The Myth of In-Season “Maintenance” Training

Posted on by Ben Bruno

When I was in high school it used to annoy me so much when adults would start sentences with “Back when I was your age, things used to be so much different…” It just sounded so lame, and it made them seem old.

But alas, at the ripe old age of 26, I find myself saying it all the time to my athletes. I’ve become that guy.

They probably think I’m lame too, but it’s true. Even ten years ago, things were so much different than they are today.

In high school, I didn’t have a cell phone, the Ipod hadn’t come out yet, and it used to be a big deal to swear. Now, all of that stuff is commonplace.

I can only imagine what it what it must’ve been like for Mike Boyle before the advent of fancy things like electricity and motor cars ;)

Seriously though, if you really take the time to stop and think about it, it’s crazy how fast things have changed. At 26, I’m certainly not over the hill by any means, but it’s a completely different world than it was just ten years prior.

Nowhere is that more true than the field of strength on conditioning.

I was an avid athlete growing up, but aside from some push-ups and sprints here and there at the end of practice, I never partook in any sort of organized physical training program all throughout high school. Nobody that I knew really did either, at least not on any meaningful level. I started messing around with some bodyweight training and light weightlifting when I was around 16, and I was first of my friends to do so. Keep in mind that I’m from New Hampshire, so trends take a little longer to catch on up there (kidding, sort of).

These days, it’s become the norm for high school kids to participate in a strength and conditioning program, and it’s really almost a requirement if you want to make it to the next level. MBSC is packed all year-round with high school kids looking to get a leg up on the competition.

It’s great to see, and it’s something I wish I had back in high school. It’s a huge opportunity to make the most of your potential…if you take advantage of it.

I think that’s why it grinds my gears a little bit when I hear about in-season “maintenance” training.

To me, training for maintenance is wasting a prime opportunity to get stronger and separate yourself from the pack.

The argument for in-season maintenance training is that you don’t want to fry your athletes in the weight room and take away from their performance in their chosen sport.

I absolutely understand this rationale, and I agree that you don’t want to fry them, but where I differ is that I absolutely believe you can get kids stronger in-season without frying them, and to take it a step further, doing so will in turn have a tremendously positive carryover to their ability to perform at a high level. The key is to keep the volume low and the intensity (and expectations) high.

For the past two years, I’ve worked with a high school varsity hockey team during their season, and about 75% of the boys come in to train with me year-round. This has been my first experience with coaching a team, but I’m lucky because being at MBSC, I have some great people to call on for assistance. I’ve made some mistakes along the way, but I’ve learned from them, and overall it’s gone really well.

Both years the team has increased their strength over the course of the season. I say this based off simple testing we did prior to the start of the first practice and again at the end of the year. The tests included vertical jump, max reps on the bench press with 135 pounds (95 pounds for kids that couldn’t bench 135), and max reps for bodyweight chin-ups. I do not like the idea of doing heavy one rep maxes with kids with a relatively low training age, so these tests allowed us to gauge their progress safely while still giving us some valuable objective data to see if the program worked.

It did, and it translated positively to the ice.

Well, I should amend that statement slightly because I think it’s impossible to measure how much it truly translated, but I have to think it helped on some level because they’ve had two of their most successful seasons in quite some time, and in both seasons they’ve played their best hockey at the end of the season when other teams are fizzling out. More importantly, with the exception of a freak accident in the locker room with someone stepping on another boy’s bare foot with a skate, they’ve incurred no serious injuries. In the brutal game of hockey, that’s saying something.

The Program

The program we use is very simple. Games typically fall on Wednesday and Saturday, so we lift Thursday and Sunday to allow them time to recover. Workouts usually last 40-45 minutes: 10 minutes to warm-up, and 30-35 minutes to lift. We don’t normally do any additional conditioning work since they are getting enough of that skating six days a week, but sometimes, depending on how they’re playing and how they’re feeling, we’ll do some sled relays at the end of Sunday’s lift— partly for conditioning purposes, but more so for team-building.

