A Look at Strength Training

This is the first in a series of articles that will explore strength and conditioning for athletes, particularly football players. It is not intended to be a tutorial for those wishing to learn the complexities of running a strength and conditioning program, but rather a layman's guide to what athletes do in the weight room and conditioning field to make themselves better players.

I served as a high school strength and conditioning coach for nine years and was certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. Though I no longer actively work in the field, I still attempt to remain fairly current with the latest research.

The field of strength and conditioning has become an increasingly complex over the last 35 years and the results have been nothing short of dramatic. Players, today, are bigger, stronger and faster than their counterparts just a few short years ago. Three hundred pound high school athletes are running sub five second forties. There will obviously be an upper limit of human development in this field, but it has yet to be reached.

Just as football coaches operate in off-season, preseason and in-season periods, so do strength coaches. Each of these seasons feature goals that translate into specific methods of training athletes. Let's begin by looking at the off-season.

Off-season Training

The primary goal of off-season strength and conditioning is to develop strength. There may be, almost certainly will be, other goals specific to individual players, but the strength coach wants everyone to get stronger. Specifically, other players may need to gain size, recover from injuries or improve flexibility. Still, strength development represents the primary goal. The off-season generally begins within a couple of weeks of the end of the season and runs until the players return in the summer. At that time, the strength and conditioning program will move into a preseason mode.

There are dozens of different philosophies concerning exactly how athletes most effectively get stronger and, even more importantly, translate that strength into athletic performance. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore all of these different theories, so instead I will provide a general overview of off-season strength training.

Since gaining strength represents the primary goal, heavy resistance training, typically with free weights and machines is utilized. I used the word "typically" because truly innovative strength coaches find ways of "spicing up" workouts in order to keep them from becoming repetitiously monotonous.

Workouts should begin and end with stretching. All muscle groups should be stretched during every session, not just those being worked that day. Stretching not only prevents injuries, but also enables strength gains to be more effectively used during performance. In addition to traditional stretching, most strength coaches also use PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretching. This is a form of forced stretching. Those of you who watched IE video of stretching taking place during spring football probably noticed that players stretched in pairs, usually with one assisting the other. While it's a bit more complex than just assisted stretching, the players were almost certainly engaged in PNF stretching.

The actual lifting workout generally follows one of two types, a three-day workout plan or a four-day split plan. Four-day split plans are easier to implement, but given the time constraints applied by the NCAA, many college strength coaches opt for three-day plans in order to have more time during each lifting session.

Four-day plans are generally divided by push/pull routines or upper body/lower body routines. Push/pull routines are exactly as the name implies. Some lifts involve pushing the weight and some involve pulling it. There's little functional difference push/pull and upper body/lower body, and when programs utilize complex multi-joint exercises, such as power cleans, some overlap between push/pull or upper/lower is inevitable.

Three-day plans are a bit harder to implement because coaches don't want to sacrifice any volume but must accomplish it in fewer days, meaning that each day must include more exercises. As a strength coach, I utilized three day routines simply for the convenience of requiring athletes to attend less often, but I found myself being forced to be much more creative and attentive to the program in order to accomplish lifting goals while not over-training.

Regardless of how many days are utilized to implement the program, every strength coach seeks to achieve balance in the lifting regimen. That means that for every motion trained, the opposite motion is also trained. In other words, if one exercise pushes the weight in a certain direction, another one should be employed to pull the weight in the opposite direction. For example: When an athlete performs squats he develops his quadricep and gluteal muscles. While developing these muscles may lead to improved athletic performance, i.e. he can block better or break tackles more effectively, failure to develop the bicep femoris, hamstrings, can lead to injury. So, if squats are performed then leg curls or stiff-legged dead lifts must also be performed at some point, typically that same day. In fact, I also urged athletes to alternate lifts based on the theory of balance, squats/leg curls, bench press/rows, military press/lat pull downs.

Once balance has been achieved in the program design, the next decision the strength coach must make is what lifts to employ. As most know, there are literally dozens of different ways to train most muscle groups. Issues such as barbells vs. dumbbells, and how often lifts should be performed each week also cloud this debate. Certain lifts, though, are a virtual given in strength training. These lifts are frequently referred to as core lifts, though coaches can and do disagree on exactly which ones should be included. Generally, there are two lifts that nearly every strength coach will consider a core lift and those are bench press and squat. These two exercises are extremely effective at developing upper and lower body strength respectively. After these, though, opinions can vary widely. Bob Levy, an outstanding strength coach, and mentor for me, always talked about the "seat of power." He believed that football players were made between the top of the knee and the bottom of the ribcage. He though that leg and trunk strength made all the difference in athletic performance and trained his players accordingly. It was hard to argue with his success. At one point, his Division II football team had more three hundred pound power cleaners than Nebraska.

