About this time every year, everyone begins buzzing about combine training, obviously due the NFL Combine's television coverage. The top collegiate players, looking to improve their draft stock, begin working out at facilities across the country to try and gain that small edge that they didn't have before. This trickles down to the high school level, as combines and select camps have grown into a powerful recruiting tool and all participants want to be at their best as they go through testing and position drills in front of scouts and selection committees.
It seems only natural that when something is on the line, people get focused. What has bothered me about the process is that athletes start training harder and more often leading up to a combine, and they train for the combine's specific events. First, if you truly want to be better at your craft, shouldn't you always be training hard? If you feel the need to pick up your training regimen leading up to a camp or combine, then how hard were training beforehand?
Second, when players begin training for a specific event at a combine, they lose sight of what the sport is really about. For example, take the NFL's Bench Press test, where players try to press 225lbs as many times as they can. Some players reach as high as 50 repetitions, which is truly a feat in and of itself, but how well does that translate to football? How often are we on our backs pushing objects off of ourselves 50 times? High repetitions on the Bench Press becomes strength endurance, not maximal strength. In football, we utilize maximal strength more than strength endurance.
The same principle is in place for most tests, like the 40 time, the most highly scrutinized test of them all. We change a linebacker's "stock" based on a fast or slow 40 time, but more often than not, linebackers are moving laterally, backpedaling, changing direction, flipping their hips, etc. All that time spent towards improving a 40 yard dash may help their draft stock, but work on change of direction and mutli-directional speed would have made them a better football player.
My end point is that while combines and camps are an integral part of our game, and a great scouting tool, don't lose sight of the game in favor of the combines. Work hard all year, not just in the weeks leading up to the event. And, train to become a better football player as opposed to just training to be better at a particular test. If your limiting factor happens to overlap with a test, then it's a happy coincidence. Train hard, train right, all year!
With off-season fundamental work and passing leagues becoming a much more normal part of a quarterback’s development, we have begun to see an increase in overuse injuries. Generally, if the throwing motion is done correctly, the quarterback won’t feel any pain, but so few quarterbacks throw the ball with great mechanics that injuries do occur. Adding to this issue are some issues in training – so many quarterbacks do the same workouts as their teammates, which is potentially a problem for two reasons: who’s to say their teammates have a good workout written by their coach in the first place? And a quarterback needs a different workout because of the extreme specificity of their position.
Quarterbacks overuse a relatively unstable joint with a lot of force, which can lead to many overuse injuries. Quarterbacks are also dissimilar to pitchers in that a football is much heavier than a baseball and forces the arm to externally rotate, putting a lot more stress on the arm. The task of coaching a quarterback to be both effective and healthy is a difficult one, and not one that should be undertaken by an under-qualified coach. So many head coaches want to be the ones to coach their quarterbacks, which makes sense, however, if their knowledge on biomechanics and fundamentals is lacking in any way, they put their quarterback at a much higher risk of overuse and chronic injuries.
Let’s start by taking a look at kinetic sequencing, which is how the body transfers power into the throw. All of our power starts from the ground; as we push and twist into our feet we use the force the ground returns to us to power our throw (as you Isaac Newton followers will remember, for every force, there is an equal and opposite force, so when we push and twist into the ground, the ground returns that same force). From there, we twist our hips out in front of our shoulders, then shoulders out in front of our arm, then eventually the arm catches up, the elbow extends, the arm pronates down and we release the ball. Each segment of the body goes a bit behind the one before it, which creates power and torque. This is the same effect as a whip or a trebuchet (see: ancient but brilliant catapult system). This kinetic chain is extremely effective for creative power, but if one part of this chain doesn’t work right, all the successive parts of the chain are forced to compensate, which can lead to poor throws and injuries, particularly when done for hundreds and thousands of repetitions.
The first thing we must do to prevent throwing injuries is check biomechanical integrity. For those of you who have been with us for a while or regularly read our blogs, you know that biomechanical integrity is essentially the body’s ability to move correctly. A quarterback must have good thoracic spine mobility (which allows the hips to go in front of the shoulders in the chain), good external rotation in the shoulder (which allows the shoulders to lead before the ball), and a stable scapula (to stop the shoulder from leaving the back too soon, helping to support the smaller muscles inside the shoulder complex). While biomechanical is by far the most important part of preventing throwing injuries, it has been discussed in other posts and this entry will focus on some other items. Just keep in mind that all I’m about to write is a moot point without biomechanical integrity.
The common injuries we’re going to examine today are rotator cuff/labrum issues, biceps tendinitis, and UCL strains. These are what I feel are the three most common and easily preventable injuries in quarterbacks. Often times, these are brought on more from bad training habits and throwing mechanic issues.
