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Conditioning for an Aggressive, Up-Tempo Offensive System

by: Scott Salwasser
Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach • Formerly at University of California
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Up-tempo offenses have become more and more popular at all levels of football and whether this is your team’s offensive philosophy or not, chances are that there are several teams like this in your conference or on your schedule that you must prepare for. Before we can begin to discuss the particulars of conditioning for an attacking, fast-paced style of play such as the up-tempo offense, we have to take a look at the dynamics of a typical football game and how we try to alter those dynamics based on style of play. Finally we will look at what it takes to prepare physiologically and psychologically to perform at the highest level in this type of system.

The first question we have to ask ourselves is what are we getting ready for? Last year, among all FBS teams, the median number of plays run per game was 73. At Cal we ran 85 plays per game, which was tied for 6th in the country. The top 5 teams were all similar philosophically to us, with the top team running 90 plays per game. Since a typical drive consists of on average 5-6 plays, we are already looking at having to be prepared for an extra 2+ drives per game. Additionally, the average rest time between plays in a typical game is just over 30 seconds, while our goal is to run the next play in under 2/3 this time. That is, approximately 20 seconds so immediately we are talking about more total plays with significantly less recovery between them. Obviously, the time per play, from snap to whistle, will be relatively constant at roughly 5 seconds.

As we begin to narrow the focus even further we know that within these time constraints, each position will be performing radically different tasks. For instance, linemen won’t cover as great of a distance but will work against a large resistance the entire play. Skill position players will cover a vastly greater distance at drastically higher speeds. Big skill position players will obviously fall somewhere in between. “Sport specific” is a bit of a misnomer in the football sense as most of the differences take place at the positional level, and must be accounted for.

Finally, beyond just positional differences, we must look at the function of specific positions within the context of the role that they serve in an offensive playbook. For instance, when we look at our GPS data vs. that of a team that runs a more “traditional” offensive scheme over the course of a similarly designed practice, we see that our receivers are accumulating almost double the volume of total yards and, more importantly, high velocity yards, as their peers. This is a result of not only tempo of play but also different routes, patterns and responsibilities. Since all of the above must be taken into account when looking to prepare a team for this style of play, how do we go about putting together a plan?

The first thing to remember is the importance of output; that is, qualities such as strength and speed. There is no level of conditioning that will help a team that is far too slow or weak to begin with. A faster team will have a greater speed reserve. For instance, a 4.4 receiver can play at 4.6 and still beat the “in shape” DB running a 4.8.  Obviously this is strictly in terms of running speed, not taking into account instincts, football skill, etc.

Therefore, we have to always keep in mind while striving to be the fittest team in the country that we must also develop their strength and speed qualities in order to be ultimately successful. We can’t just run them into the ground and disregard output quality and quantity. If an athlete were a car, this would be their engine.  For us this means taking time out of the year to focus on lifting heavy on basic compound movements such as squat, clean and bench, running fast, both linearly and multi-directionally, and jumping high and far, with sufficient recovery to do each maximally.

Next, we have to have a thorough understanding of the dominant energy systems at play in a football game. Yes, in isolation, a football play is anaerobic. However, when strung together over the course of multiple minute long drives and several hour long games, there is a significant aerobic component. Aerobic training has gotten a bad rap in football circles over the years because it doesn’t always look to the casual observer like guys are “getting after it” but it is essential to performance as it is a crucial factor in your team’s ability to recover between plays and series. 

Think of this as the athlete’s gas tank - it provides fuel for the engine. I am certainly not advocating sending your team out on 5k runs, since as previously mentioned, we must keep in mind that they are power athletes. For us, a common means of aerobic training are tempo runs, which for example, could simply consist of an athlete continuously running the length of the field at roughly 70% effort, then walking the width for recovery before immediately repeating. This allows us to stay in our target heart rate zone for aerobic development. While we have the luxury of heart rate monitors, they are not a necessity. Just keep your athletes breathing hard without getting heavy in the legs. They should be able to maintain the same speed over each repetition with the same level of effort. There are many other appropriate ways to develop aerobic capacity, such as medicine ball circuits or MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) which we’ve used successfully with our linemen to get them extra conditioning while sparing them the structural stress  of extra running. Even sled pushes can be Aerobic. It’s all about working within a specific heart rate zone (moderate intensity) but emphasizing duration and/or volume.     

