Building the Complete Off-Season Training Plan for Contact Sports

Below is a brilliant article written by a former intern and current friend Ricky Mcfarlane.  If you are a coach, and you want to know about program design for contact sports, this is your article. I want to remind you all that I have two more “Mash Mafia Workshops & Train” this year. November 7th I will be in Eagan, MN at Undisputed Strength and Conditioning, and then November 14th at the Mash Compound in Clemmons, NC. Find out more by clicking on the link below:

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Building the complete off season training plan for Contact sports
(Piecing the puzzle for improved athletic performance)


As a former rugby player I have seen many off season strength & conditioning plans, some excellent, and others….not so much. The key for me is getting the balance right. How much of one thing and another. When you over train one area the results are often there to see when it comes to that first pre-season training session on the turf, ( we have all seen the guy that added 12-18lbs of bulky mass in the summer and got to max heart rate in the warm up first session back). Hopefully what I will be able to provide with this article is an overview on the what, why and how on off season training for contact sports.
I have been lucky enough to experience a lot in strength and conditioning at a young age, whether it was learning from various conditioning coaches over the years or to interning at Mash elite Performance, North Carolina I like to think I have taken something from everyone in creating my own philosophy.
Whenever I’m designing an offseason training plan for Football (American), rugby or even soccer I like to think of the key things I would like from an athlete. This is usually whittled down to 3 key attributes, Speed, strength and power.

Speed and agility
I see a lot of speed training done badly in contact sports. Speed and agility training can be very effective as a part of a balanced strength and conditioning plan if used correctly. In order for you to get the best out of your speed training here are some golden rules.
– Maximum recovery (it’s important to allow maximum recovery between sprints. The energy system for maximal speed is the ATP-PC system, this maximal force energy system allows for 8-12 seconds of your best effort. In order to get continued stimulus of this system maximal recovery is needed. A simple way of implementing this is allowing the athletes breathing to totally relax and slow down.
-Don’t over train, overtraining speed can be counterproductive. More is not always best. You can only work at 100% max effort for so long and once you start to fatigue the energy system used changes and you are no longer getting what you want from the session.
-Train technique- whether you like it or not, find it boring or not, improving your sprint technique will improve your speed. The better your sprint technique the less energy you use up performing bad movement patterns. So becoming more efficient at the given movement pattern allows for more energy to be used for higher speed performance

I like to break “speed and agility” down into segments throughout the week, taking a session at a time to focus on one segment at a time, then implementing the trained segment into a larger drill. The segments that I usually break down to are



(A soccer athlete of mine working on acceleration mechanics in an off season session)

Acceleration, how fast you can reach top speed. There are various exercises and training styles we use for acceleration. Contrast training is a great way to improve acceleration. Contrast training can be as simple as sprinting with a moderately weighted sled for 10-20 metres having a 10-15 second break then sprinting 10-20 metres. The theory behind contrast training is that the resisted run forces you to apply more force through the ground whilst sprinting, once the sled is removed that increased force production results in faster running. It is important that technique is not broken whilst performing the resisted sprint. It can also be beneficial to use various start exercises to further improve acceleration performance. Some start exercises we use are Falling starts, press up starts and kneeling starts, all teach a correct body angle during acceleration, odd starts help prepare athletes for the constantly changing angles on the field. On the field of play you are going to constantly have to accelerate from different positions so we like to add in some odd starts such as lying on your back, lying on your side, sitting on your bum, kneeling side on.

Reactive Acceleration

I like to train reactive acceleration separately. Reactive acceleration training has probably the most carry over to the field. On the field you are going to have to react to many different situations and stimuli. And we like to re-enact this in training, Training reactive acceleration can be done in various ways but my personal favourite is to have the athlete on a starting point, with 5 cones in different directions. Number the cones 1-5. The drill goes as follows, have the athlete facing away from the drill, to start the drill shout go, on which the athlete turns and is given a stimulus ever visual (point to the desired cone) or audio (say number 1-5) the athlete then sprints to the desired cone, simple but effective. Other variables you can add to this is lying starts.