The rotator cuff and labrum are fairly small items in the shoulder that require the support of the scapula in order really maintain any stability. When a quarterbacks tells me he has pain or injuries in the rotator cuff or labrum (which would really have to be a doctor’s diagnosis), the first thing to look at is the scapula. If the scapula doesn’t stabilize to the back well, it will put extra pressure into the cuff and labrum. This is what some physical therapists refer to as winging – as the hands move up, the scapula comes quickly away from the spine. To fix this, do exercises such as Y, T, W’s, pillow presses, wall sits with scapula mobility, or anything that creates scapula retraction. This should help train the scapula to hold onto the back better, and begin to save the shoulder.
Biceps tendinitis is a very painful injury, and is particularly damaging to a quarterback as the rotator cuff and biceps are two links of the same chain. A quarterback with biceps tendinitis often times causes the injury through his training regimen. By doing straight-bar bench presses and curls, we tighten the complex of muscles and tissue around the connection of the shoulder, chest, and arm. In doing so, we inwardly rotate the shoulders, creating a slightly hunched look, and put extra pressure into the rotator cuff and biceps. Because of this, I highly suggest all quarterbacks remove curls and bench press from their training regimens. Instead of curls and barbell bench press, increase pulling exercises such as chins up and inverted rows, and use dumbbells instead of a barbell (this allows a free movement of the shoulder because dumbbells can rotate, as opposed to being locked into position by a barbell which stops the shoulder from being able to rotate). Chin ups and inverted rows will help the quarterback open up their posture and still strengthen the smaller muscles in the arm without tightening the front of the shoulder, biceps, and chest.
UCL injuries (the ligament that runs along the inside of the elbow and associated with Tommy John surgery) generally arise from throwing mechanic issues (which generally arise from physical limitations or poor coaching). To prevent these elbow injuries, first make sure the shoulder and scapula are functioning properly. As we discussed before, when one part of the kinetic chain doesn’t work, the successive ones are forced to compensate. So, if the shoulder isn’t working right, the elbow compensates. Next, look at the mechanics involved. During the time in which the arm is moving forward into the throw, does the elbow ever move below the level of the shoulder? Or, does the angle between the forearm and upper arm ever go below 90? If either of these things are true, it is probably contributing to the pain in the elbow. To put in a few bench marks, the elbow should have approximately a 90 degree angle when it is cocked back, ready to begin moving forwards. At release, the elbow shoulder be at about ear height, still with a slight bend.
When designing a training program, make sure to include plenty of work on scapula stability and mobility, helping consistently prep the shoulder to be properly functional during activity. Also work on thoracic rotation, as that will help the parts of the chain coming before the shoulder and elbow to work properly. This would include stretches that help separate the hips and shoulders, like a half kneeling twist. Avoid pressing exercises with the exception of push-ups and dumbbell presses (nothing that locks the hand and shoulders, preventing them from rotating), and increase the amount of pulling exercises like chin ups, inverted rows, and dumbbell rows, etc. Also avoid overhead pressing, as this puts the shoulder in a fairly compromising position and generally isn’t done properly (most athletes over-extend their spine to save the shoulder, which ends up just hurting the back).
A couple red flags in the throwing motion that can lead to injuries:
-A low elbow through the release: make sure the elbow is about ear height at the release.
-A straight elbow at release: this tends to lead to AC joint pain in the shoulder. Full extension in the arm shoulder only be reached after the release, not before.
-An elbow that rises above the height of the ball: the elbow should never be higher than the ball at any point in the throwing motion, even while we are just cocking the arm back to throw. This creates wing, which in both quarterbacks and pitchers is a huge red flag. This will lead to both rotator cuff and UCL issues, as well as potentially erratic accuracy.
-A long strider: quarterbacks who over-stride lock their hips into place early, instead of allowing rotation. This decreases hip to shoulder separation, which causes the release point to be further in front of the body, which causes the rotator cuff to be overstressed AND the elbow to drop at release, which sends the ball high (see: Mark Sanchez). The proper stride length is approximately the athlete’s tibial tuberosity X 1.5, or about 26-30 inches in most quarterbacks.
Finally, even if a quarterback does all over the throwing mechanic and training items correctly, they still need to take care of their shoulder. Ice properly, warm-up properly, and tell your coach if your arm is feeling overly fatigued. Repetitions are not a problem; bad repetitions with an uncared-for shoulder are a problem.
If you have any questions, please feel free to write me at adrayson@SportPerformanceU.com.
One of the fastest growing movements in sport performance today is players training through CrossFit. Everyone wants to get an edge – to be faster, stronger, bigger, more skilled, more explosive, and all those other buzzwords too. And, logic would dictate that if one place makes you work until you drop then that place is getting the most out of you. However, this is not true, and for football players (or any athlete who is training for a particular sport) CrossFit is one of the worst things you can do.
