Strength and Conditioning: Part III

This is the third in a series of articles dealing with strength and conditioning for football. This installment will look at in-season strength and conditioning and will debunk some common myths about strength training.

In-season strength and conditioning primarily focuses on attempting to maintain as much of the strength, speed, agility, flexibility and weight gains accomplished during the off-season and preseason cycles.

During the in-season period, speed, agility and flexibility drills are handled during the practice period. At universities where football has its own strength and conditioning staff, they often conduct pre-practice stretching and even post-practice conditioning. The only real work that occurs off the practice field is weight lifting.

In-season weight lifting, while essential, can be quite difficult to conduct. During this period players contend with classes, practices and study sessions. In addition, injuries invariably mount and these necessarily limit weight-training activities. While the strength coach works closely with the training and rehabilitation staff all year-round, at no time is it more important than during the season.

For those healthy enough to lift, strength programs attempt to help players maintain as much muscular strength as possible in as short of a time period as possible. While there are many philosophies on exactly how to do this, my preference is for low sets, low reps and moderately high weights for the core lifts. I generally limited in-season weight lifting to three times per week and hit only three core lifts, bench press or incline bench press, squat and power or hang clean. For bench press and squat I generally prescribed three sets of three repetitions with 85-90 percent of 1 RM (repetition max). For power clean, I generally prescribed three sets of three with approximately 75 percent of 1RM. We only performed each of the cores twice per week and never more than two in any given day. I generally augmented those lifts with three auxiliary lifts, again not more than twice per week per exercise. Two sets of ten repetitions were performed on all auxiliary lifts and the lifts were prescribed in such a manner as to cover all of the muscles that protect critical joints.

Generally, the total time spent in the weight room did not exceed thirty-five to forty minutes per session and many times might be even less. By training in this manner, with moderately heavy weights, players maintained high levels of muscular strength. The rigors of practices helped them maintain muscular endurance. Inevitably, players lost some muscle size and weight. In-season strength training, though, is absolutely essential. Without it many of the off-season and preseason gains will be lost.

There are a number of common myths that seem to abound concerning athletic strength and conditioning. Many of these I see perpetuated on college message boards and many I actually see in action in the gym. I will take some time to just comment on a few of these.

Myth No. 1: Over the summer this player will put on fifteen or twenty pounds of muscle and really be ready to play this new position.
Reality—Even for relatively untrained athletes, fifteen to twenty pounds of muscle gain represents a good year. The rule of thumb used to be five to seven pounds of muscle gain per year for well-trained college athletes. Advances in nutritional knowledge and training techniques have increased that number somewhat, but outside of using illegal substances, no player is going to put on fifteen to twenty pounds of muscle in a summer and most will not over the course of a year. Any player that comes to fall camp twenty pounds heavier than he left school in the spring most likely has gained a substantial amount of fat.

Myth No. 2: Muscle size equals muscular strength.
Reality—Though muscle size is related to muscular strength, there is not a one-on-one correlation between the two. If that were the case, then bodybuilders would consistently win Olympic and Power lifting events. I remember watching a segment on a show hosted by former Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney, in which a power lifter demonstrated the bench press. This gentleman, whose name I've long forgotten, was dwarfed by Haney, but when he began to demonstrate the proper technique for the bench press, he did so with four hundred plus pounds on the bar. He talked continuously during a demonstration in which he performed twelve repetitions. Never once did he sound strained or out of breath. There are many other components to muscular strength than just muscle size.

Myth No. 3: Players who have higher bench press and squat numbers are stronger football players than those whose 1 RM's are lower.
Reality—Football is an explosive sport. Power clean, forty times and vertical jump measurements are probably much better indicators of football strength. This in no way means that being a good bench presser or squatter is not important for productive football strength, it's just that those are fairly slow static lifts that don't necessarily, by themselves, translate into football performance. When an offensive lineman fires off the ball in run blocking, his leg strength is only part of the equation. His ability to bring that strength into play quickly is the other half, and there are often better measurements of that than squat. All that being said, all other things being equal, a football player that squats six hundred pounds will probably be more successful than one that squats five hundred.

Myth No. 4: Too much strength training can make a player bulky, slow and inflexible. Reality—Nearly all weight-training exercises feature both a concentric (shortening) and an eccentric (lengthening) movement. Many also feature isometric (constant length) properties as well. As a result of weight training, muscles are stretched in equal measure to shortened. When flexibility training accompanies weight-training, as it should, then there is no reason for an athlete to become bulky, slow or inflexible. The notion of "muscle bound" athletes being unable to move and perform athletically is simply out of touch with the modern realities of scientific strength and conditioning practices.

The next and last installment of this series will focus on plyometric exercises, nutrition and rest.

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