Jan v Rooyen – Gym Work – How To Start The Off-Season

(Photo Credit: Jorina Raath/Speedshots.co.za)

It is off-season again, and I have been inundated with questions regarding off-season strength training and more specifically where to start when entering the gym. My philosophy regarding early-stage gym work has changed and developed a lot since I first started working with schoolboys. One thing, however, has not changed, the realization that we cannot train young athletes like mini-adults. For this reason, I have drawn up an outline of the development pathway I like to follow with youth athletes starting with strength work.

1. Play

The First Part of any development or skill acquisition process will always be to play. Climbing, Rolling, Falling, Jumping, Wrestling, Pushing and Pulling while playing is the cornerstone of development and coordination. I cannot overstate the following: Long before any strength work is started, your child should be discovering movement patterns and developing strength through unstructured play from a young age. This type of play makes any S&C’s job so much easier, as coordination and muscle activation are developed outside of structured work.

2. Body Weight Training

When a young athlete finds they need to start working on strength, the start will always be in body-weight training. Exercises include Push-ups, Pull-ups, Sit-ups, Plank, Squats, Lunges, Jack Knifes. The base of all these exercises can be found in the play, and nobody is too young to start doing them. I find the number of 14-year-olds I see, who cannot do a Pull-up, appalling. Being able to move your body weight should always be the priority. I expect an under 14 Rugby player to be able to do 45 push-ups and 55 sit-ups in a minute. Pull-ups is dependent on position but 8 is the minimum. Without this base, you cannot proceed to the next step.

3. Elastic Band + Body Weight (1 x 20)

The famous Sportscientist, Dr MichealYessis, wrote a lot about a 1 x 20 Exercise system. In this system, you do numerous exercises, but only 1 set and 20 repetitions of each. This is a very effective system for the beginner strength athlete. These sessions include up to or above 20 different exercises covering most muscle groups in the body. He can even follow the same program during every session. There are a few advantages to this system:

  • Athletes can do a large number of different exercises, targeting every muscle group in every session. Less rest in between sets also helps save time in sessions
  • A Lower fatigue per session while still high enough intensity to elicit a positive training adaptation.
  • More repetitions also lead to better technique mastery, ensuring better and faster learning.
  • Muscle endurance develops quickly, together with Strength
  • Better Capillarisation! This means that small blood vessels in the muscles form better using this program. More capillaries lead to faster recovery and more energy delivered to the muscles. It also helps with great ligament and tendon strength improvements due to higher blood flow.
  • Due to lower fatigue in muscles, injury risk is reduced.

4. Free Weight (1 x 20)

Following the above system, I would gradually start introducing free weight exercises in between the body weight and elastic band movements. In this way, athletes are gradually introduced to the load. Every time an athlete easily completes an exercise with a certain weight, it will be increased for the next session. Players will see very quick improvements in strength keeping them positive. Once a ceiling is reached using this program, they can move to a more traditional gym session. This ceiling will probably not be reached soon though, as most athletes can use this system for at least a year with free weights while still seeing massive improvements.


It is important to note that gym sessions are so much more than moving weights. Mobility, Prehab, Cardio, Stability and coordination exercises are just as important! More on these later.


Good luck with the offseason, and happy Training!

 *Jan van Rooyen is the Conditioning Specialist for Hoërskool Monument Rugby and the Golden Lions u18 Schoolboy teams. In his spare time, he runs StrapFIT Sport Strapping Suppliers, and if there is any time left he goes running.