Gabe Harrington has a Masters degree from Michigan State University. He has coached at MSU, the United States Military Academy and most recently was the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Colgate University Patriot League Football Champions. Gabe explains, there really is no off-season it is about manageing transition.
Whether you coach high school or college football this is the time of year for transition. If you are at the high school level, your athletes are going from lifting and conditioning to playing another sport such as baseball or track. Perhaps they have been playing a winter sport such as wrestling or basketball and are getting into their off season training program. If you are at the college level, you are coming off of winter conditioning and getting into spring football. As a strength coach, or the football coach in charge of strength and conditioning, you are responsible to not only prepare the athlete for the coming task; but also to meet the current demands the athlete faces. In other words, you have to manage transition. Assuming that you have done a good job in preparation, the team is healthy, as big and strong as ever and ready for spring ball… what now? The key of course, is to ride the fine line of introducing enough stress to illicit improvement without over doing it. Know which variables you can control and which ones you can’t. And when transitioning from winter to spring training remember that the transition in and of itself, is a stressor. Here are a few guidelines worth considering when transitioning from winter to spring training: 1) understand stress, 2) lower the volume of lifting, 3) lower the intensity of exercise and/or change the exercises used, 4) try to get more bang for your buck with conditioning, 5) have great communication between staff and between staff and players, and 6) continue to emphasize nutrition.
Pendulum 3 Way Row
Before we get too deep into what to do, let’s examine how the human body responds to stress. Stress is a necessary component to living well and improving. After all, without added stress (adding weight to the bar) you can’t get stronger. And if you don’t study hard, you won’t get any smarter. However, even though stress can be good, too much is extremely detrimental and can lead to a multitude of issues ranging from poor performance to disease and death. A good way to look at this is to imagine that you (or rather, each and every one of your players) are a bathtub. Filling the bathtub are many faucets – we’re not just talking hot and cold here. We’re talking about life: lifting weights, conditioning, school, homework, football practice, meetings/film, girlfriend(s), parents, social life, transition… the list goes on and on. Like all bathtubs, we can only hold so much water before it begins to spill over the top (poor performance). When the water fills up the room the tub is in and begins flooding the floors below we are in trouble (disease and death). We tell our players all the time to eliminate distractions, because distractions are added stress – one more thing to deal with. We know this from experience. But too often we don’t take our own advice, and we as coaches create an overly stressful environment.
When it comes to lowering the volume of lifting, I think of it in terms of both time spent in the weight room as well as the number of work sets performed. Time spent in the weight room is important because most strength coaches don’t have control over what time of day the team comes in. You may have to get them after practice, you may have to get them early in the morning. Either way, you have to work around the academic schedule (which is normal), and you now have a couple more faucets filling the bathtub (practice and meetings). Shoot for 30-40 minutes from the time they walk in to the time you break them down and two days per week, for a total of 60-80 minutes in the weight room weekly. As far as the number of work sets performed, this will be dependent somewhat on your training philosophy but here’s my general thought:
Front/Back Neck: 1x8 each
Choose a Shrug variation: 2x8 (light to heavy)
Choose a Press: 2x8 or 3x5 (at a percentage or light to heavy)
Choose a Pull: 2x8 or 3x5 (light to heavy)
Choose a Hip: 2x8 or 3x5 (at a percentage or light to heavy)
Core: 1-2 sets
In this example, you’re looking at 11-21 sets. Which is correct? They are actually about the same in terms of volume… 3x5 equals 15 reps, 2x8 equals 16 reps. In the above example, you’re looking at 93-96 total reps. Going light to heavy, you’re looking at only 40-50 reps at the work load. If you use percentages on the press and hip (bench/squat) then you’re at 60-70 reps. The main differences are how long the lift takes (three sets takes longer than two sets due to the rest interval between sets), and the next variable - intensity.
