Jan 29, 2015Finishing Strong
At the University of Central Florida, the football team’s strength and conditioning program focuses on explosiveness, training major movement patterns, and being the tougher team in the fourth quarter.
By Ed Ellis, Dr. Tredell Dorsey, and Luke Day
Ed Ellis, MSCC, is Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Central Florida. Tredell Dorsey, EdD, SCCC, is in his first year as Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning at UCF, where he works primarily with the football team. Luke Day, CSCS, is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at UCF. Ellis can be reached at: [email protected].
If you follow college football, you probably know the University of Central Florida finished 12-1 last fall, beating Baylor University in the Fiesta Bowl. What you may not know is that we won seven of those games in the fourth quarter.
That pretty much sums up the purpose of our strength and conditioning program, especially during the offseason. We focus on helping our players develop the physicality, endurance, and toughness that will carry them through to the final whistle. Division I college football players repeatedly perform explosive movements that require extreme levels of exertion over the course of a game. We believe that developing optimal work capacity is as important as generating a high output of strength and power. Simply put, there is no value in being explosive if an athlete can’t use it for four quarters. Using science-based, sport-specific training, we push our athletes through individualized, intensive weight training and conditioning programs. The workouts are designed to cultivate grit and determination and prevent injury by placing the same demands on the athletes that they will encounter during competition.
Physically, our program is based on training the major movement patterns most common in football. For example, when our position coaches teach tackling, they stress a violent extension of the hips and running through the ball carrier. In the weightroom, we train the hips to powerfully flex and extend, so the athlete can exert this type of explosive force. Change of direction is another movement that we train. Athletes rarely move exclusively in one direction during a play. A defensive back might start out backpedaling, then shuffle for five yards, before breaking into an all-out sprint downfield. A running back may have to dart laterally to pick up a blitzing linebacker. Much of our work is practicing these transitions and reactions to maximize their efficiency.
We also focus on the energy systems that must be trained for a high level of intensity to be achieved and maintained. We want to optimize the anaerobic and aerobic conditioning of our players. To do this, we have them work at intensities where they tap into their adenosine triphosphate (ATP) levels. ATP allows the transfer of energy between exergonic and endergonic reactions and creates muscular activity and muscular growth. Training aerobically first establishes a foundation for our players’ conditioning and gives them a higher work capacity. It also trains their body to help delay the release of excessive levels of lactic acid. Even if an athlete is performing short, explosive bursts of movement in which all of their energy is coming from creatine phosphate, being aerobically fit will allow them to recover quicker for the next rep and ultimately sustain a higher level of performance for longer. When we create workouts for the different energy systems, we take into consideration the intensity, duration, and rest between each rep of a drill.
INTENSITY & ENDURANCE
During the offseason, which runs from January to March, we begin our workouts with an intense warm-up. The main purpose is to increase the athlete’s core temperature, heart rate, flexibility, and mobility through a series of dynamic movements. It’s not uncommon for our athletes to perform hundreds of yards of lunges during warm-ups before handling heavy loads in the weightroom.
Each day, part of our warm-up addresses the development of speed and agility and conditions the body’s energy system. We divide them into linear and multi-directional drills. Linear speed drills include 10-yard start, tall and fall sprints, sprint mechanics, skip drill, and sled-resisted sprinting. Multi-directional drills include pro-agility drill, 60-yard shuttle, L-drill, bag drill, speed ladder drills, movement reaction drill.
