Apr 25, 2017Full Steam Ahead
From integrating freshmen to intense offseason workouts, the strength and conditioning program for Georgia Tech football pushes forward all year long.
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Georgia Tech place kicker Harrison Butker will graduate this spring as the football program’s all-time leading scorer and one of the team’s most ardent weight lifters. In fact, after he was invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in March, he returned to school to continue working out.
“He saw how lifting helped him,” says John Sisk, MSCC, Georgia Tech’s Director of Player Development for Football. “He kind of hit a wall as a freshman. He came in at 175 pounds, and he’s leaving at 207. That’s a tribute to him in the weightroom.”
As Butker prepares to forge a career in the NFL, he’s thankful for the role Georgia Tech’s strength and conditioning program played in getting him this far. “For me, I think there are a lot of benefits with the weight training and running,” he says. “I think I’m more explosive when I’m attacking the ball. I feel more confident.
“When I go out on the field, I know I’ve put in the same work as the other guys,” Butker continues. “They’re in the weightroom trying to get faster, bigger, and stronger. I’m in here trying to get faster, bigger, and stronger, too.”
Having gone through four years of the Georgia Tech strength and conditioning plan, Butker can speak to its effectiveness. Over the course of each year, the training methods and focus change depending on the demands of the schedule. But whether it’s the offseason grind of five workouts a week or in-season regimens catered to each individual’s playing time, the overall purpose is always the same: to build strength, boost power, and prevent injuries.
This year-round plan has paid off on the field. Last fall, Georgia Tech had a 9-4 record, including road wins over Atlantic Coast Conference foe Virginia Tech and rival University of Georgia. And the team capped off the season with a bowl game victory over the University of Kentucky.
Success in the weightroom and on the field is not built overnight, however. It starts when players first set foot on campus. As Butker can attest, many Yellow Jackets aren’t ready to lift when they show up at Georgia Tech. So all freshmen-whether they enroll early in January or start in the summer-begin from ground zero.
Before playing any football, student-athletes are taught how to lift weights and train by Sisk and his staff. This is for their own education and ensures that players and coaches are on the same page.
“Some people throw them in the deep end like, ‘We’re going to find out what you’ve got,'” says Sisk. “[Head Coach Paul] Johnson knows what they’ve got, or they wouldn’t be here. I don’t need to see how good of shape they’re in on the first day.
“I don’t want to get a player hurt on the front end,” he continues. “They’re going to want to compete. They don’t want to look bad. But our objective is not to see what they’ve got right away. We’re going to let them show us. They’ve got to prove to us what they have.”
To do this, freshman players must go through the aptly named “Proving Ground,” run by Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Curtis Turner, SCCC. All freshmen take part in this program no matter how advanced their high school training regimen was.
The Proving Ground has its roots in the military, according to Turner. The armed forces check their new devices out piece by piece to see how they work and what they’re capable of.
“The freshmen players are our new weapons, so to speak,” Turner says. “We know they can play football, and that’s about it. We’ve learned their personalities through recruiting, but we really don’t know what’s going on with their bodies. The Proving Ground not only becomes an assessment of each individual and an assessment of the group, but also builds an understanding of how we operate.”
Freshman players don’t lift right off the bat, though. On the contrary, the first thing they learn is how to set up a rack. “We show them how to set the bar up, how to set the bench up, where the pins go, where the plates go-everything from top to bottom in how each work station is set up,” says Turner. “We expect details, and we expect attention.”
That focus on the specifics carries over when players learn basic movement patterns. “We teach everything from scratch,” Turner says. “I teach them the movements that they’re going to do and basic cues. Those are things at any time a coach can yell out in their three to five years here, and athletes are going to know what those things are.
“For example, hip hinging is a cue, a certain way the hips are going to travel,” he continues. “We might say, ‘Be sure that you’re hinging, watch the low back,’ and the athletes will know what that means because we’ve gone through a teaching progression.”
The point of it all, Turner says, is building a foundation of movement so players can lift safely throughout their time at Georgia Tech. “Football is unlike any other sport I’ve worked with because the players are more willing to take the path of least resistance to get the most weight,” he explains. “They’ll just put their body in the worst possible positions as long as they achieve the goal of pulling or pushing a weight.
“So quality is what you constantly have to coach every single day,” Turner continues. “We have to set the freshmen up with rules, boundaries, and ways for us to be able to step in and simply correct.”
OFF TO WORK
For the rest of the Yellow Jackets, their lifting foundation has already been laid in The Proving Ground. Offseasons are then spent building off of it.
After bowl season, the players have a break for a couple of weeks before starting offseason training. Once they’re back, the strength coaches begin by re-teaching technique to the upperclassmen. Following this quick refresher, the team trains five days per week, lifting three and running two.
In early March, the strength staff tests players for body fat and maxes in key lifts. After testing and until the start of spring practice, the Yellow Jackets switch to lifting twice a week with three running days.
During spring practice, players continue to lift twice a week, though lower-body work is curtailed. Following spring practice, student-athletes have no scheduled workouts for about a week-and-a-half as they focus on final exams. In mid-May, Sisk and his staff have open gym for voluntary workouts, and attendance is high.
The summer program begins the day after Memorial Day. During this phase, players lift three times a week and run two. In the weightroom, coaches focus on the needs of each student-athlete.
