By Bob Alejo
Game-day lifting has certainly made a splash on social media, which means it’s also running its course through athletics and strength and conditioning programs. For the most part, the benefits can be good. But like most things in the strength and conditioning world, there are some who think more is better, which could cause a lot of problems. I thought I’d chime in with some thoughts and examples of how it could be beneficial—or not—and offer a few guidelines.
Before I get started, I want to explain the difference between game-day lifting and pre-game lifting. Lifting or training after games and competitions is not that uncommon. I’ve seen it more in individual sports and team sports that are scored individually. Many times I’ve personally experienced and heard of lifting after track or swim meets as well as golfers and tennis athletes coming in after tournaments.
This article covers game-day lifting before the game by the athletes who are competing that day—not the athletes who are not. Pre-game lifting occurs either many hours before competition or just prior to game time.
Videos 1 and 2. Machines are great ways (effective and time-saving) for before or after game lifting. Range of motion can be adjusted, loads can be administered without spotters and “Without exception, every single study has shown that training using machines can improve strength tested using free weights (Beardsley).” They are a perfect solution for many game-day lifting scenarios.
The first time I implemented pre-game lifting for athletes playing that day was during my time in Major League Baseball back in the 90s. During the morning of a daytime game following a night game, a few players were talking about the difficulty of waking up, let alone being loose enough for batting practice (BP), taking ground balls and fly balls, and throwing. Many hitters liked to take some underhand tosses and tee work before hitting the field, and the earliness of a day-game-after-night-game was making it difficult to do that.
Note that, for a 1:05 pm start, BP might be at 10:00 am and the stretch and warm-up at 9:40 am, putting hitters in the indoor batting cage between 8:30 and 9:00 am, all after leaving the ballpark the night before at about midnight.
My first thought concerned blood flow: What would be the most effective way to do that within a short timeframe and also be effective later for BP? I remembered reading years earlier about some lifters in the then Eastern Bloc countries who essentially performed bodybuilding-type exercises early in the morning, suggesting that this was for “neural excitation”—waking up the body and, I’m guessing, the mind as well. In this way, exercising in the morning would improve the real training sessions later in the day as opposed to not doing anything at all.
Then it hit me. This type of lifting would be perfect given the conditions of a baseball scenario. For time management, I suggested using machines where applicable and also light free weights with one set of 15-20 repetitions, total body. It would also include activities like light twisting and medicine ball work to prepare for swinging in addition to the practice swings and warm-up in the cage. As a side note, I don’t remember reading anything in the literature stating that the loads and volumes for the “neural excitation” sessions were recorded, which I found interesting since the literature made it clear that typically every rep, set, and load was documented.
|Bar warm-up Front Squat/Overhead Press/Clean High Pulls (mid-shin start) x 10|
|Front Squat Superset 80% x 1 rep x 3 sets|
|Jump-Ups on box 2x per Front Squat set, performed after each set of squats|
|Power Clean Superset 70% x 1 rep x 3 sets|
|Standing Long Jump 1x per set of Power Clean, performed after each set of Power Cleans|
|Bench Press Superset 80% x 1 rep x 3 sets|
|Med Ball Chest Pass 2x fast off a wall, after each set of Bench Press|
|Leg Curl 1 set x 8-10 reps @ 50% of training 8-10RM|
|Side Plank 1 set x 20 seconds|
|Posterior Deltoid 2 sets x 8-10 reps @ 50% of training 8-10RM|
|Dead Hang 1 set x 20 seconds (hanging straight-armed, feet off the ground, from a Pull-Up bar)|
Table 1. This example of a pre-game nervous system “wake up” is similar to the post-match lifts performed by the US Beach Volleyball team of Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers during the 2018 Beijing Summer Olympics. The example involves the same components as pre-game; nervous system work with a speed-of-movement component and without fatigue. Note that this includes only the working sets listed and not warm-ups at lighter weights.
From a performance standpoint, I have no concrete evidence that this was beneficial. I did not keep any data that would tell me how it all worked. But, if we base better performance on being prepared for practice, warmed-up, and alert enough to better reduce the risk of injury and the player believes it was helpful, then yes it worked!
It really isn’t as simple as you might think. It’s easy to say, “We lift on game-day and it works for us!” And many do. Who would know any better? You lift before a game, win some games, and have no more or no fewer injuries than when you didn’t lift. Sounds good to most of us. However, possibly there are some things you don’t consider that you just can’t see. Things that you could do that may improve training before a game. Or unfortunately, you may do things that don’t have an immediate harmful effect but will surprise you down the road.
