The Unmaking of an Athlete

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

This is an old article from 2004, originally written for Elite Fitness.  Since it was quite popular and many of you may have missed it, I figured I would reprint it here today…

I sometimes wonder if there are any prerequisites at all to getting a job as college strength and conditioning coach. As the owner of my private athletic training company (Renegade Strength & Conditioning) I have had the opportunity to work with athletes from numerous colleges and universities across the country and have witnessed their disgust with their schools strength and conditioning programs. Some athletes, such as those attending Arizona State, are fortunate enough to have outstanding strength coaches and tremendous programs that they need not look elsewhere for help. Others are not so lucky.

Every August I try to send my athletes back to their respective schools as one of the strongest, fastest, and most well conditioned players on their team. Come December I see the unlucky one’s come back to me weaker, smaller and slower. These athletes have the misfortune of training under some Neanderthal strength coach who hasn’t learned anything new about weight training since the release of Pumping Iron. There have been countless advances in the field of strength and conditioning over the last ten years, yet very few people seem to take advantage of them. It is inexcusable that, in 2004, a college strength and conditioning coach does not have a thorough knowledge of exercise and nutrition and can not properly prepare their teams for competition. If your athletes are losing size and strength, slowing down, and becoming more injury prone I think it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Every college athlete that hires me as their strength coach brings me their schools workout to look at before we get started. Some of the things I see in those programs are absolutely unfathomable.

One such example of the insanity is the baseball player I train whose school conditioning program includes running three miles through the city of Philadelphia ala Rocky Balboa every morning at 6am before lifting. Long distance running is useless for nearly every sport, especially baseball. Baseball players will normally run no more than 90 feet at any one particular time. That 90 foot sprint usually comes only once every half hour or so and only if the player gets a hit. So how, I ask, does running three miles each morning improve your ability to play the game of baseball? The only player on the field who needs real endurance is the pitcher.  Baseball is a game of skill and hand-eye coordination and the players need to develop strength and speed. The major leagues are filled with pumped up monsters that hit 500 foot home runs and can bench press a car, yet many college coaches continue to run their players into the ground. Endless distance running will only cause the athletes to lose size, strength and most importantly…games. To get a few more wins this season, ditch the counterproductive marathon training and get your baseball players doing sprints and lifting heavy weights.

Another one of my athletes is a Division 1 field hockey player whose conditioning test on the first day of camp consists of running from New York to Los Angeles and back in under an hour. I am, of course, exaggerating but not by much. The test involves more running in one morning than the girls will run in a seasons worth of games. Field hockey players must be highly conditioned, no doubt, but the best way to achieve that high level of conditioning is not through an outdated approach of long distance running. Coaches who implement this kind of training are preparing their athletes for a marathon, not a stop and go sport such as field hockey. While the athlete’s may be able to run a faster time in the mile, the question is, how does that equate to better performance on the field? The answer is obvious, it doesn’t. There is no sport that consists of running miles at a time.

Most sports involve a combination of sprinting, jogging and even walking. Field hockey is no different and as such, these athletes would be best served to do a mix of interval sprint training and longer 200-400 meter sprints. A colleague of mine who works with several NHL players, arguably the most highly conditioned of all athletes, has found that 400 meter sprints performed three times weekly works wonders for conditioning while avoiding muscle and strength losses.

I once trained a football player whose team workout consisted of no work for the lower back or hamstrings, the most important muscles for sprint speed. I have another athlete whose school training program is 100% machine based. One of my standout football players, who I began training in eighth grade lost nearly forty pounds in his first year at college because the team workout consisted of full body circuit training of 15-20 reps with 30 seconds rest, three days a week, year round! There must have been some strong guys in that lineup. Another amazing training program was the one that had EVERY kid on the team do the exact same weight regardless of bodyweight, strength level or position! The reasoning behind it was they had 50 kids to train and didn’t have time to change the weights.

To those with a good deal of strength training knowledge the above stories may sound like fiction. But trust me they are all true, you can’t make that kind of stuff up. Unfortunately, I have dozens more and could go on forever with similar stories. There are endless mistakes made by strength coaches and head coaches on a daily basis but here are some of the biggest ones and some ways to improve upon them:

1) Excessive endurance training- Nearly every athlete I work with gets run into the ground on a daily basis. This is counterproductive and is usually done because the coaches don’t have the necessary understanding of the body’s different energy systems and how to train them properly. Most sports require speed. Speed can only be improved through proper training of the nervous system and by avoiding excessive endurance work. Too much distance work can convert fast twitch muscle fibers into slow twitch fibers and can actually decrease an athlete’s speed over time.

Unfortunately I’ve seen this happen more times than I care to remember and have watched great athletes have their careers ruined by improper training techniques. If coaches kept in mind the requirements of the sport they are preparing their athletes for, maybe this would not be such a problem. For example, in training an offensive lineman, why would you ever have him run miles at a time or sprint more than ten to twenty yards in practice when you know that he will never run that distance in a game? Unless I am missing something, the point of practice is to get ready for what you will do in a game. The problem, much of the time lies in the fact that head coaches dictate how their team’s running is implemented. Most of the time a head coach does not have a degree in anatomy or physiology or even a general understanding of either. The head coach is required to know the sport inside and out but is rarely an expert in energy system training. If head coaches could check their egos and let a qualified speed and conditioning coach handle this aspect of training they just might add a few more victories to their record.

