Off-Season “Gut Check” Training for Athletes – Workout Tips

The off-season is a time for athletes, regardless of their sport, to regain focus, and allow their bodies and minds time to recover from a season of intense training and competition. Although this is a time for recovery, I venture it can also be a time to push one’s limits.

In fact, the off-season provides the ideal time to change one’s training while not affecting weekly on-the-field play. In the example of football players, their off-season is spent regaining and building strength, bettering their conditioning and working on sport specific skills such as agility and speed.

There need not be the concern regarding upcoming games, and as such, I believe there exists the opportunity for latitude regarding program design and implementation. This is not to say athletes should stray far from their in-season training.

“Dance with who bring you to the ball”, is a good adage to follow in general, but having more time for recovery during the non-competitive phase of the year allows for some less traditional methods of training that might not be applicable during an intense competitive phase.

Regardless of the training program implemented there are a few general design factors which must be present in order for it to be successful; safety, overload and progression, low volume/low frequency, simple design, the use of basic compound movements, and a high level of intensity.

Safety speaks for itself. A protocol must be safe for the players, and all movements performed during the program must be done in strict style with proper form being the number one factor dictating progression.


For example, an athlete who can perform a set of 30 rep dumbbell deadlifts with the 140’s in immaculate style, but who falters slightly with the 150’s, must stay with the lower weight until perfect form can theoretically be achieved with the next progressive jump in weight.

Although a 10 lb. jump in weight is almost negligible, with the possible risk of injury, it is not in the athlete’s best interest to make that jump. If an injury does occur, then he may be reduced to using the 40’s for 30 reps.

This is not progression, it is regression, and the natural desire to lift heavier weights must be counterbalanced by the needs of their sport and of their physical abilities.

Overload and progression go hand in hand, and as previously stated, the general needs of the sport and abilities of the players must be taken into account.

In the case of sport specific training or general strength training, overload and progression must be the result of reaching a high level of execution of the desired sport specific skills or sport specific strength, not for the simple fact of performing more complex conditioning drills before perfecting the less complex ones or lifting more weight.

This is highly counter-productive and in the long run could lead to diminished returns on the part of the athlete. As has been stated many times, benching a 400 lb. max. doesn’t necessarily equate to improved play on the field.


A low volume/low frequency approach to training allows for maximum effort to be put into each training session, it allows for plenty of recovery time between bouts of exercise, and in a more practical vein, especially for collegiate athletes, it takes less time away from their otherwise hectic academic and extracurricular schedules.

The life of a student athlete is tough, there is no sense putting more restrictions on their time through long bouts in the weight room when the same goals can be achieved through shorter and more intensive training sessions. In general, I believe an extremely high level of strength and conditioning can be achieved in 4-5 hours per week.

Simplicity of design is a blessing as well as a curse for athletes. Simple programs with simple exercises are easy to follow and for those rookie athletes who don’t have a lot of experience in collegiate weight rooms this is a bonus.

The downside is that these types of programs are brutally hard and if athletes don’t “bring it” each and every time then their results will suffer. A two day split with heavy high rep squats, Trap Bar deadlifts and weighted sled pulls performed on one day and heavy medium rep weighted dips, weighted chins and sandbag carries on the second looks easy on paper, but the story changes once the gauntlet has begun.

Short rest periods and complete focus in the gym would allow a well conditioned athlete to perform the above routines in approximately 20 minutes. Simple. Yes! Easy. Hell no!


The “High Intensity” style of program design also allows for a lot of creativity and variation on the part of the coaching staff. Athletes love new challenges and will usually rise to the occasion, and when one day you ask them to push your Ford F-150 around the parking lot, they’ll brim with enthusiasm.

This creates a more exciting environment for everyone and especially those who simply do not enjoy the weight room. It also breaks up the monotony of “lifting weights” and perhaps allows individual athletes, who don’t normally shine in the weight room, to prove themselves in another protocol.

The list of productive compound movements is not an infinite one, therefore, exercise selection is made much easier. The lists directly below contain the exercises which I feel best lend themselves to this specific program. Unfortunately, universities here in Canada do not have the massive budgets allocated for athletics which many U.S. schools are fortunate to have.

Therefore, equipment is often basic at best (the following list is tribute to that). I have never been lucky enough to lay my hands on a Hammer Strength, Med X, Southern Exercise or like machine in my decade of training at Canadian university facilities, nonetheless, an impressive amount of productive exercises can be performed with only a barbell, dumbbells and a squat rack.

Lower Body Exercises

  • Back Squat
  • Front Squat
  • Hip Belt Squat
  • Hacklift
  • Barbell Deadlift
  • Dumbbell Deadlift
  • Barbell Stiff Legged Deadlift
  • Dumbbell Stiff Legged Deadlift
  • Trap Bar Deadlifts
  • Back Lunges (Bar held in Back Squat position)
  • Front Lunges (Bar held in Front Squat position)

Upper Body Exercises

  • Weighted Dips
  • Bench Press
  • Dumbbell Bench Press
  • Incline Bench Press
  • Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
  • Weighted Chins
  • Barbell Rows
  • Dumbbell Rows
  • Barbell Pullovers
  • Dumbbell Pullovers

“High intensity” is an easy factor to talk about in theory, but to have an athlete work at maximum intensity is a completely different thing altogether. Coaches who train their athletes in a high intensity manner know the type of work output they expect from their athletes.

