On The Line

At North Carolina State University, offensive and defensive linemen are trained from the core to the hands.

By Todd Stroud

Todd Stroud is the Director of Strength and Conditioning at North Carolina State University. A former noseguard at Florida State, he has also coached at Memphis, West Alabama, and Auburn.

Training & Conditioning, 13.3, April 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1303/ontheline.htm

The college football strength and conditioning professional faces many challenges in program design and implementation. In my 18 years as a strength professional, the athletes who I coach continue to set the bar higher in terms of speed, size, and strength.

In response, I constantly experiment and think of ways to keep our athletes motivated. Every year, we sit down and think of a few fun exercises and drills to add and carry with us to the next cycle. It could be medicine-ball throws between sets or the use of chains for variable resistance—or even something more unorthodox.

But behind the gimmicks and motivational tools, the simple truth is that the basis of our program does not change. We focus on the basic exercises, keeping our program simple but inspirational. This article highlights how we take basic training and make it interesting and useful.

The Big Guys
The most critical aspect of our football strength and conditioning program is the training of the offensive and defensive linemen. We train our big players on a four-day split, year-round, meaning that we attack the upper body two times per week, and the lower body two days a week. The rest day in between the four-day split is always used for speed, agility, and quickness work where we focus on the fundamentals of individual positions.

We are very basic in our approach to training linemen, using a combination of basic power movements and multi-joint Olympic movements. A periodization model is used to improve each athlete’s performance. Our core exercises are laid out in Table One, below.

One element we focus on heavily is grip strength. When you get right down to it, what college linemen do most during the course of a football game is use their hands. Sure, they need big strong legs and hips, sure, they need to be able to extend and explode. But a lineman who can’t grab cloth is worth nothing!

Therefore, we have made the basic Pull-Up exercise and variations of the Pull-Up one of our upper-body staples. This forces these big people to improve their grip strength, while also developing supporting muscle groups like the back and biceps region.

Everyone’s done them at one time or another, but when you’re dealing with training a 300-plus-pound athlete, it’s worth going over the fundamentals of this simple exercise. The Pull-Up is initiated with a shoulder-width grip beginning from a totally extended position with no bend in the elbow joint. The athlete then pulls himself upward toward the bar, squeezing his shoulder blades together until his chin carries over the bar. Once the athlete reaches the top of the pull, he simply retraces his steps in a controlled fashion until his elbows are fully extended once again.

The strength coach must make sure that all of his or her athletes are completing every programmed rep as either a forced rep or a negative. The value of eccentric contractions during this movement is critical in every player’s improvement.

The spotter plays an important role during the Pull-Up. Many of your athletes will not be able to successfully complete one repetition without a great spot. The spotter must call for the lifter to bend his knees at 90 degrees, hold the lifter’s ankles in a supporting fashion, and give assistance when needed. Once the athlete reaches the top position, the spotter should then release him and let him lower himself in a controlled negative repetition. As each player improves, the need for a spotter becomes less and less.

The next step for the spotter is to give assistance with the lifter’s upper body only, supporting him under each lat and giving assistance with a slight upward push. After a few short weeks, not only will every big man on your team have a new sense of accomplishment, but also a better sense of hand awareness and grip strength. 

When Pull-Ups are mastered by the majority of your athletes, it is time to introduce the variations of this exercise. The first variation is the Chin-Up, which is completed with the exact same method as the Pull-Up, but the hand position is different. When executing the Chin-Up, the athlete will start with his palms facing inward. This variation is a simple wrinkle to add to a program, and your linemen will find it a bit easier to perform. The benefits are of equal value as far as grip strength is concerned, but the bicep muscle is much more involved.

The final variation of the Pull-Up exercise is the Towel Pull. The Towel Pull is by far the most demanding in terms of overall grip strength and probably the most valuable for football linemen in particular. The actual equipment setup is very simple: the coach will drape two bath-size towels over the top of the chin bar and tape the loose ends together with athletic tape. This will form two long handles of cloth and tape that will hang down toward the athlete.

The athlete then grips each handle at the very top of the cloth just below the chin bar. Each player will grip the cloth with his thumbs facing upward toward the chin bar, and grasp the towel with his four other fingers. The athlete will then follow the Pull-Up protocol using his spotter as his guide.

This hand position is an important one to train in that it is the same hand position that linemen use when they attack blocks. During this movement, it requires a great level of grip strength to execute the reps properly, so the spotter must do a great job. The format on upper-body days for these pulling exercises is shown in Table Two.

Speeding Up
Our speed and agility days are also critical. We concentrate on a form running program that is targeted to improve our 10-yard and 40-yard dash times. We work exclusively on stance and start: generating force with the upper body to create an explosive start and using body lean to gain ground on the first step. 

We also work on variations of the NFL shuttle run series, which are quick-change movement drills done on a matted area. When doing these, we concentrate quite a bit on knee bend and football positioning. These include the two-point and four-point wave drill and two-point and four-point seat roll. We also do a drill we call “front to back” where the athlete touches his chest to the ground then rotates his hips in one direction and touches his back. A lot of this work is done in a “pen” that is 7 yards wide, 10 yards long, and 44 inches high.

Some Fun
Through the core exercises, Pull-Ups, and movement drills, we work on motivating each athlete every day. But we also recognize the need to throw a few twists into the program to keep things interesting. For example, we conduct a “Superstar Competition” in the spring for motivation. This is a team competition where the offense and defense are separated and we compete doing a variety of strongman events. They include a keg toss, tug of war, relay race carrying various implements, tire flipping, 4x100-yard relay, and so forth. It is a lot of fun for the players and breaks the monotony of training under conventional circumstances. 

We also periodically take digital pictures of our players, which does a great job of motivating them. When an athlete sees himself progress through photos, he gets a real sense of accomplishment.

I still believe that we have a huge responsibility as strength coaches to provide leadership and guidance to our student-athletes, and the biggest part of our job is to make our players feel like they have accomplished something. All of these exercises are simple enough so that, after a very short time, all of your linemen will have success doing the Pull-Up and its variations, they will increase their speed, and you will get the results that you desire on the field.

Table One: Core Exercises

Bench Press
Power Shrug
Close Grip Bench Press
Split Jerk
Weighted Dips

Power Clean
Stiff Deads
Clean Combos

Speed, Agility, and Quickness

Incline Bench
Push Press
Power Shrug
Close Grip Incline Dips

Split Jerk
Step Ups

Table Two: Upper Body Workout

Bench Press
Power Shrug
Split Jerk
Close Grip Bench
Pull-Ups 3x8-12
Chins 2x8-12
Towels 2x6-8
Weighted Dips

Incline Bench Press
Push Press
Incline Close Grip
Power Shrug
Towel Pulls 2x6-8
Chins 3-8-12
Weighted Dips