Written by Bert Abbott, NSCA CSCS & RenFitness Team Programming Coordinator
You’re probably in one of three camps - you’ve lifted diligently over the off-season, you’ve been half-committed to strength training, or you didn’t make it into the gym much or at all over the off-season (maybe because you’re new to lifting!).
When I first started lifting for ultimate, I was under the impression that if I didn’t lift in the off-season, then it wasn’t worth lifting at all, because you can only build strength in the off-season. I was told that running was the only kind of workout you needed while in the competitive season and that I should be running ALL the time.
We love to live in extremes. Lifting is for the off-season. Running is for in-season. Horizontal stack is better than vertical stack. Reality is a lot less black and white than this.
What do these adages get right?
The off-season most certainly is the time to change how much muscle you have driving your body (for better or worse). If you’re an experienced lifter, it takes a fair amount of focus on your diet and training to add muscle mass (aka get swole). Even if you’re just starting out with lifting or dabble here and there, during the off-season, when you’re not busy with practice, pods, and tournaments multiple days a week, is the prime time for your body to focus its efforts on building muscle.
For similar reasons, in-season is the time to do running workouts, rather than in the off-season. Research shows it only takes about 14 days for your body to adapt to aerobic stress, and that adaptation goes away just as quickly. I’m not saying I can go from where I am to being a marathon runner in 14 days (nor would I want to!). What I’m pointing to is that consistent aerobic training, like the kind you get at practice or at a tournament, can drive your aerobic capacity forward. Now, if you want to really get better, there are training methods to make sure you push your body forward appropriately in that dimension.
What are the adages missing?
Strength and Power
If I’ve been in the gym all winter, I don’t want to lose all that hard work I’ve done. Just like with aerobic training, I can lose the impacts of the good work I’ve done by dropping the training stress that got me to that point. If I tell my body that it needs to move heavy weights around on a consistent basis, it’ll do what it needs to be able to move those weights. If I stop telling my body it needs to move the weights, it’ll direct the resources that were going to moving those weights elsewhere. Similarly, if I tell my body it needs to move moderate amounts of weight quickly, it’ll respond appropriately and develop and maintain the appropriate type of muscle fiber for that movement. Otherwise, it’ll shift my muscle fibers back to meeting my everyday needs, which are generally slow-twitch movements. It takes a lot of protein to maintain muscles!
Beyond muscle mass, there’s also a neurological aspect to lifting. In the lifting world, this is what leads to the phenomenon of “noob gainz”. I’m going to break down some science here, so bear with me. Our muscles are a collection of a whole bunch of individual fibers, and those fibers contract together to make the muscle do its action. If you gently twitch your hamstring right now, only some of the fibers in your hamstring contract. If you really squeeze your hamstring hard, the individual fibers aren’t contracting harder, you’re contracting more fibers together and that’s what makes your hamstring able to do more work. Contracting all those fibers at the same time takes coordination by your nervous system. When you decide “okay, hamstring, let’s squeeze really hard this time”, that signal needs to be sent to every fiber involved in that hard squeeze. Just walking around, I don’t really need to squeeze my hamstring all that much, but ideally, I’d like to use all of the muscle fibers I’ve got available to power my running on the field.
This is where lifting comes in. If I try to move a more weight through a movement where my hamstring contracts than I normally have to, then my body will form those neural connections it needs to get more muscle fibers engaged since that’s what’s necessary for the task I’m asking of my muscles. Additionally, if I want my hamstring fibers to work together over a short period of time, I can tell my hamstring it has to squeeze really quickly as I jump a weight up above my head.
Training this kind of neural coordination doesn’t actually take that long to get together. That’s why people who start lifting heavy experience a blissful period of time (if they’re training consistently) where they make leaps and bounds in the amount of weight they can move in the gym. The “noob gainz” are your muscle fibers figuring out how to work together; after that, it’s about building muscle mass or changing the physical composition of the fibers. Similarly, moving moderate amounts of weight really quickly (lifting for power) teaches the nervous system to coordinate those contractions over a shorter period of time. This is pretty clearly something that’s useful in sport, where, for example, you not only want to jump high, but you want to be able to jump quickly. A combination of strength and power training works together to prepare and maintain your muscles for the specific demands of ultimate.
This coordination also goes away quickly without training stress, just like the other aspects of training. It doesn’t take very long (we’re talking a cycle of a few weeks) for your muscle fibers to forget to play nicely together, and just running won’t cut it to maintain the coordination. If you want to gain and maintain your competitive edge throughout your whole tournament schedule, regular lifting throughout the whole season will keep you at max power.
Slowing down the movements of the sport and loading them specifically and deliberately like in the weight room has health benefits beyond increasing pure strength and power. Lifting correctly teaches your body how to activate the appropriate muscles to drive a movement rather than compensating with other parts of the body.
If I do unweighted squats or move around how I normally do on the field, I could be powering that movement any number of ways, using my quads more than I should (which puts me at ACL tear risk) or hamstrings (which puts me at a higher risk of pulling my hamstring). By slowing down the movement and putting extra weight on it, I can deliberately activate and strengthen my glutes, which trains my on-field movements to be powered by my glutes as well. Then, if I add the layer of weighting single-legged squats and focus on proper form, my knees will learn how to stabilize under higher loads, which means I’ll have more stability at higher speeds on the field.
There’s also benefits from lifting for other connective tissues. If my skeleton, ligaments, and tendons only have to hold my body together and walk or run normally, they will grow just strong enough to stand up to that stress. If I put a lot of weight on my skeleton like in lifting for strength or put a lot of force on my joints like in lifting for power, those connective tissues will get stronger to stand up to the demand. If done consciously and properly, lifting can reduce your risk of stress fractures and joint injuries, both chronic and acute.
No matter what your training status is, lifting in-season is incredibly helpful to building and/or maintaining a competitive advantage and reducing injury risk. Plus, if you lift with your teammates, you get yet another opportunity to bond with your teammates and work hard together! Lifting is one important part of a complete training program, and in this case, a little bit goes a long way! You don’t need to be in the gym five days a week to gain the lifelong benefits of lifting; every session you put in adds up if you’re intentional about your training. If you want help knowing what to do or how to do it, we’re here for you! We want you to be strong, powerful, and healthy, and we are eager to support you and your teammates in reaching your goals this season.