Jan 29, 2015Operation Protection
At the University of Arkansas, offensive and defensive linemen are assigned individualized training programs based on the position’s demands and the player’s weaknesses.
By Jason Veltkamp
Jason Veltkamp, MS, CSCS, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Arkansas, where he works with the football team. He has more than 10 years of experience at the NCAA Division I level and has worked with over 40 NFL draft picks. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Here at the University of Arkansas, we take great pride in developing some of the country’s best linemen. We have eight 14-foot by 8-foot pillars in our strength and conditioning center that are reserved for larger-than-life action photos of former Razorback linemen who have moved on to successful careers in the NFL. This year’s draft will force us to start a waiting list–or build more pillars.
The success of these players is a driving force in our search for new ways to train the linemen in the trenches who often dictate the outcome of games but are rarely recognized for it. Their size, athleticism, and physicality are unparalleled in sport, which can make developing training programs a unique challenge.
In this article, I share how we use a very specific and individualized approach to train our players in the trenches. But before talking about our linemen, let’s take a look at a snapshot of what makes Arkansas football strength training tick.
First and foremost, our success in implementing the following programming would not be possible without the unending support of the team’s head coach and our athletic director. For an organization to function at the highest level, every member must understand the philosophy, goals, and objectives of each area of the organization, then dedicate themselves to helping each area succeed. If that happens, the whole organization will experience success in the end. We’ve excelled at making strength and conditioning a key cog in the wheel that is our athletic program because of the strong leadership and support we receive.
Our strength and conditioning department philosophy is based on three elementary goals. They are to:
– Be healthy in both mind and body – Finish everything we start – Be the best.
Healthy minds and bodies: It is important to remember that an athlete’s mental and emotional health and well-being are just as important as their physical health. The communication and cooperation between our staff and the athletic training staff is imperative to recognizing and addressing issues ranging from depression to attention deficit disorder to substance abuse. The bottom line is that our athletes have no chance of reaching their potential physically if we do not help them keep their minds in tip-top shape. Committing to help athletes in this realm not only helps them play at a high level, but can have long-lasting positive implications in their lives after football.
In addition, we are fortunate to have what we consider a premier sports medicine staff. In the BCS system, every game is significant in determining a team’s postseason standing. Limiting time missed due to injury and taking the proper steps in rehabilitation and return to play is integral to success in college football today. The relationship our strength and conditioning staff has with the team’s athletic trainers and physicians gives us an edge in limiting time lost and expediting return to play.
Finishing what we start: Our second goal is simple. But before defining a finish line, each of our athletes must learn that they do not know what they are truly capable of accomplishing until they try. This means that they need to continually explore new depths to overcome things they may have thought impossible.
In addition, players must learn that the strength and resolve of the group is an unstoppable force relative to the efforts of any single individual. The motto that can be seen in and around our strength and conditioning facility is, “Iron Sharpens Iron.” We put our athletes in competitive situations daily, setting the stage for teamwork, cooperation, and emotional support. No matter the task, our goal is to teach each player that it is important to always finish the job. This goes for individual challenges as well as team challenges.
Being the best: Finally, we are constantly striving to be number one. Our coaching staff does an outstanding job of recruiting student-athletes who have an intense desire to be the best at what they do. Once in the program, everything they do, see, and hear contains the underlying message of working to be the best.
Specificity of training modes and methods is widely debated in strength and conditioning, but I believe that often times the discussion becomes a distraction from taking a truly introspective look into the development of the individual athletes standing before us. Each football player has unique strengths and weaknesses relative to the needs of his position. Our hope is that by executing a needs analysis for each athlete and determining the specific demands of his on-field position, we can better equip him with the tools needed to achieve a “peak performance” in every game.
Therefore, we do not subscribe to the cookie cutter approach to training. During the off-season, football athletes on the team may be performing up to six different workout programs. Our approach is split into the following subgroups:
Intro: All new players are initially placed in our introductory group, where they complete a movement analysis and undergo an initial evaluation. Players in this group are taught our progression for the Olympic movements, front and back squats, Romanian deadlifts, and a myriad of upper body movements. Work capacity, technical skills, and work tempo are emphasized in this program.
Intro progressive: Barring any major deficiencies, athletes who show technical proficiency in the Olympic lifts and squatting movements move on to the progressive group within their first two to eight weeks on campus. Each player is different, and the decision to move from intro to intro progressive is made only after careful consideration by the strength and conditioning staff. We hold meetings to discuss each player’s strengths, weaknesses, and technical proficiency, then make a group decision as to which players move to the intro progressive program.
