How I Write Programs For Athletes

One of the questions I get a lot is how do I write programs for my athletes.  Most people don’t seem to understand how much effort goes into this.  There is a lot of research involved when you work with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. I read the journals every month to keep up with the latest information that is currently in the field.  I am not going to pretend I read every article every month but I pick out the ones that I am interested in or that pertain to an athlete I am working with and make sure I read it. I also like to read blogs of other coaches I respect and websites like T-Nation to keep up not just with the science need of things but what is actually going on in the field. So creating a program for an athlete is not just throwing a few exercises together and see how much they can lift and help them get stronger.  One of my favorite quotes I have heard is “Anyone can make you tired.  A strength and conditioning coach teaches movement and improves performance.” So this post is about exactly what goes into writing a program for an athlete.

What Sport and what position does the athlete play: This is a crucial first step not necessarily because of what exercises you are going to do but also because of what exercises you are not going to do.  For example, I will place a lot of restrictions on an overhead throwing athlete such as a baseball pitcher, volleyball player, or a swimmer.  The Shoulder is the most complex joint in the body and it has to be treated with care.  I also look the sport to see what type of metabolic demands it places on the athlete based on their sport but also their position. Take Football for example.  A Wide Receiver needs to train differently than a lineman.  If you were to give the two the same workout plan.  Chances are the wide receiver would be getting slower or the lineman would be getting weaker.  With metabolic demands I have to consider is the sport highly aerobic or more anaerobic in nature.  Baseball players for example don’t need much in terms of aerobic conditioning but a Field Hockey player would need quite a bit more.  Within aerobic and anaerobic constraints there are also different energy systems that come into play.  The ATP-Pc or phosphogen energy system allows for approximately 12 seconds or less of work capacity.  An sport where this is the primary energy system would be softball.  A softball player would never have to work for more than 12 seconds at a time during a game.  The glycolytic energy system is one of moderate power and moderate duration. After 12 seconds peak power drops and some amount of aerobic capacity is needed.  A sport which demands this energy system would be soccer.  The soccer player needs short bursts of sprinting speed but also a continious motor throughout the game.  Lastly is the Oxidative system which is your highly aerobic athletes.  An example of this kind of athlete would be a cross country runner.  In plain English there is no need for a football lineman to run 2 miles during training just like there is no need for a cross country runner to work on his or her 1 Rep. Max Squat.  Each athlete has different needs in training.

Think about the Individual:  I evaluate every athlete who steps in the door.  Whether that means a formal evaluation before training starts or just by watching them complete the dynamic warmup.  Movement quality is so important not just in term of injury prevention but for growth within training.  Movement quality can mean an injury that is not quite healed or it can just be a result of years of pervious poor movement patterns.  From the ages of 1-5 almost all humans move in similar ways.  These dysfunctions occur later in life from the lives we lead.  So when I write a program for an athlete who has a poor movement pattern I will try to correct that first before I overload that movement pattern with weight.  If an athlete can’t get his shoulders to full flexion overhead.  I wouldn’t have that athlete do heavy shoulder presses.  To be honest an athlete with a poor movement pattern probably would not be able to execute a dynamic and coordinated movement in that pattern under load anyway.  This is something called muscular inhibition. The brain simply won’t allow the body to put itself at risk of injury.  The second part of the evaluation is athleticism.  Is the athlete strong?  Are they quick?  Are they explosive?  My general rule of thumb is to attack weaknesses with training.  For a strong kid who has heavy feet I would program a lot of speed drills and a lot of plyometrics. For a kid who can run all day and has a high motor I would train strength.

