Jan 29, 2015First and 10
In four short years, Colorado State University-Pueblo went from nonexistent to being in contention for an NCAA Division II title. One piece to the puzzle was implementing the right strength and conditioning program.
By Allen Hedrick
Allen Hedrick, MA, CSCS*D, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He formerly held the same position at the NSCA’s national headquarters and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Finishing 11-1, spending two weeks ranked first in NCAA Division II, winning a conference championship, and reaching the second round of the national playoffs is certainly a great fall for any football team. But what if I told you the program was playing just its fourth season?
This is exactly what the ThunderWolves of Colorado State University-Pueblo accomplished in 2011. An NCAA Division II school with a modest budget, CSU-Pueblo revived its football team in 2008 after it had been eliminated 20 years prior, and then wasted no time becoming a team to beat.
While a number of factors contributed to the squad’s success, its strength and conditioning program played a big role. Although I was not hired at CSU-Pueblo until early in the 2009 season, I have been involved with the football program from the beginning of its rebirth. Working as a volunteer with the team in 2007, I designed the players’ workouts and led early morning sessions before going to my full-time job.
In this article, I will explain how, with limited resources, we created and implemented a strength and conditioning program that took a new team to remarkable results in a brief period of time. While the weightroom workouts were key, cultivating relationships, building trust, and selling the training program were all parts of the equation, too.
Football is a power sport and the average play only lasts about six seconds, so I want to develop players who can achieve a high level of power instantaneously. To accomplish this, I place a big emphasis on performing the Olympic lifts–each of our three strength/power training workouts per week begin with two Olympic lifts.
At the same time, because football is an athletic competition and not a weightlifting competition, I am willing to sacrifice the athletes’ ability to demonstrate strength in the weightroom in order to build better players. The team’s most important tests do not occur in the weightroom, but rather each Saturday on the field. That is where we want to be successful.
For example, players at all positions participate in dumbbell training where the entire workout consists of dumbbell exercises–skill players twice a week and other players once a week. Dumbbells provide the opportunity to perform movement patterns and develop neuromuscular abilities that cannot be accomplished if the focus is strictly on barbell training.
We also make use of implements such as water-filled kegs to help mimic what the athletes will experience in competition. During a football game, players encounter active resistance from their opponents, rather than the static resistance that a typical barbell or dumbbell provides, and the water-filled kegs replicate this active resistance.
Regardless of the exercises being performed, I continually emphasize technique. I have observed far too many weightrooms where the primary focus is on the training load rather than technique.
The most effective way I have found to ensure correct technique is through peer motivation. For example, we have 12 platforms in our facility, meaning we can have up to 12 athletes performing a lift at the same time. If I see only 11 athletes squatting with good technique to proper depth, I stop the entire group, coach the mistake, and restart the group again. We continue with this approach until all 12 players demonstrate perfect technique, and it isn’t long until each athlete is following through. We use this same procedure for every exercise we do, including our speed, plyometric, and conditioning activities.
I use a form of undulating periodization in which we have a primary physiological goal and a secondary physiological goal. Performing resistance training three times per week, the primary physiological goal is stressed twice per week and the secondary physiological goal is stressed once per week. For example, during the hypertrophy cycle, the primary goal of training is hypertrophy and the secondary goal is increased strength.
Combining high repetition training with brief rest times is great for developing hypertrophy, but is not effective at developing strength because of the lower training loads required. Using an undulating approach allows us to develop hypertrophy while doing a better job of training for strength as a secondary goal.
Also, while football is very much a power sport, there is an endurance component. For example, we may have a 15-play drive where we need to punch the ball into the end zone to win the game. When this occurs, we need our athletes to have the necessary muscular endurance to finish the drive successfully. Therefore, during our power cycles, we train twice per week for power and once per week for muscular endurance.
Finally, this approach provides the athletes with variety. Rather than following the same training protocol throughout the week, they have two different training schemes each week. This reduces the monotony of training, which is important in achieving optimal results.
