In-Season Strength Training Optimization- Part 1

Joe Belden
[email protected]

Assist AD of Athletic Performance
Friends University 

While there are thousands of resources available discussing and outlining the “best” programs for hypertrophy, strength, power or speed, there are very few that dive deep into programs that produce or maintain the desired results for in-season training.

Before an in-season program can be structured and implemented, first the coach must determine what qualities are desired and need to be maintained throughout the course of the season to optimize performance.

Things to consider:

Movement patterns necessary for optimal performance. I include mobility in this category.

Do we need to maintain strength, power, or speed in these areas?

Potential imbalances and asymmetries


Injury prevention. I include stability in this category.

Does what you’re doing in-season enhance, maintain, or interfere with sport specificity and stiffness qualities?

What is the sports coach doing in practice?

How are we going to test to see if the nervous system is recovered?

An overlooked quality that comes with experience is the ability to read the room. You can tell how an athlete feels by reading their body language when they walk in the room. Like the farmer’s insurance commercial says, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” When it comes to reading the room and the body language of your athletes, there’s no substitute for experience. While it doesn’t happen overnight, it does come easier for some. Learning to hone this skill will prove to be very beneficial. Learn to coach with your eyes wide not narrow to see the big picture. Don’t get so caught up in the technological aspects of strength and conditioning that you lose this connection with the athlete.

Once the season is underway, my experience with most coaches has been that they have a singular focus of strength maintenance without taking any other factors into account. As my friend and host of the In Between Sets podcast, Sam Brown says, “So many coaches seem to turn their brains off once the season starts.” I have a little different perspective on things based on my trials, errors and past experiences. Being mindful that while all of these considerations are important, controlling the training volume is key and much more important than lowering the intensity. This is one of the single most important factors in designing in-season training protocols.

Maintaining strength and power levels in season is where the science and art of coaching merge. As strength coaches, we must always keep in mind that we are stress managers. The stress of both practice and competition must be kept in consideration amongst all the other external factors. In my opinion, the minimal effective dose is the aiming point. This allows more cushion for error, especially when working with large groups of athletes. There’s no question that many athletes are going to want more. This is where educating the athlete is important in an effort to try to protect them from themselves.

At Friends University, some of the methods and modalities we use and have had success with in-season may be surprising to some. Many of these training protocols are those developed by friend Cal Dietz, University of Minnesota and USA Women’s Hockey strength coach, author of Triphasic Training, and cofounder of RPR. I’ve also sprinkled in some conjugate methodology as well as adding some twists of our own. There are several paths that lead to the desired destination. Available equipment, available space, size of teams, etc. must be taken into account before you choose your path.

It’s also important to note that we perform exercises with some type of cross crawl patterning during each training session. Cal’s testing indicates that the nervous system responds more favorably and athletes perform more optimally when these small tweaks are implemented. Below are a list of methods we use to ensure optimal success of our athletes while in the competition season.

Reflexive Performance Reset (RPR)
Cluster sets
Dynamic Effort Accommodating Resistance /Assistance
Oscillatory Contraction Training
Dynamic Power Potentiation Cycling (DPPC)
Performance Cycling
Functional Transfer
Specials – Yuri, cross crawl

Reflexive Performance Reset (RPR)

Reflexive Performance Reset (RPR) is a method of breathing and tactile inputs that helps “reset” the body from survival to performance mode.” The nervous system controls every aspect of our body. Just like the electricity in your house controls how the lights work, your nervous system controls how your body works.

A highly functioning nervous system makes our mechanical tools, such as strength training, mobility, etc more effective. “So the nervous system controls how bones, tendons, fascia, and muscles all coordinate together much like electricity coordinates with the fixtures and the bulb. And like an electrical system, if the power is out, the bulb and the fixtures simply don’t matter. RPR helps us simply turn the power back on.” By implementing a series of self-care techniques called wake up drills, we can optimize the function of the nervous system and help our athletes perform at their best. So to simplify, by using breath work, massage and compressions over the course of a few minutes, we can reset the nervous system and optimize an athlete’s performance. Who doesn’t want this?