“We’re not going to chase numbers just to get numbers,” says Sisk. “For instance, linebacker Tre’ Jackson is one of the [team’s] strongest guys pound-for-pound. He squats 550 for three reps, but what good would 600 do him if he has poor flexibility? Is an athlete’s hip mobility good? His ankle strength? With every athlete, there’s a weakness somewhere.”
Conditioning work is also balanced with strength training in the summer. “I don’t test squats in the summer because our running volume is so high,” Sisk says. “We have speed school, and then we get into a more change-of-direction training component, and then more football-type movements and grass drills as we get closer to camp. We work on linear speed in the front end of summer and add more conditioning as camp nears.”
With the start of summer camp, players lift five mornings a week, though load decreases. “We’ll still squat, though the percentage may be a lot lighter,” Sisk explains. “We may do chains and cap the weight based on position group. The big thing is getting the players bending. If we’re not hitting in practice, we’ll do more barbell work. As they start ramping up the hitting in practice, we do more dumbbells.”
Upon the conclusion of summer camp, the team shifts into in-season mode. The Yellow Jackets dial back on heavy lifting in the fall, but they don’t stop.
Starters and key backups lift after practice every Monday and Thursday. Players redshirting or on the travel squad lift on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
“We want to continue to get stronger during the season, and we want to peak going into the end of the season,” says Sisk. “If an athlete doesn’t play very much, he’s got to lift more. He has to be ready to be the next man up if the guy ahead of him turns an ankle. As coaches, we’ve got to know our players and be cognizant of what they’re being asked to do.”
Sisk practices what he preaches in-season by moderating workouts for athletes based on their position and playing time. For example, the starting quarterback isn’t going to do the same in-season workout as a lineman.
The individualized approach extends to everyone on the roster. To make this happen, Assistant Player Development Coach Zach Reed, MA, CSCS, SCCC, USAW, CES, works with the line and big skill athletes, while Player Development Coach Ben Sowders, MS, CSCS, SCCC, USAW, takes more of the skills guys.
“The players see that same coach every session,” Sisk says. “As the season goes, we adapt the session based on time, needs, and where we are in the schedule.”
Although in-season work focuses on maintaining power, there is also a big emphasis on injury prevention. For instance, the strength staff might tweak lifts during the season to decrease potential injury risk.
“We’re careful how we train in the first part of the season,” says Sisk. “We still bench and do close-grip bench. Our linemen will do more block bench and board presses on Thursdays to take a little pressure off their shoulders while still being able to press weight. Those percentages will range from 80 percent up to 97 percent of a one-rep max.”
Other lifts are removed from training to prevent injuries. “I don’t have players do power clean during the season,” Sisk says. “We stay off their wrists and hands and do other triple extension exercises. I feel strongly that the power clean is a very technical lift. [During the season, players are] not thinking about the technicality of the lift as much as they are in the offseason.”
Recovery plays a big role during the season, as well. For example, Sunday is a voluntary weightroom day and is well-attended. For former Georgia Tech defensive tackle and current Denver Broncos defensive lineman Adam Gotsis, the extra weekly lifting session was a form of recovery from Saturday games.
“I would always go in on Sunday,” he said. “I found that if I went in there and got that lift in, come Monday, my body would feel so much better.”
But even Sunday lifts have limits. “If we play at Brigham Young University, I don’t want to see anybody in here on Sunday,” Sisk says. “You’re changing time zones and traveling cross-country. The players need to get away. But after most games, we’re open on Sundays.”
From re-teaching lifts at the beginning of the offseason to Sunday in-season recovery days and everything in between, the Yellow Jackets’ year-round strength and conditioning program has paid dividends. “Throughout my career, everything has been about injury prevention and making sure we’re not doing too much,” Butker says. “It’s not like we’re just going to come in to the weightroom and clock in and clock out. We’re going to come in here with a purpose. We’re going to be smart, and we’re going to get better. A lot of thought goes into it.”
ALL IN ON NUTRITION
Nutritional education is offered year-round for Georgia Tech football, and the cycle begins in the summer. At this point, the new and returning players are mostly on the same page, but everybody continues to learn.
“We always emphasize you can’t out-train a bad diet,” says John Sisk, MSCC, Georgia Tech’s Director of Player Development for Football. “Everybody has nice weightrooms. The only thing you can do differently than everybody else is eat right. I always try to tell the players that it’s a way to get an advantage on opponents.”
Although the training table is substantial at Georgia Tech, coaches know student-athletes are going to eat outside the cafeteria. “They’re provided with a ton of great food, but they’re not robots,” says Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Curtis Turner, SCCC. “They’re people, their palate is junk food, and they can go off-campus. There are like 80 restaurants within walking distance.”
Helping players avoid the lure of fast food and unhealthy meal options is Leah Thomas, MS, RD, CSSD, Georgia Tech’s Director of Total Person Support Services and Sports Dietitian. During the summer, she provides a series of lectures about nutrition. She also takes players to the grocery store to offer tips on shopping, and the Yellow Jackets receive frequent cooking lessons and instruction from her on how to make healthy meals in a crock-pot.
Once these lessons have been instilled, the strength and conditioning and sports medicine staffs are diligent about reinforcing them. “The key we’ve found with nutrition is to hit the players with information and then more information. You may repeat stuff, but keep hitting them with it,” Turner says. “They may forget the difference between a carbohydrate and a protein by the same time next year. You really do have to re-teach it.”