At the University of Cincinnati, speed work and a creative approach to building strength are the foundations of the football training program. But just as important is how the coaches coordinate their efforts.
By Paul Longo
Paul Longo, CSCS, CSCCa, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Cincinnati. He has over 20 years of NCAA Division I experience, with stints at Central Michigan University (2004-06), the University of Iowa (1988-2004), and the University of Wisconsin (1987-88). He can be reached at: Paul.Longo@UC.edu.
When I arrived at the University of Cincinnati with new Head Football Coach Brian Kelly after the 2006 season, he and I had high expectations. We came from Central Michigan University, where we had turned the football program around in three short years, going from 4-7 in 2004 to 6-5 in 2005 (the program's first winning record in a decade) to 10-4 in 2006. In that last season, we claimed the Mid-American Conference title and won the Motor City Bowl -- the team's first bowl appearance in 12 years.
Our first year with the Bearcats didn't disappoint. The team had its first 10-win season since 1951, and finished in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time ever (at number 17). And with a strong class of incoming players, weíve set our sights even higher for next season.
I've been in the strength training profession long enough to see -- and borrow from -- virtually every type of coach and philosophy. The main lesson I've learned over the years is that there's no single best approach to football development. My program is a constantly changing hybrid of many kinds of training, as I adjust to address players' specific goals, correct weaknesses or deficiencies, and provide enough variety to keep the athletes engaged and challenged. I like to think of my approach as 50 percent science and 50 percent art.
For that reason, this article doesn't contain detailed lists of exercises, weight training progressions, and the complete framework for my football workouts. Instead, I'll explain our program's top training priorities and discuss how theyíve helped Cincinnati football reach a higher level.
The "Third Coordinator"
From a strength and conditioning perspective, the foundation of our team's success isn't any unique workout I've devised or any secret I've figured out to make players stronger and faster. I believe the biggest key has been Coach Kelly's philosophy for how I fit into the program. I call it the third coordinator model.
Too often, the strength coach is seen as a member of the support staff -- an athletic department employee like the sports information director or equipment manager. But in reality, every strength coach knows we actually play a much larger role than that. Football player development, especially at the NCAA Division I level, is a year-round process, and the football coaching staff has only limited access to the players in the off-season. Strength coaches spend far more hours with the football team than anyone else throughout the year.
Of course, I'm not a member of the football staff, and NCAA rules prohibit me from actually having a coordinator-level position with the team. I oversee strength and conditioning for all 18 Bearcat sports, and I work with coaches and athletes from all of our programs. But I take a special leadership role in our football players' development. Under Coach Kelly's direction, they see me right next to the offensive and defensive coordinators on our program's totem pole.
What does this really mean? On a daily basis, it means I'm not just a guy in the weightroom who tells them how to lift. I follow the football team closely and build personal relationships with the players, so I fully understand the team dynamics and the buttons to push to get individual players motivated. I know who the team leaders are, and the players know that I communicate regularly with the coaching staff about their performance during our strength and conditioning sessions.
For instance, if a second stringer works his tail off in the weightroom because he wants to challenge for a starting spot, he knows he's not toiling in obscurity. And if a player is slacking off, he knows I have the authority to hold him accountable. I see who our hardest workers are, and my input to Coach Kelly and his assistants is reflected in playing time decisions.
Everything we do in our football strength program is colored by that approach. Because the players see me as a leader and not just a lifting coach, they buy into every activity I put them through and understand that my primary goal is the same as theirs: to win football games. Coach Kelly's third coordinator model gives me the credibility I need, and our success on the field speaks for itself.
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 itís 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. Itís 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.
Coat of Armor
In the last two years -- my final season at Central Michigan and this past season at Cincinnati -- my football players haven't suffered any major injuries. In both seasons, we started the same 22 guys at the beginning and end of the year.
Obviously there's an element of luck in avoiding major injuries, but it's also due to a specific emphasis in our strength program. Throughout the year, I periodically turn to a training phase that I call building our "coat of armor." This is when we address any weaknesses or strength deficiencies that may leave players more prone to injury.
Nine times out of 10, the biggest deficiency I need to correct is in the posterior chain. Quite simply, too many players come out of high school thinking that football strength training is all about the bench press and squat. They come in with underdeveloped hamstrings, glutes, calves, and lower-back muscles, and they're often unfamiliar with the exercises that will strengthen these areas.
To address posterior-chain weakness, I frequently prescribe straight-leg deadlifts, king deadlifts, glute-ham developers, and partner leg curls. These are all fairly easy to teach and very effective in targeting the deficient muscle groups. Strengthening the posterior chain not only prevents injuries, but many athletes are surprised to find it also increases their speed, quickness, and vertical jump.
Another common area of weakness that's central to the coat of armor is the shoulders, particularly the rear deltoids. The deltoids are a smaller muscle group, so they are frequently overlooked by high school strength programs that only emphasize bench pressing for upper-body development. To address weakness in the deltoids, I like to use L-flys and lying flys.
Throughout our coat of armor phase, I observe the athletes during certain lifts to identify movement deficits that may make them injury prone. For instance, an overhead squat provides a great opportunity to evaluate ankle mobility, and this is an area where many athletes are lacking. I have used several tricks to address this, including having them wear work boots or lifting shoes, and even putting weights under their heels before a lift. In some cases, I'll also refer players to our athletic trainer for remedial ankle flexibility work on wobble boards and other instability devices.
Total Team Effort
That brings me to my final point, which is the importance of open communication with all the other parts of our football program. Our Head Athletic Trainer, Bob Mangine, PT, ATC, is an outstanding resource who has been working with athletes even longer than I have. We frequently consult each other when evaluating players in the weightroom, and I can rely on him for advice on virtually any aspect of our strength and conditioning program.
And, like I explained at the outset, my communication with the football coaching staff is the foundation for my ability to do my job. I am in tune with all the coaches and I regularly adapt my training itinerary based on their input and concerns. By building around this philosophy, I know we're getting the most from our athletes every day.