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Strength Report: Indiana’s Off-Season Training Philosophy

by: Mark Hill
Strength and Conditioning Coach Indiana University
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College football seasons are becoming longer and more physical than ever before. With many college football teams seasons lasting from 14 to 20 weeks, it is critical to use the off-season training weeks as a time to rebuild and retrain in a proper way.

In order to start the year off with a proper foundation for the upcoming year, off season training programs can last anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks  consecutively, depending on a number of factors -  spring practice start dates, team discretionary weeks,  and whether or not schools are on a quarter or semester system. It is my belief that off-season training is the optimal time to train athletes to add size by gaining muscle mass, as well as using the time to focus on “speed training” as opposed to “conditioning”. 

After our athletes have had a few weeks off, we waste no time getting back to our training schedule. Indiana University is on a semester system so our spring classes begin the second or third week of January. Our goal is to have seven to eight weeks of training done before the start of spring practice. For us, we always begin one week before the spring break holiday. 

As soon as our athletes are back, we order body composition tests for the whole team. We do this in order to establish how the rigors of the season as well as the off time have affected our athletes. It is also not a bad idea at this time to establish some baseline numbers for bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, and a 40-yard time. We do this to see how those numbers compare at the end of the training phase. When all of the tests have been concluded, and schedules have been set, it’s time to begin the training phase.

With athletes are off and not monitored for a period of time, there is a natural worry that the time was used improperly. After such a long season, the time off is well needed in order for the athletes’ bodies to recover and repair. If the team was unable to make a bowl game, it is not uncommon for them to leave for holiday break with a workout program sent home with them. So that the time off (which is longer than you would like), is spent  wisely, our workouts start with a hypertrophy phase. This period can last anywhere from three-five weeks. We base the amount of time spent in this phase on the makeup of the team.

If we are a young team with a lot of developmental guys, the hypertrophy phase will be longer. In order to ensure optimal time for mass building during the hypertrophy phase of training, we are very conscious of taking the time to properly train the core of our athletes. This ensures that in addition to mass building, we have a tremendous base of core strength for our training cycle. With a properly designed program dictated by the amount of sets and reps on a daily basis, we are able to allow the athletes to achieve proper adaptation in this phase.

While adaptation is a key component, we don’t want fatigue and burnout from the volume of exercises performed daily. We will continue to build strength and increase power-based lifting over the course of the last weeks of this phase, as well as throughout spring practice. We are able to use the three days of non-practice during a spring ball practice week to continue to weight train at a level that helps us continue to build strength between practices. These three planned lifts during practices weeks help in ensuring we have an extremely beneficial off season training period.

When it comes time to run or do movement based training, our focus is on speed improvement and not so much on “getting in shape”. The way for any athlete to get out of shape, is prolonged periods of inactivity. A team should spend time developing a “conditioning base” for spring practice. But spring ball is 15 practices stretched out over four weeks.

We spend our time focused on speed dynamics, training for running mechanics, short yardage bursts, acceleration, and plyometric training. When we are not training our athletes for linear speed, we ensure that their agility training is based on their skill development, with a heavy emphasis on change of direction, proper foot planting techniques, as well as reactive drills. Any training regimen done the right way  will have some “conditioning benefits”, but by focusing on speed training dynamics with a basis of explosive strength and power movement exercises done in the weight room, we can ensure that our athletes are getting the training they need to perform at a high level. 

With so much of the focus of the first five weeks on muscle building and speed development, we use the last three weeks of our training cycle to continually build strength, while also seeing a slight increase in the volume of running.  The increase in volume for us means to continue to train at a level that uses a tempo of running beneficial for training speed and not just striding. We will use longer distances of 65 to 110 yards of running at a rate above 80% of maximal effort, but also ensuring that rest and recovery is set at a rate conducive to gaining some “conditioning benefits”. 

I have always been able to get the results that I was looking for when it came to training a team in the off season. With proper nutrition and lifting the right way, our athletes have always been able to add mass, while gaining strength and increasing power. While using our time wisely to train speed as well as agility, we are able to see them properly conditioned for the 15 practices of a spring training period without being displeased at their ability to practice at a high level. 

Over the course of my career as a head strength and conditioning coach, I have used this format to establish the Off Season Training Cycle as a foundation for the year ahead. With a summer break/discretionary period coming shortly after spring ball, you can assure that your athletes will be properly recovered and ready for the next phase of workouts which will put your team closer to fall camp and the upcoming season.

About the Author: Mark Hill recently completed his fourth season as Director of Strength and Conditioning for Indiana University’s football program. He previously was the head strength and conditioning coach at the University of Minnesota (2007-2010). Hill also coached at both Arizona and Oklahoma. A three-year starter at wide receiver for the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Hill graduated in 1999.


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