are getting significant playing time. For the kids that are on the “developmental” squads, you can definitely add in one additional training session since they aren’t being exposed to the competitive stress of games. While this is by no means a complete guide, the following weekly schedule should point you in the right direction.
1.) Dedicate Monday’s to a high intensity [load]/low volume [overall work] lower body 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, squats to a box, 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 single leg work such as multi-directional lunges, 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 high school 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. Contrary to popular belief, you can still develop speed in-season at this level, so if you make that choice, this would be the best day to do some sprint work. Keep overall volume low, recovery between runs high, and distances relative to positions. My recommendation here is no more than 10 total sprints, with “Bigs” running 10 yards, “Big Skills” running 15’s, and “Skills” running 20’s. Since speed is the goal here, getting the sprints in prior to the lift would also be beneficial. This is hands down the highest stress training day, so I would adjust the practice plan accordingly. If you choose to run and lift on Monday, practice should be walk through’s, film study, or something else that’s lower in intensity.
2.) 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 (straight bar, football bar, or dumbbells), light(er) vertical pressing, and ton of back work in the form of barbell rows, dumbbell rows, and bodyweight pulling exercises. Once again, choose a main lift, 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 and a ton of volume. It’s imperative 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, but always go by what you see.
3.) Dedicate Saturday’s to a low intensity/moderate volume recovery lift. Emphasis this day should be on mobility, bodyweight exercises, and even some light lifting (lunges, squats, rows, push-ups, pull-ups, etc.). This would also be the only other day that I would have any kind of organized running. Tempo runs would be the best choice here because it’s an opportunity to improve aerobic capacity while simultaneously serving as an active recovery tool for the previous night’s game.
You want to make sure to dedicate some time in each of the training sessions to shoulder/hip joint integrity exercises as well as direct abdominal work. There’s a lot of different ways to address the joint integrity aspect of things, but as for ab work I recommend planks, side planks, dead bug abs, chops, and lifts. Anything to teach athletes how to stabilize their midsection will be beneficial, especially given the postural limitations many of them begin to develop during their teenage years. This can be accomplished in a few minutes at the beginning and end of each session.
Planned deloads have become a popular concept in training, but in my opinion they tend to be misused, especially with younger athletes. When athletes first begin training, their level of output is limited because they simply don’t have the same level of neural function that a more experienced athlete will. Forcing yourself into thinking that your athletes have to take every fourth week off can rob you of time where they could be continuing to progress. They key here is trusting what you see. As long as movement quality remains high, you know your kids are moving in the right direction. When things begin to break down, back down. Over the course of an average football season you’ll typically want to have one solid back down week around the middle of October, but adjust according to your specific situation. Remember that this week still needs to maintain the same overall structure, but the heavier lifts and sprinting will be removed: basically treat each training day that week like the Saturday training sessions throughout the season.
Going down to the most basic levels of the sport, there are some key things to keep in mind when working with Youth and Pop Warner football teams in-season. Again, placing a serious focus on General Physical Preparation can pay off dividends in both the short and long term. It blows my mind that Youth coaches will do nothing in the fall to improve the physical capabilities of their team while devoting all of their attention to concocting elaborate schemes and tactics. A child’s ability to execute the complex tasks will be predicated on their ability to execute the basic ones. The team that is more physically prepared will always have a competitive edge at this level, so instead of focusing all of your attention on mimicking Chip Kelly’s offense with a group of 7 year olds, spend some time on teaching them how to run, jump, cut, and move. As for how to go about doing this for the 14 and under crowd, the physical preparation of children is a very unique challenge that goes beyond the scope of this article. I’ll be addressing those issues in a Youth Football Training eBook that will be released at the end of the 2013 season, but in the meantime feel free to contact me through my website for any questions that you may have specific to your situation.
Whether we’re speaking High School or Pop Warner, there are hundreds of variables that can go into developing a sound in-season training program, but this article should serve as a serious jumping off point as well as giving some tips on things that can still be implemented this season. As with any training protocol, you’ll only get out of it what you put in. The High School training sessions in this protocol 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!). At the younger levels, keep the pace up-beat, positive, and fun so kids stay engaged in the work. Whether you’re the local youth football coach in your first season or the grizzled vet running a perennial state power at the high school level, always remember to have your team train hard AND train smart.
Coach Ryan Burgess is a physical preparation coach in San Diego, CA who specializes in working with football athletes. A former collegiate football player himself, Coach Burgess has trained hundreds of youth, high school, and collegiate football players as well as dozens of NFL athletes. In addition to coaching, in 2011 he began competing as an amateur strongman and recently started competing in Powerlifting. He can be contacted through his website at www.CoachBurgess.com