Jan 29, 2015
SU Lacrosse: How They Won It

On Memorial Day, The Syracuse University men’s lacrosse team pulled off a thrilling late-game comeback to capture its second consecutive NCAA Division I national title. In this article, originally published in T&C in March, SU Director of Strength & Conditioning Hal Luther explains how he prepared the athletes to be at their best when it mattered most.
By Hal Luther

Hal Luther, MS, CSCS, is Director of Strength & Conditioning at Syracuse University, where he works with the football and men’s lacrosse teams. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Historically, only a few teams have had a real shot at the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse national title each season. In the past 15 years, the Division I crown has rotated between just four schools – Syracuse University, the University of Virginia, Princeton University, and Johns Hopkins University. Syracuse has claimed six titles in that span, and we enter 2009 as the reigning champs.

But the landscape of college lacrosse is changing fast, and those changes are exciting. The sport has grown much more competitive in recent years, and this season, at least a dozen teams have legitimate title hopes. I expect that number will only grow, as more high school athletes take up the sport and it spreads beyond the traditional lacrosse hotbeds. More and more programs are assembling teams of highly skilled, highly conditioned athletes hungry to join the elite ranks of college lacrosse.

At Syracuse, we know this is no time to rest on our laurels. To keep our place at the top, we’re working harder than ever on building and conditioning our players with an approach aimed at making steady progress every week, every month, and every season.

To lay the foundation for everything we do in strength and conditioning, we start with this philosophy: We want each individual to become a highly conditioned, more explosive, mentally tough, balanced athlete. To achieve this, we follow three specific rules at all times.

Trust. The athletes must trust the strength coach and vice-versa. To ensure that the athletes believe in me, I explain the rationale behind everything we do and outline in specific terms how each activity will enhance their athletic potential. I never leave them thinking, “Is this really the best way for me to train right now?” or “I’m really wearing myself out–is this worth it?”

I have to trust them as well, believing they’ll tell me the truth about work they’ve done on their own over breaks and during the summer, even when they haven’t made the progress we hoped for. That’s the only way I can identify and correct problems, and make necessary adjustments to their individual strength and conditioning plans. If an athlete isn’t making progress with a specific lift, he might be doing it incorrectly or we may need to adjust the activity.

Accountability. In order to manage a large number of athletes (our team has around 50), a disciplined approach is necessary. Our players treat training sessions the same as practice: They’re required to show up early, dressed and ready to perform. A disciplinary system is in place for missed workouts, just like with practices, classes, and study table sessions. An athlete who misses a workout might find himself making it up at 6 a.m. in a one-on-one session with me, or doing extra running under the supervision of our captains. Sometimes the entire team shares in the punishment, under the “one fails, all fail” principle.

Technical Proficiency. We make proficiency a part of our core philosophy because we know that performing each activity correctly is a key to our success. If body position is compromised during a lift, we don’t have adequate spotting, or agility movements are allowed to get sloppy, our entire conditioning program will be watered down, and even worse, we’ll put our athletes at risk for injury. Those outcomes are not acceptable.

Following these three rules, we strive for improvement in every session. I measure an athlete’s progress not by the numbers they generate compared to their teammates, but by the way their numbers stack up against what they did yesterday, last week, or last semester. We constantly encourage our players to win the little battles as they train: five more pounds, one more rep, one second faster. If they can do that every week over four or five years, it really doesn’t matter where they start–they will maximize their performance on the field.

For most athletes, it’s not enough just to be talented at the college level, even if raw talent made them stars in high school. As I explain to our new players, “In high school you were on a team–in college you are part of a program.” That means college lacrosse is a 365-day yearly commitment, with scheduled time off.

Our program’s calendar is built around four phases, or mesocycles. Each has specific goals, following a logical progression that puts the players in peak physical condition for the season. I see my role as providing our coaching staff with the best conditioned athletes possible, and the coaches take that “raw material” I’ve provided and create outstanding lacrosse players. The better I do my job, the faster, more intense, and ultimately more productive practices will be.

Phase I begins in the second week of July and continues until the first week of September, when athletes report for the fall semester. The month prior, our players don’t follow any formal conditioning plan, taking time to recharge after the previous season (which typically ends on Memorial Day weekend). Phase II runs from the first week in September to the first week in December, and includes six weeks of fall practices. Phase III goes from the second week in December until the first week in January, when players report after winter break. Phase IV is our preseason-
season-postseason training regimen.