Stress due to injury, having three midterms in a week, getting in an argument with parents or a break up with a significant other can put an athlete into stress overload. This stress can force our mind-body connection out of whack. The athlete develops inefficient compensation patterns. “Our bodies often stick to these inefficient compensation patterns we know work, even if those compensation patterns are unhealthy, unhelpful, limit performance, and even lead to injuries.” This is where RPR comes in. Athletes who use these RPR wake up drill sequences can shift their bodies out of harmful compensation patterns into efficient and powerful patterns, improving performance, flexibility, and making them more resilient to injury. No brainer, right?

I have personally taught and implemented RPR on over 1000 collegiate athletes and every time I demonstrate the power of RPR, I’m nothing short of amazed. Level one is so empowering to the athlete. The troubleshooting and problem-solving capabilities of level two and three are invaluable to the coach who works with in-season athletes.

Cluster Sets

A cluster set is simply a variation of a normal set but instead of performing continuous repetitions in a set, the desired number of repetitions is separated into clusters, with each cluster performed every 10 to 30 seconds. For example, instead of performing one set of 3 continuous repetitions at 90% of your 1RM, perform 1 repetition every 10-30 seconds until the set is complete. This ensures more high-quality repetitions and reduced chance of injury or failure.
A single set of 3 reps at 90% will most likely produce 2 solid repetitions, apotentially a not so solid third rep and a fatigued nervous system. With cluster sets, each cluster rep can most likely be performed with max effort intent with a focus on compensatory acceleration. This method promotes quality, safety and improved recovery time.
We have also experienced a great deal of success with overcoming iso clusters as well as with submaximal explosive clusters.

Dynamic Effort w/Accommodating Resistance

This is taken directly from the Conjugate playbook and is highly effective as an in-season training modality. The key is compensatory acceleration. In other words, move the weights as fast as possible. Band resistance allows the athlete to finish with as much power and speed as possible for each rep without actively decelerating at the top of each rep.

Something else that’s worth noting when it comes to implementation of accommodating resistance. We all have those athletes that no matter the exercise prescription, want to continue to go heavier. Adding bands to the bar can help control those who have a hard time controlling themselves. This will at least limit the intensity to the top of the lift.

Pendulum wave
Week 1- 50% of 1RM + 15-25% band resist
Week 2- 55% of 1RM + 15-25% band resist
Week 3- 60% of 1 RM + 15-25% band resist
Week 4- Change Variation
Key points
Instead of 8 x 2-3 reps, lower total sets
Compensatory acceleration
When the bar slows down, you’re done

Option 2
Alternate between two different lifts each week (ex: split squat and box squat)
Week 1- exercise 1 @ 50% + 15-25% band resist
Week 2- exercise 2 @ 50% + 15-25% band resist
Week 3-4 repeat @ 55%
Week 5-6 repeat @ 60%

We’ve had good results with both options in the past. With the implementation and success of the other methods discussed here, we haven’t had the need to move away from option one.

Oscillatory Training

In order for a muscle to fully contract, the antagonist muscle must relax. With Oscillatory training, the nervous system learns to contract and relax more efficiently. We use two types of oscillatory training. With damped oscillations, the goal is to use an external force to try and dampen or stabilize the oscillations.

With forced oscillations, the goal is for an external force to create oscillatory movements, training the nervous system to contract and relax the muscles more quickly and efficiently. Forced oscillations are performed by first creating maximal tension, then quickly releasing all tension. As quickly as tension is lost you will just as rapidly apply tension again. The agonist quickly becomes the antagonist and vice versa. The quicker you can transition from total tension to total relaxation, the more efficient the process will be.

I believe this is a very beneficial and commonly overlooked form of in-season training. As a matter of fact, many people aren’t familiar with it at all. We only use this for compound movements. This is very awkward in the initial stages of implementation, especially with lower body movements. As the athlete develops more neuromuscular coordination, the movements become faster, smoother, more efficient, and I believe this has great carryover to sport. By conducting a series of quick 3-4 inch partial repetitions within each rep, your neuromuscular system not only learns to contract and relax fast but you are able to target areas of emphasis. For example, I’d you were to do a set of 6 reps with 6 oscillations each rep, you would actually perform 36 repetitions, within that 3-4 inch range, or in the targeted point of the movement. During the off-season, we might commonly target the weakest area of the movement, or use it to perform additional repetitions in a ROM that needs additional stress. Sets and reps vary with volume and intensity parameters. Our athletes normally train in the 60 to 80% of 1RM. Our in season guideline is that when velocity starts to slow down, it’s time to shut down.

