The challenge of training over the break

It’s that time of year where young athletes are about to go on vacation. Over the next few weeks, most high school and college athletes will be away from their coaches during the holidays. This can be challenging for the strength coach because athletes are traveling out of town, may not have transportation to a training facility, and may just flat out not be motivated to train over the break partly because their normal schedule is thrown off. For a number of years I have tried many different remedies to counter this break and make sure all the improvements that were made over the course of the fall and part of winter were not lost. Here are my ideas and opinions on how we got the job done.

Leading up to the break

What you do leading into the break is as crucial as what happens during that. To starting planning, you have to start out making a few assumptions about what your athletes will do over the break. Your assumptions depend a lot on the level of athletes you have, their motivations, and their access to training facilities. My assumption leading up to the break that the students will do nothing over break. As negative as this sounds during this time I have the attitude of “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

With that in mind, I blast the out-of-season athletes with high volume leading into the break. We will lift 2-3 times per week depending on our daily school schedule and the lifting will be both intense and high volume. I will use this year as an example: two of our fall sports went deep into the playoffs. Once their season ended we took a week and did some active recovery type things like team handball, paddle tennis, etc. Things that got the athletes moving in all three planes that you could label semi-intense. This left us four weeks until Christmas break which is roughly two and a half weeks long. Therefore, I assume during those two and a half weeks the athletes will either do very little or nothing to keep their form. That means we can go very hard for four weeks and let them use the break to recovery.

When I begin to plan for this I start by using my normal template that I wrote about in the past and you can find an example of it here: The only difference is I don’t necessarily stick to the theme of different planes on each day, as we do not always get 3 training days for all athletes due to the academic schedule. Therefore we cover all the planes of movement in two session using similar categories of exercises. In each session we will have three of what I call modules of training during a session pairing specific movements w/each other. To review, the pairings can look something like this:

  TEMPLATE DAY 1 DAY 2
Module 1 Explosive Pull Pulls from boxes Clean to front squat
Core Ab wheel KB windmill
Single leg Single leg squat Seated single leg squat
Module 2 Lower Body (multi-joint) Back squat Lateral lunge
Pull Upright row Upright row
Mobility ½ kneeling external rotator stretch ½ kneeling external rotator stretch
Module 3 Upper body (multi-joint) Bench press Seated DB press
Hip hinge Single leg RDL Skier swing
Mobility Pec stretch Ring flexibility series

When I normally talk about this template, I focus on the movements. But in this situation it is not the movements that are most important to me. It is the volume and intensity that makes the concept work. You don’t get a sense of that by just looking at the template. When we put this into play leading into the break, we might do what I call 10’s to fail on the main lifts like pulls, squats, bench press, seated press, and similar exercises. What this means is that each movement is programmed for 5 sets of 10 (or 5 sets of 5 reps in the case of clean to front squat, which is not done to failure). The objective is to start between 40-60 Kilos on the first set and make even jumps each set. The goal is to find a weight on the final set where 8-10 are extremely challenging or even end in failure. If you get all 10 reps on the 5th set then congratulations you earned the right to get even better and hit a 6th set. If you fail on the 5th set you repeat the same workout week after week until you get the complete 5th set. I feel that this type of programming right before a long break can help us preserve what we had improved upon even if little or no training takes place for the entirety of the break.

Training over the break

While I work off the assumption that athletes will do nothing over the break, I still want our planning to make it as easy as possible for them to get some training in where possible. This starts with picking training tools that are easiest for the student-athletes to access if on a trip or if they have limited tools at home. The answer in almost every case is dumbbells. Most of the time you can find an old set of 25-35 pounds dumbbells for inexpensive on craigslist or a garage sale. Heck, your parents might even have some lying around. Almost every decent hotel and cruise ship has a set of dumbbells from 5-50 pounds, a bench and, some sort of plate loaded machine. Therefore, if I plan training with dumbbells, then athletes have no excuse not to train.

You might think dumbbells limit your options, but it is quite the opposite, especially if utilizing Vern Gambetta’s dumbbell complexes and leg circuits. These are the primary workouts I assign to my athletes while on break. They are high volume, high intensity, and don’t require much time. The dumbbell complex consists of a high pull, alternate overhead press, squat, and bent row. Each movement is done for 6 reps and you complete 3-6 sets depending on the week. There is no rest between exercises and rest between sets is based upon how long it took you to complete a set. If it took you 46 seconds then you rest 46 seconds. Basically a 1:1 work:rest ratio. When looking closely at the complex you can see that when using 30-pound dumbbells you have a total number of pounds lifted between 2160 pounds (3 sets) and 4320 pounds (6 sets) which is a fairly good amount of weight being moved for a session.

We follow the dumbbell complex with a half leg circuit. The half leg circuit consists of squat, forward lunge, dynamic step up, and jump squat. All movements are done continuously for 10 total reps with the exception of the jump squat which is 5 reps. There is no rest between movements, and one minute rest between sets. This type of circuit is very effective because the amount of time your muscles are under tension. Programming also follows the same concept as the dumbbell complexes. The normal way to progress in both the dumbbell complexes and leg circuits is to start at 3 sets and add a set each week until at 6 sets.

The second workout of the week consists primarily of bodyweight movements and a few weighted movements if you have heavy enough dumbbells. Dumbbell push press, push up, invested row, curl and press, dumbbell bench, 1-arm row, bench dips, and pull ups. All of these movements are done for 12 reps. If you do not have Dumbbells simply take out the push press, curl and press, bench press, and 1-arm row and you will still get some solid work in with what is left over. Once again 3-6 sets, starting at 3 sets and working up to 6 with one minute rest between exercises.

Variations and final thoughts

I feel that if we can get our athletes to train at least twice a week on break utilizing this concept we are getting a good deal as coaches. However, if your athletes are looking for more, you can throw in a third training with alternate dumbbell complexes and lateral leg circuits, or even repeat the upper body day as a fourth workout. These follow all of the same concepts of the previous days.

In a perfect world all of the athletes would just come in during open gym time and we could keep their training on a steady progression. However, it obviously is not a perfect world and I feel that the programming assigned before a big break can make a big difference in how your athletes return if they choose to do nothing over the break. If your lucky enough to have them do at the very least the complexes and circuits, they will come back to you potentially in even better shape than when they left.