Apr 7, 2016
Gaining Ground: Clemson football in-season training
Joey Batson and Adam Smotherman

Unlike programs that look to simply maintain during the season, Clemson University football works on getting stronger. This philosophy has primed the Tigers for consistent success.

Jim Ferguson / Flickr

Looming large over the Clemson University football team’s indoor practice facility is a sign that reads: Best is the Standard. This is the mindset of our program — one that has propelled us to 56 wins over the past five years, two Atlantic Coast Conference championships, four straight bowl victories, and an opportunity to compete for the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship.

“Best is the Standard” is also the backbone of our strength and conditioning program. We are fortunate that head coach Dabo Swinney believes in the work we do and trusts us to get the job done. In return, our No. 1 priority is to shape the team according to his vision for it.

Coach Swinney’s in-season vision demands consistency, discipline, and hard work, so that’s what our strength and conditioning regimen consists of. Including camp, the regular season, the conference championship, bowl practice, and other postseason play, our in-season block spans 20 to 23 weeks, making it our longest training cycle of the year.

Our focus during this time is balancing heavy lifting with injury reduction and recovery to guarantee players can stand up to the rigors of practices and games. This allows our athletes to meet Coach Swinney’s standards and compete at their best.

Starting point

Our offensive, defensive, and special teams systems are high-effort, fast-paced, and physical — and our in-season practices reflect this. The players are expected to give 100% on every down. To succeed within this framework, we must ensure they are strong, powerful, tough, and well-conditioned.

As the adage goes: You do not rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. Therefore, the foundation of our in-season program is to get stronger. We’re not after maintenance — our players are pushed past their limits in the weight room to remain in a state of growth. We utilize supersets, compound sets, and quick tempos, and our heavy sets of core lifts are complemented by a number of auxiliary exercises.

At the same time, we are careful to avoid overtraining. Football is tremendously stressful on athletes’ bodies. Add on a full slate of academic coursework, team meetings, and social lives, and our young men experience a continual flow of stressors. We help them cope in various ways, primarily by modifying training as needed per athlete. Our staff is very aware of the fine line between pushing players enough to gain strength and pushing them too hard toward overwork and under-recovery.

The keys to finding a balance are communication, openness, and investment. Relationships between player and coach are built over time through consistency and by following the leadership model: love, care, and serve. We must be authentic. Our players must trust that we are knowledgeable and have their best interests in mind. They know we are here for them and that we are always available to talk about anything, from training to their lives outside of football.

It also helps that we learn players’ physical mechanics and mannerisms from the day they step on campus, so we are well-versed in what looks normal for them. If something is off physically, we can tell, and we communicate with them to get the issue resolved. Because of this closeness, athletes trust the instruction we provide when emphasizing injury reduction and recovery.

Continued growth

Our varsity athletes complete two total-body strength sessions per week during the season — one on Mondays and one on Wednesdays. Due to their varied schedules, we offer five or six training opportunities per day. Mondays are typically back squat, bench press, and power clean days with high-volume auxiliary lifts. Wednesdays usually focus on the back squat, neutral-grip bench press, and trap bar dead lift, also with high-volume auxiliaries. (See “Power Up” below for our redshirt and scout team players’ in-season training regimen.)

Additionally, many varsity athletes hit the weight room on Thursdays for extra work. They mostly use this time to improve movement deficiencies by completing light range-of-motion squats, core training, shoulder capsule strengthening, and ankle stability exercises. It’s important that these workouts not require much recovery, since we usually have a game two days later.

One of our mottos for in-season lifting is: “If you want to get strong, you’ve got to pick up something heavy.” Therefore, the intensity of our training resistance and volume of reps are periodized throughout the season to ensure continual growth in mass and strength output.

Here’s a look at our five core in-season lifts and how we break down load and volume for each.