Phase I. At this time, we focus primarily on muscle endurance, core strength, establishing technique, and overall fitness. The bulk of serious weightlifting will come later. First, we want our athletes’ neuromuscular systems, tendons, ligaments, and joint structures to be conditioned for hard work.

Our strength base program is the same for each athlete, built around the “big three” movements: bench, squat, and hang clean. Lacrosse is classified as a contact sport, not a collision sport like football and hockey, but it does involve very intense collisions and I want our athletes equipped with the pure strength needed to be on the “giving end” of these hits more often than the “receiving end.”

Our workout schedule in Phase I uses four-day splits with two days of rest built in. The first two days of the week are the heavier, more intense days, with one focusing on the upper body and one on the lower body. On the third and fourth days, we decrease intensity and increase volume or speed of movement, again breaking the work into upper- and lower-body sessions. This way, we can focus on nailing down proper lift technique, improving general fitness, and recruiting the fast-twitch muscle fibers needed to perform an exercise with speed while not sacrificing control. It also gives us a jump-start on the muscle building that will be our top priority later on.

Phase II. Next, we focus on developing size, strength, and power. We cut back from four days a week to three, and the structure also changes: All three days–a heavy day, a speed day, and a work day–consist of full-body workouts, with no more division between upper- and lower-body exercises.

The heavy day focuses on the bench press, squat, and hang clean, along with a few assistance movements, such as shoulder circuits, dips, pull-ups, and push-ups. The weight loads are high to deliver maximum hypertrophy, so I generally keep the number of reps low (under six per set), especially when the athletes are first getting used to a lift or an increased weight load. This limits muscle fatigue and helps prevent mechanics from breaking down near the end of a set.

The speed day is designed to enhance speed of movement during certain lifts. We’ll focus on exercises that can be performed with speed, such as DB rips (DB hang cleans), DB rip and press, jump squats, split squats, squat holds, high pulls, and power shrugs–these activities will translate into power gains. This is also a time when we pay close attention to technique. Once the athlete can perform a movement with proper technique slowly, we’ll gradually increase their speed.

The work day is just what it sounds like. The athletes come into the weightroom on Friday mornings at 7 a.m. and just work for 45 minutes. They can get in extra reps on an exercise they struggled with earlier, work on a specific type of strength they’d like to improve, or perform remedial work in any areas where they’re deficient. On a typical work day, you can look around our weightroom and see athletes doing core exercises, push-ups, manual squats, jump squats, split squats, squat holds for time, and plate work.

There’s a psychological element to this day as well, as everyone understands that it’s a time to bear down and work hard. The players use a concept called “holding the rope” to reinforce this idea. Anytime a teammate feels like giving in or taking a break, the others will pull him through by shouting “Hold the rope!” The message is that we’re all in this together, and everyone is expected to hold up their personal end of that bargain.

Phase III. This phase is dedicated primarily to conditioning. With most size and strength gains completed, our goal is to make sure newly built strength shows up in the fourth quarter of games just as it did in the first.

Lacrosse players need to perform short bursts of maximum power output involving both the upper and lower body, then “reload” while moving, over the course of a two- to three-hour period. If they’re not in shape for that level of work capacity, their sport-specific technique will break down and mental fatigue will compound the problems. Fatigue can make a coward of anyone: An exhausted player doesn’t want the ball on his stick in the fourth quarter of a tie game.

A lacrosse player constantly switches back and forth between the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems during a game. This leads to rapid buildup of lactic acid and debilitating fatigue if the body hasn’t been trained properly.

In Phases I and II, our conditioning efforts consist mainly of running, with some emphasis on speed development and change-of-direction drills. When Phase III begins, the volume of conditioning work increases and we follow a progression schedule that allows each athlete to maximize personal progress.

Each day of the week in the conditioning phase has a different emphasis. Monday is our stride program: The athletes complete sets of 20-, 40-, 60-, and 80-yard strides and finish with a 440-yard gasser. On Tuesday, we perform a program with the jump rope, the simplest form of plyometrics and in my opinion a lost art. On Wednesday, we do half-gasser training (220 yards), with the number of reps, time goals, and length of rest periods changing on an individualized basis throughout the phase. Thursday is spent on a variety of running and movement drills that develop speed, agility, and quickness. Friday is the conditioning self-test, which I’ll describe later on.

I want all our athletes to make progress in these conditioning cycles each week. For example, if we ran Monday’s strides as 4×20, 4×40, 4×60, and 4×80 yards this week, next week we’ll add two more reps at each distance. We make similar gradual increases to every conditioning activity throughout the conditioning phase.

