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The Strength ReportDeveloping the Explosive Athlete: Linebackers
by: Shannon Turley
Director of Athletic Performance Training, University of San Diego
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Our philosophy and strategy at the University of San Diego is to develop players that are willing to persistently work towards achieving their goals and dreams, that believe if they dedicate themselves to their preparation they will deserve to be confident and expect to be successful.
We teach players to perform with the fundamental habits that will enable them to be successful in their football career and life: by implementing a comprehensive program that teaches players to pay attention to the details of their preparation in every aspect of their training, such as technique, effort, accountability, mental discipline, teamwork, leadership and commitment; and through specific, progressive, variable and precise training that is individually designed to reduce the risk and severity of potential injury while also improving overall athleticism by enhancing speed, power, strength, stamina, agility and other essential performance evaluations.
Developing linebackers is critical since it is a position that typically plays more than any other position and requires players to communicate with coaches, lead teammates, react quickly, accelerate instantly in every direction, extend explosively with contact courage and compete with stamina to execute on defense and special teams.
The pending season dictates our goals and the resulting frequency, volume and intensity required to prepare our players for the competition that follows. But, regardless of the time of year, we focus on constant daily improvement in our training. So the theme of individually designed specific, progressive, variable and precise training is always in effect.
During the off-season we lift three days per week with team conditioning each Tuesday and Thursday between each session. We concentrate on rehabilitating injuries from the previous season and building a solid foundation of lean muscle mass and general athleticism through strength, power, speed and agility development. Conditioning is used as a tool to teach accountability and measure commitment, while promoting teamwork and competition so that players are equipped to contend for roles of leadership and earn playing time at their position during spring ball.
The pre-season focus is driven towards football and position specific conditioning to build the team’s will and mental discipline to perform despite fatigue or external pressures. Therefore, our training frequency is increased to four days per week with our time and focus geared more to the on field work that precedes weight training. Specific strength development and explosive power are prioritized through an increased plyometric volume and intensity for both upper and lower body training on the field and in the weight room. Agile movement via efficient acceleration and deceleration training is also valued more than absolute speed since game speed is seen in the ability to start and stop effectively.
Linebackers demand special preparation for the shoulder, hip, knee and ankle joints. Typically, this requires significant lean muscle development and starting strength and explosive power to make an impact on the field. Given the strain on the shoulder and AC joint in particular during the violent collisions experienced by linebackers, enhancing the stability and reducing stress on the shoulder is a primary training objective in our program.
So prioritizing isolated rotator cuff, scapular stability, and compound pulling movements in favor of the more popular but stressful bench and overhead shoulder presses can improve the integrity of the shoulder. The rotator cuff muscles are targeted with a progressive series of exercises to isolate the internal and external rotations with the shoulder abducted (elbow away from the body) and adducted (elbow toward the body) in addition to flexion and hyperextension movements. The protraction (forward), retraction (backward), depression (down) and elevation (up/shrug) movements of the scapulae or shoulder blades are also addressed with a series of progressive isolation exercises designed to improve stability and control of the unattached bone.
Some of the specific training principles for our linebackers include:
• Closed chain (feet on the floor) rowing and hanging pulling movements with variable grips, resistance and muscle actions (e.g. accentuated eccentric). Standard exercises like bent over rows and pull-ups comprise the multi-joint pulling exercises utilized to draw the shoulder capsule back and down to prevent impingement stress and possible inflammation.
• Pressing strength and power is developed through progressive push-up and bench press variations contrasted with plyometric pressing exercises and isolated triceps movements. Overhead presses are performed only while standing as part of a series of shoulder stability movements with the shoulder adducted (elbow into the body), often with a neutral (palms facing) or supinated (palms up/underhand) grip to minimize stress on the shoulder.
• To protect the knee and maximize the explosive extension potential of the lower body which is fundamental to sprinting, jumping, and tackling a particular emphasis is placed on the development of muscles in the posterior chain from the calves to the hamstrings and up to the gluteus and lower back.
• Olympic lifts and closed chain squatting and single leg variations are at the core of our program for developing overall lower body strength and power. With excellent technique as our priority, posterior chain exercises like the Romanian Deadlift, Glute Ham Raise, Good Morning, Physioball Leg Curl, Hyperextension and Sled Pull variations are used to establish the foundation of general physical preparation necessary to support max effort loads on the Olympic and squat movements.
• To specifically protect the hamstrings we employ closed chain, single leg, posterior chain variations with lighter loads and an emphasis on gluteus activation. This is because hamstring injury is often a result of muscular imbalance and poor gluteus activation between opposing legs.
• Given that the foot is responsible for exchanging force with the ground in almost all athletic movements, a special emphasis is placed on training the ankle with a progressive series of calf raise and dorsiflexion exercises.This is in addition to performing many dynamic warm-up exercises like jumping rope barefoot.
• Other auxiliary exercises to address grip and core strength are also incorporated often together with hanging leg raises from a bar or towel.
Since injury prevention is our first priority we use an aggressive program and challenge our players to achieve new goals during the season that can be accomplished without overtraining. This includes improving muscular imbalances and functional movement deficiencies, eating and hydration habits, and sleeping patterns that can enhance the recovery process and prevent mental burn out and physical fatigue which soon manifests into lean muscle loss and greater injury risk. Providing players choices of exercises, variable training such as pool workouts, and multiple dynamic pre-practice warm-up routines is vital to prevent complacency and overtraining while often enhancing enthusiasm and compliance.
In my experience, there aren’t many secrets out there to training players. But the most successful programs and coaches consistently demonstrate the passion, organization, accountability and loyalty necessary to develop a credible program that the team will believe in and commit to following. They recognize the athlete’s need for individual attention, and the opportunity to have input into their training plan and team development. And this requires the coach to be dedicated to humility, cooperation, continuing education and being willing to utilize new ideas to motivate and challenge players to compete and improve themselves consistently.
Shannon Turley is in his first season as Director of Athletic Performance Training at the University of San Diego. A graduate of Virginia Tech, Turley began his career with the Hokies as a student assistant before coaching in the Kansas City Royals minor league system. Turley then served as both a graduate assistant and Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Missouri for five seasons prior to leading the program at USD.
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