Why Strongman Training Is Ideal for Building Football Players

I have made my living working with high school and college athletes for the last three decades. Parents will look to private coaches to specifically improve the skill sets of athletes to increase their playing time or help secure a scholarship for college. I am (continually) amazed when I discuss the strength and conditioning portion of their training with these young athletes. Somehow, it seems as if 20 years of scientific methodology escapes the coaches who are in charge of training these combat athletes. There are many aspects to molding a college (or professional) level athlete that should be examined individually but in a the scope of macro programming we are concerned with the two major concepts:

1. Conditioning: The development of the ATP-PC (up to 12 seconds of max effort)  and anaerobic system to deliver peak performance for entire duration of the game (typically 2 to 2.5 hours).

2. Resistance training: The process of using weight to develop muscle growth, power and strength. This is also necessary to help toughen the athlete and prevent athletes.

When I review an athlete’s current practices I often find there are many common mistakes made by coaches who are well meaning but have a lack of understanding of rep ranges, exercise selection, energy systems (aerobic vs. anaerobic), rest times and recovery techniques. Much of this information I have covered in previous articles in depth and will provide links for them here. This article is designed for those coaches to better understand the scope of how to apply them.

Problem One

Let us begin with the biggest, hugest, most inexcusable mistake that coaches make: aerobically running their athletes for a large portion of the practice.

“Well we started with a 20 (15, 10) minute run.” This may be considered a warm up, and while all athletes should be warm and sweaty it really does very little to help them and does more to impede proper performance. Why? Well the average play in a high school football game lasts about five seconds and total game play average about 11 minutes. Think about this for a minute. A game that takes place in the ATP-PC and  anaerobic states is going to receive very little benefit from a long run. It does increase the overall fitness of your athlete but it can be argued that doing a short energy state warmup can do the same.

Your athlete performs in the ATP-PC energy system (12 seconds or less of energy expenditure) with rest between plays averaging 20-25 seconds the anaerobic (60-90 seconds) system comes into play. With this in mind that the majority of your athletes (the entire defensive and offensive lines) only run on and off the field and not at all during regular play. Running power athletes in the aerobic state will convert muscle fibers that you want to be explosive and strong less so by asking them to convert to slow twitch fibers. This counterproductive move can lower performance, hinder weight (muscle) gain, and tire your athletes out for regular practice. This triple whammy can cost games and in my opinion, lead to injury. Remember a tired athlete will not be able to work hard in the gym. Always weight train before serious conditioning work. Always.

Solution One

The first move is limit the jogging the athletes do. You can remove it completely or keep it to a lap around the track. Now, it’s easy to just send the guys out to run while you hang and wait for them to be finished, but that is not why you took this job so let’s start a worthwhile warm up. After a 2 minute jog, get the team together and go through some bodyweight squats, push ups, dynamic jumps and anything else that eases the muscles in to the demands of a strength training workout. After everyone is ready to work get them in the weight room to prepare for actual strength training.

Problem two: Weight training that makes zero sense.

“What have you been doing in the gym” I asked.

“Upper and lower body split.”

“Max bench, squats, curls, dips, stuff like that.”

“We bench 10 sets starting with 10 reps and work down to one, then we squat or do arms.”

These are the common answers I get. Now I never expect a full recital of the work performed but just a few minutes in the rack will illustrate a large numbers of problem of what’s going on at the school.

  • High squats
  • Bounced benches with wide grips
  • No idea how to clean, jerk, high pull, or even snatch a kettlebell.
  • A large number of exercises performed in the bodybuilding rep range

Solution Two

Understand rep ranges and how to apply them. In this article I give full details on how to train for strength, power and size. In a nutshell:

  • 1-3 reps at 90% for strength
  • 3-6 reps at 80% for power (speed)
  • 8-15 reps for size and endurance

I recommend that almost all positions spend the bulk of their time is the strength and power ranges with only about 10% of work during the season coming in at the endurance scope. This is more to aid in recovery and maintain muscle mass. The offseason is a much better time to try and add mass. There is absolutely no reason to max lift these athletes at this point and singles at 100% should be skipped. Three days of the following exercises will work for most athletes and will give them time to recover for games:

  • High pull or power clean 3x a week
  • Jerk or bench press (better with dumbbells) 3x per week
  • Front and back squats 3x per week
  • Traditional or frame deadlift 1 time per week
  • Pullups and rows 3x per week
  • Good mornings, reverse hyper, kettlebell swing 1 to 2 times per week

These few basics will cover all muscle groups to make your athletes solid as a rock and strong as a bull. Isolation work like curls, triceps pushdowns, side raises, can be limited to 1 or 2 sets at the end of the session or skipped altogether.

