Sep 30, 2015View from the Top
In 2014, the Colorado State University-Pueblo football team won the NCAA Division II title, just eight years after the program was restarted. Here, its strength coach shares the top five strategies he used in the weightroom to help the squad reach the podium.
The following article appears in the October 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
One fantastic byproduct of winning a national championship is that it leads you to do a lot of reflecting. As I walked off the field following Colorado State University-Pueblo’s victory in the 2014 NCAA Division II Football Championship last December, I started thinking about what it took to get there–a mere eight years after the program was reestablished.
In my position as the team’s strength coach, I’m often asked what my “secret to success” is. Truth be told, I can’t narrow it down to just one thing. To go from non-existent to national champions in less than a decade was the culmination of a lot of hard work and commitment from the administration, coaches, and athletes.
However, looking back, I can pinpoint several elements of our strength and conditioning program that played a significant factor in the rise of CSU-Pueblo football. Here are five components that helped us get to where we are today.
BUILT BY DESIGN
All the strength and conditioning work in the world is meaningless if it is not designed with specific goals in mind. Sometimes that means doing things a little differently than you have in the past.
Our football athletes strength train three times per week during the offseason, which is a change from the way I used to schedule lifts. For much of my tenure as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I had our “big skill position” athletes (offensive and defensive linemen, tight ends, and linebackers) lift four days a week, while the “skill position” athletes (running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers, defensive backs, and kickers) lifted three days per week. I figured since the big skill positions are more strength-based, these players needed an extra day in the weightroom.
However, over time, some of our big skill position athletes reached a point where they were plenty strong to play at a high level, and continuing to emphasize strength gains was a waste of time. For example, an offensive lineman who could squat 500 pounds was strong enough to meet the demands of his position. Training all summer to increase his squat maximum to 525 was not going to further improve his on-field performance.
As a result, we dropped lifting for big skill position athletes to three days a week. We found that despite having one less day in the weightroom and not emphasizing strength gains, these players continued to get stronger. Thus, the three-day-per-week plan became permanent. After all, why spend four days in the weightroom when you can get the same results in three?
Best of all, by removing a day in the weightroom, we were able to increase the time big skill position players spent improving their speed, agility, and quickness. While athletes can reach a point of being strong enough, there is no such thing as fast enough. The difference between squatting 505 pounds versus 500 doesn’t show up on the field for a defensive lineman, but dropping his 40-yard dash time from 5.0 seconds to 4.8 makes an impact.
The three-day-per-week lifting plan fits easily into our annual training program that utilizes undulating periodization. We have a primary goal (scheme one) and a secondary goal (scheme two) for each of our seven training cycles. Since we’re in the weightroom three times each week, we focus on scheme one during two workouts and scheme two during one workout each week.
We open offseason training with a hypertrophy cycle that requires a high number of reps and short rest times between sets. While this training protocol is beneficial for hypertrophy, it forces the athletes to decrease their training load, which has a negative effect on their overall strength. To counter this, we make our secondary goal increasing strength. For these workouts, I decrease the number of reps and increase rest times to allow for a greater training load. During the two cycles that follow the hypertrophy cycle, the primary and secondary goals switch.
Since football is comprised of a series of explosive movements, our primary goal during the summer cycles is training for power. These workouts incorporate low volumes and high intensities–all the way down to sets of one rep for some of our Olympic lifts. To allow for recovery, rest periods are two minutes.
However, football is also a game of muscular endurance, so that is our focus during scheme two. To train for endurance, we increase the number of reps and reduce rest times. Athletes perform compound movements, combining multiple strength training exercises into one continuous movement. For example, athletes perform a squat with dumbbells, follow it with a power snatch, and then finish the repetition with a lunge while holding the dumbbells overhead in the catch position of the snatch.
We switch things up during our in-season phase with two primary goals: maintaining strength and maintaining power. Our frequency of strength training decreases to twice per week for our game athletes, with a strength emphasis on Mondays and power on Wednesdays. This way, our heavier lifting occurs furthest from game day to give our athletes time to recover before a contest.
Just like our training cycles, we also periodize our exercise selections. We advance from less complex, less sport-specific movements in the offseason to more complex lifts with a higher degree of sport specificity as the competitive slate approaches. This strategy allows us to provide a high level of variety with our exercises.
Using dumbbell cleans as an illustration of this progression, the athletes start by performing dumbbell hang power cleans early in the off-season. Then, we move to dumbbell power cleans, dumbbell cleans, and dumbbell alternating cleans as we move closer to the season.
Like most teams, we have a full line of dumbbells in our strength and conditioning facility. What sets us apart is that we use them–a lot. Nearly every exercise we perform with a barbell is also done with a dumbbell, including all of the Olympic lifts. In fact, we have more dumbbell exercises in our program than barbell ones.
Dumbbell training is beneficial for football players because it includes both unilateral and alternating-arm exercises, neither of which can be performed with a barbell. This better prepares players for sport-specific skills that require their arms to do different things at the same time, such as a pass-rushing defensive end fighting off a blocker with one hand while reaching for the quarterback with the other, or a running back carrying the ball in his left arm while stiff-arming a defender with his right.
