All-Season Training

by Jim Steel | December 23, 2020

football tackle

Many moons ago, when I was a high school defensive coordinator and strength coach in Florida, I attended a seminar that was being taught by the head football coach at Miami at the time, Butch Davis. A high school coach in the audience asked Coach Davis, “What kind of coverage would you run with first and 10 from outside your own 20 yard line?” “Cover 2,” came the answer. “What about in third and ten from the 50 yard line?” “Cover 2,” said Coach Davis. “What about second and goal from the three yard line?” The coach asked. “Cover 2,” came the reply. The coach asking the question was flabbergasted. Cover 2 from everywhere? And then Coach Davis explained that it wasn't the coverage, it was how you played the coverage. He was saying that if you stick with the fundamentals, like his Cover 2, almost anything will work. And he explained how they made adjustments and such, but Cover 2 was always the base of their defense. The message from Coach Davis was clear: keep it simple and work the hell out of the basics, and you can’t fail.

And then when I became a strength coach in college full time, I would go to a national strength coaches clinic and I'd be hearing coaches talk about mini-cycle this and macrocycle that, and they'd be showing this graph and this chart and how there are only this many medball throws allowed in this microcycle, and hell, I’d leave feeling plenty confused. I was always looking for a Coach Davis to step in and tell everyone to forget the fancy stuff and just focus on the basics.

It’s what I believe in, and all that I’ve ever known. I don’t think it's that complicated. And I know it works better than anything else.

So when people ask me about how I used to train collegiate football teams, I’d tell them that we squat, bench, deadlift, clean, press, and row. And then we'd do some assistance stuff to make them look good. And we did sprints and change-of-direction stuff, and everybody kickboxed. I’d explain how during heavy football workloads I lightened up the poundages some, but when there wasn't football, we lifted heavy to get as strong as possible. Maybe I should have made it more complicated than all that, but I really didn’t know how to. I had a plan, sure, but it wasn’t labeled or anything – my staff and I just tried to use some common sense when training the athletes.

I always disliked the talk of maintaining strength in season; in the old days, a football player would have to struggle to keep up strength and bodyweight. Things have changed. When I was at Penn the last few years, they banned two-a-day practices and a bunch of hitting, and decreased the time on the field. This enabled the players to train heavier for a longer period of time than usual, and some athletes, especially the lineman who weren’t running all that much, actually got stronger and gained weight and strength in-season. In addition, most of the games were broadcast on television and the timeouts that the networks required gave the players plenty of rest during the games, and this helped with their strength and bodyweight also.

I can remember back in the 1980s when I played in college, everyone would come into camp a little heavier, knowing that with two a day and three a day practices, they would lose around ten pounds during the season. And I was eating as much as I could to keep the weight up. I can recall going to the Dairy Queen after the third preseason practice in the summer and wolfing down 3-4 loaded cheeseburgers to try to keep some body weight on. I would strive to keep my squat and bench numbers up during the season, but would still lose some strength nonetheless.

As a strength coach, I was thrilled with all of the changes. I could actually program decent weights during the season. The team would squat and deadlift on Sundays, and I was able to train those lifts decently heavy with 1-2 hard sets of 3-5 reps. The players would run a little on Sundays, but just a few loosening up mobility drills. Monday was a day off from practice, and off from lifting, and Tuesday we would clean and do our pressing movements, again sets of 3-5 reps. I didn't want the players sore for practice, so it was usually 1-2 heavy sets to go along with the low reps. Both of those days would last around an hour, and that is including a general mobility warmup. The third day of weight training was just a quick “showy” muscle day, with the emphasis on some bodybuilding arm movements. In fact, I finished every workout with some kind of pumping movement.

One day I was speaking with Frank Costello, a strength coach at the University of Maryland in the 1970’s (when weight training for football was still a relatively new concept), and he said, “You know how I got the players to love lifting weights? I’d finish every session with some arm work, so they'd leave the weight room feeling all pumped up, with everyone looking at their arms as they walked across campus!” Scientific? No, but there are huge psychological factors to always consider, and a 19-year-old kid who gets double-takes from the girls as he walks across campus is going to buy in pretty fast to the program.

As far as conditioning during the season goes, I worked for football coaches who practiced very fast. If that is the case, extra conditioning shouldn’t be necessary. Some players would come into the weight room and box with my staff, doing focus-mitt work, but that isn't tough on the knees, hips and shins like running. What I didn't like is when a sport coach decided to run the hell out of a player because they weren't “in shape.” And then they get them running after practice every day, and the athlete ends up getting so fatigued and depleted that they pull a hamstring. They would have been much better off making some dietary changes and accepting the fact that killing the kid with extra conditioning was actually detrimental to his recovery and could get him hurt.

Because during the season, recovery becomes even more important than ever. And a strength coach has to take it all into consideration; time spent on their feet at practice wears them down pretty fast. The stress of the day’s classes would wear them down also. Upperclassmen figured it out, but freshmen especially needed a close eye kept on them. They had a tendency to have trouble with time management, especially with getting their meals in, so my staff and I were constantly talking to the freshman about their calorie intake during the season.

