Sport coaches, athletes, and parents often feel that athletes should avoid lifting on game days, for fear that they will be too tired to compete at a high level. We have found, however, that correct and consistent weight training on game day can help to improve performance.
Avoiding lifting on the same day as a game was always a given for the longest time, but I remember hearing that Michael Jordan would often hit the weight room on the same day he had a game. In the mid ‘90’s, I happened to see Chris Mullins working out when the Golden State Warriors were in town, lifting before his game against the Timberwolves that evening. And many strength coaches have heard the stories of Charlie Francis having Ben Johnson maxing on back squats immediately before competing in the 100m dash at meets. I suspect that individuals at high levels in all sports had discovered that training on game day helped them to maintain strength and stay healthy over the typically long professional seasons.
The first time I heard about a team lifting before games was when the University of Florida’s men’s basketball team won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. At the time, I was teaching middle school P.E. and would constantly hear from students that their parents or coaches wanted them to take it easy because they had a big game coming up or a tournament this weekend. But the Florida Gators gave me the perfect comeback—if they can win national championships after lifting in the morning, I think you’ll be fine for your regular season 8th-grade “B” team traveling game.
That lead me to change my programming philosophy, for both my classes and teams—to continue training hard, even on game days, without adjusting our workouts much. Then I started learning about pre-game lifting workouts (ala Ben Johnson) but thought it would be tough to sell to my sports coaches. Unexpectedly, my head football coach asked me about it a few years ago, wondering if it was something that we should try.
My initial response was yes, but I wanted to do some research on it. I needed evidence that it increased performance to convince the players that we should be doing it. Surprisingly, there was little scientific data to be found on the subject at the time. The best I could find fellow football coaches who were doing it with their teams and gushing about the results on online forums. We started our pre-game “workout” on week 1 that season, and it took a little convincing to get our players completely on board and to buy in, but by week 3, they all loved it.
Early Day vs. Pre-game
The definition of game-day lifting is often overlooked and rarely clarified. There are really two different categories of game-day workouts in my opinion. One category is the typical lifting workout done earlier in the day, usually 5-10 hours before the game or competition. The other category is the pre-game lift, done as part of a warm-up or preparation period in getting ready for the upcoming competition to be held 1-3 hours later. These two styles of workouts achieve different outcomes. Our football team does both.
Benefits of Early Game Day Workouts
There are several beneficial effects from participating in a weight training workout earlier in the same day as a competition.
- Pre Warm-up. One of the best things about training earlier in the day before games, is that it gets the muscles moving and firing. Heavier resistance recruits greater motor units and gets them turned on and functioning.
- Flexibility. Working through the full range of motion gets joints fully moving and warmed up and stretches muscle fibers and tendons. This should always be the case from any strength training workout, but it’s especially important and beneficial on game-days.
- Central Nervous System. Moving heavier resistance activates the central nervous system and gets the brain and nerves functioning together, preparing them for the high demands of competition later in the day.
Long-term Benefits of Early Game Day Workouts
To reap the benefits of strength training, consistency is key. Training in-season becomes more difficult because of the of the time the sport itself requires as well as the physical demands of competing and practicing, but it’s absolutely critical to continue training hard during the season. If you don’t lift on game-days (or the day before games as the practice used to be), you lose consistency.
In sports that compete at least twice a week, you would only be able to train once per week without training on game days. That isn’t enough to maintain, much less gain, strength. Lifting once per week will certainly result in athletes that are extremely weaker at the end of the season compared to the beginning if they had a solid off-season program coming into their sport. And being weak at the end of the season is not going to lead to very good results in the post-season when you want to be peaking and playing at your best. Athletes need to be consistently training all season long so they can keep getting stronger and peak during the playoffs and championship season.
While the number of multi-sport athletes seems to be shrinking nationwide, most of our athletes compete in at least two sports. In-season training is even more critical for those athletes because they may not have an off-season lifting program to train if their seasons are staggered Three-sport athletes don’t have an offseason at all during the school year. They have to be training in-season, all year long, and that training has to be consistent.
If all teams include strength training throughout their season, both on game-days and non-game days, it shouldn’t matter if an athlete is single-sport or multi-sport. All athletes will be able to make strength gains all year long.
Important considerations for early game-day workouts:
- Proper programming of strength training is more important on games-days than non-game days. Here are some factors that you should consider:
- That day’s opponent or competition. The regular season is different than the postseason. You definitely want to peak at the end of the season. That may require that some game-day workouts are tougher than others. Who your competition is on a particular day or week can help determine which workouts should be done when.
- Intensity. Training intensity throughout the season should be kept high. Try to keep the week’s most intense training on days when there is no competition.
- Volume. Just like intensity, try to avoid having a high-volume day when athletes are competing later that day
- Time of day – for workout and competition. There may be a difference in what, if any, adjustments need to be made to workouts. It depends on when the athlete is lifting compared to when their competition is later. If an athlete lifts before school or has a 1st hour lifting class and doesn’t have a game until 7:00pm, then very little needs to change from the regular workout. If they have a lifting class early afternoon and then have an event like a track meet right after school, you may need to ease back from what was originally planned.
- Don’t try to set PRs (personal records) on game-days. While training, consistency is key, and that includes lifting on game days. Save the PRs for days when the athlete does not compete. We want P.R.’s in the competition, but not in the weight room that day.
- It also comes down to the athletes’ ability to recover from the workout. High school athletes can generally recover very quickly, much faster than adults can. That is especially true if they are used to consistent and rigorous training. When they adapt to that, they can absolutely recover in time for a competition after lifting earlier in the day.
