Jan 29, 2015The Boys on Blue
Boise State University’s perfect 2009 season was the latest testament to its football strength program, which emphasizes speed, functional power, and a team-first attitude.
By Tim Socha
Tim Socha, MEd, SCCC, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Boise State University. He can be reached at: [email protected].
When people think of Boise State football, the first image that usually comes to mind is the blue field. If pressed to think of something else, they might bring up our penchant for running trick plays at critical moments in games. While we’re proud of each of those things in its own way, neither shows what our football team is truly about.
The Boise State football program strives to put the best possible product on the field for every game. That’s our primary mission, and though it sounds very simple, it shapes every aspect of our approach to developing strength, speed, power, toughness, and personal accountability. It’s present in the design of our workouts, the priorities we set throughout the year, and the way we teach players both the physical and mental aspects of performance.
When we excel on the field, as we did in the 2009 season–becoming only the second team in NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision history to finish 14-0–we know we’ve put our players in a position to get the most out of their skills. Any person who wants to master their craft needs the right tools for the job. A great conditioning program is about giving players all the tools to succeed.
FUNCTIONAL STRENGTH & POWER
Our approach to football strength training is two-pronged, emphasizing both total-body strength and individual sport-specific needs. First, we focus on building general strength for all our players, using heavy doses of the basic Olympic lifts and their variations.
That means our weightroom staples include cleans, snatches, and jerks, along with hang cleans, power cleans, hang snatches, power snatches, split snatches, push jerks, split jerks, clean pulls, snatch pulls, and clean and jerks. We perform the Olympic lifts with both a straight bar and dumbbells–the straight bar allows us to use greater weight loads, while the dumbbell variant helps recruit the stabilizer muscles needed to control the weight and maintain proper form.
To maximize the sport-specific value of these lifts, we instruct the athletes on a few finer points of technique. For instance, during hang cleans, the catch is performed in a full front-squat position, which helps promote overall flexibility and core strength. Likewise, when performing any Olympic lift, we avoid the use of straps. Lifting without straps forces the athletes to develop greater grip strength, which is essential in football. Not using straps also helps reduce some of the technique flaws commonly seen when athletes attempt to lift more weight than they can truly handle. By helping them stay within their safe weight limit and eliminating those flaws, we reduce the risk of injury in the weightroom.
While those lifts build raw strength, we use squats and the bench press to help maximize power. We believe the squat is the single most important exercise for football players after the Olympic lifts. Squats increase force production in the legs and develop sound, explosive movement patterns that improve football ability in everything from hitting opponents with maximum impact to accelerating through narrow gaps to separating from defenders downfield.
Like with the Olympic lifts, we use many squat variations, including back squats, front squats, single-leg squats, speed squats with chains, box squats, lateral squats, and split squats. We always reinforce squatting “to depth” with the thigh parallel to the ground, as this helps optimize power development in the hamstrings–a key component of force production and increased foot speed.
For the bench press, our variants include standard, incline, close-grip, wide-grip, board presses, floor presses, dumbbell work, and the one-arm bench. While upper-body strength is obviously important for football performance, there is also a psychological component to this type of training.
When someone wants to know how strong an athlete is, their first question is often ‘How much do you bench?’ That may not be the single most important measure of football-specific strength, but it’s part of the football strength culture, and we know that confidence is an important element of success. When our players can answer that question with an impressive number, and when they see added muscle mass in their arms from bench pressing, they get a mental and motivational boost that pays dividends in the weightroom and on the field.
The hang clean, back squat, and bench press are the three lifts we test the athletes on–the hang clean and back squat before spring ball, and the bench press before spring ball and again before the season–so we perform them year-round. For everything else, we vary the lifting selections in periodization cycles lasting three to four weeks each.
Variation is important to our program for several reasons. First, it prevents boredom, staleness, and overtraining–it’s crucial to keep the athletes interested and having fun. We want them excited to come into the weightroom. Second, it helps ensure that we develop truly versatile strength, and not just the ability to perform a few specific lifts with precision.
To increase variety, we occasionally surprise the athletes with special challenges such as a strongman competition or cross-fit type workouts in which an athlete attempts to maximize reps of something like chin-ups or burpees in a given time period. We also add variety through high-intensity “burnout” sets, such as triple drops on a lat pulldown or seated row, chin-ups, or dips to failure and assisted failure.
As much as possible, our strength and power exercises involve multi-joint training. It goes without saying that most football movements involve coordination between several joints and muscle groups, so any time we can choose a multi-joint variant of an exercise, we do so. Some of our favorites include one-arm DB shoulder presses in a lunge position and TRX inverted chin-ups.
So far, I’ve outlined our team-wide approach to strength training. But you can’t prescribe a “cookie cutter” program for everyone and expect the best results, so we modify workouts on an individual basis due to position-specific and athlete-specific needs, injury accommodations, and other special concerns.
Our individualized focus begins with a functional evaluation, performed on each player when they first come through the door at the start of a new training year. It comprises six parts:
• Overhead squat (8 reps) • Pull-up (as many as possible) • Stability ball push-up (8 reps) • 60-second front elbow bridge • Single-leg squat (8 reps/side) • Side hip abduction (4 reps/side)
From these exercises we determine any areas of functional weakness that may need additional attention. Our “needs extra work” list is broken into seven categories:
• Hip mobility • Core strength • Hip girdle strength • Posterior chain integrity • Shoulder strength • Muscle mass • Foot quickness
Based on the preseason evaluation and observations we make throughout the training year, we prescribe individual exercises for an athlete to perform after team workouts. For an example of how we assign individualized extra work to an athlete, search the www.training-conditioning.com Web site for “BSU Football.”
