Lacrosse players need to move with speed and power, so that’s the offseason focus for the University of North Carolina men’s squad. By remaining dedicated to the program, the team reached the top in 2016.
This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
By Jason Beaulieu
Jason Beaulieu, CSCS, USAW, is the Coordinator of Strength and Conditioning for men’s lacrosse and women’s basketball at the University of North Carolina. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
University of North Carolina men’s lacrosse has made the NCAA Division I tournament every year since I started working with the team in 2011. Despite three quarterfinal appearances, my first five seasons all ended in heartbreak. But last season, we finally accomplished our mission: We won the national championship.
Head Coach Joe Breschi has built the foundation of the program on family, academics, and lacrosse. Those principles are stressed to the team, coaching staff, and support personnel every day and played a crucial role in our 2016 title run. I had the privilege to be part of a team in which everyone held the rope for one another to climb to the top of the lacrosse world. Every single person in the locker room challenged each other daily during strength training, conditioning, skill development, and practice. The players fed off each other’s energy, encouragement, and brotherhood, and they were determined to bring a national championship home to the UNC lacrosse family.
As the team’s Coordinator of Strength and Conditioning, the 2016 season was one of the greatest coaching experiences of my life. It’s been my passion and goal to provide our athletes with the knowledge, coaching, motivation, confidence, and training necessary to reach their genetic potential, and I feel like we did that last season.
In this article, I hope to give you a snapshot of the offseason strength and conditioning program that paved the way for our national championship. At its core is the development of well-conditioned, explosive athletes by integrating a comprehensive and scientifically based regimen. My training environment develops a unique mental toughness and standard of discipline that emphasizes proper exercise technique, unparalleled intensity, and a commitment to excellence. Combined, these philosophies prepared us to win the national championship in 2016, and I believe it also sets us up for success in 2017 and beyond.
No matter what season it is, everyone on our sports performance team is committed to decreasing the likelihood of injuries. We also focus on improving athletic performance and teaching our student-athletes lifelong fitness.
Nowadays, my colleagues and I are seeing great players of sport but poorly prepared athletes. Today’s college lacrosse players struggle with stress fractures, orthopedic problems, poor posture, tight hip flexors, immobile thoracic spines, poor training histories, and soft-tissue injuries. The lack of seasonal play, early specialization in sports, television, Internet misinformation, increased cell phone and video game usage, and elimination of physical education in schools have all led to this ever-growing problem.
To keep these issues from getting worse, we use the offseason to teach athletes to “crawl before they can run.” We emphasize teaching biomechanically clean, coordinated movements rather than the load being lifted.
As such, we start by performing primal exercises in our dynamic warm-up and show the athletes how to connect movement throughout their bodies. An example would be a bear crawl, which teaches the athletes coordinated movement with their hips and shoulders to build strength, flexibility, and motor control.
The players then learn to create, absorb, and redirect force through proper landing and jumping mechanics, Olympic-style weightlifting, squatting, and sprinting mechanics. All of these efforts combine to increase intermuscular and intramuscular coordination and improve synchronization of the central nervous system, leading to more dynamic athletes.
With these areas addressed, we can press on in the offseason toward improved athlete performance. I played collegiate and professional lacrosse, so I have intimate knowledge of the sport and what it takes to prepare both mentally and physically. This gives me an advantage over other lacrosse strength coaches because I can speak to the athletes on a sport-specific level and, most times, directly to the position they play. It also allows me to better explain what we are trying to accomplish in the weightroom and how it will translate onto the field.
Lacrosse players need tremendous strength, power, and flexibility in the kinetic chain. They must be able to maintain an optimum body position in good balance while performing the quick, explosive changes of direction the sport requires. My training philosophy is structured with these factors in mind.
Because lacrosse is a stand-up power sport played in free space, we train our athletes in free space. They work out on their feet using the whole body in a functional and dynamic environment to ensure they utilize every muscle, tendon, and joint in a coordinated and explosive fashion.
We target lifelong wellness during the offseason by taking a holistic approach to developing the healthiest and most complete athletes possible. I utilize and share information from many different fields, such as chiropractic, physical therapy, athletic training, massage therapy, nutrition, biomechanics, functional medicine, weightlifting, and track and field. At UNC, we are fortunate to have access to some of the best clinicians in these fields, and we collaborate with them regularly to ensure our athletes receive cutting-edge treatment.
