Fitness Corner: In-season training

Texans strength and conditioning coach Dan Riley writes his popular Fitness Corner column for Riley and assistant strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright will continue to post selected answers to your questions throughout the year. Join in by shooting over an e-mail to
Here's Dan...

I spoke with you last spring about specificity of skill and you indicated to me it is very difficult to design off-season practice drills for defensive backs because of the inability to simulate exact game movements. I would assume the same would be true for running backs?

Jason Opsal, California Lutheran University

Nothing prepares an athlete for the neurological and physiological responses of performing a position specific skill better, than performing that exact skill at game speed (preferably during an actual game). A drill that is "almost the same" is not going to develop position specific skills unless the exact skill is performed.

For athletes to perform quickly, fast, and explosively, they must respond to a stimulus (visual, sound, or touch), react to this stimulus (a chemical process between the brain and the nervous system), and then perform the task (movement time). A defensive back must react, respond, and move, to many unrehearsed activities on the field.


A wide receiver can practice and attempt to perfect a rehearsed response (pass route). A wide receiver knows where he is going to run when running a pass route. A defensive back must react to the receiver's movements. It is impossible to recreate the specific responses needed by the defensive back with a drill, unless the drill involves a receiver running a route at game speed with a QB throwing a ball.

Motor Learning experts agree that skills do not transfer from one task to another (task- to-task transfer). They also tell us that developing balance to perform one task will not transfer to the specific balance used to perform a different task. The defensive back can perform plyometrics, box jumps, power cleans, cone drills, resistive running, assistive running, quick foot ladder drills, balance drills, etc., and none will transfer to the exact skills used to respond and cover a wide receiver.

The execution of a skill, when perfected, provides the brain with sophisticated and precise neurological template (almost like a finger print) and is used each time that exact skill is performed. A different neurological response is generated when anything other than the exact skill is performed, no matter how similar it may be to the original skill.

Motor learning experts tell us that drills are what they are, drills. A drill is a different skill in itself and a waste of time and energy if the purpose is to improve a position specific skill used to play the game.

The best way for a football player (or any athlete) to improve the skills used to play their position is to practice the exact (not almost the same) skills used to play the game. My advice would be to spend as little time as possible on non-specific drills and spend more practice time actually playing the game, or attempt to create game-like conditions.

Intra-task transfer is a term used by the experts to describe several tasks performed in sequence to complete a skill. The center-quarterback exchange is a good example. The ball is snapped by the center and if it is a pass, the QB drops back to throw (three, five, seven step drop, or rolls out) and then throws the ball.

There are several skills used to complete this task and each can be practiced separately.

  1. Center – quarterback exchange (under center and from shotgun).
  1. Practice ball handling skills (fake handing the ball off to a running back or actually hand it off).
  1. Drop three steps and set up to throw.
  1. Drop five steps and set up to throw.
  1. Drop seven steps and set up to throw.
  1. Roll to the right.
  1. Roll to the left.
  1. Throw the ball.

Each of these skills when practiced separately will then transfer to the entire task when performed in sequence non-stop from beginning to end.

Remember that a drill is what it is. Running through ropes and around cones requires a specific number and amount of various abilities to perform (balance, hand-eye coordination, dexterity, strength, etc.). Change the skill just a little bit and a different set and/or amount of the same abilities may be used. Drills cannot recreate the thousands of different rehearsed and unrehearsed responses that occur during a game.

It is impossible to reproduce the specific neurological and physiological responses required for a running back to hit a hole and make a cut to avoid a tackler. It becomes an unrehearsed response during a game. The neurological response to react and avoid a would be tackler in a game is going to be significantly different than the response during a drill when a coach tells a back to break one way or the other.

During practice have your running backs practice taking handoffs from a quarterback (intra-task transfer) to improve timing. This will carry over to actual game conditions. Having a running back run through a series of tires will improve his skill at running through tires, but not improve the skills used to carry the ball during a game. Use your practice time wisely and organize drills that are game specific.

I am a football coach and curious as to the intensity of the in-season training. How many and what are the in-season workouts like?

-- Mike Potts

In-season training (first day of training camp until the last game of the season) is the most important period for our players to train their hardest. It is the most difficult time of the year to train. It makes little difference how hard a player lifts weights during the off-season if he is not willing to work his hardest during the season.

During his first team meeting at training camp Coach Capers stressed the importance and necessity for our players to place the greatest emphasis on in-season lifting. He is well aware of the mindset some of our new players have regarding in-season training.

In some programs in-season lifting becomes "voluntary," deemphasized, or non-productive. Without placing the highest priority on in season lifting players begin exerting sub-maximal efforts and using lighter weights. This will result in a rapid loss in strength and a decrease in lean bodyweight. It does not make any difference how much lifting is being done (or how much strength is gained) during the off-season, if the athlete does not work his/her hardest during the season to maintain near maximum strength levels.

If you want to observe how effective and productive any strength program is (high school, college, or professional), observe workouts during the season and ask the following questions?

  1. Does the Head Coach provide unconditional support (enforce participation, provide adequate lifting time)?
  1. Does every athlete participate (not just those who want to participate)?
  1. Is total body strength (exercises for the Neck, Hips & Legs, Midsection, Upper Body, Arms) emphasized?
  1. Is the weight used and the number of reps performed documented each workout?
  1. Are meaningful weights being used or has the athlete significantly reduced the amount of weight (that was used during the off-season)?
  1. If a player injures one area of the body does he use it for an excuse to not lift or does he continue training non-affected body parts.
  1. Does a player stop lifting if he injures a finger, hand, wrist, forearm, or elbow, or is there a contingency plan that allows him to continue training (No Hands Routine)?

