It was a misconception that Penn State did not use free weights and solely used machines in the conditioning program under Joe Paterno. However, the use of free weights was "very controlled" and "highly supervised," thus "limiting the availability to players." Also, the use of exercises like squats "were optional and usually not required."
With a new head coach comes a new staff and often new philosophies. And so it is with Bill O'Brien with respect to the strength program.
"The core [approach] focuses on mental and physical toughness," one observer explained. "It's about building strength and confidence by pushing guys past where they thought they could go."
O'Brien's current team, the New England Patriots, has a conditioning program based primarily around the squat, "a fundamental exercise that works the entire body." O'Brien's new strength and conditioning coach at, Craig Fitzgerald (who came from South Carolina, shares in this philosophy and how it "increases strength, speed and athleticism," as one observer put it.
Players began working out under Fitzgerald last Tuesday. And they were in for a rude awakening. Many of them were pushed to the point of exhaustion and even vomiting.
The Penn State players have been working exercises like squats, bench press and power cleans. "They want [the players] on their feet and working legs and back to build up overall power."
"It's a difference in approach," one observer said. "Machines control motion and are thought to reduce the chance of injury. Having to control the weight yourself has benefits, and if you exercise smart and focused injuries become rare."
The response has had a mixed reaction, with some players showing hesitation, but the majority seeming to appreciate the benefits, despite the need to "hit the trash can" with some early session vomiting. "Guys are feeling it already. You're putting greater demands on your body, but that makes you better."
In recent years the Lift For Life weight lifting competition in July, which incorporates several exercises different from PSU's previous standard workouts, has been called "the hardest workout" of the year. Several observers have compared the difficulty and intensity of these new workouts with the Lift For Life exercises.
As an example of the benefits of Fitzgerald's conditioning approach, in 2010 he was tasked with preparing then 6-foot, 217-pound freshman running back Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. Under Fitzgerald's guidance, Lattimore increased his weight to 231 pounds, and reportedly reduced his 40-yard dash time to 4.5 seconds and increased his vertical to 35 inches.
Over his freshman year Lattimore increased his back squat from 425 pounds to 482 pounds, his power-clean from 275 to 315 pounds and his bench press to over 300 pounds for the first time.
If you are curious about Fitzgerald's approach, here's a segment profiling him:
Overall, there's a growing excitement related to what this approach can do for the individual players and program as a whole. It should be fun to watch.