→ Power clean: This is one of our foundational lifts due to the explosive triple extension and ground-based power production it requires. We implement the power clean in-season because it is crucial to our athletes’ development, and we do not want to go into winter training — where it remains a core lift — without having spent the previous 20 to 23 weeks working on it.

Our average volume is nine to 12 total reps, and our linemen add an extra set of two reps. Intensity varies from 60% to 85% of one-rep maximum (1RM).

→ Trap bar dead lift: We use this movement to train resisted ground-based hip extension. The volume varies between nine and 15 total reps, with preset loads ranging from 225 to 405 pounds depending on each athlete’s position. Using preset resistance makes our training more efficient because athletes can work down the line rather than waste time changing weights.

→ Back squat: Another foundational lift in our program, intensities in the back squat range from 55% to 75% of 1RM. We focus on lower resistance with this lift due to the change of direction, repetitive maximal sprinting, and constant contact experienced by the athletes’ legs during the season. Players who do not take as many reps in practices and games will routinely add weight to their final sets, finishing anywhere between 75% and 90%.

→ Two-board/Two-block bench press: Because athletes’ shoulders can get banged up during the season, we use two or three boards or a “shoulder-saver” block when doing the bench press. These tools slightly decrease the range of motion of the lift and help protect the shoulder.

clemson football action
Jim Ferguson / Flickr

In addition, this is a tremendous strategy for overloading on the press throughout the season. Our intensities range from 75% in week one to 82% in weeks 10 to 14. The final set progresses from a double at 82% in week one to a single at 92% or higher in the final weeks.

We finish each bench press session with a max-reps set at 185, 205, or 225 pounds. This is vital for enhancing muscle tissues and muscle endurance capabilities. Some of our younger athletes are not yet proficient with max-rep sets of 225 pounds, so we allow lower numbers to ensure more volume.

→ Neutral grip bench press: We switch to the neutral grip bar on Wednesdays because the motion used to press it has a direct correlation to football-specific actions like blocking. Intensities range between 72% and 82% of standard-bar 1RM, and the athletes complete five to 10 reps per set.

Complementing the core lifts, our in-season strength program also contains a variety of auxiliary lifts. The term “auxiliary” can be misleading — these exercises are by no means less important. In fact, they serve many purposes, including strengthening muscles not used as prime movers in our core lifts, adding volume to areas already addressed in our core lifts, and mimicking football movements.

In-season, our auxiliary volume is 900 to 1,200 reps each week. Before red flags pop up in your head, keep in mind that we don’t do every rep at maximal resistance. Rather, we usually utilize a lower load that allows for 12 to 15 reps of each exercise.

Many of our auxiliary movements focus on the back and core. Football requires a lot of upper-body pushing, especially in the trenches. To address this and provide muscular balance, we maintain a 2-1 ratio of pull-to-push lifts and incorporate external rotations of the shoulder joint. Some of our sample pulling exercises include bodyweight and resisted pull-ups, cable pulldowns, cable rows, dumbbell rows, and band-resisted and TRX-resisted pull-aparts, all with varying grip requirements.

To develop core strength, we use exercises that involve anti-rotation, resisted hip flexion, and spinal erector emphasis. Strong anti-rotation transfers well to the football field due to the torque involved in the game. In addition, research shows that resisted hip flexion in a suspended position helps combat injuries in the lower abdominals and hip flexors. Finally, our athletes need strong spinal erectors to transfer power efficiently through their posterior chains. We utilize band-resisted Pavlov presses, suspended straight-leg and bent-leg raises, and normal and reverse hyperextensions in our core work.

Staying healthy

Nothing can derail a successful season quite like the injury bug. But this is football, and injuries do happen. For this reason, we do not use the term “injury prevention” in our program — we prefer “injury reduction.” With the proper preparation, training, and emphasis on recovery, the number and severity of many in-season injuries can be kept to a minimum.

