A leisurely stroll through the off-season

It's time for me to both add some value and bring something a little bit old school to this party. Yes, that's right, I'm going to talk to you about the off-season. 

Starting from an early age, the off-season was that fallow period when you wandered around like a lost sheep looking for something to fill the void. When I was 16 and just starting rugby, that was easy, rugby finished, cricket started. Then come July I got blend a bit of both before playing some matches of both in August and switching back in September. Then I played a bit of rugby league, then I went on a Summer rugby tour and between the prep and the reality of it, the nails were well and truly hammered into the coffin of my pursuit of gentle days standing in a field in white pyjamas. 

Where was I? Oh yes, the off-season. It's May, you're not professional but even so, your almost 8-month long season has not long finished. For some, the time away came at just the right moment. For others, it's horrible. Either way, it's a time which needs filling. So fill it.

Invest the time in yourself. It is a really good time to try something new. Brand new, be the newbie, be not very good. Be all arms and legs and mal-co as you try to figure it all out, remembering that discomfort of trying to learn new skills.

Why? Two reasons really. Having to prise open your mind, your eyes and ears as you attempt to learn will pay dividends in your sport. And, for most physical activities it will have an unexpected fitness benefit. How so? Well, until you have learned and engrained and entrained, you will almost inevitably look more like Bambi on ice than Fred Astaire. More like a drowning man flailing for his attention than like the BJJ master. Same same rugby. The better you become, the more efficient your game. You read the movements, you pick the angles and you cut them off rather than wearing yourself out trying to be everywhere at once. In fact, beginners can be quite hard to play against/grapple with because it can be hard to predict what they are going to do...well, if they don't know, how can you?

One of the things that you could be doing with your time is looking at your performance goals, your current weaknesses and tailoring these new adventures to your game. 

Most of you simply aren't strong enough, or flexible enough- mentally or physically. This isn't meant as a rant or as a piss-take. It's an observation, and one that you can treat with disdain or whatever response feels appropriate to you.

Some of you may be quite upset at this point. Or maybe not but still disagree with me. Great. Let's have a look at it. 

What's your squat? Not your leg press, not your smith machine squat, not your hack squat! Your honest to goodness, bar on your back, thigh crease to below your knees squat. As a collision sports protagonist 1.5 times your bodyweight should be your buy-in. If you're a forward you should be repping that. No? How about your deadlift? Same again 1.5x as price on the door, twice bodyweight your target. How about your standing press? 0.75 x bodyweight?

There's a common theme with all of these. Big, compound, multi-joint, connected to the ground moves. Like your sport. 

But why the emphasis on strength? Well, I like strength work and I am a one-trick pony! Only kidding! I have only moderate strength numbers but the impact on my physical and mental well-being is markedly positive with strength work and has proven to be true for most of the people that I have worked with. Injury-proofing, bone strengthening, hormonally responding, life-shielding strength work!

<yawn> "I'm not a powerlifter Ben". 

True, you're not. But you're also not a bodybuilder and that hasn't stopped you looking to them for training guidance. Granted you might harbour some fantasies about slathering gravy browning all over your body and  parading around in your speedos, but your sport has demands which your "Gigantic Guns and pre-eminent pecs" workout from the supplement company's monthly magazine are not addressing.

As it happens, maximal strength is not the be all and end all for most sports. BUT muscular endurance (aka strength endurance) is a significant element of performance in life and in sport. That's where I get interested. What are you training for? Whether it is carrying your young child to the far side of the car park (first world problems!), reducing your likelihood of falling (or reducing the potential damage if you do), leading your defensive line, or keeping the ball out of contact, strengthening your bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles to overcome the demands placed on them is time well spent.

I don't mean to be snobby or elitist here. For many of you, I am, in truth, a little less concerned with the numbers on the bar, than I am with learning the movements properly. This is partly to do with the mental strength and acuity that is honed from honestly learning and interrogating new skill acquisition but also to do with developing and flossing the neural pathways. That and the fact that once you're on a good track, the numbers will come. Pursuing numbers without nailing your technique will cost you more in the long-run.

Take squatting for example. Hang on, isn't that bad for the knees? No. No it isn't. What a lot of us end up doing is bad for the knees. But what a lot of us end up doing is not squatting properly. The common limiting factors on squatting that I see in the rugby based population? Well, for starters:
-ankle inflexibility restricting the ability to get into deep position without the heels coming off the floor;
-Calf tightness coupled with ankle inflexibility causing the knees to roll inwards;
-Hip tightness preventing depth, range of movement and positional control (generally and particularly in the pelvis/lumbar spine);
-Lack of core strength to maintain body position;
-Lack of Thoracic spine mobility leading to a loss of posture in the movement (inability to keep the chest proud and shoulders back)

Addressing only one or two of these issues would have a significant impact on health and well-being, not to mention on-field performance, before you get anywhere near sticking weight on the bar. The trouble is, doing rep after rep after rep with a broomstick or empty bar is not sexy or macho! From bitter personal experience, cross-friction, foam rolling and other interventions also make one squeal without the consolation of a barbell bending under its load! Find somebody, a real person, who knows what they are doing and learn from them.

Returning, briefly, to absolute strength, it takes some acquisition (although if you are inexperienced under the bar, you will see some rapid initial gains) and there is a point at which any further gains do not merit the increasing amounts of required time investment. It deserves focus. It is very, very hard to put in a decent amount of time AND recover adequately from heavy strength work when you are trying to balance your sports specific work. That's why the off-season (or pre-pre-season!) is perfect for it. Equally, once acquired, maximal strength does not go away easily. Maintenance is easier with minimal time investment.

But what of strength endurance, surely that's important? True enough, for most sports, repeatability is going to be somewhere close to the heart if usefulness. However, in the words of Vern Gambetta: "if you don't have a base level of strength, how can you endure it?"

There is a point of diminishing returns but for most of us, an increase in base strength will give us a firmer foundation on which to start adding reps. It is easier to get a weight moving quickly, and often, if it is a smaller percentage of your maximum capability than if it is at the outer reaches of what you can do.

<harrumph> "But I don't want to get bigger"
Have you ever tried to stack on clean muscle? For the most part it is quite difficult! Apart from which, to maximise size you need to train specifically with that end in mind. The two objectives can coincide but they don't have to. Again, fit for YOUR purpose.

Short version: take a couple of weeks to dedicate yourself to getting stronger. Focus. Listen and learn from somebody. Give yourself an edge.

And then see where your season leads.

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