Developmental: The majority of our players make up the developmental group. This group consists of mostly sophomores and juniors, but also first-year players who have progressed beyond the intro and intro progressive programs and seniors who have strength or body mass issues that need to be addressed. The program progresses through the Olympic lifts and squatting movements more rapidly than either of the intro programs. Absolute strength (one rep max) is an emphasis and the programming ranges from macrocycles of hypertrophy to peaking absolute strength.
Advanced: Our advanced players are those who already embody the desired physical characteristics of their position on the field. Once an athlete has reached his desirable playing weight and demonstrated an advanced “training age” and associated performance standards, we elevate him to the advanced programming group. This training group does not devote time to hypertrophy phases. Instead, players endure higher intensity training. The volume of training is lower than that of the developmental groups, as the more advanced lifters walk a fine line between progressing and over-training.
Quarterback: This program addresses movements specific to the position and notes that each individual may have imbalances due to the demands of the position. Specialist: This program also addresses movements and imbalances, but specific to the kicker and punter positions.
During the season, our groups transform to balance the demands of practices, number of reps during games (playing time), and the individual needs and/or deficiencies of our players relative to their position. Instead of the six groups players are separated into during the off-season, they are divided up like this:
– Four-day intro: Redshirt players – Four-day intro progressive: Redshirt players – Three-day developmental: Low-rep players, and sometimes mid- to high-rep players who have strength or body mass needs or deficits – Two-day line: Starters and high-rep defensive and offensive linemen, tight ends, and linebackers – Two-day skill: Starters and high-rep running backs, wide receivers, and defensive backs – Two-day quarterback: Top three quarterbacks on the depth chart – Specialist: All kickers and punters.
ON THE LINE
Regardless of what time of year it is and which training group our linemen fall into, we keep the key strength demands of the position in mind when developing a training program. These demands include: relative strength, grip strength, hand quickness and punch, core and postural stability, and hip mobility. If we develop a program centered around all of these needs, we give the player his best chance at success. There are several specific methods we employ in our strength program to meet these demands.
Relative strength is important because linemen need to have the ability to move their body mass repeatedly. We expect every lineman to be able to pull his own bodyweight up for multiple repetitions, so one of the first evaluation exercises the players complete upon arriving on campus is a chin-up test.
The lat pull-down machines in our weightroom are not a place for the linemen to migrate to when the other positions move to chin-ups, pull-ups, towel chins, inverted pulls, or our newly added “steelie chins” (pull-ups on a pair of cannon ball looking attachments). Our linemen complete these exercises with the rest of their teammates.
Grip strength is necessary for a lineman to be able to pull his own weight. We believe in using a variety of grip attachments and towels for a lot of our exercises in order to train it. Even during strength exercises in the rack or at the low/high pulleys, we regularly implement thick bars or thick handle attachments.
We also make grip training the emphasis of a post-workout competition at least once per week during the off-season. This could range from dumbbell holds to farmer’s walks to more competitive and combative single-arm towel tugs and med ball or towel shocks.
Hand quickness and punch is built using variations of as many pressing exercises–both bench and incline–as possible, rotating exercises in and out of the program every three to four weeks. Using both variations is vital due to the varied pressing/punching techniques used by both defensive and offensive linemen on every play.
One pressing exercise we implement with our linemen multiple times per training year is the neutral grip (supinated) bench press. The bar allows for a more natural hand position when narrowing a player’s grip to within his frame. In addition, the “thumbs up” position is taught on the field to both our offensive and defensive linemen, so using neutral grip bars in the weightroom translates well to the field.
We purchased a few neutral grip bars a couple of years ago and had such a positive response that we ordered three times as many before the next off-season. Our linemen immediately saw the benefits and carryover to their on-field requirements. We have also incorporated neutral grip bars into all of our chain-loaded speed bench press exercises.
Two of our other favorite in-season pressing movements are the speed bench and speed incline presses, using the Tendo units. Though it varies based on the intensity and repetition prescription, we ask our players to work in an average velocity range of 2.5 to 4.0 feet per second. We may use a chain-loaded variation of the speed presses as well.
Core and postural stability can make or break a lineman who is trying to compete at the highest level. A weak or “giving” core can make an offensive lineman appear to be no more than a swinging gate to a B-gap power rush. We train the core and posture of our linemen in three ways.
