Jan 29, 2015
Muscling Ahead

A strength and conditioning program tailored to address specific weaknesses prior to the start of the season has helped Cornell University become a perennial power-house in men’s lacrosse.

By Tom Howley

Tom Howley, MEd, is Assistant Director of Athletics for Athletes Performance at Cornell University. He has been head of the strength and conditioning department at Cornell for more than 16 years and can be reached at: [email protected].

“I will give my all for Cornell today.” These words hang on a sign in the Cornell University men’s lacrosse locker room that is touched by every player and coach prior to leaving the facility for practices, games, or training sessions. The ritual is a reminder to each member of the team that he must recommit himself daily to working as hard as possible to uphold the high standards that define our program’s history.

At Cornell, we have three identifying principles that motivate and challenge our athletes throughout the year. The entire team must subscribe to these ideals before any physical preparation can begin. They include:

• Establishing an intense work ethic that carries over to how each player performs, not just on the field, but in every area of his life

• Becoming more selfless and growing closer as a team unit

• Creating a work environment that demands and teaches both mental and physical toughness.

These principles serve as guidelines from which coaches and support staff members can begin to prepare our athletes for future success, both on the field and off. The Cornell strength and conditioning program also models these ideals, serving to fully support the team mission.

Because everyone involved with the men’s lacrosse program at Cornell has bought into these identifying principles, the team has seen a lot of success. Last season, the squad made its third consecutive appearance in the NCAA Division I Tournament quarterfinals. It was also the eighth year in a row the team made it to the Tournament.

As I’ve learned over the years, a great season starts well before the first faceoff. The key is to implement an appropriate preseason training program that complements the specific needs of the team.


Before designing the team’s strength and conditioning program each year, several specific areas are analyzed. First, I perform a historical analysis of prior years’ training programs to see what has and hasn’t worked in the past. For example, if a specific lift or drill did not yield the results we had anticipated, we may need to adjust its placement in the exercise routine order, reconsider our set/rep scheme, or entertain alternative movements.

Second, I consult with the sports medicine staff to examine injury trends that surfaced in the previous season. Since one of our primary objectives is to reduce injuries–both the severity and sheer number sustained–this critical information plays an important role in program design.

Third, a needs analysis of the current team’s players helps me formulate a prescription that is unique to the particular group of athletes. Identifying weaknesses helps to establish training goals. For example, is team speed a concern? Do the team’s overall strength, power, and conditioning levels need to be addressed? The answers to these questions will help us fix any deficiencies prior to the start of the regular season.

The needs analysis consists of a comprehensive battery of tests conducted during the first week of the fall semester, prior to the official start of our preseason. Testing allows us to analyze returning players’ progress since the end of the previous season and lets us see what the new players are capable of. It also allows us to set individual preseason goals for each player. Our testing consists of the following:

• Standing vertical jump (power) • 40-yard dash (acceleration) • 60-yard shuttle (agility) • Three to six rep max bench press (upper body strength) • Three to six rep max squat (lower body strength) • Shuttle runs (conditioning) • Body weight • Body composition

The tests are repeated twice more before the start of the regular season so that I can provide feedback to the coaching staff regarding the development of each athlete and to ensure sufficient progress is being made. If test results reveal a team-wide deficiency at any point, the training program can be adjusted to address it. For example, if our vertical jumps are not increasing at a satisfactory rate, we can introduce additional plyometrics to correct the trend.


The team’s off-season work is separated into three distinct microcycles: fall practice, “team building,” and “prepare to play.” Each phase has a specific focus.

The first four weeks of the semester make up the fall practice phase and are devoted to mastering the fundamental skills necessary both in the weightroom and in our movement skill development drills. We train two to three days a week, and take this time to make sure that everyone understands the team training culture, has a basic knowledge of the fundamental concepts of speed/agility techniques, and has a sufficient work capacity to endure the rigors of the upcoming practices.

Once fall practices have ended, we intensify the program in the team building phase. This includes incorporating team competitions into the regimen focusing on strength/power development and conditioning. The eight-week phase concludes with a second round of testing at the end of the fall semester.