Football is a game of speed. The faster team generally wins, and team speed has played a pivotal role in our recent success. From a training perspective, that hasn’t been by accident.
Football speed is of course about much more than straight-ahead running. We train all aspects of speed: linear movement (acceleration and maximum velocity), lateral movement (change of direction), and deceleration. It’s something we emphasize year round, and it’s part of our team culture to take speed training very seriously.
Every football player who dreams of reaching the next level knows the importance of the 40-yard dash. Just like with the bench press for strength, when someone wants to know how fast you are, your 40 time is typically the first thing they ask about. So when we train our athletes to improve 40-yard dash speed, it’s not just about the performance benefits–it’s also about the confidence boost.
Our comprehensive speed training focuses on acceleration mechanics (with ground starts and kneeling starts), top speed mechanics (with flying 20-yard runs), posture (with fast-leg mini hurdle drills), and arm swing mechanics (with a seated, kneeling, and standing arm swing progression). We concentrate on optimizing the 40-yard dash start by instructing athletes on force production angles and first-step explosion, but we also sometimes start them in other body positions besides the typical 40 start. In particular, we’ll put them in positions they use on the field, such as various pre-snap stances for wide receivers, tight ends, fullbacks, and running backs. We prefer resisted running instead of overspeed training, because the latter can lead to overstriding, which we feel increases injury risk.
Beyond straight-ahead speed, we incorporate change-of-direction and deceleration drills throughout the entire year, because we know that slowing down and cutting efficiently are some of the most useful skills on the football field, regardless of position. In footwork and cone drills, when athletes are coming out of their breaks, we cue them to focus on putting their weight on the outside foot and keeping a positive shin angle when changing direction. We also work on change of direction with patterned agility drills and reactive agility drills. Just like with strength training, we vary the exercises to keep things fresh and challenging all year long.
DISCIPLINE & ACCOUNTABILITY
As an institution, Boise State expects its athletes to make the right decisions on and off the field, and to do the little things that will help them stay focused, make consistent progress, and meet all their responsibilities as student-athletes. In strength and conditioning, this means setting high standards and having consequences for failure to live up to them.
The ultimate goal, of course, isn’t to punish–it’s to teach, and to encourage leadership by example. We don’t have many rules, but the ones we do have are very important to us.
We expect the guys to be on time for all workouts, which sounds like a no-brainer. But with redshirt freshmen lifting at 5:45 a.m., it sometimes needs to be emphasized. Also, whenever our players are in the weightroom, we expect them to not wear anything that draws attention to themselves, such as necklaces, bracelets, or non-issued clothing. Simple rules like these send an important message: No one is bigger than the team, and if you want to garner attention, you earn it through hard work and not the way you accessorize.
These basic rules give rise to some interesting conflicts involving new athletes, who were almost always stars in high school and may come from programs where such strict standards didn’t apply to them. But our older players set the example, and as time goes on, everyone eventually “gets it” and sees that it’s an important part of our success.
Our accountability system is progressive. At those early freshman lifting sessions, the first athlete who shows up late typically pushes a plate for the length of time he missed, with a minimum of 10 minutes. For the next person who is late, he and his roommates receive the punishment. After that, we might apply it to everyone who plays the late athlete’s position.
This system teaches another important lesson–that the players must be accountable to each other. We’ve had instances where the entire defensive line went to the room of a freshman who was not at a workout. They saw it as their responsibility to figure out where he was and get him to the facility. Those situations, though rare, are great teaching moments to reinforce that we are only as strong as our weakest link.
COMPETITION IS KEY
Anyone who works with serious athletes knows there is no better motivator than competition, so we try to create it in every workout. Sometimes it’s nothing more than competing with your own personal best. Other times it’s one-on-one or small groups against each other, and some activities pit the whole offense against the defense. Besides keeping things more exciting, this helps us build tough, intense competitors who are adept at handling pressure situations.
During the off-season, we split the team into four separate squads, and after every workout we hold a competition between them. It might be something quick and simple, such as a heavy dumbbell hold to work on grip strength, or something as complex as a strongman competition with four different stations. We keep track of scores throughout the off-season, and the winning team is recognized at our strength banquet at the end of the year.
We’ve seen the ways these competitions help prepare our players for the challenges of the season. When your right tackle has to bear down in a body weight squat contest to get his team 10 points to win the day’s challenge, he will be more poised and comfortable on third-and-five when he knows the team is counting on him to stop the defensive end’s speed rush so the quarterback has time in the pocket.
Another benefit of this emphasis is that it lets the coaches see who the team’s fiercest competitors are. True competitors want to win at whatever they are doing, whether it’s holding a dumbbell, flipping a tire in a strongman contest, or playing in the fourth quarter of a nationally televised bowl game. It helps the coaching staff decide who will be the team’s go-to players in clutch situations during the season.
All the elements I’ve described in this article are aimed at giving our athletes the best chance to succeed on the field. Is it the best possible program? I don’t know. But I do know that we believe in it, and more importantly, our players do as well. When they’re willing to follow our process and work their butts off at it, they’re only going to get better. It’s that simple.