Deceleration training is the most forgotten piece of the agility puzzle, it’s all well and good being able to accelerate like a bullet out of a gun but what happens your have to change direction and tackle or evade an opponent, and you can’t decelerate in time… You look the fool. Learning to decelerate efficiently will give you the edge over opponents, Think about it this way, if you and an opponent have the same speed but you decelerate your mass in one second and your opponent can only decelerate in 2 seconds who wins that battle to the ball? A great way of improving deceleration is start stop sprints, this is a basic drill where on your command the athlete begins to sprint and at any random point over 10-40metresyou command them to stop, the object being to stop in as little time as possible. I like to use this over actually marking out sprint and stop spaces as I find most athletes begin to decelerate early as they can see where they have to stop. Other ways we help increase deceleration mechanics is box drops. Making sure the athlete lands a soft as possible and effectively absorbs the force that decelerating your mass brings. Be careful with deceleration work as the eccentric toll on the lower body can be taxing. Working on this 1-2 times per week is more than enough. Deceleration training will also help to prevent injury’s in your athletes. Efficient deceleration places less strain on the working muscle groups dropping the percentage of risk. The majority of Hamstring tears come when the eccentric strain on the muscle is too great, practising correct deceleration and improving eccentric strength of the posterior chain will dramatically drop chances of injury.

Lateral movement


(A soccer athlete of mine performing some resisted multi directional drills)

I like to make sure all my field athletes can move laterally with explosive force and pin point movement. To do this we use a series to first step drills to engrave the movement pattern of a lateral first step. Again perfecting lateral movement can make the difference between making or missing that tackle. A quick drill to work on this is starting in the “athletic position” and on the command of Right, left of 180 then athlete dynamically opens the hip and gets there foot inline with the desired direction and powers of that one step in the given direction. 180 simple means turn 180 degrees from where you are facing. We try to teach this as one complete movement as turning over 2-3 steps once again will slow you down. This drill can be great for defenders in American football, or English football (soccer). Lateral Hops are a great way of developing lateral explosiveness


Get stronger is the most common answer I give people. Getting stronger has so much carryover to other athletic traits that just by specifically getting stronger you will develop others. However when I say getting stronger I do mean whilst retaining or improving movement patterns and mobility. Improving strength will help make you faster, as you produce more force to push through ground when running, it will make you jump higher. Getting stronger will make you hit harder and help prevent injury. For the strength based portion of our session I like to include a push and pull for upper and lower body. The way I may split this with our compound lifts is on a Monday my athletes may front squat and overhead press, and another session they may perform and deadlift and bench press. When developing strength in my athletes I like to keep it as simple as possible.


My go to lifts are the Squat, front squat, pull up, overhead press, barbell hip thrust, a dumbbell row and bench press(depending on sport and position). The majority of the strength work in my off season training sessions will be based around those lifts or variants of those lifts.

As an athlete from field sports the aim must be to improve relative strength as well as maximal strength. Relative strength being how strong you are in relation to your body weight. There is no point in getting super strong if you’re going to get super fat as well it just won’t make you a better athlete. To help maintain or increase relative strength I like to use Bodyweight exercises such as pull ups, single leg squats and dips, these are great for building brute strength and are also a great indicator on relative strength levels. A study conducted by Appalachian State university on deep squat 1RM to sprint performance found that having higher strength to bodyweight ratios may aid speed performance. “When the group was divided into those with a squat to bodyweight ratio of greater than 2.1 and those with a ratio of less than 1.9 those with the higher strength to weight ratio were significantly faster than those with a squat to bodyweight ratio less than 1.9”.

Unilateral strength training makes up a large part of the resistance training we do with athletes. Unilateral work helps to improve imbalances between dominant and non-dominant limbs. Some of the exercises we like to use are single leg squats and straight leg dumbbell deadlift, step ups, dumbbell rows, and single arm press variations.
If you are running an off season program then on average the longest period you will have an athlete for is 12-16 weeks. I have tried various methods to improve strength in this time period and it is in my opinion that the best way to improve strength in the majority of athletes is a conjugate style weekly maximum method. How I would usually run my strength work in this method is if you have a 12 week period, I would train like this

Early in the week

Week 1 – rep scheme max
Week 2 – 5 seconds pause
Week 3 – 3 Second pause
Week 4- light work 50-60% for speed

Later in the week

Week 1 – 4-5 sets of 90% of rep and pause scheme max
Week 2- 4-5 sets of 92% of rep and pause scheme max
Week 3- 4-5 rep scheme max

So for an overall example if on week 1 Monday you squat 180kg for 5 reps, later in the week when it’s time to squat again you would do 4-5 sets of 5 reps at 90% of 180kg = 162kg. I like to use pause squats and benches throughout the month when programming, as I believe the increased time under tension with greater loads aids in developing a brutally strong athlete. I’m not saying normal momentum squats don’t work for strength I have just found with myself and my athletes, the more pauses I used the faster the rate of strength development occurred over the given time period.