During study week and finals week, the athletes get a two-week recovery period. Then comes the final and most important phase of the preseason, when we focus on intensifying the conditioning element to ensure that our players are equipped for daily spring practices.

Though it’s not ideal, the prepare-to-play phase begins while the athletes are off campus for winter break, so they are personally responsible for staying on top of their conditioning. They are each sent home with a training program they can easily complete at a local health club. We attempt to maintain accountability by conducting a third and final round of testing when they return to campus in late January.

Otherwise, all training sessions are conducted as a team to foster unity and maintain accountability for one another. Sessions are typically held on Monday and Wednesday afternoons and Friday mornings. Though sets and reps vary in each phase, our workout program generally remains the same throughout the off-season.


Throughout the entire year, there are two overriding areas of emphasis that myself and the coaching staff have deemed most important for the players to work on: developing movement skills and maintaining a great conditioning level. A lacrosse player’s ability to accelerate, decelerate, and change directions is crucial at every position. And the ability to maintain a high rate of intensity throughout a game (speed endurance) cannot be overemphasized.

The typical speed and agility progression for our team begins with learning linear acceleration techniques, then mastering balance and body control at half speed. Lastly, we transition to training change-of-direction movements at 100 percent intensity.

Learning proper linear acceleration techniques involves introducing basic movement principles such as postural alignment, shoulder position, ground contact positioning, and knee “punch.” Exercises like seated arm swings (working on shoulder rotation from a seated position to isolate the upper body), wall drills (maintaining sprint posture while leaning against a wall and practicing proper lower body “turnover” mechanics), bounding, and technique sprints are used to train and reinforce these basic concepts.

Once the players have mastered the proper linear acceleration techniques, we transition to teaching them how to decelerate properly by controlling their center of gravity and finding their body’s “balance point” as quickly as possible. When asked to stop in the middle of a sprint (activating the “braking mechanism”), many athletes tend to be off balance. We ask the players to stop and maintain a balanced position for one to two seconds. As athletes become more proficient at identifying and controlling their center of gravity during acceleration and deceleration, we gradually decrease the “stop time” to help them to maintain proper body control throughout a sudden stop or turn.

It generally takes the players two to three weeks to grasp these concepts. Finally, we progress to agility drills–both reactive and non-reactive–to train change-of-direction movements. Depending on the team’s overall deficiencies in this area, training time available, and facility constraints, there are many options for drills.

Our second major area of emphasis throughout the year is conditioning level. The first day of the fall season usually begins with variations of 300-meter laps around the football field, 100-meter sprints, and interval drills that require the athletes to change their speed regularly.

One of our favorite drills, borrowed from the Atlanta Falcons, is a “jog, stride, sprint, walk” routine using the width of the field. In this drill, a player jogs from the starting sideline to the opposite sideline at 50 percent of max velocity pace, runs back to the starting sideline at 75 percent, sprints back to the far sideline at 100 percent, and walks the final segment back to the starting sideline at 25 percent.

Though very basic, the drill replicates the energy systems used during a game, especially for midfielders, and to some degree also mimics the pace of a game. Multiple repetitions are performed and we adjust the volume to suit athletes’ training needs at various points during the year.

Another drill that has become team tradition is the Friday morning mile run. The players are asked to continually improve their times throughout the fall semester. Though it is tradition, we sometimes substitute a non-weight bearing drill in its place to decrease the chance of strains, pulls, and other stress-related injuries. One of the players’ favorites is our annual water polo game. It’s fun, but still a great conditioning activity.

No matter what workout you design or exercises you prescribe, the success of any training program is determined by the work ethic and discipline of the athletes. Here at Cornell, touching the sign before leaving the locker room represents the players’ promise to pursue the sustained, continuous physical improvement necessary to succeed in lacrosse. Their motivation, coupled with a well-designed program, forges a successful lacrosse team and (more importantly) successful young men.

The author would like to extend his gratitude to the many players who have worked so hard both on and off the field to create and maintain the great tradition of Cornell lacrosse. He would also like to thank the head coaches who have believed in and supported the strength and conditioning program throughout his tenure: Richie Moran, Dave Pietramala, Jeff Tambroni, and Ben DeLuca.


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