Key points on putting together your program this off-season

For players out here just starting to put some plans in place for the off-season training in preparation for next season, or for young players just looking to begin some supplementary strength and conditioning work for the first time, there are so many options of what things you ‘could’ do. So lets take a quick look at some basic principles to put into practice and guide you when preparing your own training program for the off season.


For starters – have key goals then a plan. Just going into it and making stuff up as you go – going for runs, and throwing together gym sessions on the spot will prove ineffective. Sure, doing this will still be better than doing nothing – but wasting time is never ideal, and without a general plan to follow where you have a desired outcome, motivation will wane over a long off-season/pre-season, and a degree of repetitiveness will not only lead to boredom, but also be a good recipe for niggling injuries as well as plateauing with results.


So what are some guiding principles


What is the end-goal?

What are you working towards?

Do you want some size?



Where specifically?

What role/s do you play in a game – or are looking to play next season?

And by extension – what tasks in a game are you looking to improve?


Start by answering this overriding question, taking into account your current ability and experience level, and then all else stems from here.


Simplicity over complexity

Fancy set-and-rep schemes, cycling 25-30 different exercises over each fortnight, and calculating and lifting certain % of 1RM for various exercises. These things may all look good on paper, and also may sound really good when explaining it to someone – but the reality is, the best programs around – or the programs of some of the best athletes around – when you see them on paper, actually look remarkably simple. Almost kindergarden-like simple.


“I don’t use percentages to determine training loads. I think this method has too many short comings.”


“I usually determine the repetition bracket I want my athletes to train in and then let the repetitions determine how much weight they should use.”

Charles Poliquin



“The notion that the athlete will be ready to lift 110% of their 1-RM on an arbitrary day or date simply because it was specified in advance as a ‘very heavy day’ on the programme is nonsensical.”

Paul Gamble


These sort of principles (complex sets and reps and lifting percentages) are all well and good if you are a professional operating in the top 0.01% of genetic ability (Olympic weightlifters, etc) but certainly uncalled for – and actually detrimental if you are inexperienced, or even intermediate-level. The more complex something is, the more likely you are to drop off. There is brilliance in simplicity – provided it is performed to a high quality, with a specific focus, and of course done consistently. That last one is so often forgotten – a poor program done consistently is better than a brilliant one done poorly.


Quality over quantity

Tying in closely with the last point. In a nutshell, when in doubt, do less. The general mentality is to always look to overload and add more in – an extra set here, a couple extra sprints there. However, junk volume is never the goal. Especially when factoring in the reality that things like strength training and extra running are supplementary to the real goal. Sure, the October – December period will involve no club/team commitments and can therefore really focus on developing physical ability without the interference effect of team sessions. But volume should not just be ramped up with 5 or 6 x 1 hour sessions per week, if the quality often ends up being low due to fatigue and too many sets and reps.


“A big part of our mentality is optimising our training and preparation. We might decide to cut the volume of training, but we never muck around with our intensity.”

Craig Bellamy


“I tried to explain to the president (of Real Madrid) that it wasn’t the amount of training but rather the intensity that was important; we could train 3 hours slowly, but it’s better to train 30 minutes hard and fast.”

Carlo Ancelotti

(Quotes from coaching legends in different football codes to ours sure, but this highlights the universality of the importance of this point.)


Compound over isolation

We have covered so many times elsewhere the limitation in bodybuilding-style split routines and isolation exercises, so aren’t going to beat a dead horse here. This is just a quick reminder, as this ties in well with aiming to make the most of the time you have – and achieve the maximum possible result or benefit, with the least amount of complexity and time. Quick example; doing 6 variations of bicep curls as well as some seated leg extensions and calf raises isn’t going to do much when stacked up alongside 1 pull up variation and 1 squat variation!


It hopefully goes without saying that just because the muscle-heads at the gym are using a certain exercise, technique or program and they are ‘making gains’ doesn’t mean that you should. After all, the overall aims are likely vastly different. But this does not just go for completely different goals, but also differing individual abilities and individual responses to training, with similar general goals.


Your mate alongside you may play in the same team as you, but may not respond to the same training stimulus in the same manner as you will. You may respond better to higher reps and more variation, while they may need the lower reps and therefore more total sets, as well as require more variation in the lifts. This is before even considering that you 2 may have different specific roles and goals (whilst some general goals still overlap), and may also have different levels of experience. Granted, there will be trial and error here – especially if you are relatively new to not only strength training, but also to speed, agility, and running-based work.


Some principles are universal, but never follow something just because someone else does it. This is even more the case when it comes to the programs and training practices of the pro’s – just because you have seen the layout that an AFL player, an SANFL/VFL/WAFL player, or even a high level junior (TAC, etc) does, and you like the look of it, isn’t enough reason to follow it. In fact it is more likely a disaster waiting to unfold – as well as a big motivation killer. We have had this discussion elsewhere.