Our approach starts by diagnosing any movement-related deficiencies in the athletes. We work closely with our sports medicine staff, led by Head Athletic Trainer Danny Poole, ATC, to determine our players’ abilities to perform various athletic actions. Detailed daily injury reports allow us to understand the complexity of any issues that do pop up, and we constantly communicate with the sports medicine staff to help our young men heal.

Strength training itself is great for injury reduction because it fortifies muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues. To that end, we have implemented joint-specific and movement-specific lifting protocols for the knee, neck, and shoulder — three common injury sites for football players. These exercises are included in our auxiliary training.

We began an ACL-specific protocol in the winter of 2015. This program consists of terminal knee extensions, eccentric control work via various step-down exercises, ankle stability exercises utilizing balance boards and Bosu balls, and training with a neuromuscular emphasis, such as closing the eyes during balance work. Since introducing this program, we’ve seen a significant decrease in the number of knee ligament injuries requiring surgical repair. Of course, the ACL protocol is not the only reason for this decline, but we believe it has contributed tremendously.

Besides the knee, we spend a lot of time fortifying players’ necks. Research has shown that the greater the cylindrical mass of the neck, the more effective it is in dissipating whipping forces to the head during and after collision. So basically, we believe stronger necks translate to greater protection of the brain. To develop this area, we incorporate flexion, extension, and rotation at various angles using a neck machine and partner-resisted movements.

Additionally, we implement different exercises to strengthen the shoulder complex from multiple angles — attacking all three deltoid heads, the trapezius, and the various surrounding tissues involved in movement. Our athletes work pull-aparts; internal and external rotations; scap pinches; scap pulls; side, front, and rear raises; upright rows; and overhead presses targeting the shoulder joint.

The final piece to the injury reduction puzzle is recovery. We implement recovery protocols into our training every day via foam and PVC rolls, body tempering, lacrosse ball diffusion, PowerPlate stretches, high-and-low hurdle routines, and various static stretches. To gauge the need for additional recovery, we rely on player-tracking data provided by the Catapult system.

Our sports medicine staff also contributes to recovery by keeping the cold tubs stocked for athletes to use post-practice. Some researchers believe the efficacy of cold-water emersion to be unreliable, but our athletes feel better after their time in the cold tubs. In-season, that is what matters.

We spend 97% of our time during the season preparing athletes for the three percent they are competing in games. Beyond the field, we are fortunate to work for a leader who defines success by more than just the final score. As a result, we utilize sets and reps that develop lives as well as bodies, ensuring our athletes are able to compete at a high level on the field and in life.

Power up

The redshirts and scout team members for Clemson University football follow a different in-season strength and conditioning protocol than our varsity athletes. Instead of lifting twice a week with the rest of the squad, they take part in Power Hour, which occurs every afternoon before practice. Head Coach Dabo Swinney calls Power Hour “the foundation-builder of our program,” and many Tigers who have gone on to NFL careers got their start in it.

In-season, our redshirts and scout team players lift in Power Hour five days per week. We spend this time teaching them every aspect of our strength and conditioning regimen, including lifting techniques, spotting protocols, recovery modalities, and how to organize and clean equipment.

Along with the intense physical time in the weight room, we educate our Power Hour athletes on the details of our training. Each week, we have a coach-led nutrition education day, exercise science day, and flexibility education day. During these sessions, we cover everything from what a muscle cell looks like and why it is important to understand what’s going on in the body to methods for caloric replenishment post-training. In addition, we bring in various program leaders (coaches, support staff, etc.) to address the group and provide nuggets of knowledge based on their vast experiences in the coaching profession, NFL, and various business fields.

Joey Batson, MEd, MSCC, USAW, is in his 20th year as the Director of Strength and Conditioning for the Clemson University football team. He was named the 1996 NSCA Strength Professional of the Year in the Southern Conference and FootballScoop's Strength Coach of the Year in 2009.

Adam Smotherman, MS, SCCC, CSCS, USAW, SSN, is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Clemson University football team.

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