I’m also partial to dumbbells because they require more balance, coordination, and motor skill use than barbells. For example, think of an athlete performing unilateral dumbbell cleans with his left arm, using an 80-pound weight. Naturally, his left side is 80 pounds heavier than his right. This unbalanced condition forces him to engage his core to keep his body in an upright position, leading to a dual workout.
Our skill position athletes have two dumbbell workouts per week: one consisting of Olympic lifts and lower-body training, and the second focused on Olympic lifts and upper-body training. In contrast, our big skill position athletes have one dumbbell workout per week that combines Olympic-style lifts with upper- and lower-body exercises. Sample dumbbell exercises include bench presses, incline presses, rows, push presses, power jerks, cleans, snatches, squats, front squats, lunges, and side lunges.
OPEN TO CHANGE
As all strength coaches know, there is no such thing as a perfect training program. There are always ways to improve what you are doing, and this challenge is one of the things that makes our jobs so rewarding. Throughout my time at CSU-Pueblo, I think my willingness to adapt our training program has played a role in the football team’s success.
My go-to source for new ideas is professional journals. If I come across a study in a peer-reviewed publication that says a certain change in our training program could make it more effective, I’ll consider it. For example, I recently added dead lifts to our regimen because of the sport-specific benefits I read about in an article. They mimic the way football players begin each play from a dead stop and explode when the snap occurs.
I’m also not afraid to add a little variety with new training methods. One I’ve adopted is using water-filled implements like kegs and logs. We make the kegs ourselves by opening the spout of a standard beer keg, putting it on a scale, and filling it with water to the desired weight. We have the logs specially made, and they are filled in the same manner.
The advantage of training with water-filled implements is the constantly moving water within them. This provides active resistance, similar to the pushing, pulling, and twisting resistance athletes encounter from opponents on the field. We incorporate water-filled implements on our dumbbell training days by requiring at least one set of each exercise to be performed with a keg or log.
You may wonder, since there are sport-specific benefits to training with water-filled implements, why don’t we use them exclusively? The negative aspect is that the instability provided by the water forces the athletes to use lower loads, which limits strength gains. For example, an athlete who normally benches 300 pounds with a barbell would have to use between 220 and 240 pounds with a water-filled keg.
ALL FOR ONE
Every player on our team plays a role in CSU-Pueblo’s success, and my goal is to make sure they each understand their value. One way I do this is by developing athlete leaders. During a game, the players are the ones leading on the field, not the coaches, so I try to establish a player-led mentality.
All of our weightroom workouts are timed, with specific rest periods between sets. For my first several years at CSU-Pueblo, I had the position coaches time the athletes. However, for the last few seasons, we have handed that responsibility to the team’s upperclassmen, which puts them in a leadership role.
The athlete leaders are also in charge of holding their teammates accountable during training. If a player in their position group is not performing at an acceptable standard, it is brought to the leader’s attention. Often, he will decide what sort of “punishment” is owed in the form of exercises like V-ups, push-ups, or redoing a set. Only if the problem continues is the position coach or head coach involved.
We also illustrate how every athlete contributes to our success with our team “record” board. Hanging in our weightroom, it displays the team’s strength, power, and speed averages, along with how many athletes have reached a predetermined score we set for all team members. In addition, we track our testing results year by year so our athletes can see their results over time–both the team average for each area of testing and the number of athletes reaching the goal.
Our players have been quick to embrace the importance of the team board because they understand team measurements are more instrumental to our success than what our top individuals are doing. Having one athlete who can run a 4.3 40-yard dash is a great asset, but a team average of 4.75 is a better overall indicator of our chance to compete at a high level.
Plus, the team board lays out how their improvement helps the team. For example, our kickers may not lift the most weight, but if they can all make gains from one season to the next, it will boost the team average.
MAKING A CONNECTION
Lastly, I’ve made it a point to develop relationships with players that are built on mutual respect and trust. When I first came to CSU-Pueblo, getting player buy-in was easy because they were excited to have a strength and conditioning coach and knew I was coming from a successful D-I program at Air Force.
Then, the results helped speak for themselves. In my third season with the team, we went 11-1 and won a conference championship. The athletes understood the relationship between the wins on the football field and our strength and conditioning program.
Developing relationships with new players isn’t always as easy, however. Sometimes, incoming players show up expecting to win without understanding the work that goes into achieving success. It’s these athletes that I occasionally have to find new ways to motivate.
The key to building relationships with players is staying true to your personality. I am not a big rah-rah type of coach. I believe it’s the athletes’ team, not mine, so I don’t jump in when they come together after a workout to cheer, and I don’t slap their hands when the workout is over.
That being said, one of the aspects I like best about being a strength and conditioning coach is that I can interact with the players on a different level than the football coaches. I play no role in deciding who starts or what position they play. Although I still have to maintain a certain player-coach dynamic, I can have more of a friendship with the athletes. They know I have a deep, sincere interest in improving their athletic performance and helping build a successful football team.