I frequently get the question from former teammates and athletes I’ve coached, “what do I do at the gym now that I’m not training for a sport?”
The discussion of retirement from sport, referred to in the sport psychology community as “athlete transitioning,” is a much bigger topic that will be expanded on in future articles. I wrote briefly on this in 2013 and will come back to it in the future. In the meantime, I want to provide a practical guide to weight lifting for the “retired” athlete.
Note: There is no suitable word to describe the athlete who no longer competes in sports. “Retired” has a negative connotation of age and frailty. Many athletes who have been invested in their lifestyle as a competitive athlete for so long will take offense to the terms of “non-athlete” or “recreational exerciser.” “Post-transition athlete” reeks of political correctness and beating around the bush. Pick your poison.
First, recognize that enjoyment is the single biggest factor in whether or not an exercise program will be successful. There is less pressure on athletes to enjoy their training, as they have plenty of external motivation from coaches, supporters, teammates, and sponsorships or scholarships to train regardless of enjoyment. For the retired athlete, intrinsic motivation suddenly becomes vital to continuing to be recreationally active without the coach, the crowd, the teammates, or financial pressure to train. The easiest way to increase intrinsic motivation is to enjoy what you’re doing!
Thus, if you enjoy the training you were doing as an athlete, there is no inherent reason that you have to stop that training. I know a Track and Field coach who still does the same sprint and footwork drills, the same Olympic lift variants, and the same recovery protocols as when he was a competitive sprinter. I asked him why he still trains that way ten years since his last race, and he said simply, “Because I like to.” And really, that’s what matters. Having the “best” program in the world doesn’t matter if you hate it so much you don’t do it.
However, if you’re tired of the training you did as an athlete or can’t train that way due to injury or equipment availability, this is a great time to experiment and try out different programs or activities or to chase a new goal that you didn’t have time for as a competitive athlete.
One thing that many former athletes forget to account for is improved recovery. Non-athletes can afford to push harder in the gym than athletes who are spending 6-15 hours practicing their sport in addition to lifting. I also think that many athletes don’t know how hard they are able to push in the gym, because they’ve either gotten used to a standard level of fatigue from practice or had a strength coach or lifting program holding some of their energy back for practice. The programs that I write for my rowing team, for instance, are very low volume compared to a program I’d write for a non-athlete who just wants to get stronger and be more muscular/leaner.
This can often lead to someone simply not training hard enough to achieve their new goals, because they have been so used to sub-maximal training designed to minimize impact on sport performance.
The fix: Start doing one set per workout a few times a week to true failure for minor exercises, shooting for at least 15 reps. Dumbbell presses, triceps extensions, biceps curls, leg curls/extensions, and other minor isolation exercises can all be safely taken to failure provided no history of injury. Do one set until you are physically unable to complete another rep and tune in to how hard you can really push. Once you dial this in for the minor exercises, you will find that your gauge of how hard you can push the major exercises also improves.
Most sports programs have a low amount of exercise variety, focusing on a handful of core lifts and assistance exercises tailored for the specific sport. When training athletes, this is essential to minimize the amount of exercises they have to master in addition to all the skills in their sport. As a non-athlete, you can use a much greater amount of exercise variety, so mix it up! Many different exercise variations can be found in my Exercise Index and there are more links to other resources at the end.
Try different training splits. If you’ve spent a lot of time training in full body sessions, try splitting training up by bodypart or by plane of movement for a while. There are many ways to vary your training to keep things interesting. Greg Nuckols at Strengtheory wrote a great article about the benefits of changing stimulus.
Variety of exercise can also include non-weight training activities. Find a balance that you enjoy and find beneficial between different trianing styles. I know a lot of former athletes who enjoy doing 1-2 Crossfit or Crossfit-style workouts, 1-2 conventional strength training workouts, 1-2 aerobic or cardiovascular sessions, and a yoga class. Experiment and find what activities you enjoy!
Here are some popular lifting programs to get you started post-athletic career. Be aware that although many lifting resources and programs are marketed toward men, core concepts of programming are essentially the same for men and women.