The last piece of my coaching philosophy is that the science of strength and conditioning is ever-evolving, and it is my responsibility to keep up with it so I can consistently review my program and update it. For example, research has shown that complex training–pairing a strength training movement with a plyometric activity–is an effective way to train for power, so I have our athletes perform complex training during much of the year. Additionally, a recent peer-reviewed article demonstrated that the best complex training results appear when the plyometric movement is complexed with an Olympic lift. So I adjusted our complex training accordingly.
I believe a major key to our training program has been the standard that Head Coach John Wristen and his staff set from the very beginning and continue to communicate to the players. I have been a collegiate strength and conditioning coach long enough to know that my level of effectiveness is impacted to a large degree by how much emphasis the head coach places on strength and conditioning.
The first time I met with Coach Wristen he told me his goal for the program was to win conference championships, participate in playoff games, and win national championships. Further, he told me he wanted to operate the team as if it were a Division I program. I took that to mean that the athletes would have assigned workout times, be expected to show up and train at those times, and if they failed to do so there would be consequences.
Fortunately, the coaching staff has bought in to my philosophy. The most important aspect of getting the coaching staff, especially the head coach, to have confidence in your ideas is to explain your thought process and the science behind it in a logical and understandable way. Explain how your program will enhance an athlete’s performance. Some sport coaches have preconceived ideas regarding strength and conditioning, and are not initially open to change. But if you are patient and introduce your ideas over time–assuming they produce positive results–you can gradually design the program as you see fit.
With Coach Wristen, I was given leeway from the get-go. He allows me to do my job without interference, is very supportive, and believes in what we are trying to accomplish. The coaching staff’s commitment to success, and to viewing and treating the strength and conditioning program as an important part of achieving this success, has played a big role in what we have accomplished up to this point.
Though securing buy-in from the coaches is paramount, getting the same from the players is extremely important as well. When I met with the team just prior to our first preseason in 2007, I told the players it was going to be a very important year of training for the program. We needed to establish a tradition of working with a high level of intensity and focus. I knew that it would be easier to build on this tradition rather than have to break bad habits.
Having previously worked as a strength and conditioning coach at a successful D-I program gave me credibility with the athletes at CSU-Pueblo. They knew that the program they were following had helped produce winning teams at the D-I level and as a result, I believe they had confidence that if they worked hard they could be successful, too. This confidence in their training program–and themselves–has continued to grow each season with our success on the field.
Part of my approach to establishing relationships with athletes is stressing that they can question me about any aspect of the training program. I don’t want to be a coach who only tells his athletes what to do. I want them to know why we do it. My feeling is that if the players understand why they are asked to perform a certain task, and not just told to perform the task without explanation, they will buy in to the program more completely and better understand why our training program is designed the way that it is. They will then have greater confidence in me as a coach.
A great indication of the players’ commitment is their voluntary participation in our training program over the summer. The number of athletes who have decided to stay in Pueblo and train on campus over the summer has continued to grow each year. A lot of credit goes to the athletes themselves, who have bought in to the program and train with tremendous discipline and intensity.
Like many colleges, CSU-Pueblo has faced financial challenges over the past several years. Despite this, our athletic department has been willing to support the team and the strength and conditioning department as much as possible while we continue to work toward improving the level of service we provide our athletes.
In the past few years, we have been able to make a number of improvements in our facility, including upgrading the bars and bumpers our athletes use during training. In the near future we plan on purchasing a video analysis system to enable us to better coach our athletes. Regardless, financial resources are tight and we’ve made our fair share of adjustments.
The first year I started working with the team was the toughest because the new weightroom had not yet been built. I had to design workouts that could be completed in a facility that was too small and under-equipped.
The weightroom only had two squat racks and two bench press stations and no platforms. There was a large number of dumbbells, however, thanks to a significant donation by a local fitness equipment company. As a result, that first off-season we trained strictly with dumbbells, including all of the Olympic style exercises. Fortunately for me, I had emphasized dumbbell training in my prior strength and conditioning position, so I was familiar with teaching all of these exercises.
