Football Strength Work Pauses For Break

As the last varsity Bulldog departs campus for a May break, it's with a sense of double-relief. First, that the annual round of final exams is over and done. And second, that everybody survived one intense day of physical testing to conclude that aspect of their spring semester.

Stress the ‘survived' part, because not all involved scored a great grade with what Coach Ben Pollard and staff ran them through. "It was something they've never experienced," the Mississippi State strength coach said. "Some of them just rose up and kicked it in the butt. And some didn't." In fact some Dogs likely left the Shira Complex with butts dragging that Friday.

Fortunately, all did depart under their own steam, which was the truer gauge Pollard wanted to read on how the Bulldogs handed this first semester under his direction. "The effort has been fine," he said. And the results, encouraging. So much so that when the varsity returns the coach is confident everyone will go into the first summer semester's planned program at, so to speak, full-strength.

What Pollard ran the Dogs through last Friday wasn't the full range of strength and speed events fans typically think of. Those were done in February to measure where the players, varsity and redshirts alike, were before practices began. Pollard considered a second testing at the end of the semester but opted to wait until the end of June, after a month of serious strength training.

"We thought about running 40s at the end of the semester but you don't want to risk a hamstring. We sent them home healthy and feeling as good as they can. And we lifted heavy right at the end of spring and saw what we wanted to see."

Instead of full tests State players were put through a metabolic circuit that by description more than served the purpose of testing body, mind, and soul. "Take a 45-pound plate, lock your arms and hold it overhead, and lunge for 20 yards," Pollard explained. "Then drop the plate and push it as fast as you can 20 yards.

"When you're done bear-crawl back 20 yards, throw a medicine ball, then grab a sled with a 100-pound weight and pull it 40 yards back. And when they finish that, they grab those (elastic) bands and do a circuit of rowing, curling exercises. Then they do a circuit for abs, core work four times through. Some guys struggled more than they should have, they weren't very good at doing it." Which was the point of the whole exercise, or exercises rather. Besides that, the only sprains were egos, not tendons and muscles.

Pollard was content on the whole, though he'd have preferred all Dogs complete that special circuit test without a hitch. Plus a handful of players inevitably got down to the last weeks of spring with need to forcus more on classroom exams than weightroom grading, which showed in their cycle results.

"We will test before the break for 4th of July week," Pollard said. "You've got to design your program a certain way to build up to a test, that's different than how you build up to go into two-a-days. So again I'd rather test early and then manipulate the program because there is a difference how you train over the year."

Their coach has been on the MSU job less than half a year, so Pollard is still getting a complete read on the roster. On the face of things he seemed to jump into a tough scheduling situation since for 2007 spring practices ran two weeks earlier than usual at State. But he says this actually worked to his and the program's advantage.

"I thought it was almost ideal how we had it set up. From a strength-coaching perspective having spring ball over early is a positive. If guys get injured they have a longer time to recover, and we have a four-week period from the end of spring ball to train kids. So when you do take your time off in May, they enter in good condition. We had a chance to get a lot of guys re-habbed, even those who had surgery like J. C. Brignone and Mike Gates are doing well. The recovery time is a positive."

It was a good spring in all injury terms as, compared to last fall and the 2006 spring camp, fewer Dogs had to miss many days. Even the dreaded hamstring ills were way down this session, with only wideouts Ryan Mason (who had the same issues last August) and Alex Carpenter really slowed. At least part of the credit can be given a revised pre-practice warmup plan; instead of simply stretching on the ground the Bulldogs would do various short jogs with ‘dynamic' motions. It looked funny from the sideline but Pollard explains this loosened up the muscles prone to strains by raising internal temperatures, and got players into more of the mindset for drills than cold or static stretching.

Now the coach won't see the varsity for a few weeks. Even if the school calendar didn't turn the Dogs loose Pollard says he would have anyway. "I do think everybody needs a break, as much of a mental break as a physical break. In fact I think the mental break is more important." All players were handed a personal workout program and even then still don't HAVE to start at it until mid-May. "So we give them two weeks' worth of downtime. I think it's OK for the bodies because they've been training the entire month of April. I want guys to be excited when they step back on campus and ready to work, looking forward to it."

And if the Bulldogs want to work anyway, well, they have a plan built around three days of lifting and two of running. Pollard says he's realistic enough not to ask them to work with the same intensity as they would on campus; he simply wants them to maintain April gains, as well as to keep all the parts in working order. Otherwise when they do get back to Shira for June there will be injuries at worst, soreness at best from the sharply increased demand.

