WITH the majority of winter sports codes returning to pre-season preparations after the Christmas break, Ipswich Jets Mal Meninga Cup strength and conditioning coach Lauren Duce sat down with the QT to discuss the ins and outs of training to be an athlete.

What is your role with the Jets?

I am the strength and conditioning coach for the Under-18s/Mal Meninga Cup team. This will be my third season at the Jets. Last season I was doing the same thing, but with the U20s/Colts. Before that I came here as a prac student.

What are you currently working on with the Under-18s?

At the moment it's all about on-field conditioning. We're trying to do as much strength training as we can without relying too much on using weights. Considering their age, their limitations and how much time we have with them - since there are three teams - that can make it difficult.

What does the current program look like?

Everyone is new to me this year, but they're all pretty well on the same page at this point in time.

Usually I'll have 20 minutes with them (each session). They'll split into three groups; one will do their field work, the others will do sprints, and the other will see me.

I'll look at them, see how they're moving, what they're doing, and if I feel like someone needs extras I'll pull them aside.

How does training an 18-year-old athlete differ to a grown man?

It's really important to make sure they're functional in their movements, first and foremost, especially with regard to injury.

If you put them straight into a gym with weights and they don't know what they're doing, and may not have the mobility or muscle mass necessary, it can be quite dangerous. You see that quite a bit with strength and conditioning programs in school teams.

What's the difference in training to be an athlete as opposed to someone who just wants to go to the gym to get big muscles?

You start with the science behind it. You have to think about training in blocks.

Hypertrophy comes first, so that's building muscle mass. It can be through weights training, or it can be through on-field conditioning. Then you go into a strength block, where you want to do the heavier types of lifts. On-field, you incorporate that by bringing in medicine balls, getting them to pick each other up, things like that.

Then we split into a power and explosive movement block. That's plyometrics - jumping, quick-sharp movements, agility, that type of thing. If you don't structure it that way, and go straight into the power training without a good foundation, that's when injuries are most likely to happen.

U18 Ipswich Jets strength and conditioning coach, Lauren Duce.
U18 Ipswich Jets strength and conditioning coach, Lauren Duce. Cordell Richardson

What are the go-to, 'bang for your buck' exercises you would incorporate into most of your sessions?

Deadlifts, squats, bench press and bent-over rows. I consider those to be the four most basic but important compound lifts. You want to think about it like incorporating a lower body push-pull movement, upper body push-pull movement, for both anterior and posterior.

A compound movement is basically any movement that incorporates multiple muscle groups at once, rather than say a bicep curl, which only engages your bicep. A bent-over row for instance uses your arms and different back muscles.

You get more bang for your buck, basically. You don't have to be in the gym for three hours at a time working on each individual muscle.

Where should a young athlete looking at improving their athleticism start?

I would say try to do 30-60 minutes, three times a week is a good place to start. Just getting that 30 minutes in is important.

You don't have to be in a gym six times a week for two hours, but you have to start somewhere. Once you start going once a week, that becomes twice a week, then three times and it becomes habitual and then part of your lifestyle. Make it a part of your life.

Get into functional training, more than anything. Not even just to be an athlete, but for the general population I would expect they should be able to do a basic squat and lunge. These are functional movements you use in your everyday life. If you want to be an athlete, first go back to the basics and focus on being able to move well.

Mobility is a big one. Mobility can be stretching, but it also focuses on muscle imbalances. A lot of the boys I see just like to do bench press, because they see that as getting a strong chest and that helps them with tackling. But they forget about training the back muscles, which in terms of mobility can tighten the (anterior muscles) and that's when shoulder injuries can occur, because they don't have the supporting back muscles.

What's the biggest challenge working with young athletes?

The hardest part is communication. Being able to explain things to them in a way they will understand and actually care. You can rattle off science, but they just want to be stronger, bigger, and better at football.

What are some less-obvious requirements in training young athletes?

I have to work a lot with the physio as well. Players will be sent to me with details on any injuries they have, and they will need something individual and specialised. Coming away from the group to focus on fixing that problem, it can be a hard thing for athletes when all they want is to get back out on the field.

That's where communication and education is critical. You have to explain to them why they can't be on the field. It can be as simple as explaining that without this extra two weeks off, it could turn into six weeks or even six months if you hurt yourself more before you are ready.

How important is pre-season conditioning when it comes to preparing for an upcoming season?

This is when they really need to be putting in maximum effort. By the time the season rolls around, it can be too late.

When Christmas comes along, they have a few weeks off and have to play catch-up again, and before they know it we're into the season. This is a good time to focus on individual needs - who is lacking in strength, who needs to improve their fitness, who has injuries which need to be managed?

It's hard to improve on-field conditioning once you're in-season. It needs to happen before, and you need to be prepared. Then it's about tactics, ball work, and strength and conditioning becomes more about maintenance.

Are weights absolutely necessary when it comes to training to be an athlete?

No. The first sessions I ran involved a 20 minute circuit with things like walking and static lunges, squats, planks, push-ups . . . just basic things, but things which are really important that everyone needs to be able to do.

It's also a good way to take a step back and not worry about overloading them with weights. You get them going non-stop, with no breaks, and it gives you a good idea of who has a good base level of fitness and who maybe needs some extra work. It's always a good way to see where they are psychologically. A lot of the time physically they can do it, but sometimes you will give up mentally before that.

It's also important to target the sport you are training for. Make it as fun as possible, and make use of what you have. If you don't have access to weights, practice lifts and carries. That helps your strength, but is also specific (to rugby league) because that's what you have to do in football.

Does training in a group help?

It sounds corny, but the brotherhood does help. The Jets have always been big on that. Especially in pre-season, when they're being pushed to their limits and someone may be lagging behind, there is always someone there who will go back and run through with them together. This translates onto the field as well.