Apr 9, 2018In-season gains: Inside Georgia football strength training
At the University of Georgia, a three-pillar program enables football players to increase strength as the season progresses.
I have heard two dominant schools of thought for in-season football training:
- Athletes can get stronger during the season.
- There’s no way to get stronger during the season — athletes can only maintain.
Although these are often presented as an either/or proposition, I believe both are true for our program at the University of Georgia. As the season goes on, we expect our players to at least maintain the gains made over the summer, but I have also seen many of them increase strength between the first game and the last.
To make both possible, our in-season program is founded on three pillars. We then build around our competition schedule and apply the pillars to a trio of training cycles, each one emphasizing the squat, bench, and triple extension. To keep players from burning out with all this time in the weight room, we mix in two de-load weeks that place a premium on recovery.
We started using this strategy when our strength staff came to Georgia in January 2016, and it’s the one we took into the 2017 season. On the field, it paid off with an 11-1 finish, a Southeastern Conference championship, and a runner-up finish for the CFP National Championship.
Setting the standard
From the beginning, our mantra for the Georgia football program has been “Attack The Day.” As a strength staff, we believe that players must tackle everything they encounter with great passion and purpose to be the best students, athletes, and people they can be. This is especially true during the season, when the smallest slip in focus can make the difference between a win or a loss.
Building on this mantra, my training philosophy is based on three pillars: attitude, effort and discipline. These three words define our in-season strength program. Without them, the sets, reps, volumes, and exercises wouldn’t matter.
I expect our players to come in each day ready to train and with great attitudes. But I hold myself and my staff to the same standard. To ensure we meet it, we gather as a staff prior to each workout, talk about how it should run, and encourage each other to have energy, passion and positive attitudes while we coach.
Second, effort has to be present. I remind our players that to win championships on the field, we need championship effort in the weight room. If the effort is lacking in a particular drill or exercise, we will do it again.
Lastly, discipline is the glue that holds everything together. There is a reason our players must dress alike for workouts, be ready when training starts, and stand behind the line when beginning a sprint. If we instill this level of discipline in training, it will carry over to success on the field.
Using our pillars as a foundation, I consult with my staff to plan our in-season program. Each of our three training cycles is three to four weeks long and includes two days of lifting per week for our travel team and three or four days per week for our non-travel and developmental players. All athletes must come in on either Sunday or Monday to lift and run. However, we prefer Sundays for our travel squad, and we encourage our developmental players to attend both sessions. Everyone lifts on Wednesdays, and our non-travel athletes get their third or fourth workout on Fridays.
During our first in-season cycle, we run and squat heavy on Sundays. I am a big believer in training the day after a game. By forcing players’ bodies to respond to a stimulus, it helps them recover faster and prepares them for Monday’s practice. I also think it contributes to our players feeling strong throughout the season.
The idea of lifting on Sundays was a culture change and a new mindset that we had to instill when our strength staff first came aboard. To get the athletes to buy in, we educated them on how this method could help them become better players. And because of the relationships we had already built, they trusted what we said.
After a dynamic warm-up, our Sunday workouts always start with eight to 10 80-yard strides. I really like having players run on Sundays because it promotes recovery and allows me to assess who might be hurting from Saturday’s game. If we notice a player is struggling but doesn’t appear on the injury report, I address any issue with him and our athletic training staff. If needed, we explain to the coaches that he may not be able to practice at full speed.
Once running is complete, we begin our lifts. I split our athletes up based on the number of snaps they took on Saturday. I believe an athlete who takes more than 25 snaps (playing half the game or more) should follow a different training protocol than someone who plays fewer than 25. The sets, reps, and intensity may be slightly higher for this latter group, and I add three or four auxiliary exercises to their workout. This pattern continues for the remainder of our in-season training.
As far as exercises on Sundays, everyone performs a back squat with percentages ranging from 65% to 77% of their one-rep maximums (1RM). The volume is 10 to 12 reps total, typically split into four sets of three or five sets of two.
I provide players with knee sleeves and belts to wear during the squats if requested. These are a big aid both physically and psychologically. Physically, the knee sleeves provide compression and heat while players squat. Psychologically, having something that gives them support and makes them feel better is always a plus. When athletes believe the sleeves help them squat, keep their knees from hurting, and show that the coaches are taking care of them, it pushes them to be their best and improve during workouts.
During the Sunday lift, our players also do a dumbbell press, at least two back pulling movements, two or three exercises for the lower back and hamstrings, and neck work. We target neck strengthening a lot during the season because we believe it helps us prevent concussions and other serious head or neck injuries.
