3 Rules to Follow for Crushing Your Off-Season Training

Improve weaknesses, build a well-rounded physique, and head into your competition season better than ever.

I’ve written before about how the off-season can be a challenging tie for a lot of lifters: You feel like you have all the time in the world to get stronger, but — with no immediate goal or reward in sight — you may end up squandering this time instead of using it to get stronger. 

In that previous article, I explained how to make a big-picture plan for the off-season to hammer your weakness and come back better. In this one, we’ll take a closer look at how to manage your day-to-day motivation and training during a time when you don’t really have any firm deadlines in sight.

Here are three rules to keep in mind when managing your off-season training sessions:

1. Remember your goals.

In the previous article, we discussed goal setting and how important it is for structuring a solid training plan – but goals are important for other reasons, too. Your long-term goals provide a sense of purpose. In other words, they’re your “why”: why you make sure to get in six meals a day, why you push through hard training sessions, why you make sure to get 8 hours of sleep a night. Without those long-term goals, there would be no reason to expend so much effort!

The problem with long-term goals is that they’re, well, long-term. It can be hard to get fired up for a max-effort set of deadlifts when you’ve only got 500 lbs on the bar, and you’re aiming to one day pull 700 lbs.

That’s where short-term goals come in: they provide a sense of motivation. Now, there’s an important caveat to keep in mind here. Effective short-term goals require proper planning, as discussed in the previous off-season article. There’s no point in picking short-term goals that provide motivation to get through today’s session when that session won’t bring you any closer to your long-term ones.

2. Don’t overreach.

The whole point of the off-season is to give your body some time off. So, if you’re still beating it up just as hard and telling yourself that “it’s okay because I’m doing high reps” – well, you’re gonna have a bad time.

While this is, to some degree, common sense, it’s pretty darn hard to actually implement if you’re an athlete who’s passionate about your sport and likes to train hard (and if you’re reading this article, that’s probably the case). You want to push hard all the time – that’s the fun of it!

Personally, I find it helpful to look at professional athletes in other sports, and examine how they handle their off-season. Football in particular is a great example because the sport takes such a toll on the athletes’ bodies (similar to many strength sports). Hell, the NCAA actually mandates a limited number of full-contact practices for that reason. You should strive to implement similar limits yourself.

Those limits don’t have to take the fun out of your training. The use of autoregulation can be very valuable here. If you use an RPE-based scale, for instance, you can set an off-season RPE limit of @8.5 and challenge yourself to hit new personal bests at that level of exertion. Of course, this means that you have to have enough self-awareness and control to use and stick to an RPE scale! If you’re not there yet, the off-season can be a great opportunity to practice that mental skill as well.

Finally, make sure to take time to have a life outside of the gym. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that to be successful, you have to dedicate your whole being to sport – but in reality, that lack of balance more often contributes to burnout (whether physical or mental).  

3. Don’t slack off.

The flip side of the second rule is that you can’t always take it easy. As my coach, Justin Harris, told me:

“As soon as you’re comfortable, it’s time to get uncomfortable.”

If you want to accomplish your long-term goals, you’re going to have to learn to live with (or even enjoy) being uncomfortable a lot of the time. Being uncomfortable might mean pushing through a training session when you’re tired, pushing down a meal when you feel full, or pushing yourself to practice your meditation routine when you really want to just watch TV.

So how do you put in enough effort to push through without overreaching? One way is to focus on weaknesses, as the last article explained. Because addressing weaknesses requires doing what you suck at, chances are, you’re going to be using lighter weights than you would when you’re in-season. That alone will lower the systemic stress from stressing and improve your recovery.

Another effective strategy involves diversification. Cross-training is popular in many sports for a reason: it forces you to do what you suck at, even if what you suck at seems completely outside your particular strength discipline. When you practice cross-training, you have to push yourself to learn new skills and methods (which oftentimes is more mentally challenging than it is physically challenging). For that reason, it’s a case where the old adage proves true: change can be as good as rest.

Making Your Off-Season Work For You

I know I always come back to this, but it’s true: you have to find what works for you. I believe these three rules will lead to a more productive off-season for the vast majority of lifters, but they might not be right for everyone – and if they’re not right for you, that’s okay. What’s not okay is to avoid doing the things you dislike simply because you dislike them. If you want to improve, you have to get uncomfortable.

So this off-season, take a cold, hard look at your last competition – the preparation, the competition itself, and the results – and be honest about what will make you better. Ultimately, that’s the road to success.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.