6 Things I’ve Learned So Far This Season

We're just over halfway through the season with twenty-two games played and, if successful in the playoffs, the prospect of sixteen more without any time off for good behavior. The sport is rugby, where the effects of matches have been compared to a car crash times three by doctors. It’s for this reason that coaching in the English Championship is one of the most demanding environments around. In the strength world, we're constantly learning and trying new things. I took this time to look back over the first half of the season and reflect on some of the things I learned or relearned.

1. If in doubt, increase max force.

It isn't called strength training for nothing! I know that max force isn’t the only important strength quality for sports performance, but its development should be included somewhere in your programming regardless of what phase, block, or mesocycle you’re in. This was brought to my attention when after eight weeks of hypertrophy and max strength work, I had players perform vertical jumps of two to three inches. And that was without doing a jump for eight weeks! Maximum strength is correlated with power and speed and increases one’s potential to be explosive (2). The bottom line is it increases max strength. Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 has been brilliant for us (3). It allows us to make consistent improvements in strength while also being flexible enough to include power and RFD work (e.g. alternating work sets with jumps and throws of various kinds).

2. Training programs shouldn’t be balanced.

I used to recommend that your pulling ratio match your pushing ratio for shoulder health and better posture. Now, I agree with Jim Wendler and Eric Cressey that you should have a 2:1 pull/push ratio. When I think about it now, I laugh at my idiocy. How could a balanced program remove an imbalance? Remember Newton’s third law—every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Modern day posture is imbalanced into a kyphotic, rounded shouldered mess and it needs to be put right by an equal and imbalanced dose of upper back strengthening, T-spine mobility, and pec stretching.

3. Max rep sets rule!

Guys want to challenge themselves against the weights. When they get a rep max, they have something to beat in the future and a new goal. Also, if you get a group of guys with the same strength levels, the atmosphere in the gym is electric. Competition is one sure fire way to raise the intensity and motivate people. It also helps me monitor how the players are adapting to the program without doing excess ‘testing.’ Now, even on assistance exercises, I might prescribe 8, 8, and 8+ with the final set being max reps.

4. Rest periods aren’t for resting.

As I have mentioned, modern day posture has much to be desired. Even in athletes, there is the need for plenty of mobility and pre-habilitation work. For me, the most effective way of getting this work in was during rest periods. Common problems I see with my players are poor hip and ankle mobility, weak glutes and a weak core, and a weak upper body. So in every session, we have a list of stretches and mobility and pre-habilitation exercises for the guys to do during rest periods. This makes us time efficient and keeps the level of banter below tedious. Did I mention that stretching and strengthening simultaneously is more effective than separately (1)? Although it’s only anecdotal, our non-contact injuries have been significantly low this season.

5. Start light and build up.

How many times have you seen a guy in the gym training with the same weights week in and week out for years? Don’t be that guy! I’ve always tried to progress the intensity by programming 3 × 10 in week one, 3 × 8 in week two, and 3 × 6 in week three. However, I still found that guys overestimated how much they could lift the first week, barely get all the reps, and then fail in the following week and the next. If they had started lighter, they wouldn’t have burned out and they could have made steady progress, thus maintaining motivation. The problem is these guys think they have to go balls out with heavy weights all the time. This is where education comes in…

6. Progress comes through education.

I prescribed 10, 10, 10+ in week 1; 8, 8, 8+ in week 2; and then 6, 6, 6+ in week three. I then explained to the players that in the first week of a program with a new exercise, they would get a stimulus from 3 × 10 regardless of the weight they used (excluding the pink dumbbells). I instructed them to use a weight that they could guarantee they could get all the reps with. Then in the last set, they could do max reps. This last set would give them a better gauge of what weight to use for the following week in addition to the other positive benefits mentioned earlier.

Now, even though they aren’t using near rep maxes for the prescribed loads, they might get 16–20 reps in week one, 12–16 reps in week two, and 8–12 reps on the final set. The point is that volume decreased and intensity increased. They didn't burn out and fail. They have three new rep maxes, and they will have a better idea of what weights to use in the future. It all came down to educating them to make small incremental gains and using their program to keep track of their rep maxes so they could try to beat them the next time around. In fact, one of the common sayings in the gym now is, “Write that down!”

None of these lessons were that groundbreaking. They were just observations and things that have helped me shape my program along the way. As strength and conditioning coaches, we are driven to seek new techniques and methods, but we shouldn’t forget the simple things that maintain progress. I hope some of them were thought provoking and helpful. I’m sure I’ll remember and pick up more things during the rest of the season, too!


  1. Simao, et al (2011) The Influence of Strength, Flexibility, and Simultaneous Training on Flexibility and Strength Gains. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 25(5):1333–38
  2. Stone, et al (2003) Power and Maximum Strength Relationships During Performance of Dynamic and Static Weighted Jumps. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17(1):140–47
  3. Wendler J (2011) 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Improve Raw Strength.