Football Off-Season: Phase 1

This is the first installment in a three part series on off-season strength training for football at the high school level. 

As we progress through this three part series I will address the specific goals of each phase and how an effective high school level coach should program in order to provide their athletes with a comprehensive and effective off-season regimen.

Through the next 8 months you should go through three phases of training.

  • Phase 1: December – February
  • Phase 2: March – May
  • Phase 3: June – Early August

It is vital that each of these three phases has a specific goal and the training protocol must reflect the desired outcome.

Off-Season Phase 1 – Strength and Size

The season has ended.  Its right around Thanksgiving and you’re staring down the pipes of a long 8 month off-season.  Within that 8 month time period you have to improve your strength and power, add muscle mass, and develop speed.  This is a crucial time for athletes, especially high school athletes who have a short window of time to develop.

Within your program you most likely have two levels of athletes you need to be concerned with.

  • Varsity
  • Developmental (freshmen level and new athletes new to the weight room)

The way you approach these athletes needs to be drastically different.  For the purpose of this article we will cover your Varsity and I will address the Developmental group in a later article.

During the first training phase your goals should be the following…

  • Recover from the season and go through a 2-3 week GPP Phase
  • Begin to build strength with a focus on the ‘Big Lifts’
  • Maintain a base level of conditioning
  • Perform some form of speed development

So, how do you address each one of these goals?

Goal 1: Recover from the season and go through a 2-3 week GPP Phase

The first 2-3 weeks of the off-season needs to focus on allowing the athletes bodies to recover while maintaining a regular training schedule.  The goal should be to treat any nagging injuries, get the athletes accustomed to being in the weight room, and identify areas for improvement (mobility, core strength, etc.)

During this GPP phase I do not perform any axial loading (back/front squat) ballistic lifts (power/hand clean) or max effort sprints.  I use a three day training split broken down as follows…

  • Day 1: Lower Body Push (DB Goblet Squats for Depth, Single Leg Squats, DB Step Up’s, etc.)

Upper Body Pull (Pull Ups, Inverted Rows, TRX Variations, Bicep Curls)

Light Tempo Sprints (60yd-80yd strides at about 70% sprint speed)

Corrective Exercises, Foam Roll and Stretch Series

  • Day 2: Lower Body Pull (RDL, Ball Leg Curl, DB Single Leg RDL, etc.)

Upper Body Push (Bench Press, DB Shoulder Press, Push Ups, Tricep Work, etc.)

Anti-Rotation Core (Pallov Press, Plank Variations, Dead Bugs)

Corrective Exercises, Foam Roll and Stretch Series

  • Day 3: Light Tempo Sprints

Corrective Exercises

Gun Show

*this phase can be boring for some guys, make sure you throw things in that make it fun

Goal 2: Begin To Build Strength with the Big Lifts (after your GPP phase)

What are the 3-4 lifts you want to build your off-season around?

For me, I always build my programs around the Deadlift, Front Squat, Bench Press, and Hang Clean.

When you are programming for this phase be sure that you have the ‘Big Lifts’ as the focus.  Your athletes must be proficient in these lifts and your programming should attack the strength, mobility, and stability demands of each ‘Big Lift’.

Some important questions to ask yourself are…

How are you going to teach the technical aspect of each lift?

Are your athletes ready to perform these movements?

Do you jump right into an Olympic lift or are you breaking it down into teaching phases?

A great way to attack this is to break your programming down into three sections of each day.

  • Section 1: Big Lift Technique
    • This can be a 10 minute block where you control every aspect of the movement. I personally love doing isometric holds at the end range of the movement. This allows my athletes to truly feel how the lift should feel through the range of motion.  It also allows me to walk the room and manually adjust an athlete who may be performing the hold with improper technique (ex. Squat hold with shoulders rounded)
  • Section 2: Big Lift Strength
    • 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps of your ‘Big Lift’ for the day. Depending on the skill level of your team or individuals you will want to adjust the weight and workload so they are doing this properly.  Remember, this is just the beginning of the off-season and if they learn the basics now their celling will be much higher later in the off-season.
  • Section 3: Auxiliary Work
    • The goal here should be twofold.
      • 1: Program lifts that benefit the weak points in your athletes ‘Big Lifts’. For example, if on the Deadlift or Power Clean your athletes can’t maintain a neutral spine then you’ll want to do some low back, anti-rotation core and glute/hamstring work.
      • 2: Program lifts that build relative strength and increase muscle mass. Remember, during this phase one of your goals should be to build lean muscle on your athletes.  In addition, building relative or bodyweight strength is vital based on the age and developmental level of high school athletes.

Goal 3: Maintain a Base Level of Conditioning

This is an area that has a bit of controversy to it.  Many coaches will tell you that conditioning in the winter will make you slow or impact your size and strength gains.  However, If done correctly conditioning will be the key to your off-season program.

Conditioning needs to be looked at from a macro standpoint and should be progressed through the year from general to specific.  This time of year you want general conditioning that builds the cardiovascular system while not beating down on the athletes.  Personally I like to use a modified version of Charlie Francis’ Tempo Sprints.  We used this while I was on staff at Purdue University with great success.  The goal behind tempo sprints is to maintain conditioning and serve as a flush for the legs.

To do tempo sprints you’ll head to the field and have the team run down one sideline at 60%-70% of their sprint speed for a prescribed distance (Big’s=40-50yds, Skil’s=80-100yds) then walk directly across the field as their recovery.  Once they reach the opposite sideling they run again.  This allows them to not stop moving while performing their sprint work at a sub-maximal speed.

Conditioning is vital to every athlete; it just has to be programmed properly!

For more information of the importance of conditioning I encourage you to check out the work from Joel Jamieson.

Goal 4: Perform Some Form of Speed Development

I have this last on the list because I feel that during this phase it is of the least importance.  However, with every athlete or team I coach we always do 2 days of speed work during the early off-season.  That said we keep it very basic.  On the first speed day we do linear speed with some mechanic work followed by simple sprints for a short distance primarily working on start technique which crosses over to their 40 testing.  On the second day we do the same thing just for lateral speed and change of direction with a focus on variations of the pro agility shuttle and 3 cone drill.

My philosophy here is to have my athletes kill two birds with one stone.  They will improve their speed and movement techniques while improving their familiarity with combine testing drills.

There you have it!  The goals and implementation process of the first phase of the off-season for a high school football team, tomorrow I will post the second installment of this three phase article series on football off-season training.

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