Unfortunately, many rookies entering this type of system receive a big shock when they find out how hard they must work to be even close to par with the veteran athletes, let alone make themselves stand out.

Intensity comes from two places; a strong work ethic and internal or intrinsic motivation. Any athlete who has not developed the former of these skills must do so in order to purely survive, let alone excel.

As for the latter, if an athlete is solely focused on the prize and not the journey, it is guaranteed that although the work ethic is there it is not coming from the proper place. An athlete must first want to improve himself or herself, become a better person and develop those inner qualities that produce respect for others, humility and a love for their chosen sport and its history and traditions.

Only then can they begin to focus on the prize. Without all these factors present an athlete will never fully grasp or appreciate the sacrifices of others, which have allowed him or her to reach those heights.

The Program For this particular program, although any major lower body or upper body movement could be used, I prefer a lower body movement because of the total size and strength potential of the muscles targeted, as well as the prime importance of the hips and legs in most any sport. When one first looks at the program they may very well say that the volume is too high. I would agree normally, however, this is not a program to be performed every month.

It is, as suggested, a “gut check” routine, to be performed only once in a while during the off-season to break the monotony and provide a way to test their physical and mental readiness for the up-coming competitive season. This routine may very well leave the athlete slightly to moderately over trained at the end of it. That is fine.

There is sometimes an advantage to being slightly over trained for short periods of time. Firstly, it gives the body a chance to get used to working hard while not being at 100% efficiency and it forces the athlete to work at full capacity even though their mental state may not be at full readiness, hence the “gut check”. Here is the general skeleton of a one-month program.

  • Week 1 – Workout 1 1×30 @ 80% of 1RM, Workout 2 1×40 @ 80% of 1RM
  • Week 2 – Workout 3 1×50 @ 80% of 1RM, Workout 4 1×60 @ 80% of 1RM
  • Week 3 – Workout 5 1×70 @ 80% of 1RM, Workout 6 1×80 @ 80% of 1RM
  • Week 4 – Workout 7 1×90 @ 80% of 1RM, Workout 8 1×100 @ 80% of 1RM
  • Week 5 – Off completely. Absolute passive rest is required. Lift nothing heavier
    than a fork.

Example Here is a more complete example of the above schedule using the Trap Bar Deadlift as the major multi joint exercise being performed. As noted in the chart above, the poundage for your major exercise remains the same throughout the entire month long period, only the repetitions change.

Calculate approximately 80% of your 1RM and stay with that poundage the entire time. In the Trap Bar Deadlift, if your estimated 1RM was 350 lbs., then 80% of that would equal (350x.80) 280 lbs: 280 lbs. then becomes your working poundage.

Week 1

  • Workout 1- TBDL 1×30, Weighted Parallel Wall Sits 5×60 secs, Neck + Grip Work
  • Workout 2- TBDL 1×40, Sled Pulls 3xSet Distance, Neck + Grip Work

Week 2

  • Workout 3- TBDL 1X50, Tire Flips 3xSet Distance, Neck + Grip Work
  • Workout 4- TBDL 1X60, Sandbag Bear hug and Walk 3xSet Distance,
    Neck + Grip Work

Week 3

  • Workout 5- TBDL 1X70, Lift and Load Drill 1xMax. Reps, Neck + Grip Work
  • Workout 6- TBDL 1X80, Farmers Walk 3xSet Distance, Neck + Grip Work

Week 4

  • Workout 7- TBDL 1X90, Shoulder Barrel 1×20 Each Side, Neck + Grip Work
  • Workout 8- TBDL 1X100, Front Squat with Sandbag 1×20, Neck + Grip Work

Week 5

  • Off Completely

Implementation In this case, although the TBDL is technically a lower body movement, it actually hits the body’s entire musculature; Trapezius, latissimus dorsi, deltoids, biceps, triceps, flexors of the hand and forearm, abdominals, obliques, spinal erectors, gluteus maximus, quadriceps, hamstrings as well as the gastrocnemius and soleus.

This one aspect of the program is a great bonus, although the volume is high, only one dominant movement is required for a total body workout. An additional bonus to this type of program design is that not only is the musculature taxed severely, leading to hypertrophy and strength gains, but so is the cardiovascular system, therefore increasing the strength of the heart and lungs.

Here are some additional ideas to consider. As can easily be concluded, the set must be done in rest/pause fashion. Other than that it does not matter how an athlete reaches the final rep, as long as he or she reaches it. Although there is no set time limit for each workout, I would set a 45 min. to 1 hour limit in order to ensure adequate intensity.

There are to be no lifting belts used as they take away from the body’s core strength and because of this no direct abdominal work is necessary. All exercises are to be performed in a standing position as well, again, more work for the body’s core muscle groups.

Grip and neck work are supplementary but I would suggest doing at least one exercise for each and varying the exercises done every workout. The athlete’s grip will be very tired at the conclusion of the longer sets and additional work for the hands and forearms might not be advisable, this would be a personal decision left to the discretion of the athlete.

Every week a smaller challenge is presented in the form of an “odd object” lift. These types of exercises provide a chance for athletes to test themselves in a different manner than they are perhaps accustomed to. They add a nice variety to the mix. For the duration of the program the athletes must get as much rest as is necessary/possible between workouts. The program is demanding enough without making it more so.

So there you have it, a one-month program that will push your athletes to the limits of their ability. It isn’t pretty, nor is it easy, but what your players gain in physical and mental strength will translate to a stronger work ethic and physical readiness on the field.