Power or the rate of force development is what’s going to make you bust those tackles, and make bone crunching hits that will leave your opponents in a crumpled mess on the floor. There a various ways of developing power in your athletes. If you have the time to teach Olympic weightlifting then I believe this is a fantastic method for developing power in all athletes. However if like me, you only get your athletes for 6-8 hours per week in the off season and have a time scale of 12-18 weeks I believe there are easier ways to develop power without having to teach as much on technique etc. ballistic throws and jump training are the key tools I use with all my athletes. Medicine ball throws are a great way of developing power in athletes for all sports. Developing power through various movement patterns is one of the benefits of medicine ball training. Training in this way is as simple as picking a medicine ball up and throwing it for reps and sets as hard as you can, whether that will be overhead, chest throw, shotput style, rotational throws is completely up to you. Power can also be trained through barbell movements such as squats, deadlifts and the bench press. Training at 40-60% of your one rep max for multiple sets is a great way of improving power. When training like this try not to work for more than 10-12 seconds per set ideally being between 3-6 seconds for multiple sets.

Another way of developing power in athletes, is jump training. Jump training or plyometric are a great way of developing amazing power and acceleration in athletes. Box jumps, bounds, hurdle jumps, power skips, are all exercises we use with our athletes.


Resisted jumps on what me and my athletes have named the “poor man’s vertamax”. My athletes will perform multiple sets of sometimes reaching 6-8 sets of 3-6 reps on this exercise and we have seen great results from vertical jump tests over this past summer, with one soccer midfielder adding 6 inches to his vertical jump max in 8 weeks.



(Another of my soccer athletes performing repeated jumps on the “poor man’s vertamax”)

Piecing the puzzle together

I hear you thinking, that’s a lot of different aspects to put in my three sessions per week. So I want to help by giving you’re an example of what a week may look like for one of my athletes during the off season. I like to split my session into 2- 20 minute blocks starting with Speed and Agility, then Power, and finally strength/hypertrophy which usually lasts 30-40minutes. All sessions are like this apart from weekend sessions when we spend the whole session working on speed and agility, power and position specific movement drills.

Its important to understand why we do things in this order and that is because of the taxing nature of the exercise’s in each group.


When you look at the table above, we can see that the curve ranges between speed velocity or maximal speed, which would be movements such as jumping or maximal strength range which would be your max squat, deadlift etc. what’s important to understand when programming your sessions is the more fatigued you become the harder it becomes for you to reach the higher ranges of the speed velocity tip. This is why we program our maximal explosive work first and work back through the curve ending with maximal strength and hypertrophy work.

I like to add some hypertrophy and maintenance work throughout the week as one, I believe a bigger muscle can become a stronger muscle and a stronger muscle, and two, adding solid mass on to an athlete can help prevent injury, improve performance and help to create a more balanced athlete. When I say hypertrophy I don’t mean all my athletes train arms for 30 minutes I like to think of it as functional hypertrophy training, so what is going to aid them improve performance in their sport. Improving musculature in the back, legs, shoulders and neck are not going to make you’re athlete worse. (each block in the grid below represents a time slot)

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 11.02.44 PM

In order for athletes to be as fresh for each session as possible we use a variety of recovery methods such as hot baths, foam/pvc rolling and self-myofascial relief and massage. Athletes are also given “homework” which consist of various mobility and stretching drills.
Thank you for reading my article, and thank you Travis for allowing me to have the privilege of being posted on your website. Mash Elite is where my strength and conditioning coaching career really kick started and I am forever grateful for everything I learnt and everyone I met in North Carolina.
Ricky Mcfarlane
Instagram: rickymc1900
Twitter: ricky_mc90

Appalachian State University et al (2009). Relationship between maximal squat strength and five, ten, and forty yard sprint times. JSCR. 23(6) 1633-1636

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