Coach Lou Keeps Illini Strong and Ready

One major reason Illinois was so successful in football this year was their ability to stay relatively injury free. Strength and Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez and his staff deserve much of the credit for keeping Illini players healthy and helping them recover quickly from injuries when they do occur.

A few Illini missed part or all of the season, but most of the key players remained healthy all year long. A schedule with 12 tough, physical games on consecutive Saturdays takes a major toll on the human body. Coach Lou believes strongly that an aggressive approach in his strength and conditioning program has been key to maintaining health during the season.

"It has a lot to do with it," explains Coach Lou. "They equate football collisions to some automobile accidents as far as impact. It's going to happen. The biggest thing about injury prevention with our guys is we've got to make them as strong as can be to protect the joints, ligaments and soft tissue. Plus, they have to be in the best condition that they can be in as well.

"Now, when injuries do occur, if that muscle area and joint area is strong and they're already in great shape, then your chances of recuperating and returning are going to be faster. So that's the benefit of having guys continue to work out, get better and stay in the best shape they can."

Hard work is the key, and the Illini players have earned their stripes in the weight room.

"I'd like to say that (we've worked harder than other teams). I promise these guys that all the time, that every time we get a workout in nobody's going to outwork you. That's our goal."

When injuries do occur, it is up to Coach Lou and Athletic Trainer Byron Cunningham and their staffs to prepare the athletes for surgery and the lengthy recovery period.

"Our trainer Byron does a phenomenal job of communication between his staff and my staff. He is just excellent, and we're all on the same page. Once an injury does occur, it is the athletic trainer's responsibility to make sure that athlete has a full range of motion and the swelling starts to improve.

"Once they get to that level, our responsibility in the weight room is secondary rehab. So we're going to start to improve their overall strength and endurance. It depends on what the injury might be, but they will be working with the weights prior to surgery. They will continue to get the muscle groups in there strong to help with the overall recovery once they do have surgery.

"The better shape they're in, and the stronger they are, the quicker the recovery. I'm a big believer in muscle memories. Once an athlete has been able to hit a particular weight, they're going to get back to that weight quicker after they have lost some strength through surgery than they would have before.

"There's a time they have to recover from the surgery because that's quite some trauma that's been done. That's the athletic trainer's responsibility and not my call. But once that's done, absolutely we will start working with them again."

Sophomore receiver Chris James suffered a tear of his anterior cruciate knee ligament (ACL) one week into fall camp and underwent surgery several weeks later. Already he is showing amazing quickness and flexibility in his knee considering how little time has elapsed since the surgery.

"A lot of that is the type of person he is. He's a guy that did not want to sit out long. When you look at the standard recovery of what the average ACL is, he's way above and beyond that. He did a lot of work before surgery to prepare the muscle groups and afterwards as well to push himself to get where he's at right now.

"There's a progression of things we want our guys to accomplish. Byron is going to have the guys do some things. Once they get to a particular level, then he knows it's my turn. At the point where they can do the things they could do before surgery, then they're set and ready to go."

The Illini staff evaluate a player's body fat to determine the best program for him. The key is to transform excessive fat into muscle and strength while improving flexibility, quickness and speed. Illini players are proud of their improved physiques from enduring Coach Lou's rigorous program.

"No longer are there big, fat guys playing in the line. We now need multi-faceted guys who need to be quick as well as strong and be able to demonstrate their strength for four full quarters. So we measure their body fat, and we want an acceptable level of 20% body fat (for linemen).

"That's a tough goal for them to achieve. We're trying to do two things at once. Nutrition is the key as far as what to eat and when to eat it. We need to care as much about inside the body as we do outside. So we will sit down with them and evaluate their situations."

It may surprise some people how few wind sprints the Illini do during fall camp and the season. But according to Coach Lou, there is little need for it thanks to the strenuous workouts completed during the summer.

"We know the overall conditioning level based on their work during the summer. So once we get to the in-season, conditioning isn't that important to us because we know where the guys are at. If anything, what we might do during the season is once a week do a flush run, to burn out lactic acid and help the stiffness and soreness. We work at a pretty quick tempo. But as far as conditioning during the season, the hay's already in the barn and ready to go."

Weight room work is a neverending process. Except for school vacations, workouts continue throughout the year. However, there will be a slight adjustment resulting from the upcoming Rose Bowl game.

"If there was no bowl, the guys would be pretty much just in the weight room continuing to build their overall strength, bulk and size. But now there's a bowl, we have to stay football specific. We do want to concentrate on getting our bodies as strong as they can get, but we do also have to get in the best shape we can get in during this off period as well.

"I am right now looking at a list of what the Rose Bowl is providing (in terms of weight equipment), and that will determine what things we would like to take. Physical conditioning for us is year round and every day, so we will continue with our normal game week preparations. And it will involve 2 to 3 lifts (in California) before we hit the field."

Coach Lou reminds that it takes a whole village to make a winning football team. But without the core work required by Coach Lou Hernandez, success would be fleeting at best.

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