The off-season - what a wonderful, glorious off-season!! It's a time when workout volume is lower, cookie consumption increases, and naps are more feasible. Well, that’s what the off-season looks like for me, anyway.
All kidding aside, the off-season is a wonderful time of the year when we allow our bodies time to recover from the work we’ve done over the past season and to prepare ourselves mentally and physically for the work we’ll do in the coming season. While many athletes may not want to admit it, falling a little out of shape is the best way to ultimately get in BETTER shape. Now, I’m not suggesting that athletes completely regress all the way back to square one when they first decided to be active. What I am saying, however, is that it’s worth deconditioning a bit to allow time to focus on fundamentals that will enable further adaptations. Yes indeed, it’s necessary to regress to progress.
This may sound like backwards logic to many people. Athletes are constantly seeking to make the next gain, to chase that next PR, to get that much stronger. With goals such as these, it’s easy to see why one might think that relentlessly pursuing fitness gains without rest is the formula for success. However, it really isn’t.
Our bodies are extraordinary machines capable of doing so many thing. However, like other machines in our lives, such as our smartphones or computers, a reboot does help improve performance. Regressions such as lower workout volume and intensity for a mesocycle or two (called a Maintenance or Transition Phase) help immensely with this process.
Along with workout structure modifications, one of my favorite things to include in athlete plans is a strength training plan that focuses on stabilization and activation of the muscle groups that often get neglected during the regular season of training. Many athletes have enough general fitness that they can mask or hide instabilities or muscular weaknesses. But, isolating these muscle groups in an assessment can show both me and the athlete where they need to work on functional strength. I have watched IRONMAN athletes who are unable to stand on one leg with their hips level for more than thirty seconds, and virtually no athlete who I have ever coached can perform a single-leg squat with perfect form the first time I ask them to.
Think about it: whether you are swimming, biking, or running, you are engaging in a balance activity. Balance is required to keep proper body positioning in the water while swimming, to keep one upright while riding a bicycle, and to support the entire body while running (this is what differentiates running from walking; one foot is always off the ground while running, as opposed to both feet being on the ground when walking). If the body is not equipped to properly stabilize itself, then it cannot due any of these three sports completely efficiently or effectively.
Working on stabilization in isolation (basically, one-sided exercises) is one of my core values of coaching. If athletes can be strong and stable in one-sided exercises, then they are absolutely able to be strong and stable when they create a “sum of their parts” and go back to activities that involve the entire body. Here are some of my favorite exercises that focus on this (and they can all be done at home with no equipment):
Single Leg Balance
Stand on one leg with your hips level. Aim to hold this for at least 90 seconds. If you can’t hold it for 90 seconds, start where you are and work your way up to 90 seconds.
Multiplanar Single-Leg Balance
This is a progression of the Single Leg Balance. Stand on one leg. Keeping your other, non-standing leg straight, raise it in front of you in space then return to the starting position. Then, still keeping the other leg straight, raise it to the side of you and then return to the starting position. Finally, rotate your leg so that your inner thigh is facing forward with your knee facing to your side, and return to the starting position. The goal is not to touch down in between positions or reps (so you’re balancing on one leg the entire time). All three of these movements collectively make up one repetition; repeat for 10-12 reps and then switch legs. Repeat for 2 sets total on each side.
Stack your feet on top of each other while lying down on your side. Push yourself up off of the ground using your arm (ensuring that your hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder are all forming a straight line) and push your hip up toward the sky. Hold for as long as you can maintain good form (up to 2:00) before switching sides.
This is a progression of the Side Plank. Starting in a Side Plank (see above), lift the leg that is stacked on top while reaching your top arm up toward the sky (basically turning yourself into a five-pointed “star”). Hold for as long as you can maintain good form (up to 2:00).
Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts
Stand on one leg with the other leg slightly behind you. Hinge forward at the hips, keeping your leg, back, and neck all in one line (hinge forward only so far as you can maintain this form). Bring yourself back to your starting position, and then repeat for 10-12 reps before switching legs. If needed, touch down in between reps to maintain balance, but the ultimate goal is to complete all reps without touching down. Complete 2 sets on each side.
Single Leg Squats
Stand on one leg with your hands on your hips and eyes focused straight ahead on an object. Your feet should be pointed straight ahead. Squat down like you’re going to sit in a chair. You may not be able to get all the way down into a full squat without compromising form, and that’s okay. Squat to a comfortable level and return to a starting position. Repeat for 2 sets of 10 repetitions on each side.
Working with a personal trainer or with a coach who has a strength and conditioning background is a great way to determine what muscle groups you specifically should focus on stabilizing and strengthening. You’ll be set up for success if you take the time to regress to progress.