Strength training: how to construct a progressive weight training plan

A training schedule to improve muscular strength

Phil Gardiner

Increasing your muscular strength, if planned and executed properly, will improve the body’s ability to express acquired strength quickly. In short, you will be developing power that will improve their sports performance. Power is an area of training where the amateur player can make a big improvement to his/her game.

Examples of an expression of power include: a rugby player accelerating past an opponent, a footballer kicking a football hard, jumping and striking a volleyball and leaping for a slam dunk in basketball.

Increase intensity but allow sufficient rest

A good way to schedule training to improve muscular strength is to increase intensity over a 3-week period, with 2-3 sessions a week. I then recommend that this should be followed by 1 week of lower intensity work. This will allow the body to recover from the accumulation of what is an intense period of training, before increasing intensity again over a further 3-week period. Another single recovery week is then used to recover prior to either a further increase in intensity or a change in training emphasis to in-season strength training (this will be covered in the next part of this series).  The single recovery weeks are often referred to as ‘de-load weeks’.

De-load weeks are not meant to be rest weeks. Training should continue, but at lower intensities. Total cessation should only occur if the player is unwell or injury prevents him/her from training.

What constitutes the strength build-up phase?

The key is maximum strength training. This should be completed with limited work volume, particularly if performed in conjunction with speed/skill training.  The emphasis is therefore on quality. To develop maximum strength and power the athlete should lift at the following percentages of 1RM:

Core lifts: 80%-90% of 1RM

Auxiliary lifts: 65-75% 1RM

Core lifts work major muscle groups over numerous joints – for example, squats, dead-lifts and cleans.

Auxiliary lifts usually target smaller muscles/muscle groups over single joints, for example lat pull downs and calf raises.

To develop maximum strength and power, I recommend that the ‘stage’ format of exercise progression be followed. Here the player performs all their sets on one particular exercise before moving to the next. A full recovery (90 seconds plus) should be allowed between reps and sets to permit for maximum effort (see sample work outs).

Exercises should be specific

Strength training should be tailored to improve the specific muscles and movement patterns associated with the player’s particular sport – they should be ‘specific’.

Exercises, such as the squat, involve extension of the ankles, knees and hips. This posterior chain movement pattern is essential to many sports.

Specificity in training is important, but less specific exercises, such as the bench press,
have a relevance in terms of improving overall strength, that can be ‘translated’ into more specific sport strength through channelling exercises (see the next part of this series).

To lift heavier weights and increase maximum strength you need to:

  1. Reduce volume – the amount of lifts performed in each session must be reduced: 4-12
  2. Increase rest – between lifts and sets – allow at least 90 seconds between sets, for example
  3. Increase recovery between work outs – leave at least 48 hours between strength training to allow for adaptation. Adaptation occurs when the body repairs itself following the breakdown of muscle tissue during strength training. This results in the body becoming stronger.
  4. Vary the exercises used – When a new exercise is introduced, time should be allowed to learn its technique. Consequently, loads should be kept light. Adaptation will still take place due to a new movement pattern being learned and muscles being used in different ways.

Strength building tips

  • Focus on the gluteals (butt muscles), calf muscles, hamstrings and the muscles of the lower back, as strength in the posterior chain provides the foundation for athletic function.
  • Some upper body work needs to be carried out – in particular, the shoulders, triceps and abdominal muscles should not be neglected.
  • Strengthening the area around the shoulder joint helps to prevent injuries – for example, to the rotator cuff. Dislocations of the shoulder are fairly common in contact sports, particularly among amateur rugby players. This often reflects poor conditioning.

Strength-building exercises and their relevance to sport

Muscles Sports Relevance Selected Exercises
Gluteals and hamstrings Sprinting and jumping Deadlift, lunge, squat, leg curl
Quadriceps Kicking a ball, acceleration Front squat, lunge, leg press
Lower back and glutes Most activities Bent row, good morning
Triceps Throwing, racquet sports, volleyball spike Triceps extension, triceps dip
Shoulders See Triceps ^ Upright row, dumbbell lateral raise
Upper back Most activities Lat pull down, seated row

Avoid imbalances

It is important not to overwork certain muscle groups at the expense of others. This is because muscle imbalances are often the cause of injuries, particularly hamstring strains and tears.

Footballers are usually strong in the quads (due to the amount of time spent kicking the ball and making quick accelerations and turns) but often have weak and tight hamstrings due to inadequate strength and flexibility training. This is a recipe for injury.

The planning of exercises to strengthen the muscles around the shoulder joint also requires great care. It is quite common for weight training enthusiasts to end up with a rounded upper back due to an over emphasis on exercises for the chest and front shoulder muscles, and not on the rear upper body muscles. Players risk shoulder injuries if the muscles strengthened are only to one side of the joint. Thus it is important to work the synergistic muscles that support a movement and crucially strengthen the protagonist muscles that tend to get little stimulation, but need attention if joint and strain injuries are not to ensue.

Suggested maximum strength power building workouts

Workout 1: suitable for novice weight lifters and all sports

Exercise Sets Reps % 1 Rep max Recovery (mins.)
Lunge 3 8 75 3
Bench press 3 8 75 3
Deadlift 3 8 75 3
Front pulldown 3 12 65 2
Sit-up 3 30 sec. 2


Work out 2: suitable for intermediate weight lifters and all sports

Exercise Sets Reps % 1 Rep max Recovery (mins.)
Squat 3 6 80 3-4
Incline press 3 6 80 3-4
Leg curl 3 6 (each leg) 75 3-4
Lat pulldown 3 12 65 2
Dumbbell side bend 3 12 (each side) 65 2


This work out could be progressed to:

Exercise Sets Reps % 1 Rep max Recovery (mins.)
Squat 3 5 85 3-5
Deadlift 3 5 85 3-5
Seated row 3 12 65 2
Triceps dip 3 30 secs. 2
Weighted crunch 3 20 5-10kg weight 3


Work out 3: suitable for advanced weight lifters and all sports

Exercise Sets Reps % 1 Rep max Recovery (mins.)
Power clean 4 4 85 4-5
Deadlift 4 4 85 4-5
Bench press 4 4 85 4-5
Shoulder press 3 12 65 3

The above work outs should be seen as suggestions. For more advice on how to vary and develop a strength training programme please contact me at

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