We split the team into two groups, training in consecutive sessions, and did not allow the lack of equipment and space to be an excuse for not getting better. Remarkably, the team went on to win four games that first season.
Another challenge was staffing. It is very difficult for one coach to handle an entire football team’s training program. I made this clear to the athletic department, but unfortunately, the funds to hire an assistant strength and conditioning coach were not available. However, the department did agree to let a volunteer assistant work in our strength and conditioning program. In return, this individual is allowed to use our strength and conditioning facility to train his private clients so he is still able to generate income for himself.
We also increased supervision by having position coaches present when the players are training. The position coaches timed our workouts until I turned that duty over to assigned position player leaders. Since then, the position coaches have been responsible for evaluating the players’ training intensity, with the standard being that if an athlete is not working at the intensity necessary to win a national championship, it will be addressed.
To coach effectively with a limited staff, I separated the players into three groups so that the athlete-to-coach ratio was improved. We have three groups of athletes come in each hour, beginning at 5:45 a.m. We combine our big athletes with our skills athletes and have one group train with barbells while the other group trains with dumbbells. We mix offensive and defensive players together as well, as a way to foster team unity.
As a strength coach, I know that nutrition is a key component of successful football programs. Because we don’t have the resources to hire a dietitian, I looked elsewhere for help. We have been fortunate to create a relationship with a local university that offers an advanced sports nutrition program. Their students are eager for practical experience, so we’ve asked that they regularly come to our campus and make nutritional presentations based on scientific information to our players. It’s a win-win arrangement because our athletes get high quality information and the students get the opportunity to present to and interact with athletes in a real-world setting.
One of the things we’ve learned about nutrition is that chocolate milk is a great recovery drink because of its combination of protein and carbohydrates. Coach Wristen worked with a local distributor who has been generous enough to supply us with chocolate milk that our athletes drink after each weightroom session.
FOUR YEARS LATER
The first year the ThunderWolves were back on the field, they finished with a 4-7 record. The following season the squad improved to 7-4, then 9-2 in season three, and 11-1 last year. I believe this improvement over our first four seasons shows that our approach has been successful.
Coach Wristen and his assistants have of course had a major impact. The rest of the credit goes to the players’ dedication and hard work. Our teamwork and drive to be successful while settling in proved fruitful in a very short amount of time. And we look forward to continuing it every day.
Sidebar: YEAR AT A GLANCE
What does our team’s strength and conditioning program looks like? Here is a quick glance.
Following the final game of the season, we give our athletes a few weeks off to recover psychologically and physiologically from the stress of playing college football. Following this break, we provide them with a two-day per week introductory training program to take home over the winter break. I stress to the athletes how important this cycle is in preparing them for the physically challenging hypertrophy cycle that we initiate with the start of the spring semester.
During the hypertrophy cycle we combine high repetitions with short rest times, which is effective at increasing muscle size. This is important because of the relationship between a muscle’s cross-sectional area and its force development capabilities. The secondary goal during the hypertrophy cycle is increases in strength.
Following the hypertrophy cycle, we perform our first of two strength cycles sandwiched around spring practices. The purpose of these cycles is to maximize strength levels because of the relationship between strength and power. The secondary goal during these two cycles is muscular endurance and maintenance of hypertrophy where we revert back to a higher repetition and short rest time format. During our three lifting days that we perform each week, we use a training protocol that combines training for strength twice per week and training for muscular endurance and hypertrophy once per week.
Then we perform two consecutive power cycles where our primary goal is developing power (training emphasis twice per week) and our secondary goal is muscular endurance and maintaining hypertrophy (training emphasis once per week). At this point we are working towards bringing our athletes to a physiological peak just prior to the start of practice. Finally, with the start of practice, we initiate our in-season phase in which we train for strength and power twice a week, using a protocol similar to the spring cycle.