That is flexibility in programming – or in the performing of your program.


You are feeling flat. But todays layout said deadlift for 6 sets of 5 (indicating a pretty decent load.) After 1 set, you know you are nowhere near as fresh as you felt the previous week, but damn it you are going to raise last weeks result to another level, because damn it its all about constant progress. Unfortunately progress is not always linear – in fact it rarely is. We are not robots, and it is impossible to predict exactly how we will not only feel on any given day, but also respond to any given training stimulus (set, session or training week.)


“Another issue with the percentage systems is that they frequently lock the athlete into specific weights, regardless of what the athlete is capable of lifting that day.”


“The bottom line is that with all the variables that can influence an athlete’s performance on a given day, including what time of day the athlete lifts or how much sleep they got the night before, it is nearly impossible for a coach to predict the exact weights an athlete can use in a give exercise.”
Charles Poliquin

Be flexible in your attitude, and make adjustments wherever needed. There is no black and white way of approaching the situation mentioned above – although it is almost certain that every single person reading this will experience this at least once over the next month – let alone over the next 4 or 5 months! Is it best to just skip the day and do absolutely nothing? Very rarely. The best place to start is to cut not only volume but also weight in half, and just get some basic movements in – or ‘grease the groove’ as Pavel Tsatsouline is so fond of saying. In very simplistic terms 6 sets of 5 at 100kg (assuming every set is the same weight – which in reality it wont be – but just for simplicity’s sake) would then become 3 sets of 5 at 50kg. Seems pretty easy all of a sudden huh? This takes a surprising abount of self restraint and discipline to do.


“Even when dealing with a single athlete it must be recognized they will not respond in a uniform way.”

Paul Gamble

"These guys are human. I come to work – I cant honestly say every day is a 10/10. Some days you are a bit flat – everyone is like that. So I don’t think that it’s a surprise that we do a test, that not everyone is feeling great that day."

David Gray
Head of S & C
Hurricanes Rugby

Of course how you adjust and vary the original plan on any given day or week will depend the extent to just how flat you feel. Note, it may not even be tiredness, it may be time availability, or a changed weekly layout this week because of work or study. The bottom line is, flexibility (as much in your thinking as in what you physically end up doing) is vital – because when you laid something out on paper – it was in a perfect world where you had no other distractions. Unfortunately we don’t operate in a perfect world. This further highlights the importance of simplicity over complexity too – simplicity will allow flexibility.


Variation without change

Once past the beginner stage of strength training and more toward an intermediate level of some sort (2 years consistent training experience) variation in a program is important. And of course, the more experienced you become, the more important variation will become. A common trap here to fall into is thinking you need to cycle dozens of different exercises over even a short period – say 3-4 months. Some exercise changes are good, but wholesale changes will often result in disjointed outcomes. Variation can literally be as simple as adjusting feet or grip position slightly, changing the order of your exercises, making tweaks to the sets and reps, or the most under-utilised tool going around – adjusting the tempo (say changing your standard squat tempo to a 4 second eccentric followed by a powerful/explosive concentric.) Notice that not one of these variations involved changing the exercise to a completely new one.


Exactly what you need at any given time will depend on both you, but also the overall situation you find yourself in. This is another tick towards individualising, and also being flexible in your thinking and your approach.


There is no ‘perfect’ or ‘best’ program – so stop trying create it

This is an important final point – and it is very interesting that this actually ties everything else together. There will still be shit programs and very good programs – and of course this will be dependent on the individual, the goal, their situation, etc. But often there is the tendency to keep trying to create and then enact this perfect training plan. And then what does this usually result in? The total opposite of the principles we just covered;


  • Complexity instead of simplicity
  • Way too much variation
  • Way too many exercises
  • Plenty of isolation
  • Blindly copying others
  • More quantity
  • Not enough quality
  • Losing sight of what the goal was at the start – or even worse, never actually defining it and then planning for it to begin with


There is nothing particularly ‘specific’ or ‘scientific’ here – but that is precisely the point – we shouldn’t get too caught up in specifics, at the expense of following some basic no-nonsense programming principles. Because without a solid foundation of principles to build on, all the specifics wont really do much. Don’t lose light of what the overarching goal is – performance in football to one extent or another. And in focusing on this, never lose sight of the fact that strength, running, agility and power work – whilst important – are supplementary work – they aren’t the end goal themselves. So don’t overrate or overdo them.

If you would like more detailed and personalised direction, checkout our personalised online programming, or if you would prefer even more personalised and detailed in-person coaching (for those lucky enough to live in the beautiful city of Adelaide), check out our Athletic Development Coaching and Junior Athletic Development Coaching.


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