Let us suppose, hypothetically, that I am approached by a young man in the football offseason who wishes to improve his performance on the field for the aforementioned sport. He asks for advice on how to train appropriately for this goal. Let us assume this young man is 5’11”, 160 lbs, and between his sophomore and junior seasons in high school. He is of average build, moderately athletically inclined, and-for the sake of the discussion-going to follow my advice. Essentially, this kid could be playing any position on the field depending heavily on skill level and the level of competition. This hypothetical kid represents a blank slate which we can use for the purpose of discussing sports performance training in very general terms.
We shall move from broad to specific in terms of training prescription. The question of “what are we doing” in regards to physical training starts with movement selection. I advise this kid to do squats, bench, deadlift, press, and power clean. Why? Because these movements are the best for developing strength. Strength is a very general physical quality. It is the quality from which all others proceed. The essence of sport is movement. Movement cannot be accomplished without producing force. End force production is the result of strength. Skills and endurance require strength to be exercised, and an increase in strength improves the ability to effectively execute skills both under pressure and calmly. I digress. The movements we have selected are the best for acquiring strength because they are the most general. Each involves the coordination of hundreds of skeletal muscles in an inherently unstable environment. Most of these lifts require that you not fall down while exerting tremendous amounts of force, and this is beneficial for coordination purposes. The response to strength training is systemic. There are things that happen under heavy loads that do not happen under light ones, even if you managed to somehow replicate individually the effort by each muscle. One muscle does not get stronger, entire muscular systems get stronger. By bringing the most amount of muscle into contraction in a movement, we stress the entire force production system to its maximum potential. The stress is adapted to, and the greatest strength gains are realized.
Recall that difficult things are generally more productive, and that general movements are more difficult than specific ones. Imagine comparing a max deadlift to a max wrist curl. Both are maxes, but one is quite clearly harder than the other.
Next is the programming of the aforementioned exercises. The technique of each exercise is well expounded upon and insufficiently communicable in this medium. The program of lifts is to be organized in sets of five for the slow lifts, squat, bench, deadlift, and press. For the single fast lift, the power clean, so-called because it is impossible to do it slow, sets of three shall be performed. Sets of five represent the optimal intersection of strength and hypertrophy stimulus. Low-rep sets of three or less are great for building strength, but the lack of volume necessitated by the intensity stymies muscular hypertrophy. High rep sets of eight or more are great for hypertrophy, but generally less useful for strength gains than their low-rep counterparts. As novice lifters such as the aforementioned young man can benefit immensely in both strength and size from doing anything at all, the specificity of either low or high rep sets is unnecessary. Sets of five are as general as can be. For the power clean, sets of three shall be performed. The purpose of the power clean is to teach the skill of explosion, that is, producing as much force as possible as quickly as possible. The performance of more than 3 reps in a set is not an exercise in producing a lot of force quickly, it is an exercise in producing a moderate amount of force repeatedly, which we have already accomplished with sets of five on the squat and deadlift.
The program shall be comprised of squatting every day, as this is possible with a young, novice trainee. They are insufficiently strong enough to tax their systems beyond their ability to repair in 48 hours (assuming their coach is not malicious or incompetent). How many sets of five is good? Well, one is too few. This is insufficient volume and practice on the lifts. 5 is too many. This is a waste of time, as this man does not need that much volume to stimulate progress. Three is just right. The deadlift is special, and has the ability to incur tremendous amounts of stress. As a result, it will only be performed for one set of five.Days will alternate upper body movements and pulls, three days a week. Henceforth the program shall appear as alternating A and B days.
Power Clean 5x3
After teaching the technique to the young man on the first day and increasing weight until the sets were challenging, but correct form still prevailed, we establish this young man’s first workout to be:
Henceforth, we shall add 10 lbs to each lift for the next few sessions, until this is unsustainable. We shall then add five each session. This is still tremendous progress, as 15 lbs per week on squat and an average of 7.5 lbs per week on upper body movements is quite good. Over the course of next three months, we might see a 225 squat workout, 150 lb bench workout, and a 275 DL set of five. The young man in question still has a lot of growing and easy gains ahead of him. If the kid sticks with the program, we might see a 405 squat, 315 bench, and 495 DL from him by the end of the next two years.
As the season approaches, our training will change very little. Three weeks out, conditioning will be introduced. Conditioning shall take place twice a week, on the first and third workout day of the week. This will take specific form depending on position. Conditioning is a far more specific adaptation than strength. If the young man is a lineman, sled pushes will be called for. Most other positions will run sprints of various lengths. Receivers and DBs will run longer sprints than running backs and linebackers. Tight ends will do a mix of sled pushes and sprints. Kickers will run with the tight ends, no sled pushes. Lineman conditioning might look like this:
Day 1: Explode out of stance, push sled five yards, rest 20 seconds, repeat 5 times
Day 2: Same as above, 10 times
Day 3: 2 sets of 10 5-yard pushes. Rest two minutes in between sets.
Day 4: 6 sets of 5 5-yard pushes. Rest two minutes in between sets.
Day 5: Repeat Day 4
Day 6: Repeat Day 4
This should leave any lineman in a condition to dominate his opponent throughout the game. Sled weight will depend on individual strength. Pushes should be challenging, but doable. Actual football practice will shore up any holes in his football stamina.
Linebackers and running backs will perform the same program with 20 yard sprints. Receivers and DBs will perform 40 yard sprints. QBs and kickers will run with the linebackers.
If the young man is a bench jockey, the program will continue as prescribed indefinitely during the season, with smaller and smaller jumps between workouts. If the young man plays the entire game, the program will change drastically so as to maintain strength while not hindering performance. Monday and Thursday will serve as the optimal in season workout days. One set of five is to be performed on the slow lifts, for maintenance. Deadlifts are not to be performed. Power cleans can continue as previously described, as they are less stressful than the slow lifts. The program shall appear as follows.
Squat 1x5 (same weight as on last day of LP)
Bench 1x5 (same weight as on last day of LP)
PC 5x3 (increase weight if possible, otherwise see above)
Squat 1x5 (see above)
Press 1x5 (see above)
PC 5x3 (see above)
Post-season, the program shall resume as normal.
Note about author (pictured above with 650lbs on his back shortly after graduating high school being spotted by Black Iron owner, Chris Kurisko and Starting Strength Coach, Bill Hannon):
Anthony Clark is an intern at Black Iron Training. After his mother not allowing him to play football until he was going into 11th grade because of fear of her boy being hurt, he went on to become a decorated Lineman for Our Lady on the Lake High School in north Metro-Detroit. He earned both an athletic and academic scholarship to Hillsdale College where he has spent the last two years playing college football. Anthony has assured me that he would not have made it to the level of football he did if it was not for utilizing the Starting Strength program before starting his football career and continuing to place an emphasize on barbell training throughout his playing career. Anthony has recently decided to forgo his remaining years in college football to pursue a competitive powerlifting career. He is currently training to win the USAPL Junior Nationals this year in the super heavyweight division and has the ultimate goal of breaking the all-time record for overall total in that division before he turns 23. After competing in powerlifting for the next several years the plan is to move on to Strongman and eventually deadlift over 1000lbs. We are honored to have him with us helping around the gym and contributing to this site.