Jan 29, 2015Trench Warriors: Conditioning tactics for linemen
Players who man the line of scrimmage are a special breed requiring a unique conditioning approach. At the University of Oregon, that means a year-round regimen focused on power, strength, speed and agility.
While the game of football seems to grow more complex every year, our philosophy for training high-level players at the University of Oregon remains basic and we stick to simple, time-tested principles. After all, selecting exercises and establishing schedules of sets and reps is important, but it’s the athletes’ commitment to training as elite competitors and maximizing their football ability that determines the success of our program.
That said, we put immense effort and time into planning our strength and conditioning program to ensure that it maximizes on-field results. Basic does not mean easy, and that is especially evident in our program for the players in the trenches — the linemen, tight ends and linebackers. For these “big men,” our overarching goals are to build explosive power and maximize functional agility, and we use a broad range of strategies to achieve them.
A successful strength program isn’t just about the exercises you choose, it’s also about making those exercises fit together like pieces of a puzzle. With that in mind, virtually all of our football strength and conditioning work utilizes a progression-based model geared toward optimizing performance on game day.
Goals & challenges
For the players in the trenches, being more powerful means getting out of a stance more quickly, accelerating, forcefully engaging an opponent, and finishing that engagement efficiently. We break our long-term goal of developing explosive power into three components: functional strength, directional speed and transitional agility.
When working with the big men up front, it is easy to focus on the functional strength element, but directional speed and transitional agility are equally important and often overlooked. Even linemen who are gifted with natural straight-ahead speed are extremely limited if they cannot apply that speed in any direction. Along the line of scrimmage, it’s essential to be able to accelerate from a dead stop, decelerate, change direction, and re-accelerate seamlessly. Before any player in the trenches can control an opponent, he must first know how to control himself.
One major challenge to training our line players is their larger bone structure and greater body fat. Since athletes with leaner body mass tend to improve at a faster rate and with a lower volume of work, planning a schedule of activity, rest, and recovery days must be approached differently than for running backs, defensive backs, and other traditional skill positions. For instance, we have found that linemen adapt better to a two days on/one day off/two days on/weekend off schedule, while skill position groups can handle five consecutive days of work.
Some of our favorite footwork routines include jumping rope, speed step-ups, and reaction-based games.
Big, long-limbed, top-heavy athletes also tend to have postural problems and limitations when it comes to “hinging” at the hip, so they often bend over from the lower back, rather than truly bending downward by flexing at the hip, knee, and ankle. Because players on the line must frequently move out of a down stance, this tendency leads to chronic problems with the hamstrings, groin, knees, and lower back, so it needs constant attention.
In addition to postural and performance issues like these, the popularity of strength training in a lying or sitting position (for instance, bench presses and biceps curls) can hinder overall mobility by creating imbalances between the upper front of the body and the back and lower body. Therefore, proper progression may not always start from scratch, but rather, from some point further behind. Sometimes the first step is not training, but retraining.
The bedrock of training for our players in the trenches is our progression of exercises that develop strength, speed and agility. We start with simple exercises, and once those are mastered, move on to more complex ones.
- Core: Stabilizing the core in a gymnastic manner helps prepare athletes to handle their own body weight. We make core work a component of almost all our workouts, utilizing exercises such as crawls, V-style torso flexions, rolls, pedestals, balances, walkovers, handstands and twists.
- Pulls: Initially, we use exercises that emphasize range of motion at the hip and engage the low back and hamstrings, such as good mornings, back extensions, and deadlift progressions. Then we move to exercises utilizing more of the torso, including the hips and shoulders, such as clean and snatch progressions. These exercises are essential for producing greater force and center of gravity projection via extension and recovery, which is one of the most difficult athletic endeavors in any sport.
- Squats: We use squats as a form of technical and developmental work designed to increase mobility from the low-hip power position. Overhead progressions for squatting and lunging movements move from front to back bar placement. Lunge progressions begin from straight-step repetitions and advance to reps at 45-degree angles and finally to a lateral position. Next in the progression are single-leg exercises, including squats and jumps that lead to truly elastic-reactive plyometric-style movements. For players in the trenches, the importance of single-leg power cannot be overstated. Offensive linemen in today’s offenses must be able to generate maximum power while engaging on the move over one foot (and thus a small base of support). The ability to maximize hip extension and projection, then re-accelerate by properly planting a leg back onto the ground, requires a degree of mobility and power that is best developed through single-leg squats, step-ups, lunges, and bounding. The culmination of our leg squat to jump to bound progression comes in the form of landings that serve as transitions to starts, cuts, and changes of direction.