Let’s just examine the name of the company – CrossFit, playing on the term of “cross
training” which was at one point very popular. This idea is built off of people doing a wide variety of workouts, including different levels of endurance, strength, power and speed during every workout, to force the body to adapt to a great diversity of stimuli. However, in football, we know exactly what we are training for – we know the rest intervals, the strength-endurance and power-endurance requirements, the exact movements that translate to our sport. This begs the question: why in the world would we cross train? Why would we spend hours and sweat preparing out bodies for things we already know we won’t encounter?
(I should mention that there is a portion of the population that cross training works for. Some folks who are already extremely athletic and well versed in exercise and technique, and are exercising for the sake of exercise rather than to train for a specific sport, could find that a cross training program is quite good. Additionally, people who don’t know the demands on their daily life and need to be in shape for a wide variety of demands needs cross training as well. When talking to a Navy Seal friend of mine, his workouts very much resemble cross training workouts. If he were still playing football, however, his workouts would be considerably different. So, while this post is somewhat an indictment of CrossFit, it is not meant to be an indictment of cross training itself).
The next point on today’s agenda talks of the basic principle of CrossFit’s programming. They use their “workout of the day,” so that everyone who walks through the door does the same workout. Essentially, a one-size-fits-none model. Every single person who wants to train has different needs – they have different restrictions, different goals, different training experience, play different positions, just to name a few variables. There is never a good excuse to have everyone doing the same workout. The idea of every individual doing the same workout is idiotic, moronic, whatever word you want to use. Different people need different exercises.
Now to address CrossFit’s programming specifically. The number of videos I have seen with folks doing as many snatches as they can in five minutes, or trying to do a hang clean variation blatantly wrong, or fighting to learn a deadlift when their body simply cannot do it, is appalling. The workout of the day does not follow the basic principles of physiology or biomechanical integrity. Snatches are exhausting – it is downright dangerous to have someone hoisting a barbell overhead for five minutes. Hang cleans are complicated – allowing inexperienced lifters to max out their hang clean is simply asking for injury. Deadlifts require proper hip mechanics, which only a certain percentage of the population has - ignoring individual biomechanics will lead to chronic back pain for many CrossFit participants. The fact of the matter is that the way exercises are programmed and taught is important, and CrossFit misses many of the basics that even our interns knew without having to be told.
Take a look at some of the best professionals in the country when it comes to sport performance – think of Eric Cressey and Mike Boyle up in Boston; think of Gray Cook and Lee Burton of FMS; think of some of the great staff members of Athlete’s Performance out West; take a look at the programs here at SportPerformanceU. In all cases, the people who write the programs have years upon years of education and experience. They never stop pursuing great information and research. They are constantly looking for ways to bridge the gap between theory and application. Now take a look at a CrossFit trainer – in many cases, the trainer took a weekend course to get certified, and is then allowed to train others. That is a dangerous situation. Add to that the fact that their workout of the day is based on making people do crazy workouts (CrossFit’s owner recently told a magazine that he basically came up with ways to screw with people when designed his workouts as a personal trainer, and that strategy grew into CrossFit), and what you have is under-qualified people teaching less than intelligent workout programs. Does this really make sense?
In any instance, if you are looking to train properly, make sure you are working with a well-qualified individual, who has done their due diligence on finding training methods that are right for you. Make sure biomechanical integrity is included before any training actually starts. Do NOT join “class” structured workouts. Each and every athlete has individual needs – make sure yours are being met.
Sport has become a year-round endeavor. At the younger levels, I would highly encourage giving kids a few months off after the season. So many times, I hear kids saying they cramming games in to make the season as long as possible (this is generally true in sports like baseball and basketball more so than football). Because of the busy nature of the season, getting some proper rest in the off-season from the sport is crucial to allowing the body to recover, decrease the chances of burnout, and decrease the risk of overuse injuries. However, as an athlete gets older, and begins to enter the high school arena, the off-season becomes critical for reasons other than rest.
While it is important for high school football players to rest during the off-season, it is also important for them to train. Let me make clear that training does not mean 7 days a week of conditioning, lifting, and all-out effort. An off-season training regimen means 3-5 sessions per week of about 60-75 minutes, focusing on movement quality, soft tissue work, and the appropriate strength, power, and speed exercises, with conditioning added in a few months before the season starts. In addition to these training sessions, those who play skill-intensive positions like quarterback, kicker, punter, and receiver, should spend a few hours each week on skill development.
By making use of the off-season, we allow the athlete to do 2 major things: develop fundamentals and work on process orientated drills, and increase physical outputs.