Pendulum 5 Way Neck Shrugs
If you tap a stick of dynamite lightly 50 times, chances are it won’t blow up. Whack it once real hard and BOOM! This is intensity. The more intense the activity, the less of it you can do. So, using our workout template above, performing all the reps at 85% could be insane to do during spring practice. But performing the same volume of work at 60% is simply not enough to get you strong (more on this later). Using our above example, 3x5 @ 75% for full range of motion bench press and 65% for full range of motion squat are great starting points. From here you can progress slowly throughout spring practices. This allows for acclimatization to the new stress of playing football. Another option is to change the exercise selection and perhaps keep the weight a bit higher because the movement is easier, or more ergonomic:
Front/Back Neck: 1x8 each
Pendulum Seated Shrug: 2x8 (light to heavy)
Pendulum Vertical Chest Press: 2x8 (light to heavy) or Close grip 3-board Press: 3x5 @ 80-85%
Pendulum 3-way Row: 2x8 or 3x5 (light to heavy)
Pendulum Hip Press: 2x8 (light to heavy) or High box squat: 3x5 @ 70-75%
Core: 1-2 sets
In this example, your players get to handle a bit heavier weight with the barbell movements. With a machine alternative you also get to alter range of motion within a set track and ergonomic design.
As far as conditioning goes, get more bang for your buck. In other words, try to incorporate conditioning into practice. Some football coaches prefer to practice at a high tempo to accomplish this, some like to run gassers or other variations at the end of practice, still others prefer to have the strength coach come out and spend 10 minutes at the end (or even prior to team periods) to run the team. It can all work, but what doesn’t work is to try to add conditioning as another session throughout the week. Too many faucets going into the tub!
Pendulum 5 Way Neck
This next piece is crucial. Communication. If you know what the week looks like as far as intensity on the field, you can manage intensity in the weight room. An easy week on the field can provide opportunity for a harder lift on one day. A very challenging week should be paired with a get the blood pumping and work the kinks out kind of lift (remember that 60% discussed earlier). Obviously the football staff will meet and go over a multitude of factors relating to practice, etc. If you as the strength coach have the opportunity to go to these meetings it can be very beneficial. If you don’t, then you absolutely have to make a point to get with your head coach and get a feel for what practice will look like in the coming days so that you can plan accordingly. The last thing you want is to give the players a hard lift thinking that practice is going to be a walk thru and then it’s filled with hard hitting and three periods of goal line. That is a recipe for injury. Along those lines, communicate with your athletic training staff as well. Get a feel for injury trends, and use that to re-tool your current plan or to plan ahead for the next phase of training. Most importantly, talk to your players. Specifically, talk to your guys that will give you honest feedback. Not the meat head who wants to max bench every day. Not the guy who is always trying to get out of things. Talk to the guys who consistently work hard and who have a good feel for the big picture. These guys know they should be sore and what kind of sore is a good sore; they know if they (and the team) can handle more or need rest. This relationship is absolutely vital.
Pendulum Hip Press
The final piece and the one that goes hand in hand with stress is nutrition. Good nutrition (and rest) equals recovery. And recovery is the all important factor. Optimal performance is less a function of how much you can endure, but rather what you can recover from. At the same token, you are not what you eat. You are what you digest. Not everyone can digest pizza, pasta, potatoes, milk, etc. - keep food allergies in mind. Most of us have no idea what we are allergic to unless it just about kills us. The real issue is with things that don’t elicit a huge response right away. Dairy and gluten can fall into this category. Keep an eye on players’ bodyweights to make sure there are no abnormal fluctuations. Constantly address hydration. By the way, hydration does not mean downing sports drinks 24/7. Keep sports drinks where they belong – during and immediately following practice. Rather, players should drink at least 50% of their bodyweight in ounces of water every day (a 200lb player would need 100oz of water daily). This is on top of any other beverages, like sports drinks. Avoid sugar, processed foods, and bad fats. Does a player have a hard time gaining or losing weight? If so, think hydration first. If he’s hydrated and getting enough calories, think food allergies and seek help of a nutritional professional.
At the end of the day, the main theme is to maintain a balanced stress level, communicate, and eat well. Don’t be afraid to adjust your lift calendar or exercise selection to accommodate the needs of your players. Then once spring gives way to summer, you get to transition them again and ramp it back up in preparation for two-a-day camp. Always working hard, because THERE IS NO OFF SEASON.