- Pushes: The progression here begins with traditional presses, like the overhead, incline, and bench. Then, we make the exercises more functional from a mobility standpoint by involving the legs and hips in dynamic movements, such as the push press, push jerk, split jerk, and work with logs and medicine balls.
Speed & Agility
- Starts: The ability to turn and run is neglected in many drills that supposedly train agility, yet mainly just deal with footwork. For players on the line of scrimmage, putting the hips in a position that allows for efficient projection toward the area where a play is to be made, and then having the power to do so, are the keys. All footwork and agility work should enhance players’ ability to move, turn, and project the body to the point of attack. More specifically, any drill that involves projection of the hips in all directions is useful. Starting players from a variety of stances during these drills is especially important, so we use squared, staggered, open step (laterally), and drop step (in the backward direction) positions. The drills themselves include shuffles, skips, backpedaling, and kick-slides. Starting from an open or drop step and moving into a shuffle or kick-slide replicates the actual movement pattern a linebacker or lineman uses most of the time on the field, making it an especially valuable element of this progression.
- Speed cuts: These are drills that train the ability to cut off of the inside leg at sharper and sharper angles. Eventually, speed cut breaks need to be reaction-oriented based on a stimulus over the inside step that requires the player to redirect his motion. We set up weave drills that imitate slalom courses, which teach the athletes to shift over the inside leg to maintain speed while changing direction, much like a 200-meter sprinter leans into a curve. This is an important skill for defensive linemen in pass rushes and tight ends on quick routes.
- Power cuts: Power cutting develops the ability to cut off of the outside foot. When making a power cut, some athletes are inclined to take a “false step,” stepping out away from the intended direction, which makes their movement less efficient. That pattern needs to be corrected, as it often indicates a lack of postural stability, balance, or functional leg strength. The goal of power cutting drills is to develop the ability to make cuts over the plant foot, in order to truly distance the hips from the break point.
For this type of work, we use shuttle runs, star drills (where the athlete has to run back and forth and out and back at sharp, hard angles), and more slalom-style drills with cones, bags, or barrels. While cutting, an athlete must drop the hips, plant the outside foot, dip the inside shoulder, and drive the inside (lead) knee in the direction they’re heading.
The final element of training players for work in the trenches is increasing their ability to win one-on-one engagements. This determines which side wins the line of scrimmage battle on each play, and usually who wins the game. We use series of movement sequences with certain constraints built in for added challenge, such as hands behind the back, restriction within a five-yard area, or inside a circle or ring.
One good example is our “rag” drill, in which a rag or towel is thrown on the ground and one athlete has to keep an opponent from touching it. This can be done with or without boundaries, and with or without the use of hands. We’ll also use a large hoop to engage in sumo-style combat, with two players attempting to force one another outside the ring. Progressions begin without the use of hands, then the use of one arm, and finally more traditional sumo wrestling.
This type of training is hard work and very technical, but it’s also fun for the players. They enjoy the unique challenge created by the restrictions and realize that the movement and power skills they develop in these drills will carry over to the field of play.
We split our training calendar into four main parts: the postseason (winter), the offseason (spring), the preseason (summer) and the season. During the first three training periods, we use three main guidelines in developing our workouts:
- Exercises that are more dynamic and explosive should precede those geared toward absolute or relative strength.
- Train with higher intensity early in the week, tapering to moderate or lighter percentages of load toward the end of the week.
- General acceleration work starts the conditioning week, special speed work goes in the middle, and specific work capacities finish off the week.
Our lifting through the winter includes longer buildup phases to increase joint range of motion, muscular endurance, and hypertrophy. Start and acceleration training is also emphasized during this period, through technique work starting from a variety of stances. The accelerations from forward, lateral, and backward starting positions help to reinforce the proper techniques necessary for deceleration into speed and power cutting mechanics that will be performed in the agility portions of training.
The spring period has a shorter muscular buildup phase, with a focus on maximum strength while continuing power development. This is also the time when we progress from acceleration to speed by extending the distances covered in our running drills, which also improves speed endurance.
During the preseason summer session, we spend most of our conditioning time in power development, with speed and strength training tailored to specific priorities based on identified team needs and goals that change from year to year. This is when the training schedule, including work-to-rest ratios, should most closely reflect practice and game conditions.
