Jul 31, 2017
Strength in Numbers

This article first appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Like their counterparts at other schools across the country, Simpson College football players begin a rigorous offseason training regimen each January. Unlike most of their peers, however, they are met with an unusual protocol-50-rep sets.

Pete Traynor, CSCS, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach and Assistant Football Coach at Simpson, borrowed the idea from one of his college strength coaches. For the past two years, it’s been the centerpiece for the first three weeks of the team’s winter strength workouts.

Traynor says the benefits of the 50-rep sets are twofold-they confuse the body and aid in recovery. “During the rest of the year, we use the typical three-, five-, or eight-rep sets, and the body gets used to them,” he explains. “The 50-rep sets are kind of like hitting reset on a computer. The body learns to recover differently, which seems to help the athletes recover more quickly down the road.”

The exercises used for the 50-rep sets are squats, bench presses, and dead lifts. Loads for the squat are set at 45 percent of athletes’ three-rep max for the first week, moving up to 50 percent the second week and 55 percent for the third. The loads for the bench press and dead lift are set a little lower, starting at 40 percent of three-rep max and increasing to 45, then 50.

To complete the 50-rep sets, players are split into groups of three or four to a rack. The athlete completing the lift is allowed as much time as he needs to get to 50 reps and can take unlimited breaks of up to 60 seconds. The caveat is he must maintain contact with the bar at all times, even when resting. The other players at the rack spot him.

Some athletes pound out as many reps as they can in a row and take a breather only when they can’t go any longer. Others take a more strategic approach, pacing themselves by doing a predetermined number of reps before taking a short rest, even if they could easily continue on.

“I leave it up to each guy to do it the way he wants,” Traynor says. “They know the weight, and they know they have to do 50 reps-the rest is up to them.”

The team lifts four days a week during this initial part of winter offseason training. The first three days feature a 50-rep set that rotates through the squat, bench press, and dead lift. On the fourth day, the squad switches to full-body lifts, posterior chain work, core exercises, or auxiliary training using more traditional sets of three to eight reps each.

To ensure athletes maintain proper form during the marathon sets, Traynor enlists the help of assistant strength coaches, as well as the players themselves. “In addition to myself, we have a second certified strength coach and six undergraduate assistants checking the players’ form. Anytime someone is compromising his technique or not doing a lift correctly, he has to stop,” Traynor says. “We also teach our athletes to hold each other accountable. If a spotter tells someone he’s not going deep enough in his squats or he has to rack the bar for safety reasons, he knows that what the spotter says, goes.”

The training is a team effort in other ways, too. “Anytime you go through something challenging as a group, it helps build bonds between the players,” Traynor says. “They push each other and cheer on their teammates during the 50-rep sets, so it’s a shared experience that brings them closer together.

“The players love to hate the 50-set reps because they can’t stand doing them,” he continues. “But later in the season, they’ll tell each other, ‘Look, things may be hard now, but it’s not as hard as doing 50 squats. If we can get through that, we can get through anything.'”

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