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Vol V 2015
Why We Do What We Do - A Look Inside Clemson's Strength and Conditioning Program.by: Joey Batson, Director of Strength and Conditioning and Adam Smotherman
Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning Clemson University
© More from this issue
The foundation of any successful collegiate football program is an understanding and commitment by all who work with the student-athletes to shape them into the vision the head coach has for the team. Head Coach Dabo Swinney has a vision of greatness for our program, which in the past four years, has driven us to two ACC Atlantic Division Championships, one conference championship, a 4-year span of 10+-win seasons, three straight bowl wins over ranked opponents, three straight Top 15 finishes, and the winningest senior class in the school’s history (42 wins in 4 years).
Coach Swinney’s three-part formula for success is simple and powerful: give great effort with technique, prepare with purpose, and have an all-in commitment all the time. Upon this base, we train our athletes with intensity and consistency to develop their bodies, minds, and spirits for the battles on the gridiron, the professional level, and life after football.
Coach Swinney has entrusted us with the strength and conditioning of our team, a vital piece of the puzzle. We must be the thermostat, not the thermometer, setting the temperature by which the student-athletes must respond and grow. In addition to management and leadership skills, we must be well-versed in various subjects of study including, but not limited to: biomechanics, bioenergetics, various modes of physical training, program design, psychology, sociology, nutrition, and various sport techniques. To use the term “jack of all trades” would be a gross understatement of the physical and cognitive demands required of the few who are fortunate enough to step onto a weight room floor, court, or field to coach student-athletes in the finer points of performance enhancement.
Why do we do what we do? Why do we choose the exercises and protocols we utilize to develop our athletes? We do what we do because our program works. We employ concepts from many different disciplines. We are not a “powerlifting program,” an “Olympic weightlifting program,” a “bodybuilding program,” or any other specific discipline which focuses on one set of movements or training outcomes. Instead, we combine many aspects of preparation and consider ourselves a functional power-building speed program. We focus on rate of force development, efficiency of movement, work capacity elevation, construction of the body’s natural armor, team and individual toughness, leadership, and accountability. We are charged by Coach Swinney to build the athletic engine of our team and of the individual athletes that comprise it.
One of the chief ways we ensure safety of our athletes is to have consistent collaboration with the Clemson Sports Medicine staff. We work closely with them on all matters of rehabilitation, return-to-play, and injury potentiality reduction.
Upon this foundation of teaching and collaboration, we can work our plan. In terms of program design, it is imperative that we strategize our blueprint and follow it. Nevertheless, great coaches are able to adjust on the fly in response to various obstacles and stimuli. Additionally, great coaches must adapt to the changing game of football and the physical demands on the athletes’ bodies and minds, but you cannot get too far away from your foundation. Just like on the football field, you cannot neglect the fundamentals.
To sum up our role, the starting point of strength and conditioning is to provide the best possible tools to each student-athlete, developing his athletic engine, and to demand great effort on his part.
Great training starts with an adequate warm-up, and this is where a coach can make or break a workout. We must remember the athletes we coach are student-athletes, meaning they are in class all day taking mental reps on the information and concepts they must know and understand for proficiency in their academic careers. When they come to us for training, the proverbial switch must be flipped and an aggressive combination of mental and physical work must take place for one to two hours. Therefore, it is crucial that the strength and conditioning staff and team leaders set the tone for the day in the warm-up.
We demand discipline during our dynamic warm-up periods (toes behind the line, no bending over, focus on the task at hand, finish through the line, etc.). The warm-up varies to change the stimulus and to prevent an auto-pilot mentality from the athletes. It can consist of flex runs, fundamentals of multi-directional speed development, hurdle mobility drills, quick foot ladder drills, fundamentals of jumping and landing, foam rolling, total body empty barbell exercises, or joint-specific submaximal lifts and prehab.
The primary goal of the warm-up is to mentally set the tone for the training day, to increase core temperature of the athletes’ bodies, to increase blood flow to skeletal muscles promoting growth and deterring injuries, and to implement a bit of metabolic conditioning up front.
We operate by the motto, “Speed is Strength.” In other words, to enhance speed, you must increase strength. The basic principle of strength training is that the human body adapts to properly applied and managed stresses. So, moving heavy weight results in increased strength over time. In addition to maximal strength training, we utilize submaximal speed work with our core lifts to improve rate of force production. The application of great levels of force results in increased motor unit recruitment, which leads to more power. Speed = distance/time. Force = mass x acceleration. Power = (force x distance)/time. So, power is force rate.
In other words, how quickly can we produce maximal force over a given distance? To put it in practical terms, how quickly can we move weight, and as the body grows stronger and acclimates to heavier loads, can we move it at the same speed? The power clean is our bread and butter in training and determining rate of force production.
The goal of power-speed conditioning is to elevate work capacity and to enhance efficiency of movement when fatigue begins to set in. The development of an aerobic base aids tremendously in the ability of the athlete to recover between bouts of anaerobic power output.