When we perform his movements using accommodating assistance, resistance or co-contraction neuro activation with bands, we are able to perform movements at greater speeds, on multiple planes, with multiple joints. By using these co-contraction or rebound methods, we can train the nervous system to move faster than is potentially possible without the band assistance. We found this type of training to be very beneficial for recovery and injury prevention as well.

Benefits include:
Nervous system learns to contract or relax more efficiently
Come more comfortable in the desired range of motion
Another way to train time under tension
Increase volume with the same number of repetitions
improves neuromuscular coordination
you get a lot of quality work with a lower intensity weight
Focus can be on the weak part of the lift, or getting more repetitions at the strong part of the lift
Can easily be modified for low, medium and high intensity days
Beneficial for in season training protocols
Can be used with a number of training implements by themselves or with band assistance, band resistance, or co-contraction neuro activation. This makes it very versatile when managing stress or creating stimulus.

DPPC (Dynamic Power Potentiation Cycling)

This has surprisingly been one of the most effective forms of in-season training I’ve experienced as a strength coach. This method combines overcoming isometrics with fast or explosive movements. Many experts caution against using isometric training in-season for fear that the nervous system will be slow to recover. These concerns are valid if overdone. Once again, controlling the volume or in this case, time under tension, is more important than to completely stifle the intensity. They are also efficient in developing neural drive and muscle fiber recruitment. This means that isometric training can improve your ability to recruit motor units, which could increase strength and power production.There is however, a fine line that needs to be walked when using isometrics in season. The key relies on controlling the length of contractions and total time under tension.

When structured appropriately, overcoming isometrics offer many benefits for in-season training. Since isometrics can be beneficial in maintaining strength, potentiation, transfer, injury prevention and rehabilitation, there’s no reason not to have them involved in any in-season ****training program. While the literature recommends 30 to 90 seconds of total time under tension with isometrics, we use no more than 2-4 exercises for three sets of 2 seconds each and opt for the minimal effective dose with no more than 24 seconds of total time under tension.

As mentioned earlier the effectiveness of this method lies in the combination of overcoming isometrics and fast or explosive exercises. After overcoming isometrics are performed for a set, a set of an explosive or oscillatory movement are performed. What we see in this sequence is muscle unit recruitment, potentiation, and then transfer. Like performance cycling, potentiation is great and recovery is fast.

Performance Pattern Cycling

Performance pattern cycling involves cycling through a selected number of exercises in a specific order to optimize athletic performance. The benefits of performance pattern cycling include minimizing fatigue, enhancing positive transfer of movements, and creating a better flow in the training environment.
Performance cycling is extremely versatile lending itself to numerous combinations. This makes it very adaptable to almost any training setting. In the past two track seasons, our sprinters, jumpers and hurdlers have set continuous personal records. Performance pattern cycling was also part of our in-season football training protocol. This assisted with nervous system recovery monitoring. In the 2023 season, our data shows a 2.21 inch increase in vertical jump from pre testing in early August compared to best vertical jumps in the last four weeks of the season. Most coaches would be happy with a 2 inch increase during the course of off-season training. We had 15 to 20 new personal records every Thursday during the season. We found that potentiation was reliable, consistent, and at times of the charts.
As a coach, if you were managing large numbers, this is a no-brainer. Even with small numbers, it’s a no-brainer! Athletes feel great after training sessions, workouts are fun, productive, and seem to actually accelerate recovery.


Putting it all together (notes)

No need to over complicate or overthink things.
One of the best investments you can make is in a vertical jump mat. If you use that as your guide, you’ll be right more than not.
The key once again is controlling the volume. The vertical jump mat will let you know when the athlete has had enough.
You’ll never be wrong by exploring a program with your athletes prior to in season training. If they perform high and recover fast, you’re onto something.
There’s more and more data available all the time on the positive effects of microdosing training sessions and strength training the day of or the day before competition. Medium to high intensity, low volume, quality effort.

Think in terms of 2-4 week blocks. We normally train in three week blocks. In the words of Louie Simmons, “ the best way to adapt to training is to never adapt to training.” After three weeks of the same exercise variation in the same rep range, the stimulus will begin to wane. I know from experience that in the first third of a season, we can use cluster sets to squeeze some more strength gains out of them as long as the volume is managed. Once it starts to stall, or in a 3 to 4 week period, it’s time to modify. I found that this is about the time that wear and tear on the body starts to become evident as well. This is when the ability to read the room, and communicate with your athletes becomes even more important.