An athlete lacking aerobic development will over-rely on their anaerobic system and burn out sooner, quickly finding themselves fatiguing more with each play and seemingly unable to “get their legs back.” However, an athlete with sufficient aerobic capacity will be able to recover over the course of the game and seem to always have that extra burst when they need it, like an afterburner on a jet, since their anaerobic system has been sufficiently refueled.

Once athletes’ have developed this ability to recover over the course of multiple high intensity repetitions, they will be able to more fully reap the benefits of specific conditioning. This type of conditioning is fairly simple. Just match the work-to-rest ratios that you want to play at and gradually add repetitions each session. This is also a good time to address the pattern specific differences between positions.

For example, we will separate the team first into offense and defense, and then by position, with each position given different patterns to complete. Receivers have the greatest distance to cover (typically 30-35 yards) while offensive linemen have the shortest (typically 15-20 yards). DB’s backpedal while LB’s lateral shuffle for part of their pattern, etc. They all have to accomplish their unique pattern in 7 seconds and they get roughly 20 seconds of recovery between plays, based on our desired pace offensively. 

By alternating between offense and defense each drive, they get approximately 6 minutes between series which is in line with what they will experience, on average, on game day. We are training the athletes’ aerobic gas tank to efficiently pump fuel to their anaerobic engine so the athlete can “floor it” for a powerful 5-7 second effort, or one play, and then repeat over and over again without losing output.

Another important component that is often emphasized during speed development then suddenly forgotten during conditioning is movement quality. The brain treats the ability to execute a specific movement pattern under fatigued conditions as a separate skill than performing the same pattern when fresh. Therefore, just screaming at an athlete to go faster or harder is not enough. We must also demand and coach a high level of movement execution regardless of how grueling the conditioning session is. Only coaching effort will result in sloppy movement patterns that will result in injuries when the athlete becomes fatigued in live action. 

For instance, we treat the aforementioned drill as a competition between offense and defense, but in order to score a point each position must not only complete their pattern in 7 seconds but they must complete it with correct technique and execution as judged by a coach assigned to that position group, who will either give them a thumbs up or down. If every position on that side of the ball gets a thumbs up, then a point is awarded.

The last, but certainly not the least, factor is the psychological component of preparation. We preach mental toughness and the ability to be relentless in the face of any and all forms of adversity, including the challenging training regimen required to perform in this type of scheme. But in order for this mindset to fully take root in a team, it requires far more than just torturing kids during conditioning and screaming at them to push harder.

It requires creating an honest belief among the ranks that the potential reward of this type of training outweighs the temporary discomfort of challenging the body.  Our team wears shirts that proclaim proudly “Toughest Team Wins,” and fully believe that this is our advantage as a team. We believe in emphasizing tempo in everything we do, including hustling between pieces of equipment in the weight room. We want to move at a NASCAR pace because we don’t think our opponents can continuously keep up with us, due largely to our preparation, physically and mentally.

Every team will likely encounter this pace of play multiple times over the course of a season and should be prepared to handle it.  This requires thorough development by creating strong, fast, powerful athletes with robust work capacities that execute complex movements technically and efficiently even when fatigued and have a resilient mindset forged in a thorough belief in the process of their preparation.        

To conclude the car analogy, we don’t want only a dragster’s power or a Prius’ economy. Rather, we want the best of both, with a confident, focused driver behind the wheel.

About the Author: Scott Salwasser recently joined the strength and conditioning staff at Texas Tech. He had previously been the assistant strength and conditioning coach for four seasons at the University of California. Salwasser has a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California-Davis and a Master’s Degree from Sacramento State.


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