Five Tips to Maximize Athletes' Training Results in Minimal Time

One of the biggest challenges for a performance coach when working with athletes is finding the time to train them while working around their other commitments. Gone are the days it seems when young athletes had a distinct off-season and no real responsibilities other than just going to school. Now, most of my athletes play multiple sports, are on travel competition teams, and train with me. Add in that many are active members of the community, have jobs, and have to keep up their academics and you have some busy kids. For that matter, my adults, who I train like athletes, are even worse. They have jobs and houses and usually have to play taxi for the kids who are doing all the activities that my athletes are!

Needless to say, “optimal” training isn't always possible, and as such, it’s a big deal to trim the fat out of my clients' training programs and deliver results in brief sessions. The greatest training program in the world isn’t going to be worth spit if your clients don’t have the time to complete it. I’ve become pretty good at making a lot happen in limited availability and thought I’d drop some tips on getting the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to training athletes when short on time.

Tip #1: Incorporate basic athletic skills into the warm up.

Dynamic warm ups are all the rage and generally for good reason. Getting the athletes moving, increasing their mobility, and focusing them on the workout at hand are all great things, and the dynamic warm up can accomplish that. However, I see many people missing out on the opportunity that the warm up can provide. It’s a golden chance to improve the athletic basics, not just a time to throw a bunch of joint-specific movement drills together.

Remember that movement patterns are skills. The more often they’re done (correctly), the more efficient the athlete will become at them. The more efficient the athlete is at various athletic movement patterns, the faster and better he’ll move on the field. My warm ups always include basic skills like squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, twisting, and foot speed and end with some explosive jumping and quick sprints. This serves the purpose of warming up, increasing the athletes’ mobility, and engaging the nervous system. Now, I also know that they’ve practiced correct technique in squatting, lunging, and other movements three to four times per week or more.

Tip #2: Train the whole body with big compound movements.

Probably most of you are doing this, but just in case you aren't, it bears mentioning. Chances are you’re only going to be working with these athletes two to three sessions per week, so it’s a priority to get as much in as possible. By training the whole body in each session, you can make sure that you hit everything. Also, because you’ve only got so much time, it forces you to boil things down to the most efficient exercises to get the job done.

I generally focus on a big lower body move such as a squat, good morning, or deadlift and then pick a push and pull movement to round things out. These are the “main movements” of any training session, and because I don’t have a lot of time, I have to pick the exercises that have proven to provide the greatest results. Young athletes work on the basics like I outlined above such as squats, front squats, and deadlift variations. We don’t really worry about specialty exercises such as rack pulls, seated good mornings, and so on. They simply don’t return the value for the time invested.

Tip #3: Utilize more sets than reps on the big movements.

This one isn’t necessarily a time saver, but it does help keep things running smoothly. By using more sets instead of higher rep sets, we can use higher loads at similar volume, which as we all know, promotes strength. There's also less overall muscular fatigue stacking up set after set. This means that even though the loads can be higher, your athletes can maintain technique better and will be more crisp as long as you aren't beating them down with failure. In other words, even though four sets of five is the same number of reps as two sets of 10, chances are you can use a higher load with better technique on the fives than in the last few reps of the tens. This will translate into increased strength, better technique, more energy throughout the workout, and less chance of injury.

Tip #4: Perform any assistance work as a circuit.

After a good warmup and a couple “meat and potatoes” exercises, your need for assistance work is actually pretty minimal. That being said, there’s definitely a time and a place for it, and every athlete has some weak points that should be brought up. Unfortunately, with assistance work, it’s easy to get bogged down in the old school bodybuilding approach of doing a set, resting for a minute, doing another set, resting, and so on until you finish the prescription for that movement and head on to the next one. Instead, I have my athletes perform their assistance work as either a superset or circuit, usually with a brief rest between movements. This kills multiple birds with one stone. It gets the assistance work done in less time, clears up equipment if there are multiple athletes training at the same time, and provides a mild conditioning effect.

Tip #5: Finish up with body weight movements/gymnastics/extra stuff

Once you’ve hit your big movements and any specific assistance work you need, I like to throw a “finisher” in there that incorporates body weight and gymnastics movements. It’s popular right now to use finishers designed basically just to kick the crap out of the athlete in five to ten minutes under the guise of “conditioning.” Now, these certainly have their place, and I use them when it’s warranted. However, it isn't always a priority for the athlete to be in peak condition. If you’re just gassing the heck out of them when they don’t need it just to do it, you’re missing the boat on program design efficiency.

In my mind, however, it's pretty much always a priority for an athlete to continue to master body control. There aren’t many sports, including life, that you won’t be better at if you improve your ability to control your own body. So after the rest of the training session takes place, I always include some sort of body weight or gymnastics exercise or series of exercises if there’s enough time. Depending on the skill in question, the needs of the athlete, and what went on in the rest of the session, this might be simply basic skill work or more traditional “finisher” conditioning circuits.

So to recap, here’s how I maximize my limited time with my athletes:

  • Warm up well and incorporate your basic, most desired athletic skills into the warm up.
  • Focus on the big, “meat and potatoes” compound exercises with excellent technique and strength being the priority over fatigue.
  • Set up assistance work as a superset or circuit to minimize wasted time and create a conditioning effect.
  • Place a strong priority on body control for athletes and finish with some drills to promote that.

If an athlete is generally active playing his sport and doesn't need major body composition changes or rehabilitation issues, the objective of the strength training should be to simply improve the athlete in his sport. That doesn’t take a lot of time. Too many coaches become focused on making their athletes into weight room warriors because that’s the world we live in. Our athletes, on the other hand, spend their time on the pitch, field, diamond, mat, or court. Strength training is an accessory (albeit a key one) to their success, not the other way around.

With proper planning, it’s easy enough to get a lot of work done in a short period of time so that your athletes can focus on the real goal—dominating the competition.