Additionally, through our systematic power-speed conditioning progressions, we work to develop mental toughness and discipline. Basically, it gets harder as we progress forward. Our athletes are some of the best in the world at what they do, and their bodies and minds are able to adapt quickly to certain stimuli. As a result, as a strength and conditioning staff, keep the daily, weekly, and monthly stimuli changing to promote growth while maintaining the integrity of our training philosophy.
A weak muscle will not produce as much force as a strong muscle. It is simple biology. Many people have asked us over the years why we do what we do (referring to the amount of heavy resistance training we employ). The answer: heavy lifting (with great technique in a closely-monitored program) requires high levels of force production. A high level of force production improves motor unit recruitment. Improved motor unit recruitment results in increased power output.
Therefore, a stronger athlete is a more powerful athlete. Additionally, from a psychological standpoint, the stronger a young man is the more confident he will be in his ability to get the job done when he lines up in front of an opponent.
We must load the skeleton while maintaining technical integrity. And, we must be able to move heavy weight fast. To accomplish this goal, we implement various methods of submaximal speed lifting including modalities of accommodating resistance (bands, chains, Tsunami bar, etc.). Speed is strength and strength wins battles. The foundation of resistance training in our program is squatting, pulling, and pressing. Developing strength, power, and mass through the ankles, knees, hips, back, shoulders, and arms are the fundamentals of performance enhancement.
To develop muscle mass, we incorporate a progressive hypertrophy protocol targeting the neck, upper back, shoulders, chest, arms, and legs. It is a total body approach that must be diligently and consistently focused upon. Hypertrophy work in our program is implemented in a cyclical periodization format. Basically, throughout the training cycle, the resistance increases while the volume gradually decreases. Then, we flip it and start the cycle of higher volume over again, with the only difference being the muscles are stronger and possess greater work capacity, and thus they can handle more weight than the previous cycle with the same number of repetitions.
Along with the core, neck strength is vital to football success and safety of our athletes. Football is a violent game of intense collisions, so the head must be protected. The preeminent way to accomplish this (aside from the best available helmet technology) is to develop the strength and mass of the neck. Research has shown that increased cylinder size of the neck musculature has direct correlation with decreased rates of concussions to the brain.
Our program incorporates various modes of neck training daily. We utilize the plate-loaded equipment offered by Hammer Strength to increase mass of the neck in a linear fashion. We incorporate the Iron Neck device to strengthen our athletes’ necks through resisted rotation. We employ partner-provided resistance routines. And, we program heavy shrugs involving various equipment and grip placement to hit the trapezius muscles at a variety of flexion and extension positions. The bigger the traps and neck, the better the dissipation of forces when the head is violently contacted, and thus the less movement and exchange the brain experiences.
Along with the idea of position-specific work, program-specific work must be implemented. Our style of play is up-tempo, high-intensity, non-stop, hit-you-in-the-mouth-play-after-play. Therefore, our training must mirror this mindset and physical requirement. Our athletes cannot hit a set of squats and follow it up with a three-minute rest period. We must train our athletes’ to dominate the physical and mental stresses which will be required of them.
Additionally, today’s college football is not solely power or spread. A team has to be prepared to utilize both and to defend against both. Therefore, an entirely “speed-based” approach will not suffice, and neither with a “powerlifting-only” approach. Our program is a Renaissance man style of training, utilizing and perfecting aspects of multiple disciplines.
It is imperative that student-athletes understand training is about 30% of what enhances performance. The bulk of improvement comes from eating, hydrating, sleeping, mental focus, and other forms of physical recovery before, during, and after training. You can use weights, do sprint drills, or practice football-specific skills all day but without proper recovery and restoration techniques, that training is useless.
Nutrition, like physical training, cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. Each athlete is different and has a different metabolic rate, a different ratio of body fat to fat free mass, various preferences regarding food taste and texture, etc. As best a coach can, it is imperative that each student-athlete’s individual needs and desires nutritionally are met if performance is to be optimized.
Another motto we preach to our athletes on a constant basis is, “Your body is your business.” As long as our student-athletes do what they are supposed to do on and off the field and give their best effort every day with the tools we provide them, business will be good. Not only will business be good, it will continue to improve with no stagnation throughout an athlete’s entire career. We ensure our players understand that performance enhancement from a physiological standpoint is a three-part system consisting of training, nutrition, and rest/recovery. If one of these components is lacking, the others will suffer. For example, if a student-athlete trains his tail off and does everything he is supposed to do from a nutrition standpoint, but only sleeps five hours per night consistently, he will not recover properly, and thus his performance enhancement will be stifled. Along those same lines, if a student-athlete trains hard, rests eight-nine hours per night, and utilizes the other recovery protocols we offer, yet he eats terribly, eventually his production will plateau.
It’s all about effort, technique, and a daily commitment to be all you can be.
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