Developing Fundamentals: During the season, players are forced to practice under a results-orientated microscope. They worry about the outcome of their movement, not the process of how they execute a skill. During the season, this is ok, so long as we understand the bigger picture. A quarterback who needs to make a grip change will most likely struggle for a few days, or even weeks, as he makes that change. During the season, this could be disastrous, impede drills, and potentially cost him his job. That’s why so many coaches and players shy away from making certain fundamentals changes during the season. However, that also means every repetition that quarterback takes during the season is ingraining the wrong mechanics. Take each off-season to make those mechanic changes, where the athlete can worry about developing the skill and not have to be concerned about the result until a few weeks into the process.
Increasing Physical Outputs: It is near impossible to gain speed, power, or strength during the season. With the rigors of games and practices, the only thing a player can really hope to do from a strength standpoint is maintain. The time to get faster, stronger, bigger, and more powerful is the off-season. And, a well-designed training program will also help reduce the risk of injury. When signing up for a program, just be sure that your coach or trainer is teaching lifts correctly, creating an individualized program that fits your needs and abilities, has analyzed your body for biomechanical integrity, and is addressing any physical limitations you might have. A good training program can reduce risk of injury, increase your physical outputs, and get you ready for your season. A bad training program with a coach who doesn’t know how to program correctly could cost you your season.
If you have any comments or questions about this article, please feel free to write me at email@example.com.
There is no sport in America quite like football when it comes to training. Every athlete wants to be bigger, stronger, faster; they all want to be able leap tall buildings in a single bound, run through brick walls, fire passes seventy yards downfield, and make moves better than the roadrunner on the coyote. However, football coaches are susceptible to the same errors that the rest of the world is – we tend to teach how we were taught, train how we were trained. This generally means that our coaching and training methods are rooted in ideas of yesteryear, leaving our players without the advantage of the most cutting edge research. With that in mind, let’s examine a few topics in training for football that should provide a good outline for an off-season training program.
Topic #1 – Testing Biomechanical Integrity
A freshman football player walks into his first day at the high school weight training program. He follows in behind a friend of his who is a sophomore. The sophomore hops in the squat rack, and does a back squat. So, in turn, the freshman does. But, to what end? The coaching staff has completely missed finding out whether or not the athlete can even do a deep squat. At that age, when most kids are gaining height and losing range of motion, many athletes can’t squat properly. First and foremost, the athlete should be tested for biomechanical integrity – does he have the ability to get into the positions he will need to be in? If the staff isn’t qualified to do this, which is possible and reasonable, then find someone who is and get analyzed. Where there are restrictions, address them and create biomechanical integrity.
Topic #2 – Creating Strength, Power, Speed
Too many coaches confuse these three and how they are trained. Some coaches focus only on speed, not realizing that speed is only a component of how much force can be imparted into the ground (Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance wrote a great article on this). Other coaches only look for their athletes to get stronger, looking at bench reps and strength endurance, like the NFL combine. However, how useful is it that a defensive lineman can bench 225lbs 50 times in a row? It’s a useless skill, as it doesn’t measure maximal output. Unless he ends up on his back pushing offensive linemen off him all day, his 50 bench reps don’t help. The truth is, strength, power, and speed all build off one another, and coaches must train all three. So, when organizing the workout, make sure to start with speed work, which should include a quick, explosive running period with plenty of rest between reps. Speed work is NOT conditioning! The athlete should be moving at more than 90% of his maximal speed, otherwise he is no longer training to get faster, he is just conditioning. After the speed work, move on to power, which should consist of moving weight quickly, such as med ball slams, Olympic lifting, box jumps, or other similar activities. Again, use plenty of rest between sets. After that, do strength. You need components of all three; an athlete with only one or two is missing something and won’t perform his best.
Topic #3 – Conditioning the Right Way
No more long runs! No more testing mile times! Football is played in quick, explosive bursts. The coach who asks his players to go running on a track for a long time is training his players to run slowly for a long duration. Football is played quickly for short durations. In reality, football conditioning is not about how long you can run, rather, it is about how quickly you can recover. So, work on interval training. Have the players do a cone drill or hill run or something similar that takes about 5-10 seconds of extreme effort. Then, give a 30-45 second break, and repeat. This simulates a football game. As time goes on, decrease the break to 15-20 seconds, forcing the players to recover faster. This is different from the speed training, as players will be working as hard as they can, but with shorter breaks and at possibly less than 90% of their maximal speed.
There is no one perfect training program, but this should help provide a real basic outline to get into great football shape. First, test for biomechanical integrity, and be aware of any limitations when designing the workout plan. Second, train speed, power, and strength properly and in the right order. Third, condition for football, not for marathons. Use decreasing intervals to improve recovery time.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading, and be sure to check back soon for the next blog post.
SPU's Alex Drayson writes the SPU Football Performance Blog.