One Thing and One Thing Only: The Off-Season Program
Here’s a very important point about pre-game lifting, similar to heavy in-season training: any game-day lifting at any intensity is predicated on one thing and one thing only—a tremendous off-season program. The season has more and different stressors than regular training, with recovery as the biggest challenge. Players who don’t recover because of pre-game lifting’s added volume are at greater risk for injury. I’m sure everyone reading this knows that.Any game-day lifting at any intensity must be based on a tremendous off-season program, says @Coach_Alejo. Click To Tweet
There also might be a hidden nemesis that’s seen but not readily detectable, and that’s a decrement in performance. Dropped passes, missed tackles, ground balls that are just out of reach, balls hitting the rim, and missed layups are common but hopefully rarely attributable to game-day lifts.
My point is that exhaustion isn’t the only visible form of fatigue, so it’s not impossible that fatigue shows up in trivial or common ways. Ways we take for granted that are just “part of the game.” You know how they say “It’s a game of inches”? For a team that had moderate to low intensity and volumes in the off-season, I wouldn’t just be cautious about lifting volumes and intensities on game day, I’d advise against it.
I’ve always felt good about heavy loads and low to very low volume during in-season training because of the preparation before the season. I also often had the luxury of knowing my teams would be playing in the post-season or, as in the case of the beach volleyball team of Phil Dalhuasser and Todd Rogers, the post-season Olympic Games. Knowing the exact dates helped determine how heavy I could go for how long.
When I speak of my confidence of game-day lifting based on the off-season, I mean I felt comfortable in Beijing in 2008 lifting throughout the round-robin and the rest of the nearly month-long tournament. It was match-day lifting except that we lifted immediately after each match, not before, and took non-match days off. I wasn’t going to lift pre-match and risk even the tiniest bit of fatigue on the world’s stage, but I knew if we went a month without lifting, we’d lose some “pop.” Not training was out of the question.
As the graphic above depicts, even in January the training was difficult, and it was total body. It was still high in March and April. This is exactlywhat allowed me to feel good about hitting 90% three times in the last five weeks leading to the first round-robin match. You can also see that, in the last four weeks, I used Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP) techniques by going heavy for a set followed by lighter sets, as the illustration shows in weeks 14-17 of the in-season program, to increase speed of movement and at the same time add a little bit of volume.
The example of the Dalhuasser program reveals two things:
- the importance of the off-season and its impact on the direction of the in-season training, and
- the consistency of the yearly plan which game-day lifting must be a part of
Game Time Matters
Certainly, game time is the first item of discussion when deciding a pre-game lifting program. For example, there are many more lifting options for later game times than earlier. But not just because of time alone. Fueling, lifting, and game times are the trifecta here.
I’d say the pre-game meal is when the clock starts going in reverse. Probably a 3- to 4-hour window before the game is best for the only meal (although maybe not food) you’ll have until after the game. Now the planning begins. Do you plan the lifting session before the pre-game meal? If so, the meal before the lifting session has to be timed correctly, most likely three hours post-meal.
If getting the players out of bed is a collateral plan for the morning lift, then attention must be paid to how hard the session will be. For some players, even moderate exertion without breakfast can bring light-headedness, which absolutely should not be a byproduct of a game-day lift. I’m not against a morning lift, and perhaps a continental breakfast—something healthy in their stomachs—is a great option.
Otherwise the morning lift will be after breakfast, and the coach has to consider two things:
- a healthy breakfast is a great start to a game day, and a healthy breakfast before a lift means exercise will likely occur at least three hours later, and
- overfed players are a concern, meaning that too many meals are possible when you consider game-day jitters and nervous stomachs (slower digestion, heartburn, etc.)
Another point to consider: Given the game time and the time of the pre-game meal, would you follow an after-breakfast workout session with a hearty snack or a meal?
It’s easy to see the many crossover options and decisions we must make as opposed to singular choices without consideration of their effects on the other issues.
I’ve seen a specific gravity test, where hydration was based on urinalysis, which presented positive for hydration after a light shootaround and before a pre-game meal and then four hours later, showed an athlete dehydrated right before taking the court. It goes to show that someone can go from hydrated to dehydrated easily under all kinds of conditions. Pre-game lifting may affect hydration, whether it’s working up a sweat or it’s a light-moderate session. Food intake also affects hydration. It’s therefore necessary to consider a training session’s effect on appetite.
Post-Activation Potentiation: Does it Work for Game-Day Training?
One of my first thoughts was about PAP. What if lifting before a game was scientifically proven as an ergogenic phenomenon? Well, it is. However, it depends on the length of the event. In short, and as Dr. Andy Fry, Power Lift’s Sport Science Educational Board member puts it, typical PAP research has shown moderately heavy to heavy loads (high force), very low volume exercise (non-fatiguing) before an athletic event (5-20 minutes) increases explosive, athletic performance (short sprints, jumps, short change-of-direction drills).