2) Overtraining- Most coaches have an old school military attitude of “more is better,” and usually end up overtraining their athletes. Spending more than an hour in the weight room is a classic mistake. Performing extra sprints at the end of practice as a form or punishment is another one. By forcing the athletes to run in such a fatigued state, you increase their risk of injury and teach them to adopt improper sprint technique. This combined with three-a-day practices, limited rest times, insufficient nutrition and hydration all leads to a severe state of overtraining.

3) Improper speed training- Anyone who understands how the body works knows that to improve speed you must target the central nervous system (CNS). Proper neural training requires the appropriate amount of recovery time between sprints. The CNS takes five to six times longer than the muscles to recover, a fact which seem to escape most coaches. Running ten forty yard sprints with a fifteen second rest is not speed training, it is time wasting and nauseating. The frequency of high intensity speed training is also too great. Most athletes are forced to perform maximal sprints every day of the week. The great Olympic sprint coach, Charlie Francis, has his athletes perform no more than three max effort sprint days per week and finds anything more than that to be detrimental in speed development.

4) Too many reps in the weight room- Most of the college weight training programs I see focus on sets of 10-15 reps, even for Olympic lifts. Any strength coach who has yet to learn that Olympic lifts are never to be performed for more than five reps should not be working at the college level. Where is the strength work in these programs? With all of the other endurance work the kids are doing the last thing you want to do is turn the time in the weight room into another endurance session. Focus on strength and speed which is best accomplished by using multiple sets of 1-5 reps and heavy weight.

5) Using the wrong exercises- Triceps kickbacks, leg extensions, and pec deck flyes are all exercises that I have actually seen in the programs of Division 1 schools. These exercises are completely useless for any athlete. Strength is built using basic compound movements and heavy weight. Focus on squats, deadlifts, bench presses, military presses, rows, dips, and chins and throw out the machines and isolation movements.

Another mistake is taking kids who have little to no training experience and having them perform power cleans or some other complex lift. By the time most male athletes reach college they have done a decent amount of weight training but that is not usually the case for females. I have heard of schools taking freshman girls and throwing them right into a workout consisting of snatches and split jerks. Just because a girl may be superstar Division 1 athlete does not mean she is ready to start doing Olympic complexes. Beginners should always train like beginners regardless of the situation.

6) Improper exercise form- Even if you utilize the proper rep scheme, and train heavy on the compound exercises listed above it is all a waste if your exercise form is horrendous. In the college weight rooms I’ve been in, I’ve seen people bench press with their asses a foot and a half off the bench and have seen more varieties of a hang clean than I ever knew existed. As a strength coach it is your job, above all else, to at least be able to teach your athletes proper exercise form and help them avoid injury.

7) Doing conditioning work before weight training- The point of lifting weights is to get stronger. To do so you should be as fresh as possible upon entering the weight room so you can train at your maximal capacity. Running and doing conditioning drills immediately before lifting drains your glycogen stores and saps your energy, leaving you weak and unmotivated, not exactly the way you want to feel before a heavy workout. Completing an exhausting two hour practice and then going straight to the weight room for some heavy squats is also a great way to get injured.

8] Training the whole team with the same workout- You would be amazed at how many schools use the exact same program for every player on the team regardless of position. Why would a quarterback train exactly like an offensive lineman? Why would a pitcher do the exact same workout as the designated hitter? It makes no sense. Even though all athletes share a common need for improved strength, the needs for each player can sometimes be very different, especially when it comes to conditioning and speed work, and the training programs should reflect that. When it really gets to be appalling is when the weights to be used on a certain exercise are already written in ahead of time. Some workout sheets will say something like: Bench Press- 3 sets x 10 reps x 225 pounds. So the 150 pound kicker who has never lifted before and the 375 pound nose tackle who has spent his life in the gym are supposed to do the same exact weight. It will staple one of them to the bench and be a joke for the other; even a first grader could tell you that. This is one glaring mistake I will never understand.

9) Never changing the workout- Too many schools use the same workout month after month and year after year. They have an in season program and an off season program and the workouts NEVER change. Every year, for a good laugh, a Division 1 baseball player I train brings me his teams’ workout book at the start of each season. For four years straight, it was the exact same three-day-a-week workout, fifty two weeks a year! Talk about boredom and burn out. I would go absolutely insane if I did the same workout for more than a few weeks straight, never mind four years. If you are getting paid to write workouts for a team, the least you could do is put a little thought into them and add some variety.

10) Constant negativity- After many years working as a strength and conditioning coach I know that most athletes do not respond well to constantly being verbally berated. It is, of course, part of the job, you have to toughen the kids up and earn their respect. But when they hate you and no longer enjoy coming to practice or the weight room, you have ruined what should have been a great experience for them and you have just lowered the performance output of your athletes. I appreciate a hardcore, militant attitude and train most of my athletes in this manner. However we do have fun and lighten up when the work is done. At the end of the day, everyone needs positive reinforcement once in a while or they will just give up or lose interest. It’s human nature. Look into it.

The intention of this article was not to bash all college strength coaches and head coaches, because, as I stated earlier there are many great ones. It was simply a way of trying to get through to those that have been stuck in their outdated ways for far too long. Hopefully it opened some eyes and will cause at least a few people to take a step back and rethink their strength and conditioning programs. Properly trained athletes win more games, which as a coach, is always your goal. More importantly, when an 18 year old kid puts his or her athletic future in your hands, it is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. The training you give them over the next four years could literally make or break their careers and shape the rest of their lives. Think about that before heading for the copy machine to rehash the same useless workouts you’ve been using forever.

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