Bonus Tip: Longer rest times will let your athletes get stronger. Shorter ones, will help their conditioning. Having a B session for linemen who do a 70% clean and jerk once every 30 seconds for 20 minutes will give them more gas than a long run ever could.

Problem Three: Cross country running and endless sprinting.

We already discussed the misuse of distance running running in the game and I can make a great argument to cut it completely. I am sure most coaches know better but don’t have a solution or one that isn’t much better. Typically kids will run long sprints in lieu of a bunch of distance, but this isn’t much better because we reviewed earlier that a play lasts about 5 to 6 seconds. 30 second sprints are rarely performed, if even in a game. So how do we fix this? I will present two solutions.

Solution One: Short sprints.

Have your athletes assemble and run quicker shorter sprints that will mimic play time. Sprint 10 seconds then walk for 20 and repeat for about 5 minutes (or the average time that crew spends on the field during a typical series of downs). This should be employed for receivers, running backs, safeties, linebackers, tight ends or any player that spends his their time chasing or being chased. If this group typically is on the field for 12 series of possessions that would be a good number sets to run this exercise.

Solution Two: Strongman conditioning and how to completely change your player’s ability.

The meat of this article is to get you as a coach to employ sled pushes and drags, sand bag, stone or keg carries and loads, and tire flips and back and forth pushes for your athletes.

The most underrated category of athlete in this country are middleweight strongmen. With a 231 pound cut off these specimens mirror the body types of sprinters. Lean, muscular, and explosive; a pro strongman will crush most NFL players at odd object lifting (and they should, it’s their specialty). But the contest should be much closer than it would be in real life. Strongman training most mimics the type of work and produces the results that most football players require; short term intense power. If you use these techniques with your high school students you will be creating a nearly unfair advantage over the competition.

1. Sled drags and pushes: Conditioning without much muscle damage that can strengthen the whole body and maximize anaerobic capacity is ideal and the solution is cheap and within everyone’s reach. A bull breakdown is here.

2. Front carries: It doesn’t matter what it is, from bag to block to stone. Pick it up and run and walk with it. Amazing endurance builder in the lower back, glutes and hamstrings, also will build toughness in your crew.

3. Tire Flipping: When done correctly, linemen will increase power and blow their opposition away with this exercise. It must be done right with the body pushed against the tire and the hips doing the work, not the biceps. Use a medium weight tire that is free from debris and moisture (wet tires are dangerous). This over sprinting and running will provide heavy pay back for you big eaters. These guys can also push the tire back and forth at each other to develop pushing opposing players away.


Other Considerations and Tips

  • Bench pressing with a log places the hands in a neutral grip and lowers the range of motion providing some shoulder protection. It also puts the hands in a position closer to what the athlete would do in a game. You can replace the bar completely or work back and forth.
  • Loading stones is one of the best exercises for any combat athlete. The dead weight on a person’s body and then manipulating it to pass a fixed height works the core and posterior chain like nothing else. Make sure you seek proper instruction if you chose to add them. 
  • Let your athletes recover. Never practice the AM after a late game. Sleep and food should be priority here. Use mid week for your hardest sessions and never train strongman the day before a game. Encourage a good nutritional program, 8 hours of rest , and some down time for team building. These kids aren’t Navy Seals and the season isn’t hell week. A balanced kid is happier and will play better.

I know much of this will be a total 180 from what you are doing currently but it will make a huge difference in how your athletes perform on the field. If you need expert advice hit me up on the Instagram @prostrongman. I’ve revamped team’s entire game plans and I can assist yours as well. Get your kids the quality skills they trust you to develop: make smart choices and choose strongman.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Images: Michele Wozniak