4 lessons on structuring your training sessions

I‘m responsible for more than a dozen teams at Notre Dame High School. A lot of universities would be jealous with the facility we have, but no matter how large the space or fancy the equipment, the biggest constraint in session design is time. We typically get a group of 30+ athletes for just 45 minutes. The biggest question for us is: how can we accomplish the most in this time? It all comes down to organization.

I shared a lot about session planning at GAIN this summer. I talked about it in my presentation. I also walked participants through one of my practical sessions. Both are now available for HMMR members to watch. When I take a step back, there are 4 things we do really well that let us get so much work in. Below I explain each one. If you get these right, you are on great path!

» Learn more: Watch Nick’s full 74-minute presentation explaining and demonstrating his modular training system from GAIN 2022.

Find your structure

For years know I have used a modular approach to training. I have tweaked some of the exercises and order, but the basic template is the same as the one I shared 4 years ago.

The heart of each session consists of 3 modules of 3 exercises each: 9 total exercises each session. You can call these modules, supersets, or whatever you want. But the work throughout the 9 exercises spans all the major areas we want to touch: explosive pushing and pulling, lower body strength, upper body strength, core, etc. Having a template helps us ensure we tick all the boxes we need to and train the body from fingernails to toenails.

The goal is also to keep the athletes moving. Each module has 1 pillar exercise (often with the barbell), followed by 2 core, mobility, or auxiliary strength exercises they can do until their next set comes up. Here’s the basic template:

  1. Explosive + core + remedial
  2. Lower body + upper body pull + mobility
  3. Hinge + upper body push + mobility

Examples of pillar exercises include Olympic lift variations, squat variations, and bench variations. Based on our space and group size, this means we have can 3-4 athletes per station and everyone is always doing something: one is on the rack, one is performing mobility movements where space allows, one is performing the auxiliary lift, and the other is resting or spotting. After a 10 minute warmup, this system allows us to get a large group through 27 quality work sets in 35 minutes. Efficiency is king and the proof is in the pudding.

The warmup is training

Every minute counts. Wasting five minutes on slow jogging isn’t going to make us better athletes. But mini bands, core, balance, coordination, and more work (like we do in our warmups) in that time will make you a better athlete and prepare you more for the session ahead.

Here also don’t be afraid to get outside the weight room. Working in small spaces limits your options and often means more people just waiting around. In California we have the luxury of stepping outside too warmup and we can get even more done.

Know what came before and what comes after

How we set up module depends on what came before, and what comes after. I said we like to keep athletes doing something, but the doesn’t mean we are trying to turn every workout into an endurance test.

If an athlete has squat as their pillar exercise, I’m going to spend the rest of the module focusing on something entirely different. For example, typically the lower body movement is in the second module. Our third module includes an upper body pressing movement. Therefore, I will use the mobility movement in the second module to prepare us for the pressing movement in the third module. Thinking ahead helps you warm up and prepare the muscles involved so that when you get to the key sets you can jump right into the work, rather than needing to work your way up with warm ups sets.

In the third module our mobility movement is designed to counter the result of tightness from the lower body movement. Squatting movements can make your glutes and IT band tight. Therefore, we may throw in a pigeon stretch, 1/2 kneeling external rotator stretch, or a Hawaiian squat. Having the mobility movements and auxiliary strength movements built in also helps manage fatigue . . . three pillar exercises in a row will just wear an athlete down. Mobility exercises, on the other hand, can help bring their heart rate back down while doing some productive work at the same time.

It’s all about that flow

You can do all the things above and still end up with an inefficient session. The session still has to flow, as we talked about on the podcast with Steve Myrland recently. Think about your space, your equipment, and your athletes. Each category of exercises has dozens of possibilities, so find the ones that flow the best. If your module includes two exercises on opposite ends of the weight room, athletes are going to be spending more time running back and forth than training, as well as mental energy not running into each other. Choose an alternative body weight exercise that they can do anywhere.

Furthermore, my advice would be to choose different implements to use within the module. If you are using DB bench as a pillar movement, do not use another exercise within the same module that utilizes dumbbells. I have used many different methods of sequencing our training sessions. However, I have found this one the most efficient because it checks all boxes.

Furthermore, it gets a ton of necessary work done in a short period of time!