It is essential to customize a program to your lifting schedule, equipment availability, goals, and motivations, so don’t be afraid to make necessary modifications. The main variables you can adjust include:
- Frequency: How many times per week you lift or train a given lift
- Intensity: In what percentage range of your 1-repetition maximum do you do most of your work?
- Volume: Volume can be calculated by sets (x) reps (x) weight
Generally you pick 2-out-of-3 of the above variables for a program. Programs that are high in volume, intensity, and frequency are not sustainable long-term. Pick the combination that works best for you. You can also tinker with variety, as explained above.
5/3/1 by Jim Wendler: One of the more popular training programs out there. There are numerous variations for this program posted on Jim Wendler’s website that modify how assistance work is programmed, variations on the main work, etc.
Westside for Skinny Bastards by Joe Defranco: Don’t be put off by the name–this is a solid simple program that is highly customizable. More great information is available on Defranco’s website about strength training and athletic development.
The GZCL Method by Cody LeFever: Another highly customizable basic program. This is a great starting point for anyone interested in having more control over their programming.
The Cube Method by Brandon Lilly: A simple way to rotate the main lifts to work different objectives. Personally, I feel burned out on 5/3/1 chasing the same goal every day/week. If you are the same way, give the Cube Method a shot with its different daily goals.
How to Build Your Own Training Program by Paul Carter: This is a great article for those of you with more training experience who want to start developing your own approach. This explains in greater depth the concepts I outlined above regarding manipulating variables. Paul’s website is www.lift-run-bang.com.
It is to be expected that many former athletes, as a result of having constant direction from sport coaches and strength coaches, don’t actually know that much about training beyond their sport. Below are my go-to links for helpful resources to learn about strength training, diet/nutrition, and more.
Strengtheory.com, in particular, the Complete Training Guide is one of the best resources out there and their e-books are of the highest value. Greg Nuckols is putting out some of the best content on the web right now for strength training.
Supertraining.TV for great interviews, inspiration, and entertaining/informative though often immature podcasts.
Bonus: Quick tips and my go-to workouts
One thing that I recommend everyone develop is a bank of exercises and workouts that you enjoy doing. In the ebb and flow of life after sports, it’s often necessary to just put one foot in front of the other and start doing SOMETHING to avoid decision-fatigue. These are some of my go-to workouts that I know I can do and adapt as necessary for my goals so I’m never stuck at the gym wondering what I should do.
Work up to a heavy single (~85%), drop to 65-70% and perform max reps (target 10-12), rest 60 seconds, perform max reps again shooting for half as many reps as you got on the first set. Thanks to Paul Carter at Lift-Run-Bang.com for this one.
Work up to a 3RM against bands or chains, drop the bands/chains, then do 3 sets max reps with straight weight, resting 2-3 mins between each set. Thanks to Stevey P at Ironsport Gym.
Arm Party: Circuit of 4 exercises, 2 for biceps and 2 for triceps. 30 seconds on each exercise, no rest, do 2 circuits. Credit to former classmate Damien Fisher here.
Strongman Cardio: If you have access to the equipment, this is a great fun way to get a different pace of workout in.
Strip sets: This works well for the “learning to strain” exercises discussed in the Recovery section. I like to use minor exercises like rows, shrugs, and presses for these. The basic idea is to start with a heavy weight, perform max (or close to max) reps, reduce the weight by 10-20%, max reps again, another 10-20% reduction, max reps again, etc. I often do this by using 25lb plates, starting with 3-4 pairs of 25’s and stripping one pair off per set.
Remember that “get stronger” means many different things. You got stronger if you:
- Accomplish more work in less time. If 5×5@225 took you 25 minutes before, and now you get it done in 20 minutes, you got stronger. (rest intervals)
- Do more reps with the same weight (volume)
- Do the same reps with more weight (intensity)
- Do more sets of the same weight/reps (volume)
- Do the same weight/reps/sets from a position of mechanical disadvantage. Adding a pause, a slow eccentric (negative), or utilizing a harder stance or grip are all ways to decrease mechanical advantage and make the exercise harder even if you’re using the same weight.
- Do the same weight/reps/sets with faster bar speed. There are bar speed trackers you can use, but you can also feel/eye-check it. If the bar is moving faster, you’re getting stronger.