Off and pre-season strength and conditioning

Mens Volleyball in action
Author:  Dee Jennings, Strength and Conditioning Coordinator, Victorian institute of Sport
Issue: Volume 28 Number 4

In professional and institute-based sports, strength and conditioning specialists design, plan and implement training programs for their athletes not only to complete within the season, but also to maintain and in some cases develop fitness qualities in the off-season. These programs ready the athlete physically for the next season, while providing adequate recovery between the rigours of competition phases. Significantly though, they return the athlete in a ready state to cope with the demands of the new season.

The length of an off-season is determined by a number of elements including the characteristics of the sport, the athlete’s chronological and training age, and their level in the squad. The traditional season may constitute a number of different competitions — a national league, state league or club competition and, for junior athletes, school-based commitments — thereby reducing the off-season break. However, for the sub-elite or recreational athlete, without the extra demands of elite competition, the period of time between seasons will be longer; sometimes up to four months. Traditionally this is a time when athletes do very little. They are in need of a significant break both physiologically and mentally. So begins the roller coaster — detraining throughout the off-season, getting fitter in the pre-season, maintaining through the season and then losing fitness again in the off-season. During this break there is a significant reduction in training volume, intensity and frequency. This results in detraining. Fleck and Kramer (2004) describe this phenomenon as the loss of physiological adaptations and athletic performance when training has been reduced or completely stopped. Either way this can limit the athlete’s ability to build on their base qualities (aerobic power, anaerobic capacity, strength and flexibility) from season to season.

At the club level, it is usually left to the coach to plan, program and prepare athletes for the demands of competition ahead. This includes providing advice on off-season activities to maintain fitness as well as pre-season programs to improve fitness. Most sub-elite athletes are left to their own devices in the off-season and will present for pre-season training with varying levels of fitness. Additionally the length of the off-season may also impact on their ability to cope with the demands of the return to pre-season. For the coach this can cause problems when attempting to plan for team-based sessions. Do you cater for the fitter athletes who have maintained their levels over the break, thereby physically punishing the athletes who have done very little? Or do you cater for the athletes who have not maintained their fitness levels to the detriment of those who have trained?

So how much do athletes need to do to maintain fitness during their well earned break? Or conversely, how little training do athletes need to complete to minimise the decline in fitness capacities and give them a reasonable fitness base to begin pre-season training again? Detraining reverses several training induced physiological adaptations and performance parameters. Alterations occur in strength levels, power, muscular endurance, aerobic power and anaerobic capacity. Within days or weeks some of these qualities can begin to diminish. In endurance runners, sub-maximal running time to exhaustion is reduced by as much as 25 per cent after only 15 days of inactivity (Houston et al. 1979). In strength-trained athletes, the cessation of resistance training results in an immediate decline of strength (Fleck and Kraemer 2004). In a study by Hakkinen and Komi (1985), the squat ability of weightlifting athletes showed a decrease of 10 per cent in a four week period of rest.

Surprisingly, it is relatively straightforward to maintain your athletes’ fitness throughout the off-season. A number of studies (Neufer et al. 1987; Hickson, 1982) indicate that if the frequency of training is reduced by two thirds, that endurance capacities can be maintained for up to 14 weeks. This is providing intensity and duration is maintained. Of the two, the most critical variable is intensity. Hickson et al. (1982) established that if intensity is maintained, the frequency and/or duration of training may be reduced by two thirds without diminishing endurance capacities over the off-season, in endurance-trained athletes.

The figure below outlines a weekly training schedule for a team sport when in season.

Weights Weights Day off
Skills session Conditioning Skills session Game

This is based on two skills-based sessions, where Tuesday night is of a higher intensity and involves a greater conditioning component and Thursday is the main team session, which incorporates team strategy execution for the game ahead. The sessions at the beginning of the week are of a higher intensity and volume, tapering off as the week progresses into Thursday, Friday and to the game. In total six sessions, including a game are completed. Assuming that the players have attained a high level of fitness during the season, a reduced training load of two to three sessions would be sufficient to maintain fitness throughout the off-season.

