Strength and Conditioning: Part IV

This is the fourth and final article in a series that has examined strength and conditioning for college football players. This article will discuss three issues that are either relatively unknown or undervalued aspects of strength and conditioning. Plyometrics, nutrition and sleep will be the focus of this article.

Plyometrics

Plyometric exercises are those that activate the stretch-shortening cycle. In these exercises, a force is rapidly decelerated just prior to being rapidly accelerated. In other words, these exercises focus upon teaching explosive power. They do so by training the body to more efficiently store elastic energy in the muscles and release that energy more quickly into an explosive movement.

Both lower and upper body exercises can fit into the plyometric category. Lower body plyometric exercises can be as simple as standing broad jump and jumping rope or as complex as depth jumps. A depth jump involves jumping from boxes with heights anywhere between twelve inches and forty-eight inches and then immediately upon landing jump up and forward with maximum force. This exercise trains lower body explosiveness, a trait that universally benefits football players. The landing surface for depth jumps should always be soft. One of the mistakes that many uninformed coaches make is having athletes with insufficient leg strength perform depth jumps. Before depth jumps can be performed, the athlete should have a squat 1 RM (repetition max) of 1.5 times his body weight. In other words, a two hundred pound athlete should be able to squat at least three hundred pounds one time before attempting depth jumps. As box heights move above twenty-four inches, I believe that an athlete should possess a squat 1 RM of twice his body weight. Bigger athletes, i.e. offensive and defensive linemen, should probably never perform box jumps from heights in excess of eighteen inches.

Upper body plyometric exercises include push-ups with clap, medicine ball toss and medicine ball rotations. The last two exercises require a partner. In medicine ball toss, the two athletes toss a medicine ball back and forth from distances of five to eight feet. My favorite form of toss is a two-hand chest pass. The ball should be caught and tossed back as quickly as possible with each athlete striving to shorten the amount of time necessary to transition from catch to throw. This exercises improves upper body explosiveness and may be beneficial to offensive linemen with their initial punch and defensive linemen using rip moves. However, all football players benefit from more upper body explosiveness.

Those of you who remember the first Rocky movie may remember a scene where, in training, he sat back to back with a trainer and they rotated their bodies and handed each other a medicine ball, rotating as quickly as possible. This is the medicine ball rotation. It is probably more appropriate to sports like baseball, softball, wrestling and volleyball than football but has obvious application for quarterbacks.

Plyometric drills should be performed twice per week and the intensity, sets and reps, should reflect the level of the athlete. Excessive sets and reps should never, never be utilized. Plyometric exercises, if performed improperly or excessively, can hold great potential for injury. Still, virtually ever reputable strength and conditioning coach prescribes these exercises because they are unmatched in their ability to improve explosiveness, a trait that nearly every sport values.

Nutrition

Much like weight training, proper nutrition also follows specific cycles. Research into proper nutrition for training athletes has made great strides over the past twenty years. Since food is the fuel for a training athlete, it goes to reason that the better the fuel, the better the training results. During the heavy resistance training off-season period, athletes need high levels of protein to build and repair muscles. The general rule of thumb used to be that an athlete engaged in heavy weight training needed .8 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. Most sports nutritionists have revised that amount upwards to about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight those some have even suggested as much as 1.5 grams to 2 grams. Of course, these protein loads are only possible through supplementation unless the athlete also consumes huge amounts of fat, something that all athletes (with the possible exception of sumo wrestlers) want to avoid.

Nutritional requirements change as players move from the off-season to the preseason. During this period there becomes an increased need for carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide quick and powerful fuel for the intensive anaerobic activity that marks preseason training. Diets that consist of sixty percent carbohydrate intake are not unusual during this period.

Finally, during the in-season period, the football players diet becomes even more dependent upon carbohydrates. About twenty years ago, NFL teams found that by switching from protein-heavy diets during two-a-day fall camps to carbohydrate-heavy diets, players maintained their energy levels much better. Still, there is a need for protein in order to protect muscles from breakdown, but the quick energy provided by carbohydrates is far more important. Carbohydrate loads of sixty-five percent of total caloric intake are appropriate.

Supplementation constitutes a huge issue in modern sports nutrition. While there are dozens of different legal supplements available, the two that seem to hold the greatest benefits to the football player are protein and creatine. Currently, the NCAA permits universities to provide their athletes with protein supplementation products, but it does not allow them to provide creatine, though I do believe that athletes can provide it for themselves. The NCAA rule is that purely nutritional supplements are allowable, but universities are not permitted to provide those solely designed to enhance strength or performance.

We've already briefly mentioned protein supplementation. It comes in many forms, powder, bars and pills. Generally, powder protein supplements are based on whey and provide twenty to twenty-five grams of protein with only a couple of grams of fat. College football players universally use protein supplements.

Creatine is a supplement that improves intramuscular stores of adenisone tri-phosphates (ATP)/phosphagen-creatine (PC). ATP-PC provides the first source of energy in muscular resistance exercises. They are naturally occurring substances, typically in red meats, and most people have far less of them in their muscle cells than these cells can hold. Creatine supplementation maximizes their presence in the cells. This allows players to train harder thus enhancing strength development. There's no real credible evidence that creatine has any harmful side effects, and research indicates it does effectively contribute to both muscle growth and strength gains. It is widely used by all training athletes.

Sleep

I believe that sleep represents the most undervalued aspect of strength and conditioning. The fact is that the body makes it adaptations and repairs during sleep. Athletes, who train right, eat right and sleep wrong, experience fewer improvements in performance than those who properly do all three.

Sleep serves an invaluable biological function yet research indicates that Americans increasingly get less of it. While we may value the work ethic of a Charlie Weis, the reality is that five AM to 11 PM days represents an unhealthy wake-sleep pattern. Training athletes especially need their rest.

Research shows that most people need a minimum of eight hours of sleep per night. When that does not occur a sleep debt is incurred. Until this is made up, the individual will suffer from performance deficits, a bad thing for college football players.

Sleep occurs in five stages, not so creatively labeled stages one, two, three, four and REM (rapid eye movement). The sleep cycle occurs as follows: 1-2-3-4-3-2-REM-1. Each stage, 1-4, features deeper and deeper sleep and it is during stage four that the deepest sleep occurs. It is also during this stage that the body's most important reparative functions occur. Inadequate amounts of stage four sleep have a great impact upon the individual or, in this case, the training football player.

REM sleep is sometimes called dream sleep, though dreaming occurs in every stage. REM seems to be important for people to maintain their emotional stability and daily focus. Again, sleep deprivation seems to hit REM sleep especially hard.

Athletes who get inadequate amounts of sleep rob their bodies of the opportunity to repair and build muscle but also leave themselves unable to cognitively and emotionally perform to their capabilities. Fatigued athletes will experience much more difficulty grasping offensive and defensive schemes as complex as Notre Dame's. I believe that poor sleeping habits may well play a much bigger role in the poor performance of many athletes than anyone will ever know.

Conclusion

It's been my pleasure to bring the readers of Irish Eyes these articles. I can't stress enough that the information contained within them represents general trends and philosophies of strength and conditioning and that every strength coach utilizes his own methods and ideas. Hopefully, though, these four articles have provided you, the reader, with a better idea of the complexity of strength and conditioning and a greater respect for the professionalism of the strength and conditioning coach.

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