As soon as the season ended, the players would get a week off, and that was usually around Thanksgiving. When they got back, we would start training right away. Up until Christmas break, there wouldn't be any running. We would use this time to get back into the 4-day-a-week training, but I wasn't programming high reps like some folks espoused. We would just start bumping their weights up incrementally, and work with some of the injured players to develop a plan to get them back to full speed. The reps in the big exercises like squats and deadlift, presses and benches were usually in the 5-rep range with upwards of 5 sets per exercise. In the assistance work, I’d change up some of the reps, but the staple lifts stayed with relatively low reps.

Football coaches used to walk in the weight room in the off-season when I coached at various colleges and they would look around at the players and ask, “Why is everyone sitting around?” and I would answer them, “ We are trying to get stronger, Coach.” They were resting between heavy sets.

What many coaches wanted was to have the players running from set to set, yelling and screaming with lots of whistles blowing and for me to be yelling at the top of my lungs at all times, in that scratchy voice that strength coaches are supposed to have, and with those big gray trash cans set up in strategically places of the weight room to catch all of the vomit spewing out of the player’s mouths.

Some of the coaches where I worked felt that we needed to “grind” and “get after it,” but I always treated the off-season as time to get as big and as strong as possible, and rushing around from set to set wasn’t going to cut it when a kid was working with any appreciable weight in any of the basic lifts.

My goal as the off-season went on was to hit a strength peak right before spring ball. We would lift weights 4 days a week, squatting, benching, cleaning, and pressing twice a week, and deadlift once a week. As far as assistance work went, I'd give the player’s some choices. For instance, I'd have on the program, Triceps: pick 2 exercises for 3 sets of 5-8 reps, and then they’d look at a list with all of the different triceps exercises that they could perform. They didn't have choices on the basic exercises, but I always figured that the assistance was more for looks and hypertrophy, so the difference between a dumbbell curl and a cable curl really didn't matter. And the players loved having the choice! I think it gave them a sense of ownership in the whole thing, and it seemed to work for them.

Spring football would start in late February or early March so I would have a lifting meet in February with maxes in the squat, bench and clean. Some players with elbow or wrist injuries would max in the deadlift. I tried to make the Max Night (at Penn it was called the “Iron Quaker” because the University of Pennsylvania were the Penn Quakers) as special as possible. One year, I had Kirk Karwoski come in to kick things off. He squatted an easy 500x5 in shorts and a t-shirt, and the kids went wild. We had some great times at those meets and would give awards to the overall strongest and by bodyweight. I’d talk the coaches into giving the kids off from running the week before the meet so that their legs would be fresh.

We would start winter running when the players returned from Holiday Break. This consisted of station work, sprints and agility training, some boxing and running over bags, and some change-of-direction drills. I have never believed players needed to be getting into condition 6 months away from the season, but I had to compromise on some of this stuff. The best thing to do would be to have the kids just get strong as hell, and maybe play some pickup basketball and box some, and perform some skill work specific to their position, but that would be “too easy” for most coaches to accept. So my staff and I designed the drills that we liked, and we pushed the athletes pretty hard. And I can’t say that it didn't weed out some kids that weren’t totally committed.

We would try to counterbalance the hard running with an emphasis on nutrition and I would have to adjust some of the weights at times if I felt like the running took too much out of the players. Sometimes, especially in the modern Strength and Conditioning world, I had to compromise – as long as it didn't make me compromise my basic philosophy. Was that frustrating to me? Yes, but honestly, I always felt that as long as nobody overstepped their bounds and told me what to do in the weight room, I could bend a little on the running program and then do damage control control on the back end.

Spring ball would then begin, and we would keep training 4 days a week. When we had a scrimmage or the Spring Game, I would back off a little, but we still trained as heavy as we could recover from. We would keep going strong with the weights after spring ball, but the morning runs would stop. I'd still have the kids run some after their weight workouts, but they felt much better without the morning runs. I programmed the players weights pretty heavily in the summer, hitting new PRs in May, June and July. We'd start camp in late August, so in early August I'd start backing off the tonnage because of the increased running, mostly just to get ready for the running/conditioning tests.

I was never a fan of running tests before camp. It's a no-win situation for the strength coach. The coaches want to max in the weight room, see how fast the players are, and see what kind of shape they are in, so it never made much sense to me. The chance of injury was huge, especially in August. The players are just getting ready to go to training camp, but they get tested with a mess of sprints for time, the 40-yard sprint, the broad jump, the vertical jump, and whatever else the coaches remembered from the college they had visited in the offseason. We used to joke as a staff that whenever a football coach went to visit another school, as soon as he got back we would be doing a warm-up drill or have a new poster in the locker room copied from the other school.

My staff and I would have the players strong as hell, and in shape for the season, and then the testing would loom. The coaches wanted them to max in the weight room, but I'd change it up. I'd have the athletes work up to a good solid single or double with 85-90% of their max in the bench and clean, even less in the squat and deadlift, and stop them there. Why didn't I take them over 100%? Because they had full-speed running tests to do, plus camp was in a week! If I didn't back off of the weights, we would have had a bunch of pulled hamstrings and quads – and it all would have been the strength staff’s fault. I learned that real fast when I was just starting out coaching, and tried to avoid making that mistake again.

I'd breathe a sigh of relief if we made it through all the tests without any major injuries as the season was beginning. Sometimes, I'd have to stop the coaches from having the players who failed the conditioning test run it every morning until they passed it. They would never pass it that way, but would invariably get injured or just plain exhausted. Most listened, and my staff and I would work the player back into shape slowly.

And we’d make it through all of that, and get geared up to do it all over again next year.

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