For our second workout of the week on Wednesdays, our warm-up usually consists of shoulder prehab, neck exercises, lunges, jump rope, and upper- and lower-back work. Then, we perform an Olympic lift — a power clean, hang clean, or the like. This movement is typically low in reps but high in intensity. For instance, we often perform three sets of two reps at 77% to 82% of 1RM.
Wednesdays are when we bench press, as well, keeping our intensity high with percentages ranging from 77% to 85% of 1RM. Typically, our total volume will not exceed 15 reps. We may perform three sets of four to start but decrease our reps and increase our sets as percentages get higher, such as switching to five sets of two or six sets of one.
When bench press percentages rise above 80% during the season, I like to use the two-board bench press. I believe this helps our players handle a heavier weight and decreases the range of motion. This takes some of the stress off their pecs, shoulders, elbows, and wrists — all areas that get banged up in-season.
Besides the Olympic lift and bench press, we squat again on Wednesdays. I like to change the squat each week, so we might alternate among back squats, front squats, or safety bar squats. The goal is to focus on speed and explosiveness by keeping our percentages low and moving the bar fast. This excites and primes the players’ central nervous systems (CNS) so they feel fast on Saturdays.
We wrap up Wednesdays with some NordBoard exercises. I like to do the poor man glute-ham raise on the ground with a partner holding the athlete’s legs. To maximize the movement, we cue our players to fight the negative and control their bodies going down.
After our first in-season training cycle, we have our first de-load week. This generally occurs in week four or five of the season.
During the de-load, the training days remain the same, and we still squat, bench, and Olympic lift, but the overall volume and intensity are decreased significantly. For instance, we may do five sets of five reps on the squat but only use 45% to 55% of 1RM. My goal during this period is to take some weight off the bar while maintaining movement integrity.
Despite the decreased workload, I am not concerned with players losing strength or speed. Instead, I believe that this de-loading time can be more productive than grinding it out each week. I have noticed our players come back feeling healthier, faster, and stronger afterward.
In addition to lifting, a big part of the de-load is recovery work. Throughout my almost 19 years as a strength coach, I have found that many sport coaches feel they cannot back off during the season. But when a sport coach doesn’t lighten the load, and a stubborn strength coach won’t change their workout program, the athletes suffer. Strength coaches should know their players and understand when it’s time to ease up during the season. I try to follow the advice a veteran strength coach once gave me: “If your players walk in the weight room and are not loud, talkative and sometimes hard to control, they are probably tired and need a break.”
To make sure our athletes recuperate accordingly when de-loading, we schedule regular recovery within our workouts. Each day, I meet with Ron Courson, ATC, PT, NRAEMT, our director of sports medicine, and we decide what would be best for each player from a recovery standpoint.
Then, on Sundays, we spend the final 10 to 15 minutes of our workouts with our players in the athletic training room. Here, we encourage hot or cold tub immersion, wearing NormaTec boots, or getting a massage.
We take such a hands-on approach because players usually won’t do recovery work if I simply tell them to. You have to remember, we are dealing with young adults. They are constantly on the go, and taking care of their bodies isn’t their number one priority. So including recovery as part of our training time ensures they get the repair work needed.
At the end of our Wednesday de-load sessions, we switch up our recovery strategy by taking players to dark, quiet rooms and having them nap for 15 to 20 minutes. The first time I did this, the players were apprehensive. I have always pushed them to work hard in our facility, so they thought I was playing a joke when I told them to sleep instead. But once the time was up, we had to wake everyone, as the players were sound asleep. They were all very appreciative of the rest and felt better.
Following the de-load week, we start our next three- to four-week cycle of training. Generally, our reps are lower during this period, and the time under tension is reduced. That’s because I want our players to be strong but not sore.
On Sundays, we perform similar movements to the ones we did in the first cycle, but I unload the spine when squatting by using exercises like the pit shark squat. This allows us to continue to squat during the season without overtaxing the players.
Rep ranges for the squat are typically lower than the first cycle, as well. We may perform two sets of four and then increase the weight and do three sets of three. I determine load for the pit shark squat based on a player’s squat max and by watching him do warm-up sets. Since I want the weight to feel heavy, if the athlete is moving the load too quickly, I will increase it.