The workouts are set up as follows:

Workout A (Thursday)

Dumbbell Snatch
Mobility Filler (Squat Stretch, Toe Touch Squat, etc.)

Trap Bar Deadlift
Chin-up
Core

1 Leg Squat
Pushup
Core/Mobility

Workout B (Sunday)

Jump Squat
Core

Bench Press
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Mobility Filler

Inverted Row
Single Leg RDL
Core

Sometimes we have to change around the order of the exercises slightly to account for equipment logistics when the gym is crowded, but that’s the basic setup.

For the bench press and trap bar deadlift, we work up to one top set per workout, waving the reps every three weeks or so from anywhere between 3-8.

On the rest of the exercises, we do 3-4 sets within a consistent rep range (depends on the exercise, as different exercises lend themselves better to different rep ranges) and shoot for modest weight increases from week to week.

Using this program, 22 of the 23 kids increased their bench press, 20 of 23 increased their vertical jump, and all 23 increased their chin-ups. For the younger kids with a lower starting point, that’s probably to be expected, but we have kids that bench 265 lbs, jump 31.5 inches, and knock out 22 chin-ups so it’s definitely not all “newbie” gains.

The “Secret”

The program itself is really nothing special on paper, but I think the real “secret” lies in the simplicity, the execution, and the expectations.

Since the overall workload is low, we can push the intensity, both literally and figuratively.

Literally speaking, we urge small incremental weight increases from week to week, provided the form stays good.

Figuratively speaking, we demand full effort and clearly set the expectation of getting stronger.

If you have it in your mind that you’re trying to maintain, it can lead to complacency. That’s not the mindset we want. We want people expecting to get stronger and fighting tooth and nail to make it happen.

Now that’s certainly not to say that all of the boys add weight every single workout because as we all know, that’s just not realistic. Some of the younger kids actually do for the most part, but that’s just because their training age is so small and their starting point is so low. Our freshman and sophomores made tremendous strength increases over the course of the season. For the stronger kids that have been lifting longer, there are days where they just don’t have it or aren’t feeling good and we have to adapt and either lighten the loads, reduce the volume, or both. If you’ve lifted heavy weights yourself, then you know that at a certain point, progress slows down and even maintaining strength levels is a tall order. For these guys, it’s especially important to have them in a mind frame for improvement because otherwise it will surely lead to not only maintenance but strength loss. Even training for strength, stronger athletes may end up maintaining, but they’ll at least be better off than if they had just trained to maintain in the first place.

Clearly you can’t put the pedal to the metal day in and day out, and part of the art of coaching is knowing when to back off. The art is something that I think comes with experience, so I’m working on that and is something I will undoubtedly get better at with time. There’s no substitute for experience, and at some point, you just have to try things, be ok with making mistakes, and then learn from them. With that in mind, there have actually been a few times throughout the season after particularly physically demanding games and/or late nights where I’ve called an audible and used the normal lifting time for extra foam rolling and stretching.

For the most part though, we push them to get stronger, and the general trend is in that direction. It’s not linear, but I’m ok with that as long as the end result is better than a starting point.

Mistakes

I mentioned before that I’ve made some mistakes along the way, so I’ll share those now.

The first one was not monitoring the players’ bodyweight enough.

Most high school boys have an atrocious diet, which when coupled with a crazy practice and game schedule, is recipe for losing serious amounts of weight in-season, particularly in metabolically demanding sports. Last season, we tested their weight and body fat at the start of the season, but we didn’t do much beyond that. Not surprisingly, when I rechecked their bodyweight at the end of the season, most of them had lost more weight than I would have liked them to.

This season, we did weekly or bi-weekly weigh-ins on Sundays to keep track of them more closely and to serve as a constant reminder for them to be cognizant of their diet. This system worked really well and the kids have been much better about keeping their weight up, which has translated to better strength in the gym and on the ice.

The other mistake I’ve made was switching exercises too frequently and/or progressing exercises too much.