Once the season starts, we change our training guidelines to accommodate the demands players face from daily practices and weekly games. (See “In-Season Sessions” below for details.) Again we follow a few specific guidelines:
- Strength work is performed early in the week, more dynamic work goes in the middle, and elastic-reactive work is saved for the day before a game to aid in “uploading” the nervous system.
- We focus on work capacity early in the week, both to boost recovery from the previous week and to establish a base for the new week of training.
- In the middle of the week, we focus on position-specific conditioning and high-quality change of direction.
- We finish the week with an emphasis on efficient reactions and effective accelerations.
Continuing power development and the maintenance of certain aspects of strength, speed, and agility is critical during the season. But it must be done in a way that complements the needs and objectives of practice and game performance, so we work closely with the football coaching staff to ensure that players are following a consistent workout schedule without risking overstress or injury.
In all training periods, we begin every session with preparational warmup activities that are movement-oriented and emphasize core stability and mobility. Throughout the training year, we also include sets of position-specific sprints, sometimes called metabolics, at least once a week. These sprinting reps consist of a series of starts, accelerations, and movements that mimic game play for each individual position. For linemen and linebackers, they might include pulls, swims, spins, slants, and pursuit drops, while tight ends may focus on running the basic route tree.
As part of our warmup, we also want to sharpen the athletes’ strength and mobility from the hips outward. A special dynamic warmup and core mobility unit, which we call the “Pillars of Strength,” starts our Monday, Wednesday, and Friday lifting sessions. The main goal of these game-week warmups is to continue improving posture, balance, stability, and mobility, especially through the hips and torso.
Once the season starts, we use more single- and alternate-limb exercises to train with a good amount of load intensity without placing too much strain on the body as a whole. Since linemen are constantly colliding with opponents, sleds, heavy bags, and each other, we use single-leg squats, angle lunges, dynamic step-ups, and squat jumps to strengthen the hips and legs without taking a major toll on the spine or torso.
Complexes and combinations are used extensively during the in-season training regimen. Complexes combine two or three exercise sets, one right after the other — for instance, four cleans followed by four front lunges for one set, or four sets of one Russian deadlift followed by one military press followed by one overhead lunge.
For elastic-reactive work, our in-season goal is to upload the nervous system with short, quick, elastic exercises that provide some load and tempo stimulus to an otherwise restful day while still allowing complete recovery before the next day’s game. Friday morning workouts for the traveling squad are made up of exercises such as split snatches, squat jumps with sandbags, split jerks, dynamic or elastic step-up routines, and medicine ball tosses. All the exercises are done in two to four sets of two to six reps, for roughly a 20-minute workout.
We finish our in-season sessions with footwork and handwork, both of which help translate weight room gains to the playing field. Some of our favorite footwork routines include jumping rope, speed step-ups, and reaction-based games. Routines for the hands, fingers, and grip include competitive wrist rolls, assorted speed bag exercises, and speed-hand medicine ball routines.
This structure ensures that our players maintain the strength and power they developed during the offseason. At the same time, it does not overtax their bodies and leaves them ready to engage their opponents with maximum force and power every week.
To assess our football players’ progress in a few high-priority areas of training, we perform targeted tests two or three times per year. This usually occurs at the end of our postseason, offseason, and preseason training.
First and foremost, we evaluate development in overall joint mobility using the overhead squat with a bar or single-leg good morning with a bar, during which the foot of the non-support leg is placed against a wall, just barely off the ground. Both these exercises show us an athlete’s ability to “hinge” at the hip with the proper posture, balance, stability, and mobility — a vital skill for linemen.
We assess power through single-rep scoring of the clean, vertical jump, and jerk, and test for strength gains through single, double, or triple repetitions of front or back squats and a bench press or incline press. We keep track of 10-, 20-, and 40-yard dash times to measure speed improvement, and 20-yard shuttles and five-yard three-cone “L” runs help us to see agility gains.
After preseason training, we assess speed endurance with a series of 10 40-yard sprints with 20 seconds of rest in between. Each player’s objective is to perform at least eight of the 10 sprints within 0.55 seconds of his best 40 time for the year. We have used this form of “football fitness” evaluation for the past two decades and find it to be very reliable as a gauge of the athletes’ ability to handle game demands.
I should add that some coaches feel uncomfortable having their athletes run high-speed 40s prior to the start of fall camp, but we have never experienced problems. Rarely have athletes been unprepared for the test, and those who are unprepared are unlikely to perform at an intensity great enough to risk injury.