Designing effective resistance training programs is critical for achieving optimal results. You can use great technique and train with great intensity, but unless you follow a program that has been well thought out, you will never achieve the best results. Writing a well-designed resistance training program may seem like a daunting task at first. This is, at least in part, because there are so many options and variables to consider. However, with some thought and planning, you can simplify the process into a manageable task.
Let’s use collegiate soccer as an example as I take you through the step-by-step process of designing a training program. Soccer is a fall sport at the collegiate level, with practice beginning in early August and the season running into November or December as teams advance into the playoffs.
This information about the length of the season provides important details. First, it indicates the start date for off-season training. It is generally recommended to provide athletes with at least two weeks off from training to recover physically and psychologically from the demands of competition. At the collegiate level, the athletes will have difficultly training consistently during finals and winter break. So, rather than resuming off-season training in November, only to face interruptions during finals and winter break, it makes more sense to resume training early in January. The start of practice in August signals the end of the off-season phase. With the start and end dates of off-season training established, the number of weeks devoted to off-season training can be determined. Using a typical academic calendar and accounting for a week off at spring break, approximately 28 weeks of off-season training will be available.
The more refined cycle sequence provides more frequent adjustments in the training protocol, keeping the stress on the body high and also places the greatest emphasis on increasing power and endurance. Now that I have the length and sequence of each cycle organized, I can go back and manipulate the training variables in each cycle to help achieve the desired goal. The first cycle of the training year is a brief introductory cycle. Remember that this training program is based on my own philosophy of training and that a variety of effective techniques can be used to train athletes.
Length 1 week
Goals: Reintroduce athletes to the demands of resistance training and emphasize exercise technique.
Intensity: Complete the full number of repetitions in good form on each set before increasing resistance.
Pace: Perform total-body lifts as explosively as possible. For all other exercises lift in 3 seconds and lower in 3 seconds.
Rest: Take 2:00 between sets and exercises.
Sets and Reps
Note: The following abbreviations are used in the workout tables. TB = total body, one of the Olympic-style lifts or related training exercise; CL = core lift, a multijoint exercise such as a squat; TL = timed lift, the athlete completes the required reps in a specified time; AL = auxiliary lift, a single-joint exercise such as a biceps curl; WT = weighted, the exercise uses external resistance to increase training intensity; MB = medicine ball, the exercise is performed with a medicine ball (medicine balls are often used in training programs when the goal of training is to develop power, because medicine balls are designed to be thrown explosively); RDL = Romanian dead lift; SLDL = straight-leg deadlift; alt = the exercise is performed alternating legs or alternating arms. Starting a DB exercise from the “floor” means beginning the movement from the same position as when using full size weight plates attached to a barbell that is resting on the floor. It is basically a mid-shin position.
The introduction cycle reacquaints the athletes with the demands of resistance training. The full number of repetitions in each set determines the intensity. The athletes select a resistance that allows them to complete the full number of repetitions in each set using good form, forcing them to use a moderate resistance. In some of the later cycles, the first set determines the intensity. The athletes select a resistance they can lift for the full number of repetitions on the first set and perhaps the second set, but if the resistance is selected correctly, they should not be able to complete the full number of repetitions in subsequent sets. The pace, or speed of movement, used during the introduction cycle is relatively slow; whereas, the rest periods between sets and exercises are fairly long.
Exercise selection should be based on training movements, not muscle groups. When resistance training, the increases in strength and power are specific to the movements used to perform the exercise. The more similar the exercise activity is to the movements that make up the sport, the more carryover there will be from the weight room to the playing field. With soccer players I use the resistance training program to increase athleticism instead of simply increasing strength. Therefore, I limit nearly every exercise to dumbbell training. Dumbbells require more balance and body control than machine or barbell exercises do. The goal of training is to improve athletic performance, not improve the ability to demonstrate strength in the weight room.
Exercise selection, similar to program design, should progress from general to specific. As the off-season progresses, exercises should become more and more specific to the movements that occur during competition. For example, it makes sense to perform a basic Olympic-style exercise such as the push press during the introductory cycle to develop strength and teach correct movement patterns. But as the off-season progresses, exercises should also progress. So in the endurance and power cycle that occurs just before the start of practice, the athletes perform split alternating-foot, alternating-arm jerks, which develop power, coordination, and balance.
In terms of exercise order, the Olympic-style exercises are always performed first for two reasons. First, these exercises are performed quickly. Training speed is compromised if athletes go into these exercises fatigued. Second, these exercises involve complex movement patterns, and the ability to perform complex movement patterns diminishes as fatigue sets in. After performing the Olympic-style exercises, athletes perform exercises for the largest muscle groups. In these workouts, the lower body is trained on both training days, so the lower-body exercises are performed after the total-body exercises. These lower-body exercises require lots of energy, so it makes sense to perform these exercises while energy levels are still high.
After athletes have performed the lower-body exercises, they train the trunk. Typically, trunk exercises come at the end of the workout. But a strong trunk is critical for optimal athletic performance, and it has been my experience that if athletes perform trunk training at the end of the workout, many of them will not perform the exercises with the desired intensity. Athletes can perform these trunk exercises with the desired intensity if they do them in the middle of the workout rather than at the end.
Athletes perform the exercises for smaller muscle groups (e.g., chest, shoulders) at the end of the workout, when energy levels are lower. These exercises can be performed safely in a fatigued state. After athletes complete the introduction cycle, they begin the hypertrophy cycle.
Length 3 weeks
Goal Increase muscular hypertrophy because of the positive relationship between muscle size and strength.
Intensity Complete the full number of repetitions in good form on each set before increasing resistance.
Pace Perform total-body lifts as explosively as possible. For all other exercises lift in 3 seconds and lower in 4 seconds.
Rest Take 1:30 between total-body exercises and 1:00 between all other sets and exercises.
Sets and Reps
* A superset occurs when two strength training exercises are performed back-to-back, without rest.
**In the stabilization exercise, the athlete stands on one leg and closes his or her eyes. A partner pushes or pulls the athlete with enough force that the athlete is forced to hop to regain balance. The partner will circle the athlete and push or pull the athlete for the entire 60 seconds of the exercise. The athlete should regain body control and stability before being pushed or pulled each time.
To emphasize increases in muscle size, several variables have been manipulated. First, we reduced the speed of movement to extend the duration of the training stimulus. Next, we increased the number of repetitions and reduced the rest periods because performing resistance training with high repetitions and short rest intervals increases testosterone and human growth hormone levels, both of which are important in muscle growth. Note that the number of repetitions performed varies each week. For example, during weeks 1 and 3 the athletes perform core lifts at 3 ×12, but during week 2 they perform 3 × 10. Because athletes select their resistance based on the required number of repetitions, adjusting the repetitions forces the athletes to vary the training resistance, and thus vary the intensity of their training. In addition, supersets were introduced into the training protocol because of their positive effect on hypertrophy.