Last season I felt compelled to progress exercises every 3-4 weeks, even if what we were doing was working fine. I did it because I didn’t want them to get bored, but the result was a lot of unnecessary soreness, and in some cases, pain. For example, I progressed them too quickly to ab wheel rollouts and it resulted in several of the boys complaining of excessive ab soreness and/or back pain.

It also didn’t give them enough time to master some of the exercises. For example, after three weeks of offset single leg RDLs, they were just beginning to remember which hand to hold the dumbbell in, let alone master the balance aspect and start increasing strength.

This season, I tried to learn from my mistakes and followed the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I told myself I wouldn’t change out an exercise unless one of three things happened:

- They stopped making progress
- They started complaining about being bored
- They complained of pain

Much to my surprise, they never once complained of being bored. In fact, overall enthusiasm was sky high. It really makes you realize that a lot of time as coaches, we probably make changes from our own boredom, and garnering excitement is much more about creating a positive culture than it is about creating a sexy program.

Also much to my surprise, we didn’t run into any major plateaus with any of the exercises. In fact, their progress was actually better because they had more of an opportunity to master the movements they were being asked to perform. Again, it makes you realize the power of a well-executed, simple program, especially for trainees with a relatively young training age.

The only major change I made to the program was to take out trap bar deadlifts and replace them with single leg “skater squats” with about a month left in the regular season because a lot of the guys were complaining of feeling beat up.

Aside from that, the program stayed largely intact except for small modifications for certain individuals working around minor injuries.

Conclusion

I guess it goes back to what Dan John says about “simple, but not easy.” In-season training obviously needs to be shorter and more focused, but I don’t think it has to be (or should be) maintenance work. I don’t think it’s just of semantics either. It’s a philosophy, and it’s a mind frame. Remember, it’s called strength training for a reason.

  • http://twitter.com/Rich_Romaine Rich

    Ben I couldn’t agree more. In-season training is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I feel as though throughout my career as a h.s., post-grad. and college athlete my teammates and I have always gotten weaker and lost quite a bit of weight as the season wore on. The in-season training wasn’t always taken seriously by our athletes and this led to a decrease in performance yearly as we weren’t as strong, powerful or big as when the season began. I agree you definitively have to keep the intensity high, the volume low and let the athletes know your expectations for them. Finally the weigh-in idea is another thing that I feel is crucial and will help keep the athletes’ diet, training and lifestyles in check. Great article.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Robertson/537820428 James Robertson

    A) I’m annoyed that you have a high school athlete who benches more than me,
    B) I second the idea of weigh-ins to maintain performance; it’s a simple idea but one that most people won’t have thought of.
    C) The boredom thing is soooo right. I tell people at the gym I work at that if they’re still progressing on the exercises I have given them, then there isn’t much need to change things every 6-8 weeks (our standard length between consults). “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
    D) Great article!

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  • Mck12

    Ben. great post. I have been working with high school multi sport athletes most of my career. I agree maint workouts are a waste of time. I would rather see a kid rest. When we lift we are always working with a purpose. strength and mobility being the priorities. When loads and volume are controlled properly using science and common sense kids can always continue to get strong especially in high school while they are growing so rapidly. One resource I have come to look at very closely is Dan John and Pavels’ easy strength. Pretty good stuff!

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  • http://www.cardiohaters.com/ Grant

    Hi Ben, nice post. Very simple and easy to read. I too found the deadlift beating up my athletes. I found their recovery better when I got them to only perform the concentric lift and just got them to drop the weight. Have you tried this?

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  • Mark

    Great post, I, too believe that if you train for maintenance, you’re doomed to end up weaker. Especially with a high school 2 or 3 sport athlete. We have to keep progressing year round with those kids- how much stronger can they get only lifting heavy for 2 months each summer.

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  • Tom

    Disagree. Strength is about technique. You lose technique during the sporting season. Therefore, you lose strength. Example: Some of my athletes squat 600-700 lbs. I dare not have them squat that weight during inseason. You would be looking at groin injuries big time.