Gaining Ground

At Towson University, off-season training for men’s lacrosse emphasizes speed, conditioning, and being ready for the game’s quick shifts in momentum.

By John Poitras

John Poitras, MA, CSCCa, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Towson University. He can be reached at: jpoitras@towson.edu.

Training & Conditioning, 15.9, December 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1509/gainingground.htm

When you think of Baltimore, two things come to mind: delicious Maryland crabs and lacrosse (not necessarily in that order). Lacrosse has a long-standing tradition here in Baltimore, stretching back to the early inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay area. Many kids growing up in and around Baltimore have never played America’s favorite pastime, but have had a lacrosse stick in their hands since before they could even walk. It is a way of life here and people take it seriously.

Thus, at Towson University we take our lacrosse team very seriously. Over the past five years, Towson’s men’s lacrosse team has recorded four conference championships and four NCAA Division I playoff berths, with one Final Four and two quarterfinal appearances.

Over the same time period, the men’s lacrosse strength and conditioning program has evolved to meet the needs and demands of the current team. One part of the team philosophy is: “If you can’t catch us, you can’t beat us.” Thus we focus a lot on speed and conditioning for the game.

We also train to overcome obstacles. Lacrosse is a game of sudden shifts of momentum, sometimes coming faster than you can comprehend. During any game, you could be up by eight goals and within the next few minutes find yourself in a dogfight to keep the lead. Therefore, we train our athletes to be ready for anything.

Finally, we take care not to miss any details. Preparing a men’s lacrosse athlete is like preparing a five-course meal. If the cook fails to plan the meal, forgets to include some important ingredients, and skips right to dessert, the whole meal is ruined. Think of it in terms of any athlete: If you fail to mentally prepare the athlete for what is to come, skip some vital exercises to properly build the total athlete, and head into the season out of shape, the conference championship will go to someone else.

Dynamic Warmup
The day is long over when athletes could just show up and dive right into their strength training or conditioning workouts. I strongly believe in starting with some type of dynamic warmup to stimulate the ranges of motion of the upcoming workout and start a positive blood flow. To keep the athlete’s interest, I will stick with one dynamic warmup for only a two- to three-week period before I switch the exercises. Below is a list of the dynamic warmup exercises we have used:

• Lunge opposite elbow to opposite knee
• Backward lunge with hands on head
• Hamstring lunge
• Diagonal (45-degree) lunge
• Knee hug
• Tin soldiers
• Quad stretch to a lunge
• Butt kickers
• Backwards butt kickers
• Inchworm
• Stationary lateral lunge
• Scorpions
• Spidermans

I also strongly believe some attention should be given to static stretches. I have found it is worth the time to walk athletes through some extra hamstring, groin, and quadriceps stretches. I don’t like to take the chance of an athlete being sidelined with an injury due to a lack of stretching.

Strength Training
I can easily highlight our off-season strength program in one simple word: speed. I use variations of speed every chance I get. For example, I will utilize slow training, fast training, or manipulate different lifting speeds throughout concentric and eccentric contractions.

During any game, the intensities can change as quickly and as often as changes of possession. One moment we can be utilizing an offensive tempo that is designed to wear down an opponent’s defense. Then, in the blink of an eye, there is a change of possession and our defense is now controlling the field, trying to shut down an opponent’s offensive attack.

I try to incorporate what an athlete might see in a game into our strength training program. Therefore, during our heavy back squat day, I may add a few more squat sets with varying speeds. For example, in one exercise, athletes push themselves with maximum weight, then slow down, and then, in an instant, explode with maximum force. This has been instrumental in teaching our athletes to expect the unexpected, and it also makes our workouts more dynamic.

During the fall semester, our off-season, the men’s lacrosse team will train three times per week in the weightroom. Even though there are 40 to 50 athletes on the team, I still bring them in all at one time to build camaraderie. Working in a 5,000 square foot weightroom, I divide the squad into two different groups: (1) attack, defense, goalies, and (2) the midfield. This ensures that not everyone is waiting to use the same pieces of equipment.

Over the course of the week, I will develop three different workouts: one for the upper body, one for the lower body, and a circuit. During Monday’s workout, for example, Group 1 will train chest, shoulders, and triceps, and Group 2 will train legs, back, and biceps. For Wednesday’s workout, the second workout of the week, the groups simply switch their workouts to ensure that all the major muscle groups have been hit. The entire team performs the circuit together on Thursday.