First, our daily warmup consists of postural core exercises. We create forces in various planes of movement that we ask the athletes to counter while maintaining correct posture in an athletic stance. For example, our band punch exercise involves a lineman in their set position holding on to a rope. A coach pulls the rope behind the player while the player maintains his base and posture and extends his arms forward in front of his chest. Similar ground-based postural exercises include the split stance band punch, diagonal band punch, band walkouts, and towel tugs.
Second, the team’s post-workout programming and competitions are designed to place demands on the core and postural strength. For our linemen, this includes the previously mentioned grip battles like dumbbell holds and farmer’s walks, band/harness kickslides, and other resisted exercises that put them in their position stance or forces them to perform their position movements.
Lastly, we prescribe our players what we call X-Needs programming, which consists of extra exercises prescribed on an individual basis. There are several categories of X-Needs programming, including “core” and “posterior chain.” If a lineman’s X-Needs programming includes these categories, he is often prescribed kettlebell swings as one of his exercises. We’ve found kettlebell swings very beneficial for building postural core strength and recruiting the posterior chain.
Hip mobility is addressed in both the warmup and the X-Needs portions of our workouts. Every weightroom warmup includes multiple ground-based hip mobility drills. We utilize hurdles for step-overs and squat-unders, light bars (18 to 20 pounds) for overhead movement sequences including overhead squats and lunges, and core boards or med balls for a squat-lunge series. Those players assigned to the hip mobility X-Needs group would return to hip mobility work at the end of their workout. For these players, the second round of hip mobility drills may include soft-tissue work, active isolation stretching, or a movement sequence using whole body vibration.
In addition to the key strength demands of playing on the line, we must consider the athletic demands placed on these players: speed, agility, and a high level of overall conditioning.
When developing a speed and agility program, we ask ourselves two things: What is the benefit of this drill? And what are the risks?
Many strength and conditioning professionals sell their summer conditioning program as the reason for early season victories. However, we believe that safety is most important. It is our job to prepare our larger players for the physicality, tempo, and repetition endured during preseason camp, and we are very matter-of-fact with the players about our purpose: One cannot win a starting job from the injury list.
Our summer speed and agility program for linemen is geared heavily toward short distance acceleration with relatively little top end work. Each linear speed day’s volume is approximately 10 to 20 percent lower than that of the skill and big skill players. We accomplish this through the elimination of repetitions or by simply reducing yardage on each rep.
For example, our skill group may run four 40s at 90 percent intensity to finish a linear day. The linemen assignment would be altered to four 20s at the same intensity. In addition, our plyometric exercises prescribed during a speed session are modified with a greater emphasis on double-leg movements and diminish the total number of ground contacts relative to our lighter athletes.
During our preseason summer workouts, we incrementally add running to the overall program. We begin phase one with all four training days devoted to power and strength work in the weightroom. The second week, we add two days of on-field work, one being a speed day and the other being a general conditioning day. In week three, we add a second speed day (lateral and change of direction), increasing our days on the field to three. The fourth week includes four days to work on the field–one linear speed, one lateral speed/change of direction, and two conditioning days.
The linemen, unlike our other players, spend anywhere from half to all of their conditioning work in a resisted state. We implement weighted vests, hill training, and sled work. The ability to run repetitively with only the wind as resistance does not prepare a large lineman for the rigors of the footwork repetitions plus resistance that they will inevitably encounter on the field.
Our bottom line at Arkansas is to train our players the way they need to be trained to perform on the field. We devote extra time to addressing variables specific to each position and give our athletes every opportunity to be the best at what they do. We are results driven, and the true measuring stick is the physicality and performance displayed each Saturday in the fall. The pillars in our weightroom are a testimony to our success.
Sidebar: HOG VISION
Once per week during our post-workout sessions, our linemen train their peripheral vision, upward gaze, and reaction time using our vision training equipment. Vision training also allows us to create another competitive environment to finish a workout, yet can be implemented on days that we may be trying to scale back load, volume, and accumulated fatigue from a particular training phase.
We use a multi-program approach utilizing our light-up touch board, and always place the linemen in their playing stances. Offensive linemen perform their vision training exercises in a pass set position and the defensive linemen are in a split stance.
To train peripheral vision, we program the board to light up in random spots and score the time it takes the player to touch the lit up spot. To train both upward gaze and focus, we ask the players to call out the random letters that light up during a 20-second bout of flashing letters.
We do all of these exercises in a highly disruptive environment by playing music or making a lot of noise. The goal is always speed and accuracy during distraction, which translates very well to the football field.