Exercise Sequence:  I always start with a  thorough and lengthy warmup that includes dynamic movements, injury prevention drills, core, and glute activation exercises.  Then I have the athlete work on corrective exercises if there are any.  These will include specific mobility or flexibility work that is geared toward the individual.  Finally I will almost always have the athlete perform a core lift first.  I believe bench press, squat, and deadlifts are every athlete’s foundation for strength.  On 90% of my programs written the athlete is doing one of those three exercises first or at least a variation of them and doing multiple sets of at least 4 or 5.   If the athlete is doing an Olympic lift I may substitute that for one of the core lifts as well although some athletes don’t olympic lift and others are just at the point of working on olympic lifting skills. That first core lift is the only one where I have the athlete complete all of the sets without starting another exercise.  I think this sets the tone as to how important this is and requires the athletes full attention.  I also try to incorporate all of the basic movement patterns into the programs.  I believe that for a complete strength training program you need to incorporate squats, presses, pulls, hip hinges, and carries in a equal fashion.  I think this creates a balanced athlete who has total strength and makes them less likely to get hurt. After the initial core lift all of my strength training is usually done in circuits that may include a mix strength training, conditioning, skill work, and mobility.  I will most often save anything that is high intensity for the end of the workout as to not fatigue the athlete for strength training.  So if I program a high intensity interval of wallaballs and burpees or I have an athlete push a sled I will make sure those are done towards the end of the program.  I usually save my core and abs work for a period where I want a programmed break to help the athlete recover and catch their breath.  Sometimes this is in the middle or sometimes it goes last.  At the end of of the workout I have the athlete foam roll and static stretch for at least ten minutes.

Periodization:  Traditionally as a CSCS you are taught that to have an athlete peak for a season you need to follow a linear periodization model that might look something like this:  General Prep period where the athlete is introduced to the basics and is usually performing a mix of strength training work while being re-acclimated to training.  That would be followed by a hypertrophy / endurance phase lasting anywhere from 3-6 weeks. During this phase the athlete would be performing 3-6 sets of 10-20 reps at 50-75% of their one rep max. Then a basic strength phase where the athlete would perform 3-5 sets of 4-8 reps between 80-90% of their one rep max.  That would be followed by a strength and power phase where the athlete would perform 3-5 sets of 2-5 at 75-95% of their one rep max. Then there would a transition period during pre-season followed by peaking where the athlete will perform 1-3 sets of  1-3 reps at 93% and above.  Then in season the athlete would be doing maintenance work  at 2-3 sets of 6-8 at 80-85% of their one rep max.  Lastly that would be followed by another transition period of active rest during post season.  This sounds all well and good if I am training a one sport athlete with a training age of at least two years with no movement deficiencies and lots of free time to dedicate to training.  However, that is not often the case.  An athlete who is new to strength training no matter their chronological age might be better served in a general prep period for maybe almost a full year.  Within those first two years of training I will often program a less traditional non-linear training approach.  I will use those same phases as the linear approach but instead change them from week to week.  The non linear approach instead of building towards a season will have the athlete go up and down throughout.  For example one week the athlete could be in a strength power phase and the next week in a hypertrophy / endurance phase.  This non linear approach allows for athletes to deload from time to time and it allows for active recovery which might be necessary for an athlete who is new to training.  The research shows that non-linear training programs are effective but there is also more research needed.  You can also work your way up to a peak in the non-linear approach as well because your peaking and transition periods would still be written into the programs.

So there it is.  Everything that I take into consideration when writing an athlete’s workout program.  There are a lot of trainers who just show up to the gym and wing it and perhaps this can work for a young athlete for a short period of time.  If you want to find a coach who will use scientific principles, practical information, and has the experience to create a thorough workout program for you as an individual come see us at Inception Sports Performance in Madison, NJ or go to NSCA.com and find a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist in your area.

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About Joe Lopez C.S.C.S

I grew up playing sports my whole life. I played football, basketball, and baseball in High School. I was so busy playing that I never learned how to work out and eat properly. I played baseball in college but without the year-round fitness that came from the other sports I started gaining weight. When my college baseball career was over I weighed 285 lbs. I decided to make a change. I lost 85 pounds in two years. I can show you how. I have been a certified personal trainer for six years. I helped countless people find their success stories. My style of training comes from an athletic background added to my own personal experience of weight loss and fitness.

Posted on January 16, 2015, in CSCS, fitness, NSCA, Strength and Conditioning, workout and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Good read and very insightful. I am taking NSCA’s CSCS exam in a few month. Besides the study material they provide, do you have other recommendations?

    • Thanks! It’s been a while but I mostly just used the textbook. I Went chapter by chapter then took a practice test. The areas where I struggled on the test I went back over in the book. Good Luck!

  2. Thanks! Was the format in multiple choice with a. b. c.? I’ve heard there are 3 options instead of 4 now.

  3. please contact mi if your from jersey

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