By changing the stimulus and managing the athlete’s stress, we can preserve the athlete’s mental state as well. They don’t seem to be as negatively affected from a mental standpoint if they’re performing a dynamic bench press or box squat at 50 to 60% of 1RM with 20–25% band tension for high velocity reps as they do if they feel their ME bench press or squat start to decline.

Collaborate with sport coaches. Sport coaches can make you look like a genius or leave you pounding your head against the wall. A football coach who beats his players up in practice and runs them into the ground after practice makes it difficult to maintain those hard-earned results. Our head football coach runs organized practices, tracks total full speed repetitions in practice, he doesn’t beat them up, doesn’t run them into the ground, I look smart!

This is an example of what an in-season football program might look like.

Block 1
Saturday – Contest
Sunday – recovery lift
Tuesday – clusters on main lifts
Thurs – DE day, speed and power

Block 2
Saturday – Contest
Sunday – recovery lift
Tuesday – oscillatory
Thursday -performance pattern cycling

Block 3
Saturday – Contest
Sunday – recovery lift
Tuesday – DPPC
Thursday- performance pattern cycling

Here’s an example of what in season basketball might look like
Competition on Wednesday and Saturday
Monday/Thursday – Cross Crawl Recovery + performance cycling or functional transfer


In-season training optimization continued Part 2 

After the previous article was written, our Men’s Track & Field team went on to win the 2024 KCAC indoor championships by 38 points, and our women placed a solid third of 14 teams. The important thing to note is that, as a team we set 41 PR’s. A few other key points, our team is young with most everyone returning and 95% of our points were accumulated in sprints and field events. And for those of you unfamiliar with indoor track, its distance event heavy, meaning potentially more success with the outdoor season.

Our head track coach and I collaborate closely as to the needs of the team. As it relates to optimizing performance and peeking at the right time, this is essential. Leading up to this point, our lower body focus was on foot strength, trunk/single leg stability, safety squat bar split squat/staggered stance squat, glute ham variations/RDL variations, as well as inner and outer thigh work and Olympic variations.

This is how I structured our in-season training in the weight room for sprints, jumps and hurdles. Also note that with performance cycling, all athletes vertical jump at the end of each round of lower body to track nervous system fatigue.

Week 1-3

-Spring Ankle (w/partner torque)
-SS bar step ups w/band resistance (power step ups)
-Copenhagen marching
-GH hyperextensions
-Thunder Band ½ kneeling take offs
-Primetime variation
-Barbell Z press
-Lateral plank walks w/band resistance
-Neutral grip pull ups
-Band face pulls

-2 Dumbbell staggered stance drop jump
-Accelerated staggered stance jump
-Single leg reverse hypers
-Band staggered stance reflexive rhythm deadlifts
-Primetime build ups
-Multi grip bar speed bench w/band resistance (3 week pendulum wave)
-Dumbbell chest supported rows
-Hanging knee tucks
-Sandow butterflies

Friday/Saturday – competition

Week 4-5

Spring Ankle (w/partner torque)
-SS bar step ups w/band resistance (speed/reflexive step ups)
-Glider hamstrings w/oscillations
-Partner resisted high knee run
Primetimes (bent knee)
Dumbbell seesaw press
Cross crawl plyo push up
Band ½ kneeling lat pull down w/oscillations
Band face pulls w/oscillations

-Band Drop Jump w/band resistance
-Co-contraction linear hip neuro activation
-Accelerated Pogo hops
-Primetimes (straight leg)
Dumbbell bench press w/oscillations
Band staggered stance 1 arm row/oscillations
Band speed tricep pushdowns
Dumbbell speed hammer curls

Friday/Saturday – competition

Week 6-7

-Thunderband ½ kneeling starts
-Band resisted staggered stance drop jump
-Pogo hops
-Glider OC hamstring curl w/band resistance
-Primetimes (bent knee)
Cross crawl plyo push up
Band ½ kneeling speed lat pulldown

-Single leg reverse hyper
-Co-contraction linear hip neuro activation
-Overspeed starts
-Primetimes (straight leg)
Dumbbell speed bench press
Band staggered stance speed 1 arm row

Friday/Saturday – competition


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