Off- Season Training
By: Andy McCloy
This was the 5th off-season in a row I have had the fortune of getting to work with a group of NFL athletes. In this article you will learn the top 5 things I feel had the most impact this off -season. If you have worked with NFL athletes in the off-season you know it is rare to get them for a significant period of time. Some guys don’t even start training until February or March and many of them will have obligations that constantly pull them out of town. With this understanding you have to meet the athletes where they are and be ready to make course corrections along the way. This year was not the norm. Jordan Matthews of the Philadelphia Eagles was able to start training late January and the rest of the crew was in town by February 1 or shortly after. We had 3 solid months to slow cook the training process and this had a huge impact on the design of the Off-Season plan. The NFL Off -Season is the time for athletes to rest up, get healthy, and then start preparing for the upcoming season. I think it’s always important to keep in mind the physical and psychological demands of the previous season. Many times guys show up still dealing with nagging injuries, or wanting to improve some quality their team wants them to address. If you have 3 months to accomplish this the job is a lot easier. So with all that being said below is the top 5 things I feel made the most difference this off season!
#1 Anatomical Adaption
Tudor Bompa was the first person I heard use the term “Anatomical Adaption” (AA). In his book Periodization Training for Sports he recommended an AA phase that would adapt the muscles and muscle attachments to training stress and prepare them for heavier and more intense training phases to come. Circuit Training is the method of choice we decided to roll with and we used 10 exercise circuits that incorporated all major muscles. All Circuits included some variation of squatting, lunging/Stepping, pushing, pulling, hinging, crawling, and carrying. We worked at submaximal intensities and focused on tempo control resting at the completion of each full circuit. At this point we didn’t include any explosive exercises or work anywhere close to fatigue. This phase only lasted two weeks and the athletes lifted 3xs per week. The days after a lift they did active recovery work. Coming off the season many guys are still psychologically and physically beat up. If you are reading this I am sure you are aware that not all pro athletes love the weight room so being able to walk them back into a program slowly via an AA phase was great for them both physically and mentally! When under time constraints I realize why some coaches may choose to exclude a phase like this but I feel it had tremendous value and gave everyone more confidence as we transitioned into more hypertrophy and strength based phases.
#2 Aerobic System Development
Unless you have been living under a rock you know the Aerobic System has been getting a lot of love these days…and rightfully so. Given Football is primarily an Aerobic/Alactic Sport it certainly warrants devoting heavy attention to its development. Despite the popularity of running 110s with incomplete recoveries and 300yds shuttles for conditioning we went against the grain and started developing the Aerobic System. We addressed both capacity and power over the course of two training phases but Aerobic work was used through all phases as a recovery tool. During our AA phase we used HR monitoring to ensure each athlete stayed under his Anaerobic Threshold on active recovery days. Sessions lasted 20-30min. After the AA Phase we moved into a phase directed towards improving Aerobic Capacity but did so without incorporating any real running. 2xs per week in between their Total Body lifting sessions we used conditioning/field circuits that included extensive throws, sled pushes/pulls, mobility work and lots of ground based movement. If an athlete got close to the top end of his HR zone we simply had them walk until they returned to the bottom range of their HR zone. These sessions lasted 30min-45min. As we progressed into later phases we focused more on the power side of the equation and performed Aerobic Power intervals on the Airdyne bike. This was my first time incorporating Aerobic power intervals and they were brutal. Using a 1:3 work to rest ratio the guys were able to stay close the their threshold but never exceed it. When we started it was pretty startling how long it took a few guys to fully recover but by the end of our second training phase (about 6 weeks) they all noticed a big difference in recovery and were reporting their bodies felt better than ever. Once we moved into a strength/power phase we followed a Hi/Lo model and every other day the athletes performed Tempo runs. The work we put in prior to starting the tempos had a big impact. We had “Big” and “Skill” guys so the distances varied but they all were smashing their time standards that a year ago seemed challenging. I thank Joel Jamieson for his input in this area. Following Charlie Francis work I was always a tempo fan but Joel’s work really helped me expand my tool kit!
#3 PRI Resets
Postural Restoration Institute has been around for a long time but it seems over the last few years they have been getting a ton of pub. My go to guys on this subject are Mike Robertson, Bill Hartman, Mike Boyle and Eric Cressey. I credit all of them for opening my eyes to something I was dismissive of when I was first exposed to their methods going on 5 or 6 years ago. I didn’t see how we could implement the stuff and really didn’t know where to start. We have been playing around with “resets” and putting them in after SMR (self myofascial release) to release more tone and tension and get athletes into a better “position”. One of our guys even showed up with specific resets for himself that he was given by his team. We started very simple using the basic “supine 90/90 position” and what I call the “deep squat/lat stretch reset”. All of these guys live in “Extension” and this created what PRI calls a poor zone of apposition. If the Pelvis, hips and rib cage aren’t aligned properly this indicates you are using all the wrong muscles to breathe, your diaphragm isn’t working correctly and also limits movement efficiency as a whole. If that isn’t a good enough reason to toss in a few sets of breathing pre workout then consider that apparently there is also an autonomic response relative to this extension based posture that keeps guys from being able to shut down the sympathetic system. This leads to guys not recovering as fast and always being “switched on”. I wont even pretend to be an expert on the subject but when guys who have always had back pain start telling you that it has disappeared and when you see shoulder ROM and other movements improve significantly after a few breathes you have to accept their just may be something to this breathing stuff!