With our Monday/Wednesday workouts, we use two main core exercises (bench and squat) and one to two Olympic lifts. (See “Off-Season Strength” below for a look at the first phase of this past year’s off-season workout.) These are complemented by multiple secondary or assistive exercises such as wrist curls, dorsiflexion, shoulder stability exercises, hand-eye coordination, and neck exercises. In designing the workouts, I will frequently manipulate many variables. For example, with a dumbbell incline, I have used a regular dumbbell incline, a single arm dumbbell incline, alternating dumbbell inclines, and a faster “firing” dumbbell incline.

Core training and fast footwork training brings up the rear of our workouts. I believe it’s important to save the athletes’ energy for their strength workout and leave abs/core and fast footwork training to the end. I want the athletes to be able to lift with perfect form and technique. But even if their legs are tired, they can still perform abdominal training and footwork drills.

Just as important as structuring the workouts correctly is teaching the athletes the hows and whys. It is absolutely crucial for every athlete to understand why he is performing certain exercises in the weightroom and how those exercises translate to the playing field. I have found that if you can accomplish this task well, your athletes will feel ownership of the program and work with you to reach new goals.

After determining their 1RM through a strength test, I allow the athletes to choose their own weights within a range of their results. I explain the importance of increasing their weights (to a degree) as long as they achieve their desired reps from the week before. Working this way allows athletes to progress at their own rate depending upon their skill level in the weightroom.

Another reason I do not use exact percentages is that I have found them to be an imperfect fit for all athletes on all teams. Sometimes you are faced with a large number of freshmen who have very little background in strength training and can’t handle as much as a more seasoned athlete. As long as the athlete understands the rationale behind the desired progress, I feel they can choose the correct weight for their particular needs.

Circuit Training
The third workout, on Thursday, differs from the previous ones. I utilize circuit training to “max out” their intensity for the week. I have found utilizing circuit training to be advantageous because it offers a different level of intensity as compared to traditional strength training. This also allows me the ability to alter the work-to-rest ratio on a weekly basis.

Since we have just finished heavy lifting for the major muscle groups, I incorporate some “off the wall” exercises during circuit training. This challenges the athletes to push hard, which mirrors the intensity late in the game. I incorporate exercises for fast footwork training, hand grip strength, developing power and explosiveness, and strengthening the core. Circuit training, when done properly, will challenge athletes to push themselves against all odds, the same way we play.

The following is a sample of our off-season circuit training. Like our other strength workouts, it is preceded by a warmup and flexibility drills.

• 45 lb. plate farmer’s carry
• Plyo box quick feet
• Wall sits w/horizontal medball hold
• Decline stab disks push-ups
• Parallel grip pull-ups
• Mountain climbers
• DB deadlifts + DB bicep curls
• Abs: partner leg throw downs
• 45 lb. plate sky crunches

Team Challenges
At the end of each strength-training workout, I separate the team into their classes and pit each group against others in the “challenge for the day.” Each member of the freshman class will pick someone from the sophomore class to compete against, those in the sophomore class will pick someone from the junior class, and so on.

Each day, the challenge is different. It could be pull-ups, push-ups, jump rope, stationary wall squats with a heavy medicine ball for time, or something unusual. The losing three classes will perform some extra sprints at the end of conditioning while the winning team will perform an extra abdominal circuit. I like the winning class to also perform some type of exercise because whether we win or we lose, we are all still a team.

I feel that providing competition is an important part of an off-season strength program. But it must be done in a way that promotes team-building and unity.

Conditioning
The challenging part of off-season conditioning is to balance my workouts for the team with what the athletes go through during fall sport practice. Since it is a long wait to the beginning of preseason practice (mid- to late-January), and we don’t want to overtrain the athletes, I only condition the team two times per week during the fall semester.

I firmly believe men’s lacrosse to be a sport of speed, but we consider closely the type of speed needed for the game. I would never ask the team to go out and run a timed mile because they will never run like that during a game. Rather, lacrosse athletes will experience sudden changes in speed and direction during the course of a game.

Therefore, I incorporate short-distance sprints (five yards to 30 yards), medium-range sprints (30 yards to 60 yards) and longer-distance sprints (60 yards to 100 yards) throughout the course of their workout. To break up the monotony of performing straight-ahead sprints, I use a whistle to unexpectedly change the athletes’ direction. This will force them to slow down immediately, change direction, and accelerate. If they don’t know when the whistle will come, it will simulate changes of possession in games.

I also utilize foot speed exercises and plyometrics each workout day, carefully keeping an eye on the number of foot contacts the athletes experience. I begin with entry-level exercises and gradually progress into higher-intensity exercises as the athletes develop a base. I like to begin with exercises such as cone hops and bounding. Cone hops work on lateral explosiveness and bounding works in the linear direction. One way to increase the intensity of cone hops is to introduce one to two more cones and incorporate a 20-yard sprint at the end of the exercise. I also use stationary vertical knee-ups, which progress to traveling vertical knee-ups.