I talk to the players frequently to get their feedback on conditioning work. I want them to push themselves and each other to improve, but I don’t want to beat them into the ground to the point where the work becomes counterproductive or interferes with their other activities. If I feel we’ve “maxed out” the benefits of our progression in a particular activity, I’ll recalibrate the sets and reps or switch to a different exercise to keep things fresh. I want them coming back for more every day–not feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by a daunting workload.

Our Friday self-test is one of the most challenging sessions on the calendar. It consists of three 440-yard gassers with five minutes of recovery time between each one. The lacrosse field is 110 yards long from end line to end line, so each gasser involves two round trips. We keep track of players’ individual performance from week to week, and the desire to finish a second or two faster each time is a great motivator.

The conditioning self-test is useful at other times during the year as well. We conduct it when athletes first report in the fall, with these time goals: 65 seconds for the first gasser, 70 for the second, and 75 for the third. If someone took the whole summer off from conditioning work, that will be easy to see–he might complete the first gasser in the allotted time, but probably not the second, and he may not even line up for the third. On the flip side, athletes who took conditioning seriously are proud to show they can complete the test with time to spare.

Phase IV. Once the preseason begins, all of our strength and conditioning activities shift into maintenance mode. We decrease work volume and frequency, and our workout schedule is built around preseason practice, then the regular season and postseason calendar. I still vary the activities to keep the athletes challenged, and I’m always cognizant of the team’s practice and game demands to avoid overuse injuries.

When planning workouts within the four-phase framework, we have a few philosophies that go against the grain. The first involves order of exercises. Virtually all of our plyometric movement patterns are interspersed among our strength training sessions, instead of being reserved for a specific time or session, which is common practice in many strength programs. I feel this is important because it places demands on the body that imitate those of an actual lacrosse game.

For instance, in one of our typical strength workouts, each pure strength move (such as the bench or squat) is followed by a plyometric or speed move (such as the plyo push-up or jump squat). This approach, sometimes called “contrast training,” also helps keep the athletes engaged by challenging different body systems in close succession.

Another important aspect of our workout planning involves weight load selection. I don’t believe in using percentages based on an athlete’s max-out performance in the first session of the year. Over time, I’ve recognized the simple truth that some athletes adapt to exercises and build muscle more quickly than others. So rather than setting percentage-based long-term schedules for individual strength training, I’ll set new goals for a workout based on each athlete’s previous workout performance, making incremental increases that ensure consistent progress without risking overload.

I usually set a base weight for everyone in the first training session (135 pounds on the bench, 185 on the squat, 155 on the hang clean) and evaluate each athlete’s performance. In subsequent workouts, I might increase the load by five to 10 pounds per set, with personalized attention to see who can handle more and who is reaching their max. It all goes back to our philosophy of winning the little battles: five more pounds, one more rep, constantly moving forward.

Another key aspect of our workout planning involves the use of a dynamic warmup that focuses on the core. The core is the power source for what I call the athlete’s engine. Everyone wants to run faster, jump higher, and throw further, and the core is an integral part of all those skills.

After traditional dynamic warmup activities, which might include jumping rope, hurdles, form running, and functional hip mobility drills, we turn to core work. The athletes’ functional core strength begins at the waist line and goes south, so our core regimen includes movements such as big leg kicks, riding the bike, both legs up and down, feet straight up, and reaching for the toes–there are literally thousands of variations. I usually pick 10 to 12 exercises and we do 10 to 25 reps of each, with no rest period in between.

A final element of our training program involves knowing how to get all the athletes on board with strength work. Unlike football players, lacrosse players often are not experienced in the weightroom when they begin college. In fact, some have consciously avoided it, not wanting to upset the physical routines that obviously worked well for them in high school. This is where the salesman in the strength coach has to come out.

For me, the key is finding a way to make my “product” appealing on an individual basis. Once I’ve gotten to know the athletes, I can hone in on what will appeal to their needs–a smaller athlete might be most interested in strength gains, a slower one might want to improve running proficiency or change-of-direction mechanics, and one who has struggled with injury might be sold on the prehab benefits of a strength program.

One aspect I know I can sell all the athletes on is mental toughness. This is the quality that separates good players from great ones, and our strength program strives to instill it in everyone.

Whether it’s seniors pushing freshmen and sophomores to run their hardest during the gassers, teammates training together on the field through rain, wind, and snow, or players at early morning workouts urging each other to “hold the rope,” we build team chemistry by lifting together, sweating together, and hurting together. It’s hard work, but as our 2008 team proved to themselves and their successors, the rewards are great.


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