The best results appear to occur with trained individuals, so training background and history are important. In hindsight, the PAP effect doesn’t last long enough and isn’t practical (time and space) to apply to some sports. Yet, there are a few sporting instances where it does.
The short sprints in swimming could be a great spot for PAP. In fact, a swim coach colleague of mine used my suggestion for summer meets. The sprint swimmers carried 20-30lb dumbbells and performed jump squats just minutes before a race. PAP would also help with NFL combine drills and the like. The throws, jumps, and short sprints in track and field and BP for softball and baseball are great opportunities to explore.Game-day post-activation potentiation can involve isometrics, not only dumbbells and barbells, says @Coach_Alejo. Click To Tweet
I’ve talked about using heavy loads and high force, but that doesn’t restrict a PAP session to dumbbells and barbells. Isometrics work as well, and in many instances are very practical. Doorways, staircase rails, anything extremely heavy or immovable will work. For example, use a low railing for a shin- or knee-high isometric deadlift or high pull.
Davenport Assumption, distance, and cross country programs under the direction of Tim O’Neill use competition day training in many forms. Early in the day medicine balls throws as well as combo jumps and throws are some race day training exercises. He’s even had the kids do isometric pulls on the bumper of his truck as close to race time as possible. I’ll tell you this: if cross country champion runners are down with this type of training (and the coach is doing in-season assessments as well) then there’s no reason why any sport can’t benefit given the right design.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has a good piece on PAP with a wealth of references listed.
How Do You Know If You’ve Done Too Much Game-Day Lifting?
Chronological Training Age (CTA) is the key to this issue. The wisdom of game-day lifting not only depends on how good the off-season training was but also how long your athletes have been in a comprehensive training program. One month? Six months? One year? Two years? These questions have to be asked and answered, and I’ll tell you why.
With younger, typically less experienced lifters, there’s a greater margin for error when attempting this type of training. In other words, less can go wrong; they are more resilient to volume-based error and injury. So much so that you can program the intent of the game-day lift to add to the development. Perhaps, for example, small gains in hypertrophy and, of course, strength and power, which would not be your typical in-season program goal. Fatigue is unlikely given a common sense approach to the training.With less experienced lifters, you can program game-day lifting to add to their development, says @Coach_Alejo. Click To Tweet
In fact, when I looked at our freshmen DI basketball players, I found they increased vertical jumps at the end of the season. I did not have a game-day lifting program, but who’s to say that one more light day a week wouldn’t have shown a greater increase. Given a chance to repeat that, I might add a game-day lift or at least a day before a game-day lift. I have yet to do this as I’ve felt we had enough training already meeting our developmental goals for the freshmen during the competitive season. The programs were individualized enough to account for CTA, and the results were positive.
More experienced lifters are closer to their training ceilings and are on the edge of perhaps becoming fatigued, decreasing performance, or worse, increasing their risk of injury if “too much” happened in whatever form. The programs for these two profiles could be, and in some instances should be, different. As I implied earlier, it’s not impossible to create a strategy to purposely, and cautiously, increase the performance of less experienced lifters in-season, nor would it be impossible to add pre-game lifting with a different purpose for more experienced lifters.
For all of this to be qualified, there has to be some valid assessment during the season. You can’t just guess if it’s working, you gotta know. Does this mean strength testing 1RM work? Not necessarily, although it’s not impossible if you choose the players wisely. I view testing as an absolute—a more critical evaluation, as in maximal testing. An assessment is more of a judgment. It’s not exact but it’s still an evaluation. As an example, a set of 2 or 3 reps at 90% is not maximal, but a trained eye can discern an approximation of the maximum reps possible, thereby estimating a projected max.
You should implement a reasonable test for power as well. Ten-yard sprints, countermovement andbody weight vertical jumps without using the armsor a standing long jump are good choices. They’re easily performed without fear of injury because the warm-ups to lifting or practice should suffice for these tests. Of course, whatever the evaluation is, the protocol has to be stable (the same procedure each time) for validity and reliability. Again, the risk of failure here is high if things go wrong in-season.
My only concern about any game-day lifting is doing too much, as it should be for anyone entertaining the idea of lifting pre- or post-game. You can easily and quickly put that concern to rest with reliable and valid in-season weekly or bi-weekly performance assessments.
“I Feel Great!”
Listen, I’m all about the mental state that great training provides. There’s a part of training that feeds that feeling. Earlier I talked about the margin of error involved with different levels of CTA. Within that margin of error, mental outcomes should be a part of the assessments. That being said, it’s still about palpable results.