#4 Hill Sprints
Hill Sprints certainly aren’t a brand new concept but in years past I only used them to prepare guys for more intense speed work to come. The hill is great at reinforcing acceleration mechanics and minimizing ground contact forces. The guys love the hill so it became a constant in our speed training. They all seem to channel their inner Jerry Rice and Walter Payton when its time to head towards the hill. Once we were into a 4x week lifting split using a Hi/Lo model all “Hi” days included at least a few hill sprints. As we got closer to the end of March we started to include some velocity and top speed work like flying 20s, and 30s but mostly focused on short distance (<40yds) hill sprints and regular sprints from various positions. We saw solid improvements in 10yd dash times over the course of the last few weeks.
#5 Submaximal Strength
I may catch some flack on this but we never went above 85% and spent most of our time around 75-80%. I’m all for heavy loads and chasing strength but my first priority is to hand these guys off to their respective S&C staff healthy and in shape. The risk vs benefit of increasing loads with this crew just didn’t favor the benefit side! I think most people expect or assume professional athletes have great form and technique in the weight room and this is rarely the case. The heavier the loads get the more this issue sticks out. Using loads around 75-85% allowed us to get stronger without compromising technique or safety. My goal was to introduce sub max loading, focus on bar speed, and prepare them for an upcoming phase that would increase in intensity and hand them off healthy and ready to rock and roll going into OTAs.
When trying to pare down the top 5 things that I believe made the biggest impact on our NFL off season crew it was a tough. There are plenty of other things that could have made the cut like the assessments used to add specificity into the program, the power of post workout debriefs over lunch, and daily readiness testing via HRV and Vertical jump. All would have been worthy. Anatomical Adaption phases don’t get much pub, it’s a lot cooler to write about getting strong and setting PRs but the AA phase gave me more confidence and better prepared our athletes for strength and power work to come. Having that confidence was invaluable! Aerobic work may get more hatred tossed its way than any other style of training. Athletes don’t seem to think they are going hard enough (until they learn about Aerobic Power Intervals) and I’ve heard some coaches say they fear their athletes will lose strength and size. As we now know this could not be farther from the truth. Aerobic work will be a constant in all of our programs in some way or another. PRI is one of those things our community seems to be split on. Some may dive to far down the rabbit hole, while others can’t accept this stuff has any validity. I sit somewhere in the middle knowing this stuff warrants some attention. I challenge you to add a few “resets” to your athletes programs if you are already not doing so. Hill Sprints aren’t new and they seem to constantly get some attention. More often than not when talking to athletes who run hills they don’t know why they are running them, they just know it worked for some of the “legends” of the game. It’s an easy sell and you get great effort. At least that has been my experience. We should all be trying constantly to find more ways to get the athletes engaged and in touch with their program. Hill Sprints not only served that purpose for us but they are safe, effective, and corrective in nature. I’ve talked to a ton of coaches who believe that most training should be done in the 70-80% range yet we all can agree training in true maximal strength ranges will yield better results when it comes to strength. I know in the past I stuck to what I was taught. If we had the time and we could squeeze some true maximal strength work in we would! But I’ve seen to many “elite’ athletes get stapled under sub maximal loads due to technical breakdown. These guys aren’t weight lifters. They aren’t power lifters. If you are training pro guys in the private market you know that they don’t always get excited about setting a PR as much as we do. Sure there are plenty of guys who do but there are many who don’t. We can still get some great work in using sub-maximal loading and get more quality reps.
Implementing all of the above certainly improved the quality of our off season program. We had great results and they all seem to be progressing well with their respective teams. When dealing with NFL guys in the off season rarely will you end up with a perfect situation and plan. Lots of “uncontrollable events’ pop up and can make things difficult. Keep things simple, remember just because they are professional football players doesn’t mean they are professionals in the weight room, and be someone who deposits value into their life and workouts every single day. This is something I overlooked when I was a young coach. Every single day I am with these guys I try and find a way to help them build their tool box for life and sport. Advising your guys daily on nutrition, benefits of regular soft tissue work and even how to manage the stress of life all leads to you having a better rapport and increases your level of influence and impact. As coaches we are here to serve these guys in every way we can. We are selling ourselves short if we believe our service to them only goes as far as the weight room and football field.
If anyone would like to connect I can be found on Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Andy McCloy is the head trainer at BCI. BCI provides a wide range of Strength Training and Performance Enhancement services to the greater Huntsville, Alabama area. Andy trains athletes of all ages and sports including football, basketball, baseball, mixed martial arts (MMA), wrestling, soccer, softball, and golf. Andy has worked with literally hundreds of athletes ranging from middle and high school to the Professional levels, including the NFL and Arena Football Leagues.