We also usually do some form of dumbbell incline, two or three pulling movements, one or two neck exercises, and one or two hamstring movements, such as a bar hip thrust or a glute-ham raise off the hyperextension machine. For our incline, we may perform a set of 10 reps, then eight, then two sets of six in the first week, switching to a set of eight, two sets of six, and a set of four in subsequent weeks. The reps are low for our hip thrust and glute-ham raises, too. For example, we may perform three sets of five for each of these movements.
On Wednesdays, I incorporate contrast training into triple extension work. So players may do trap bar dead lifts and then perform a box jump. We still back squat, but I usually add bands to the bar and keep the loads around 40 percent of 1RM. I want the players to feel the band tension on the bar because it helps them speed up the eccentric contraction.
For our pressing movement on Wednesdays, we usually use a different bar and range of motion than in cycle one. During this stage in 2017, we performed a rack lockout bench press with a neutral grip on a multi-grip bar. This switch allows our players to push weight but decreases the range of motion and takes some pressure off their wrists, shoulders, and elbows. In addition, we perform one or two pulling movements and one or two neck exercises.
Our percentages for Wednesday’s pressing movements range from 68% to 75% of 1RM, and we typically do three sets of two reps. On our pulling and neck movements, we usually do two or three sets of eight to 10 reps.
I try to have our second de-load period coincide with our bye week. This is the hardest week to program for during the season because I want to give the players a break and allow them to recover, while also maintaining their strength and conditioning levels. Too much training can cause a negative outcome, but so can too little.
We’ve found that scheduling three strength training sessions during our bye week using low loads helps to achieve the desired balance. It enables the players’ bodies to recover and mentally keeps them engaged on the goals for the remainder of the season.
Our first workout occurs on Monday and includes low volume and intensity, with only a few exercises. We finish by taking the players to the athletic training room for recovery work.
The second day of lifting on Wednesday is the hardest. This is when we perform a hang clean or hang clean pull. If the players can perform the full hang clean with a catch, that’s great. But if not, I don’t stress over it. Many times, their wrists, elbows, and shoulders are pretty sore by this point in the season, so it can be difficult to catch the bar. They still get triple extension movement whether they catch or not, so I’m okay with either.
Other exercises on Wednesday include a lighter-intensity bench press, two pulling movements, one lower-back Superman exercise, a Dynabody squat, and a partner poor man glute-ham. All of these are done at medium-to-low volumes and intensities. We wrap up the day with mandatory recovery work.
Our last day on Friday entails circuit training, with running, bodyweight movements, strength bands, and medicine ball throws. We use light weights and low volumes for this workout.
For the last three- to four-week block, we get back to our main lifts. On Sundays, we squat heavy, run, and perform contrast training with our squat and bench exercises.
Our back squat percentages during this stage range from 70% to 83% of 1RM. Once we get above 79%, I like using cluster sets. These are when an athlete performs one rep of a squat, racks the bar, rests for 15 seconds, and then completes another rep. The cluster sets allow players to handle heavier weights later in the season without sacrificing technique. I establish the threshold at 79% because I think anything higher than that starts to feel too heavy, considering the time of year.
Immediately following the squat cluster, our players contrast the lift with an accelerated squat jump. This aids the CNS in being explosive even when fatigued.
For the bench press, players perform a two-board bench and contrast it with accelerated plyometric push-ups. We use percentages ranging from 74% to 88% of 1RM on the bench, and total reps range from nine to 15. The higher the weight, the lower the total volume. So we may perform four reps at 79%, three reps at 82%, and two reps at 88%. We also complete three pulling movements for the back and posterior chain, a dumbbell shrug, a four-way neck exercise, and a banded Sorinex hamstring roller.
On Wednesdays, we continue with triple extension work. Instead of our typical cleans, we do medicine ball throws that mimic these exercises. This late in the season, the throws provide players with the hinging movement we’re looking for without the stress on the back or wrists that comes with Olympic lifts. We do five to six sets of two to three reps.
Another common Wednesday lift is the speed squat. I rotate the squatting movement each week among the front squat, back squat, safety bar front squat, and a one-quarter squat off the safety pins. Our percentages are lighter, ranging from 40% to 65% of 1RM, and the volume is low.
We finish the Wednesday workout with some dumbbell shoulder exercises, a trap bar bent-over row, and two neck exercises. One neck machine we use a lot during this phase is the Iron Neck because it allows for resistance in the rotational plane.
That brings us through our entire in-season training program. I believe our method of planning around games and practices is the correct way to train during the season. I always keep in mind that I am training football players to be fast, explosive, physical, and strong, but I know I must evaluate my team and understand when to back off. This ensures players are physically prepared to win on Saturdays.