"It is easier to stay in shape than to get in shape. And you come back and get injured you miss two weeks." Weeks the Bulldogs can't afford at this point in the process. Pollard said that for on-their-own May work the players can utilize club gyms, the local YMCA, or their old high school weightroom. A professionally-monitored setting would be ideal, but even the school brings some advantages. "Their former coaches may be encouraging and they want to show off to the guys still there, that's a good motivator.

"And I told the guys find a local club to do some cardio, find one where there are pretty girls and hang out there! Motivation is different for everybody, find what motivates you to do the best you can."

Motivation is vital in the upcoming summer months, when Pollard says the Bulldogs have to make more strides. "Especially in June, we have got to help ourselves by getting stronger as a team so we can train the right way in July and get ready for the season. We're going to have to attack it." As in, workouts will tilt towards more and heavier lifting the first month of summer. In July the emphasis will be on speed, which is not the same thing as conditioning. Pollard says he's seen a tendency in the sort of conditioning drills emphasized in the past to simply get through the runs by careful pacing. Natural, but not helpful.

"So we will do things by tempo. Training like we're getting ready to play a football game. We want everything moving fast." That is not to be confused to the sort of sprinting numbers media and fans regard as if Holy Writ. And don't even mention forty-yard times. "I'm not saying I'm any expert, but what is the most important step in football? The first step. What's the most important distance? Ten yards, max.

"How fast can I move from here to there is critical, so we spend more time than they used to on moving as fast as they can in a short distance, of 10, 20, 30 yards. And those are safer distances. The majority of hamstring injuries result beyond 30 meters."

Of course for a larger part, or the larger parts, of this Bulldog roster anything beyond ten yards is wasted motion anyway. For offensive and defensive linemen this is a summer to refine physiques further. And here Pollard is actually very pleased with the overall bulk of the Bulldogs.

"We have a few body weight issues but I don't think they're unreasonable. These have been the most reasonable issues of any place I've been, our biggest body right now is 316 pounds. When you look at what the goal weights are, they are doable without creating a ‘crisis' or anyone trying to take a short-cut to get to their weight.

"All of those guys are in a manageable range when you look at eight weeks of training to lose 15 or 20 pounds. That's doable, it's not an impossible task. A big part of that is what they do in May when they're not here, and what weight they come back at. If they come back exactly where they left, went home and didn't gain any weight, I'm feeling better about it. Then we're still within the realm of where we want them to be."

As to lifting goals, plenty of players are already getting there and some pretty quickly. Such as winter transfer LB Dominic Douglas, who arrived cleaning 275 points and is up to 320 after four MSU months. "By the end of the summer he's going to clean 350 and he can squat more than 500 right now," Pollard said. "He lifted every day with Tim Bailey, heck, there's a perfect guy to work with. Who influences you has a lot to do with success.

"Like (FS) Derek Pegues, he hasn't missed a workout all spring. He and (SS) Keith Fitzhugh were great partners, they worked their butts off. And (CB) Anthony Johnson, I liked those three being together because they play in the backfield and developed a good relationship defensively. Now they're pushing each other."

Another reason the emphasis shifts from June to July is that most if not all eligible incoming freshmen will join a varsity already used to the lifting. Yet Pollard doesn't see a bunch of weak kids coming to campus. "I'm extremely impressed with the group," he said of Coach Sylvester Croom's February signees. "At the spring game, that was a good-looking group. They were taller, for the most part, they were leaner guys. (DB) Zack Smith told me what he cleaned from the hang and I said you're be second (defensive back) on our team when you step into the weightroom.

"So I'm impressed with that part. I saw some really good body types and talking to them, they're guys who like to lift weights. Just the numbers they told me, we're taking a big step forward because if you come in with that strength level… some of the freshman O-linemen will be stronger than the ones we have now."

Which he wants the current Bulldog blockers to hear, too. "Yeah, we need competition, that always causes you to work." Yet on the whole Pollard has liked the work ethic shown during his first semester…and seen the potential for more. Much more. "Realistically, I don't believe this team's work capacity has caught up to where I want it to be yet. But it takes about a year's cycle to get what we call work capacity.

"We try to be as positive as we can be about what we're doing. I don't try to come from the negative, we say you're a SEC player, you have to be stronger than this to have success. We keep the motivation that way."

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