AT FULL STRENGTH
Injury prevention, improved performance, and overall wellness form the general foundation for our offseason weightroom work, while the meat of our strength training program employs a variety of strength and power movements. Many of the actions in lacrosse require athletes to move quickly and explosively, so we use several different methods to achieve these athletic properties. They include:
• Ground-based movements: Exercises that are performed with the athlete’s feet on the ground are more productive than exercises performed while sitting or lying down. This is because applying force against the ground causes an equal and opposite reaction in the direction of the movement. The greater the force a lacrosse athlete can generate against the ground, the faster he can run, and the higher he can jump. Furthermore, training with an athlete’s feet on the ground requires him to stabilize his own body structure, which increases proprioception and strengthens stabilization muscles that reduce the risk of injury. The ground-based movements we utilize include squat variations, dead lifts, and lunges.
• Multiple-joint movements: Lacrosse athletes benefit from these exercises because they are required to move more than one joint at a time in almost all sporting actions. In addition, research shows that more growth hormone and testosterone are released following multiple-joint exercises, which promotes lean body mass gain. The more lean body mass an athlete can gain, the more force he will produce, and the more effective he’ll be on the field. We work multiple-joint movements with different variations of the power clean, snatches, jerks, and medicine ball throws.
• Explosive movements: Using Olympic lifts, medicine balls, and plyometrics for explosive training develops the fast-twitch muscle fibers in the body that enable athletes to create power. This is important in lacrosse because athletes are often called upon to generate a lot of force in a short period of time.
Research shows exercises that require multiple-joint actions timed in the proper neuromuscular recruitment patterns are the most productive in developing explosive power. For example, our athletes execute the “jump and pull” motions of a clean and jerk in 0.2 to 0.3 seconds. Timing this allows the athletes and me to get immediate feedback on whether they have enough movement speed to produce power from the ground up, which develops muscular synergy and proprioception that carries over to sporting actions.
Training explosively also causes a greater exertion to the central nervous system, stimulating the production of endogenous hormones. This develops a greater degree of overall lean muscle mass and strength in our athletes.
• Compensatory acceleration: This is a form of speed training to increase explosive power in which athletes apply maximum force against a barbell through a full range of motion. It teaches players to move light weight quickly throughout an entire movement. Because athletes spend more time under maximum tension using this method, they progress much faster in their development.
We use the squat and bench for compensatory acceleration. Occasionally, we add heavy chains or bands to the bar to give variable resistance, and we do multiple sets of low reps with short rest periods to stimulate fast-twitch muscle firing.
• Single-leg strength: When competing, lacrosse athletes seldom have both feet in contact with the ground at the same time and must be able to move in either direction with equal efficiency. Therefore, single-leg strength is a key element for success. We work on balancing and exploding off one leg with single-leg squat variations, step-ups with knee drive, single-leg good mornings, and Romanian dead lifts.
• Multi-dimensional movements: The skills utilized in lacrosse involve movement in three planes: side to side, forward and backward, and up and down. Lacrosse players must be functionally strong in all three to be successful. Lifting with free weights is the only way to accomplish this objective. Free weights not only develop primary muscles but also the stabilization muscles that help athletes maintain solid joint integrity and promote better body control.
• Core training: The torso is often neglected in lacrosse training, despite being a critical area for success. By developing strong power lines at the torso, we can greatly decrease the risk of injury. In addition, athletes will be able to improve their body control and be more efficient in performing lifts with a strong core, which will allow them to perform better in competition. I like to use medicine ball circuits to train the core.
• Posterior chain development: The posterior chain is of vital importance for lacrosse performance, speed development, and injury prevention. Specifically, it plays a critical role in sprinting during lacrosse actions. To focus on posterior chain development, we implement different variations of Olympic-style weightlifting exercises, Romanian dead lifts, hip thrusts, kettlebell swings, glute/ham raises, and reverse hyperextensions.
As important as strength and power are to lacrosse, the game is also about acceleration and speed. A successful lacrosse conditioning program must take into account the type of energy being used during activity. The body has three energy systems: phosphagen (ATP), glycolytic, and oxidative. The ATP system lasts approximately eight seconds and is used for short, explosive bouts of work. The glycolytic system takes care of work lasting from eight seconds up to 1.5 minutes. Lastly, the oxidative system is used for longer-duration activities of low intensity.
In lacrosse, the breakdown of energy system use is roughly 60 percent ATP, 20 percent glycolytic, and 20 percent oxidative. Thus, when conditioning, we focus more on sprinting and interval training. Our sprint distances vary from 10 to 800 yards, and we usually do multiple sets in each session. Our work-to-rest ratio starts at 3:1 and works down to 2:1.