In addition to being the most efficient and effective way to prepare a player’s body for an intense workout in the weightroom, these warm-ups allow us to teach the athletes the importance of finishing strong and being accountable to their teammates. Bad habits such as pulling up a yard short of the finish line are contagious and create a culture of undisciplined football that can spill over into games. By performing our warm-ups in groups or as a team, there’s nowhere for athletes to hide when they aren’t pushing themselves. After completing the warm-ups, the athletes begin weight training. What has worked best for us is a combination of Olympic-style lifting, power lifting, bands, chains, resistance training, bodyweight exercises, and exercises using strongman implements. Our main exercises include power clean, back squat, front squat, bench press, incline press, push press, lunge, and step ups. Exercises for hip mobility, muscle stabilization, and core work are mixed in between. With this approach, we’re able to fit in smaller training components to aid in the overall development of the athlete that otherwise we would not have time for. Once we’re confident the athletes are comfortable with the tempo and intensity, which is usually the first two weeks into the offseason program, we focus the weight training on muscle endurance, steadily increasing the overall volume of work and keeping the weight intensities steady. We also begin adding more challenging supersets between the main lifts. For example, we might use low-to-moderate impact jumps between sets of squats, or medball and plyo push-ups between sets of bench- and incline-press exercises. Athletes are grouped by position into two- to three-man groups that rotate through a series of stations. Each station features multi-joint exercises designed to work large muscle groups. We also superset with two to four smaller exercises aimed at core development, flexibility, and muscle stabilization. In addition, we set up stations that target auxiliary movements. Some players come to UCF with great explosive abilities, but they lack the core stabilization to maintain a great line on power. They may also have a problem with the correlation between their head, shoulders, hips, and feet, or insufficient strength and flexibility in the hip flexors to drive the knee high enough to increase their stride force and frequency. This is when auxiliary exercises can pay huge dividends. For example, we use band-pulls to strengthen the hip flexor and foam rolling and duck walking to increase mobility in the upper back. We may also set up a station emphasizing muscle endurance and hypertrophy through high-volume walking shoulder presses and deltoid side-raise exercises that athletes complete after a heavy bench station with conventional rest intervals. Stations vary between slower strength movements like the squat and bench press to faster power movements like power cleans and plyometrics. These exercises are mixed within each station so that each group gets experience performing the slower strength movements and faster power movements under varying levels of stress and fatigue. This sort of undulating progression provides additional stimuli that the athlete must adapt to, which prepares them for competition and prevents fatigue-related injuries. In most traditional training programs, a full routine of explosive exercises is completed before any multi-joint exercises. However, we see an array of benefits from performing explosive exercises after having completed intensive strength training. By requiring players to perform at high velocities in a fatigued state, we are better replicating the conditions a player will face on the field. If an athlete performs explosive movements only when they are fresh, we are setting them up to fail at the end of the game.
In addition, on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the offseason, the athletes go through a short, multi-station agility circuit following their lifts. Increasing the athletes’ speed and reaction time is not the purpose of these sessions. Instead, we want to simulate the physical and mental stress players will experience in a game and teach them to overcome their fatigue to complete an assigned task. For example, participating in an agility drill after a lifting session requires the athletes to focus and channel the energy they have left. Agility sessions may conclude with a series of one-on-one tug-of-war competitions. This is another tool for developing toughness in a competitive environment. The progression of our workouts is a combination of linear and undulating modalities. While the major lifts may traditionally slide from higher to lower reps and lower to higher weight throughout the cycle, the athlete continues to adapt by varying each exercise’s location in the workout. In addition, the last set will be a maximum or near-maximum repetition set. While we realize this is “burning the candle at both ends,” we do it because maximal strength and strength endurance are mutually dependent in football. High, rapid levels of muscle contraction may yield explosive results, but it also floods the body with lactic acid, which can decrease power output as it accumulates. However, lactic acid accumulation in the body can be reduced when an extremely high tolerance has been built, and the athlete can optimally recover because they are aerobically fit. With quick recovery turnover and minimal lactic acid onset, power can still be put forth and sustained. We have found Tendo units to be useful in preparing our athletes for the demands of competition since they provide an objective measurement of peak power. The data gained from the units are a great way to train an athlete’s ability to sustain maximal effort throughout a workout. We set a standard of power output goal and challenge the athlete to hit that number repeatedly during each set. The volume of total sets is then increased throughout the offseason. The visual feedback from the Tendo units also motivates the athletes by allowing them to monitor their effort.