I tend not to use a separate day for plyometrics for one simple reason: If athletes could experience anything at any given moment during the course of a game, they should train that way each conditioning day. I like to alter what athletes see during each conditioning session. It is my goal to build the total athlete each day.

To put some competition into our conditioning, I pit athletes against each other while performing various agility cone exercises. Whether they mirror each other or run against the clock, athletes push themselves to their limits and beyond.

As I do with strength training, I take the time to explain why we perform certain agility drills. I believe it’s critical for athletes to understand what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it translates to lacrosse.

Many strength coaches feel that it is beneficial to condition athletes on the same day as strength training and many strength coaches feel otherwise. For me, the best day for conditioning in the off-season is when the right circumstances present themselves. First of all, what is the weather like? If it’s cold and raining outside, we might not work out. It is important to remember that this is the off-season, not preseason, and taking a chance to condition athletes on a cold and rainy day is risking possible injury. Secondly, do any of the athletes have a class schedule that would conflict with conditioning? Our athletes know that their education comes first, and I would rather postpone conditioning until the following day if it means that the weather will have improved or I will have 100-percent attendance.

Increasing the Intensity
Here at Towson University, lacrosse is a fierce and ultra-fast competitive sport. Playing teams twice a week that are almost all ranked within the top 20 in NCAA Division I is a challenge in itself. But for me, the real challenge starts in the off-season, when I can get the athletes’ bodies into great shape and their competitive spirits in sync.

With all the drills we choose and sets and reps we chart out, the off-season program is designed to continually challenge each student-athlete, both physically and mentally. On the field, athletes need to be able to perfect their techniques in all they do. The same goes for the weightroom and on the conditioning field. I always say, “Increase your intensity in all that you do, and great things will follow.”



Table:
Off-season Strength
The following are sample workouts from our first phase of off-season strength training, which lasts about three weeks. Both workouts begin with warmup and flexibility drills and end with an abdominal circuit, footwork drills, stability training, and a team challenge.

Workout One
High pulls . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3x6
Bench press . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4x10
Alt. DB incline . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3x10
Single arm DB shoulder press . . . . . . . .3x10
Palms up DB front raises . . . . . . . . . . . .3x12
MedBall pushups . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2x12
DB skull crushers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3x10

Workout Two
Barbell push press . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3x6
Front squats . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3x6
Back squats . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4x10
Leg curls . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3x10
Hammer wide pulldown . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3x10
Hammer low row . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3x10
Alt. DB biceps . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3x10

In our second phase (strength phase) of off-season training, the core and assisting exercises will increase to 4 sets and drop to 6 reps, while Olympic lifts are at 4 sets of 4 reps. In our third phase (power phase), the core exercises will continue at 4 sets, but the rep scheme drops to 4, 3, 2, and 2. Assisting exercises remain at 3 to 4 sets of 6 reps (with changing speeds) and Olympic lifts stay at 4 sets but drop to 2 reps each.


Sidebar:
Sprint Test
In the sport of men’s lacrosse, athletes must have the ability to cover the length of the field multiple times throughout the course of the game. And the game rarely slows down during transitions—even substitutions are on the fly.

To simulate game-like situations, I have implemented a conditioning test that consists of 15x100-yard sprints, all timed. This test is administered three times throughout the year, with the first time being at the start of the school semester in September. It’s our first team bonding opportunity of the year.

Here’s how it works: Beginning on the whistle, the team will sprint down the length of the field and must cross the 100-yard mark in under 15 seconds. Once completed, the athletes jog back to the starting line at their own pace. They have a total of 75 seconds from the beginning of one sprint to the start of the next. If the athlete jogs back faster, then he can have more rest standing up as opposed to jogging back slower and getting less time to rest before the sound of the next whistle.

Missing the 15-second goal in just one of the 15 sprints is an automatic failure and lands the athlete in Dawn Patrol. What is unique about how I run this test is that if an athlete fails a sprint, he must still complete all 15 sprints. Quitting is never an option.

The purpose of the test is to ensure that our athletes stay in shape over the summer. There is absolutely no way for athletes to successfully pass this test if they did not train with the proper intensity before they come back to school. And if they do not pass the test, Dawn Patrol means they are up at the crack of dawn to perform extra conditioning and sprints.

I re-administer this test just prior to our winter break and again at the beginning of the spring semester (preseason). Just knowing that this test is awaiting them, the athletes train year round with full intensity.