Essentially though, there are two broad positions in the debate. The first position advocates explosive Olympic-style lifts such as power clean, power snatch, push press and push jerk. The other side favors more traditional and static lifts such as military press, incline bench and dead lifts. The research generally sides with the first position, but anecdotal evidence abounds defending the second. I recall a conversation I had, as a young strength and conditioning coach, with a veteran coach that had worked at the University of Florida prior to his becoming the head strength and conditioning coach at Southeast Missouri State University. I was pontificating on the benefits of explosive training and throwing out research that I had encountered while studying for my C.S.C.S. exam. The veteran coach, Tom Kelso, listened politely and, while not necessarily disagreeing, told me that while at Florida, their program had relied almost exclusively on machines for their strength training. He finished his remarks with, "and Emmitt Smith seemed to do all right." Most effective strength coaches not only balance program design based on training all body parts but also employ a mixture of Olympic and static lifts.

The other two major issues that strength coaches must deal with are how many sets and reps and how much weight. Of course, these issues are central to effective strength training. Once again, coaches disagree but there is a time-tested model.

Generally speaking, the off-season program is broken down into three main lifting phases or cycles. Each of these cycles has specific goals for strength and size development. It should be noted that when describing the sets and reps that accompany each phase, these prescriptions refer to the core lifts. Those lifts that are not considered core but rather auxiliary, typically utilize sets and reps associated with the first cycle or phase. There is a very good reason for this. These lifts build muscles whose primary job is to protect joints from injury. As one strength coach once put it, the joint is like an egg. It's wise to protect that egg with as much padding as possible. Since the first phase of the cycle is primarily concerned with increasing the size of the muscle, then that philosophy remains for those muscles that must "protect the egg." Typically, these joint-protecting muscles are found on the back of the body. Two major exceptions to this principle are the gluteals and the triceps.

Prior to the first cycle, most coaches will take time to conduct basic testing. It can be as simple as measuring maximum amounts that can be lifted one time on two or three exercises and can be as comprehensive as measuring height, weight, body fat, forty times, agility drill times, flexibility and maximum lifts on several exercises. Regardless of how basic or complex, some measurements needs to take place in order to give the coach a notion of each individual player's specific needs as well as give that athlete the possibility of a sense of accomplishment when his numbers improve by the end of the training period.

The first cycle employs relatively light weights, high reps and a moderate number of sets and may last for as long as four weeks. This phase might be referred to as the hypertrophy phase. Hypertrophy is the process of making muscle fibers larger though now there is evidence that new muscle fibers might also be developed (hyperplasia). Generally, sets will be between three and five and reps between eight and twelve. Typically, the amount of weight used will not exceed 75 percent of that athlete's one repetition max. In fact, research has indicated that maximum muscle gain is accomplished at eight repetitions with 75 percent of 1 RM. On those lifts for which a player does not know his max, the rule of thumb is that if he can do more than twelve reps on his last set then he needs to be using more weight.

The next phase is often referred to as the strength-power phase. This cycle runs for two to three weeks and features four to six sets per exercise with reps in the five to six range. The amount of weight used during this phase might be as high as 85% of 1RM.

The last phase, the power phase runs for two weeks, generally employs only two to three sets with reps between two and four. The weight used is quite heavy, typically as high as 95% 1RM. Dramatic strength gains can be made during this period but this cycle is also very hard on the lifter's body. I always geared this to coincide with the ending of the off-season program, usually taking a third week for testing and then granting players at least one week off before beginning the preseason program.

The conditioning aspect of the off-season program typically focuses upon aerobic conditioning or building an aerobic base. This serves two purposes. First, it helps build lean muscle tissue, the goal of any strength program. Secondly, it enables players to recover more rapidly when they enter into the anaerobic conditioning phase prevalent in the preseason.

It's important to remember that a strength and conditioning program's primary goal is to produce better players, not better weight lifters. While it's great to talk about so and so squatting six hundred pounds, that alone won't make him a great football player. We also know that in today's world of college football, speed is as important as strength and the truly great players possess both. Finally, I've always been of the opinion that less is more. Hours and hours in the weight room and conditioning fields doesn't necessarily mean that player is improving more than someone who spends less time. My philosophy was always get in, work hard, get out. I believed then and still do now that that philosophy keeps players hungry for more rather than burning them out.

There are other considerations in an off-season strength and conditioning program. Some of these include plyometric training, nutrition, rest and agility training. Each of these will be discussed but in later articles as part of this series.

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