As athletes master exercises that train general athleticism, we look for more ways to bridge the gap between the strength they are gaining in the weightroom and the specific skills they need to be successful on the field. Once our athletes can perform the base movements we feel are necessary, we add exercises like sled drives for linemen and sprints that mimic routes that are run by our wide receivers.
In the weightroom, position-specific alterations include things such as bar grip. With linemen, you can better simulate the fierce punch exchange in the trenches by using a closer grip during press movements. Range-of-motion movements like duck walking slightly above parallel to emphasize “pad level” are also tailored to each position. We are also fortunate to have different types of leg-drive and explosive-punch sleds in our weightroom that train physical attributes necessary for linemen. The Maxx sled trains the hand placement, power, and velocity of the initial contact that takes place at the line of scrimmage, and promotes competitiveness by displaying how fast and hard each player hits it.
The Austin Leg Drive Sled is another tool we use when training linemen, who race out of their stance and drive the sled up a five-yard incline. Lining up one-on-one with a teammate and exploding out of a stance after squatting 500 pounds and performing more than 70 sets of auxiliary exercises is a great way to help linemen sustain the power, velocity, and hand strength they’ll need until the end of the game. While most important with linemen, developing hand strength benefits players in all positions. One of the biggest challenges we see in athletes transitioning from high school to college football is coping with the fierce use of the hands. We want our athletes to have very active and aggressive hands that will help them strike, grab, and pull opponents, but also snag the ball out of the air or stiff-arm a would-be tackler. Our linemen are the most frequent users of the leg-drive and explosive-punch sleds, but we work them into the training regimens of all our players to improve their get off and contact speed, as well as hand strength. We also get creative with traditional exercises and work them into the different lifting stations. For example, we have the athletes perform pull ups while gripping a towel wrapped around the bar or shrug using a fatter bar.
Due to the short training cycles mandated by the NCAA and the demands of the academic calendar, overtraining in college football is rare. More often, the problem is that athletes do not properly recover from their workouts. We make sure our athletes know that training taxes the body and that if they aren’t taking care of themselves between workouts, they are setting themselves up for failure. Recovery methods such as cold tub treatments, static stretching on off days, and proper nutrition will aid in recovery. Of these, we believe nutrition is the key to recovery and maximizing the body’s process of building lean mass. All of our athletes undergo body-composition analysis in a Bod Pod and nutrition counseling and are educated about a variety of supplements. Strength and conditioning is only one aspect of making a football program successful. Our job is to carry out the vision of the head coach and help mold the team into the personality he wants for the program. With only a small number of games each year, we want our players to get the most out of their limited opportunities by training to be as strong and powerful as they can be through the final whistle.
Sidebar: SAMPLE WEEK
The following is an outline of the University of Central Florida’s offseason football workouts.
Monday – Emphasis: Heavy loads, moderate volume – Warm-up: Linear speed, plyometrics, core, flexibility – Explosive lift: Power cleans – Upper-body lifts: Bench, incline bench, shoulder press, tricep auxiliary
Tuesday – Emphasis: Heavy loads, range-of-motion work with hips, back exercises – Warm-up: Lateral speed, flexibility, core, agility, conditioning – Explosive lift: Power shrugs – Lower-body lifts: Squats, lunges, rows, pull-downs, hamstrings, hip mobility – Agility circuit
Thursday – Emphasis: Lighter loads, dynamic efforts, high volume – Warm-up: Linear speed, core development, flexibility – Explosive lift: Hang cleans – Upper-body lifts: Chain bench, dumbbell bench, shoulder press, plyometric-style push-ups, tricep auxiliary – Agility circuit
Friday – Emphasis: Lighter loads, dynamic efforts, high volume, muscle endurance – Warm-up: Multi-direction, tumbling, agility, and conditioning – Explosive lift: Plyometrics – Lower-body lifts: Chain squat, front squat, step up, leg press, low back extension, bodyweight row