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?” I’ve written on the discussion of retirement from sport, known in sport psychology as “athlete transitioning,” and my goal for this article is to provide more of a practical how-to guide for lifting for athletes after competitive sport. Read on for how to adjust training, learn to design your own training program, and find new goals to chase down and new ways to enjoy physical activity and strength training after sport.
Note: There is no great word to describe the athlete who no longer competes in organized or performance-focused sports. “Retired” has a negative connotation of age or 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,” “recreational athlete/exerciser,” or even “normal person.” “Post-transition athlete” sounds clinical and like beating around the bush. I’ll typically stick to “retired athlete” in my writing, but just know that this is more for lack of a better term.
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 or incentive to train. The easiest way to increase intrinsic motivation is to enjoy what you’re doing!
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.
Strength Training Intensity and Recovery
One thing that many former athletes forget to account for is improved recovery. Athletes transitioning to recreational exercise often have much to learn about how much harder they can push in the gym to achieve their new goals, because they have been so used to “minimum effective dose” strength training designed to improve sport performance with minimal negative impact.
Non-athletes can afford to push harder in the gym than athletes who are spending 6-15 hours practicing their sport in addition to strength training. 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 have always had to think about leaving something in the tank for the next sport practice. The programs that I write for rowers are less intense (defined in a combination of volume, percent-1RM, and effort) compared to a program I use with myself or another non-athlete who just wants to get stronger and be more muscular, leaner, enjoy strength training, etc. Athletes, especially rowers, also have better work capacity than non-athletes, thanks to hours and hours of hard training, further enabling harder training and improved recovery after sports.
One thing I recommend trying is starting out doing one set per workout a few times a week to true failure. Use more minor exercises so you can fail safely, such as dumbbell presses, triceps extensions or biceps curls, leg extensions or leg curls, or leg press. You probably didn’t use machines much as an athlete, so this can be a fun way to explore this element of training too. Do one set until you are physically unable to complete another rep, to start to 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 more major exercises also improves. We don’t need to train to failure all the time; this is just a helpful way to recalibrate the post-sports rate of perceived exertion (RPE) estimations.
New Forms of Variety in Strength Training
Try different exercises. My strength training programs for sport goals use a lower amount of exercise variety. We focus on a handful of core lifts and assistance exercises tailored for the specific sport. This helps athletes focus on just the essential exercises, maximize adaptation, and minimize muscle soreness. In your new form of exercise after sports, you can use a much greater amount of exercise variety, so feel free to mix it up and try new things. If something makes you extra sore the next day, it won’t interfere with your sport training the way it would for a competitive athlete.
Try different training “splits,” the gym vernacular for which body areas are trained in which order or on which days. My strength training programs for athletes tend to use full-body strength training two or three times per week. We have a limited amount of time and energy for athlete strength training, and it’s more important for athletes to train with full-body movements requiring greater athletic coordination. These limitations and requirements don’t necessarily apply to strength training after sports, so we can change things up. Alternate sessions for upper body and lower body. Use upper/lower/full with deadlift on the full day. Push/pull/legs is another popular split. Those who want to lift more and do more bodybuilding style training can go with a bodypart split, such as chest/triceps, shoulders/back/biceps, and legs. There are many ways to vary your training to keep things interesting, and the variation is beneficial to enjoyment, finding new challenges, and exploring different muscular stimulus.
Strength training isn’t everything, and variety of exercise can also include plenty of other activities. Find a balance that you enjoy and find beneficial between different training styles. I know a lot of former athletes who enjoy doing a couple Crossfit sessions or Crossfit-style workouts per week, one or two conventional strength training workouts, a few aerobic or cardiovascular sessions, and a yoga class. Experiment and find what activities you enjoy, because that’s what post-sport activity is about.
Popular Strength Training Programs
One way to learn about how to train in the post-sport environment is by following a popular strength training program designed for non-athletes. The Internet is awash in such programs, available for free via blogs, for pay, and for purchase in explanatory ebooks. There is no real way to know if a program will work for you and your post-sport goals without trying it for at least 8-12 weeks and learning how your body responds to the new form of training. Consider the personal and professional credentials of the person or website producing the program, pick something that looks fun to you, and give it a try!
When you strip away the details, most non-sport strength training programs are very similar, and are just creative ways to instruct people to engage with the training, give hard effort, and do a variety of strength training for different energy systems (ie. low reps 1-5, moderate reps 6-15, and high reps 15+), movements, and muscular areas. You can do this yourself, too, if you just want to experiment. The main variables you can modify include:
- Frequency: How many times per week you lift or train a given lift.
- Intensity: Commonly described as percent 1RM or Rate of Perceived Exertion.
- Volume: Amount of sets and reps you do, or total reps (sets * reps) per session.
Generally you pick two out of three of the above variables to emphasize in a strength training program. This is similar to sport training. You can’t go high volume, high intensity, and high frequency for long before burning out or getting injured. Pick the combination that works best for you, your schedule, and your preferences.
Exercise variety is a fourth additional factor that you can also modify. Sometimes, performing one variation of a lift week after week results in burnout, but alternating variations allows you to continue training the similar motor pattern without burning out. For example, back squatting one week and front squatting the next week achieves the goal of squatting once a week, but increases variety by alternating the form of squat.
Remember that “get stronger” means many different things. You got stronger if you:
- Accomplish more work in less time. If 5 sets of 5 reps with 225lbs took you 25 minutes before, and now you get it done in 20 minutes, you got stronger by decreasing rest intervals.
- Do more reps with the same weight: you got stronger by increasing volume.
- Do more sets of the same weight and reps: you increased total volume.
- Do the same sets and reps with more weight: you got stronger by increasing intensity.
- Do the same weight, reps, and sets from a position of mechanical disadvantage. Adding a pause, a slower lowering phase, or using a more challenging 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 or eye-check it. If the bar is moving faster on the lifting phase with the same weight and reps, you’re getting stronger.
What matters is finding some way or ways to enjoy lifelong physical activity beyond the structure of competitive or organized sport training. Physical fitness is fun and a healthy habit with many short and long-term rewards!
Last updated May 2023.