We run a spread offense and an aggressive defense, so nothing is more important in our strength and conditioning program than speed. I'm not just talking about 40 times -- being football fast is about explosiveness, force production from the ground, foot agility and quickness, and the ability to change direction on a dime.
I don't believe there are any magic techniques for speed development. My favorite speed exercise is hill running, because it uses gravitational resistance, requires the athletes to generate force as they plant each foot in the ground, and trains total-body coordination during the running movement. And best of all, when performed as a group, it taps into players' natural competitiveness.
The hill we use is about 30 yards from the base to the top, and itÃs fairly steep (I estimate the average grade to be around 45 degrees). The work volume varies depending on the type and intensity of the players' other activities in practice and the weightroom that day, and during most sessions I prescribe intervals of varying effort. A typical session might consist of five runs at 70 percent of max effort, five runs at 80 percent, and five runs all-out.
Maximizing team speed also means evaluating players' body composition. I did just that shortly after arriving and found we needed to improve in this area. Our heaviest linemen had an average body fat percentage between 23 and 25 percent, which is too high for a team that prioritizes speed up front.
I set 18 percent as the maximum body fat percentage for our players, and they're all at or below that level today. For our purposes, body fat percentage is a better metric than body mass index (BMI), which does not distinguish between muscle mass and fat mass. ItÃs also better than body weight, because in most cases I didn't want the players to actually lose weight -- I wanted them to replace fat with lean muscle, which makes them faster and more powerful on the field, and also helps ensure they're in shape to remain fast for all four quarters.
To assess whether our speed program is succeeding, we put players through an NFL-style combine test twice a year. Their 40 times and shuttle run performances give us some indication of where the athletes are at, but that's just a starting point. I know the top players in a straight-ahead dash or a cone drill aren't always the ones who play fastest on game days. There's no substitute for watching players play football, so I often look at practice drills and game performance when evaluating players' progress in developing football speed.
From the Ground Up
There are many ways to build strength in football players, and every strength coach has his preferences. Some like a high-intensity machine-based program. Some focus on the big squats and big benches. At Cincinnati, I've gravitated toward ground-based training, especially Olympic lifts and explosive movements. Today, 75 to 80 percent of our weightroom work is done on a platform.
The main reason I like platform work and Olympic lifts is that they force the athletes to activate multiple key muscle groups at the same time. These lifts typically incorporate 80 percent or more of the athletes' total muscle fiber, and to do each lift successfully, the athlete must apply force in a specific sequence of short, burst-style movements. So while they're getting stronger, they're also developing muscle coordination that maximizes transfer to the demands of football.
Most of the players at Cincinnati hadn't done much platform work before I got here, so it felt like I was working with 90 freshmen. As I taught and demonstrated the Olympic lifts, I always kept in mind that there's a big difference between impeccable technique and acceptable technique. If you're lucky, maybe 20 percent of your football players will perform the lifts impeccably -- but that doesn't mean the rest should move on to another type of strength training.
I evaluated each player's lifting mechanics individually, and as long as they were activating the right muscle groups, not risking injury due to a mechanical flaw or compensation, and making adequate progress on a weekly and monthly basis, I didn't micromanage their lifting. Never forget that weightlifting is a means for football players to increase their strength and explosiveness, not an end in itself.
Off the platform, my favorite strength training activity is strongman work. I like to get creative for our strongman sessions, so we have done just about everything, including traditional farmer's walks, tire flipping, log presses, and carrying heavy rocks, sand bags, and other oddly shaped implements.
In addition to being a great way to increase work volume, strongman exercises offer several key benefits. They promote total-body muscle coordination by forcing the athletes to use their core, extremities, and stabilizer muscles to maintain balance while carrying a heavy, awkward object. Most weightroom work involves predictable straight-line up/down or push/pull movements, but strongman activities provide a more dynamic stimulus: The athletes have to think and react with their muscles during the walks, lifts, and movements, much like they have to during football games.
Another benefit is that strongman activities lend themselves to competition between the players, so they push each other to work harder. Any time I can make a strength activity competitive, I know the athletes will give it everything they have.