For example, if I continue to hear how good an athlete feels from a pre-game lift but her assessments are poor, I have to find a way to change her program so that she still feels good and the training shows a benefit. You don’t want anyone to find out six weeks after what could be a training-related injury that the assessments were declining and you knew about it, but you made no changes because the athlete said they felt great. At least I’m not interested in having that meeting!
High School Athletes and Frosh Collegians
Training high school athletes or young collegians on game day (pre or post) presents a few scenarios, most of which are pretty good. Take caution here: I say outcomes can be good, but the bad ones are pretty bad.
Cody Hughes at Madison Academy asked what the difference would be for high school versus college athletes. My answer is none at all or a ton. I’ve seen kids come to DI programs with literally no lifting experience, depending on the sport. Some arrive with so little training, they are beginners. I’ve seen DI transfers who’ve never lifted a bar from the ground or squatted from collegiate programs that train that way, and they too are in the beginning category. So here again, CTA is the key. Not college versus high school.
Game-day training can be a developmental program. After reviewing the off-season and pre-season, it would be easy to assess the right volume and intensity to implement to maintain consistent increases in development throughout the season. These kids are very much in a developmental stage and could use an extra day if dosed correctly, especially if that day is not normally a training day.
All of this would be concluded after evaluating the yearly training process (loads and volumes), determining the core in-season program, and constructing the game-day lift. This sequence is critical. The pre- or post-game lift should never be the critical piece of the in-season program nor an essential part of continued development.
Previous menus must be followed, or at least the game-day menu should have little or no variation from the normal menus. Even if you’ve kept the volume and intensities of the out-of-season training comparable and in consideration of the playing schedule, new exercises are new stressors and could quite possibly cause discomfort, pain or soreness, or injury.
|Bar Warm Up Back Squat/Overhead Press/ Jump Shrug (hang position) x 10|
|Bench Press 85% x 1, 75% x 2 x 2|
|Clean High Pull 82.5% x 2, 70% x 2 x 2|
|Back Squat 70% x 2, 80% x 1, 70% x 2|
|Overhead Press Superset 2×5 @70% of training 5RM|
|Lat Pulldown 2×5 @70% of training 5RM|
|Leg Curl Superset 2×5 @70% of training 5RM|
|Side Plank 2×20 seconds|
|DB Farmers Carry Superset 2x regular training distance @70% training load or regular load @50% training distance|
|DB Lateral Raise 2×5 @70% of training 5RM|
Table 3. Notice that the core lifts “touch” a moderate-heavy load then add volume with at least 10% lighter load than the previous set, providing some PAP effects. Additionally, the reps per set are of interest here. This list does not include warm-ups at lighter weights; only working sets are listed.
What Game-Day Lifting is Not!
This is not the same program as the off-season or any other part of the year. No doubt this group of athletes is resilient and might recover before game time. And remember what I said earlier: when injury and fatigue of any kind not resulting from the sport become an issue, it’s necessary to immediately change or remove the pre-game lift. Sure, a program similar to the off-season before a game might appear to be fine once, twice, or maybe three times. But a season is not three games long, and the fourth time might be where all hell breaks out.
Off-season work has more volume and intensity than the in-season. As many of you will agree, just lifting and conditioning without games is hard enough.
Short Note About Multi-Sport Athletes
These folks never stop training! That’s my note. In other words, if I were to do any game-day lifting with an athlete who participates in more than one sport, it would be pre-game only and in the mode of a “physical wake up”—light, fast, and short.
There’s no question in my mind that many of you can design programs different than the ones I’ve illustrated and can facilitate your intent with great outcomes. I wanted to draw up examples because often we see theory or suggestions but not real programming in an article like this. I’m sure you get the idea.
Game-day lifting—particularly pre-game—can provide extra volume and intensity for developing athletes and extra nervous system awakening for more experienced athletes whose typical profile doesn’t require extra volume or additional intensity. Pre-game lifting can also serve as a precursor to “early work” before a game in the form of a dynamic warm-up with resistance or an engine-starter, as in the example of pre-afternoon game times (earlier than normal wake-up times).
None of this should be explored unless CTA and testing and assessments conclusively direct strength and conditioning coaches to program accordingly. It’s essential to include in these evaluations the analysis of all programming and training outside of the in-season. The process ensures the athlete was exposed to enough volume and intensity so training on the day of a game, either before or after, is not a load that requires great recovery or results in the kind of fatigue that adaptive training can impose.
Lastly, don’t be fooled by short-term benefits. And by that I mean continue to evaluate because detriments are closely lurking if you’re not assessing correctly. Take caution when considering lifting before or after games and the benefits will be fantastic.
Beardsley, C. Why are strength gains stability-specific? Strength and Conditioning Research. Strengthandconditioningresearch.com.