Besides training the appropriate energy systems, we focus on developing our players’ acceleration and linear speed. Acceleration is important in lacrosse because players have to make several changes of direction when dodging to the cage. To improve our athletes’ acceleration, we strengthen the lower body and develop explosive power using Olympic lifts and plyometrics. We also use the wall drill progression, prowler sled marches, speed harnesses, and arm action drills to reinforce proper mechanics.
Although cuts, stops, and starts are a big part of lacrosse, linear speed is critical, as well. We are an up-tempo team, and we like to push the ball up and down the field, so we must develop linear speed. There are two ways to do this: increase stride length and increase stride frequency. As our athletes’ lower body strength increases, they will be able to generate more force, which will allow them to cover more ground with each step. I also use the wall drill progression, sled marches, low skips, ankling, and fast leg to boost stride length. Eventually, we progress to bounding and bounding into a sprint, with the emphasis on quality foot contacts. In addition, we work on running mechanics daily in our dynamic warm-ups to improve stride frequency.
Both the strength training and conditioning components of our offseason work come together in a structured program. Like many teams, our regimen is based on the concept of periodization. When the same training routine is applied over the entire offseason, improvement will occur early on, but then level off. Periodization ensures athletes continue to make gains until the season starts.
Using this concept, we vary our weekly workouts. We train five days a week during the offseason, and each session runs for about an hour to an hour and a half.
All workouts start with a dynamic warm-up working through a full range of motion. Based on scientific research, the warm-ups are designed to stimulate the central nervous system, prepare the athletes’ bodies for training, and increase body temperature, blood flow to working muscles, and joint mobility.
There are four components to our dynamic movement work:
• General mobility: These activities are used to increase blood flow, increase joint range of motion, and prepare the body for movement.
• Muscle activation: These include isolated movements used to stimulate specific muscles that are important to posture, stability, and force production.
• Transit mobility: These activities take joints through a specific range of motion while traveling over a distance. These movements are designed to reinforce athletic movement, increase dynamic flexibility, and increase physical exertion.
• Dynamic mobility: These movements take joints through an explosive or rapid range of motion. Following the warm-up, we get into the workout of the day. On Mondays, we train for power and core development. This is also when we have our speed school session to work on starts and acceleration. Tuesdays are for lacrosse-specific activities, such as individual skill instruction, shooting and dodging mechanics, or defensive and offensive strategy. Wednesdays are for speed/strength development, core development, and interval runs. We follow that with our Thursday Team Competition Day, which could consist of activities like basketball, stickball, or paint ball. And finally, we round out the week on Friday with metabolic training. This includes three strength or power stations and three speed or agility stations. Athletes are broken into six teams and must complete the circuit in a specific time.
After all workouts, we complete flexibility work while the athletes’ muscles are still warm. They do both static and partner-assisted stretching.
In all of our lifting throughout the week, we follow the progressive overload principle to create positive changes in athletes’ bodies and performance. The overload must be applied in a progressive fashion to achieve the desired result and reduce the risk of injury.
Furthermore, I feel part of my role is to reveal the athletes’ real character, and I believe this can be achieved when pressure is applied. For this reason, I design some of our training phases with this in mind, including our Friday metabolic training. The coaching staff and athletes need to know that each individual is going to allow his training and talent to shine in the big moments.
We don’t train on Saturdays or Sundays, instead encouraging the athletes to use those days for active rest and recovery. Soft-tissue work, active release technique, foam rolling, cupping, hyperbaric chamber, contrast baths, acupuncture, recovery tights, compression boots, and hydrotherapy are just some of the tools we use to recover our athletes.
With this weekly offseason schedule, the UNC men’s lacrosse team can achieve its goals of developing great men of character on and off the field. As a strength coach within this program, I feel privileged to be able to live my passion and help the team create i ts own success daily. The thoughts presented in this article have served as a compass to help me develop training plans for the numerous athletes who have put their trust in me.
DAY IN REVIEW
The following is a sample offseason workout for the University of North Carolina men’s lacrosse team.
Light jog/backward jog
Inchworms with push-ups
Extended pedestal x12
Face pulls with band 2x12
A1: Dumbbell complex (upright row, high pull, squat to press, Romanian dead lift, bent over row) 3x4
B1: Bulgarian split squats 4x6
B2: Single-leg hip thrust 4x8
C1: Dumbbell incline bench press 4x6
C2: Mountain climber chins 4x8
C3: Dumbbell bent over lateral raises 3x10
Team static stretch