Testing your squad at the beginning of pre-season will highlight who has maintained their fitness throughout the break. These results will give you an indication of the starting point of your program. One strategy to accommodate varying fitness levels is to group athletes of similar abilities at team conditioning sessions. Target times appropriate to the different levels can then be set to challenge athletes according to their fitness. At this point, the key to developing any physical capacity is progressive overload. Changing program variables such as volume, intensity and duration should be done systematically over time, while allowing the athlete periods of recovery, even within the pre-season.

Another strategy to accommodate varying fitness levels is to use small game activities that simulate the fitness requirements of the athletes’ specific sport. Often when athletes are involved in this type of training they are more motivated to compete, rather than when they are completing a generic conditioning program. Two effective methods of implementing this strategy are mixing five-minute blocks of interval-based training between periods of game time or using three rotating teams with the non-playing team performing the specific activities. 

A key question is when does pre-season begin? Straight after the final whistle? After a four-week break? When the athlete feels ready to return to training? When the coach calls the first organised training session? The issue is not so much when the pre-season begins, but what the athletes should be doing outside the normal season. It is important for the coach to select the appropriate type of exercise for the athletes. For some athletes, particularly younger athletes, the off-season is a valuable time to improve in areas of physical weakness such as aerobic capacity, strength and hypertrophy. It is also a time when injuries can be addressed and rehabilitation programs completed without the added pressure of preparing for competition. Older athletes may require a longer break, with cross training activities more relevant to maintain already developed levels of fitness. Whatever the case, the off-season should be individualised to meet the needs of the athlete and is a crucial time to ensure their physical progress.

Athlete education is the key. Providing your athletes with information on how many sessions they will need to do to maintain their fitness as well as what type of training they should be completing will hopefully alleviate the problems of athletes returning out of shape for pre-season training.

 Sample session - Off-season running program

Session 1

Warm up:

5 mins continuous running

Stretch — quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves

Run 35–40 mins :


Use trees, pole, parked cars as landmarks for your efforts.

Alternate between strides, sprints, jogs

Vary distance and intensity of efforts

Session 2

Warm up:

5 mins continuous running

Stretch — quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves

5 mins continuous running

6 x 75m strides — efforts between 75–80 per cent with jog back to start

5 mins continuous running.

6 x 75m strides — efforts between 80–85 per cent with slow jog back to start

5 mins continuous running

5 mins — jog 40m, sprint 20m, jog 20m, stride (75 per cent) 20m

(this exercise is continuous, perform same activities on the way back)

Jog 5 mins

Walk 3–5 minutes (until heart rate < 110)

Stretching program

Weight training guidelines — key variables are:

Number of sets per exercise
Number of exercises
Number of sessions per week
Intensity of efforts

All these factors are determined by the goal of the off-season: maintenance versus development. Maintenance of strength qualities will require one to two sessions per week depending on the athletes’ training experience, whereas developing qualities such as hypertrophy or maximal strength will require the athlete to perform up to four sessions of weight training per week

Maintenance of strength qualities will require one to two sessions per week depending on the athletes’ training experience


Fleck, SJ and Kraemer, WJ 2004, Designing resistance training programs (3rd edn), Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois.

Hakkinen, K and Komi, PV 1985, ‘Changes in electrical and mechanical behaviour of leg extensor muscles during heavy resistance strength training’, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports , 7, pp. 55–64.

Hickson, RC, Kanakis Jr, C, Davis, JR, Moore, AM and Rich, S 1982, ‘Reduced training duration effects on aerobic power, endurance and cardiac growth’, Journal of Applied Physiology, 53, pp. 225–29.

Houston, ME, Bentzen, H and Larson, H 1979, ‘Interrelationships between skeletal muscle adaptations and performance as studied by detraining and retraining’, Acta Physiology Scandanavia, 105, pp. 163–70.

Neufer, PD, Costill, DL, Fielding, RA, Flynn, MG and Kirwan, FP 1987, ‘Effect of reduced training on muscular strength and endurance in competitive swimmers’, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 19, pp. 486–90.