Monitor Intensity and Volume
The key is monitoring the intensity and volume. If you are using a high intensity, keep the volume low. If the volume is medium, keep the intensity low or medium as well. In general stay away from very high intensity and very high volume on game days.
A large majority of our varsity athletes from all sports take a weight training class during the day. The workout program that the classes follow is essentially the same as the off-season program that our athletes use. That means those in-season athletes are training the same way as our off-season athletes. On games days, especially later in the season we just scale back the volume and/or intensity depending on the day and the planned workout.
Benefits of a Pre-game Workout
Lifting right before a competition is a relatively new concept. However, there is scientific evidence that links several benefits to the practice. Implementation varies, and I suspect it’s based on different coaches’ experiences through trial and error. In general, the exercises that we do for our pre-game workout are done using a light resistance at a high velocity.
Here are several benefits to working out right before a competition.
- Activates the Muscles. When included within the pre-game warm-up routine, weight room work gets muscles warmed-up and moving. Adding some resistance involves and activates more muscle fibers, adding to the overall effect. Because the weight we use is lighter, it’s not for post-activation potentiation. It still prepares the muscles the upcoming high-intensity work during the upcoming competition.
- Primes the Central Nervous System. Moving a light load as fast as possible activates the central nervous system and neural pathways to the muscles. The neural signals from the brain ignite the muscles to function faster and more efficiently. Therefore, resulting in more efficient muscle activation. The entire CNS lights up for competition.
- Increases Flexibility and Range of Motion. Working through the full range of motion with resistance helps increase joint mobility as well as muscle flexibility in a functional manner. It’s like a dynamic warm-up but with resistance.
- Reduces Anxiety. One mental benefit of a pre-game workout in the weight room is that it is a great way to work out pre-game jitters. Players are always have a lot of nervous energy from excitement, and the workout is an effective way to burn it off for better focus.
Pre-game Workout Design
Pre-game workouts are highly varied from coach to coach. Some coaches will include more mobility drills, possibly foam rolling, along with resistance exercises and will make their pre-game routine quite extensive. We keep ours very simple. Resistance work is done in the weight room and mobility work is done out on the field during our dynamic warm-up routine.
Our weight room work is very simple. We do three exercises with three sets of three reps for each one. We will do some form of squat, an Olympic lift or variation, and an upper body push or pull movement. Intensities will typically range from 30-60% of the athlete’s 1-rep max. The goal is to move as fast and explosively as possible.
The total workout time is short, usually taking only 15-20 minutes. We lift at 3:45pm for a 7:00pm kickoff. That time slot works well for our team within their regular pre-game schedule. And because all of the schools in our conference are fairly close, we follow the same schedule for road games as well.
Here are some examples of the types of workouts that we do.
- Hang Clean: 1×3 @ 40%, 1×3 @ 50%, 1×3 @ 60%
- Back Squat: 1×3 @ 40%, 1×3 @ 50%, 1×3 @ 60%
- Bench Press: 1×3 @ 40%, 1×3 @ 50%, 1×3 @ 60%
- Hang Snatch: 3×3 @ 30%
- Jump Squat: 3×3 @ 30%
- Inverted Row: 3×3
- Front Squat: 3×3 @ 50%
- Hex Bar Deadlift Jump: 3×3 @ 30%
- Med Ball Overhead Slams: 3×3
- Back Squat: 1×3 @30%, 1×3 @ 40%, 1×3 @50%
- Clean Jump Shrugs: 1×3 @30%, 1×3 @ 40%, 1×3 @50%
- Incline Bench Press: 1×3 @30%, 1×3 @ 40%, 1×3 @50%
- Clean: 3×3 @ 50%
- Push Press: 3×3 @ 50%
- Landmine Row: x3, increase weight every set.
- Snatch: 3×3 @ 40%
- 1-arm Landmine Press: 3×3 @ 40%
- Kettlebell Swing: x3, increase weight every set
Noticing the Difference
After implementing pre-game lifting, it didn’t take long for our players to buy in. They loved how they felt once they were finished. It doesn’t take a lot of time, but physically they felt great, and I suspect mentally they did as well.
Our coaches also noticed a difference. They felt our players were better prepared when they hit the field and were faster and quicker right from the start, rather than taking a series or two to get into the flow of the game. If our coaches like it and our players like it, then I like it!
Important considerations for pre-game workouts:
- Athletes need to come into the season with a solid strength base to begin with. These workouts build on established strength and power.
- The intent is not to gain strength from these workouts. It’s all about warming up, getting ready, and activating the CNS and muscles.
- This is not the time to introduce new movements. Pick your most common exercises that athletes have the most experience with and do them explosively with great form and technique.
While there has traditionally been concern from coaches and athletes about lifting on game-days, that concern is unwarranted if the lifting workout is done properly. Game-day workouts will benefit athletes more than resting, can improve game performance, and are critical to long term strength improvement and athletic development. It’s a big part of what we do and should not be shied away from.
Add Game Day Lifting to Your Routine
Scott Meier is currently in his 19 year at Farmington High School (MN) where he is the Strength & Conditioning Coach. He is also a Physical Education Teacher at FHS and teaches Sports Conditioning, Weight Training, and 9th grade Fitness For Life classes. He coached Farmington’s competitive weightlifting for 9 years, and in that time, the Tigers earned four state team titles, over 40 individual state champions, and multiple state record holders. Prior to that he was the head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Lakeville (MN) High School and worked as a personal trainer for 6 years. Scott is featured in the award-winning documentary “My Run” which tells the story of his 56-year-old client who ran 75 marathons in 75 days. He continues to compete in track & field at the masters level where he is a nationally ranked sprinter and holds several state age-group records. Scott is the current Minnesota state director of the National High School Strength Coaches Association.