Once training camp begins some coaches place little emphasis on the value of maintaining near maximum strength levels. Every team has a handful of players that are self-motivated and enjoy lifting. These athletes work hard throughout an entire season. For some however, it becomes more difficult to remain motivated throughout training camp and for an entire season.

The greatest impact on the success of any strength program is the support given by the head coach. If the head coach thinks something is important, it will get the attention of an entire team. There is no doubt among our players regarding how important in-season lifting is to Coach Capers. He treats a weight workout with the same value as a team meeting. If a player is late by only one minute he will be fined. Ray and I meet regularly with Dom to discuss the work ethic of each player.

I've had the opportunity to observe what happens to an organized in-season strength program without strong support from the head coach. Eventually those players that want to work hard will and those that do not want to work don't do anything.


You can refer to the lifting videos located in past installations of the Fitness Corner to see how intense our players train during the season. We have film of Seth Payne ([


](, Gary Walker ([


](, and Kailee Wong ([


](, performing a workout. These videos best illustrate the intensity of exercise during the season.

During the first two weeks of training camp our players lift on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning. They lift in the morning and practice in the afternoon. During the morning workout players perform exercises for the Neck, Midsection, Upper Body, and Arms. These workouts are decreased to two for the remainder of training camp.

We give our players the following guidelines regarding lower body lifting during training camp:

Leg Training during Training Camp

It does not make sense to strengthen your legs during the off-season and stop training during training camp. Strength is lost rapidly. We recommend the following leg training protocol during the remainder of training camp:

  1. Perform one lower body workout/week during training camp.
  1. During the first week decrease the number of repetitions you perform to eight reps (instead of the usual twelve). During the second week perform nine reps, and add one rep each week until you return to twelve reps for each exercise.
  1. Perform the exact same sequence of exercises each workout. Accurately record the amount of weight used on your workout sheet. We will update your file to serve as a reminder of how much weight you used during your last workout.
  1. During the first week select a weight light enough to allow you to recover before the next workout. We'd rather the weight be a little too light than too heavy.
  1. Gradually increase the weight each workout (each week) to allow you to regain all lost strength by the first regular season game.
  1. You must decide which day of the week is best for you and provides the best opportunity to recover before the next practice.
  1. Should you have any concerns or questions please contact us.

Once training camp is finished and the regular season begins our players perform a total body workout on Monday. There are two major advantages of lifting the day after a game:

  1. It helps to get rid of muscle soreness and some of the bumps and bruises from the game. Many years ago teams would run and stretch the day after a game to get rid of soreness. This protocol is strictly cosmetic. It makes the player feel better but does nothing to maintain strength. The quality and intensity of the run was usually too low to maintain the high levels of fitness necessary to play.
  1. Each player completes a very intense workout using weights designed to maintain maximum or near maximum strength levels. Training on Monday will allow adequate time to recover for a second workout later in the week. On Wednesday and Thursday we have four time slots in the morning (6:15, 6:50, 7:35, and 9:35). Strength Coach Ray Wright schedules no more than eight players in any one of these time slots. Each strength coach (Ray Wright, Everett Coleman, Virgil Campbell, and myself) are assigned two players to train from the beginning of the workout until the end. We have four players that will lift after practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday morning we have one time slot for our practice squad players. Each game we have seven players who are inactive for the game on Sunday. When we play at home those players complete a total body workout before the game at 7:30 Sunday morning.

You can have the "best" program in the world, but it will have little impact unless every player on the team has a sense of urgency regarding the importance of in-season lifting. Only the head coach has the power to accomplish this. When the head coach speaks, everybody listens.

My advice to all coaches is to organize an in-season strength program and use that same program during the off- season. What a player does in May will have no impact on his performance unless he continues performing at a high level of intensity and with some degree of frequency throughout the entire season.

I am sixteen years old and play football in England. I was wondering if you could tell me what the best weight workout is for a middle linebacker.

-- Nik Haywood

* *The "best" weight workout for a middle linebacker is the same weight workout that should be used for every position on the team. The primary purpose of any strength program for a football player must be injury prevention. It is the responsibility of a coach to implement the "best workout" for preventing injuries for all players.

All football players (athletes) have the same pairs of muscle groups. Every athlete has a pair of hamstrings, a pair of biceps, and so on. The point of origin (a spot on the bone where a muscle attaches) is the same for all athletes. Each muscle group performs the same function regardless of the position played. The posterior deltoid of a quarterback performs the same function as the posterior deltoid of a defensive lineman.

The only difference in muscle groups between and among the players on your team is the developing potential each player possesses. There are certain inherited traits that allow some athletes to respond better in size and strength.

Regardless of the "program," the equipment used, or the set/rep combination, some athletes will respond better, simply because they have a better genetic predisposition for adding strength.

Early in my career I believed manipulating the set/rep combination could impact how muscles responded. The advice I gave was to use heavy weights and low reps to add mass and strength. This would be good for linemen. Receivers and defensive backs should use lighter weights and perform more reps for endurance and definition. I've learned that this is not true. Competitive weight lifters of varying sizes (from very small to very large) all use the same methodology and equipment yet each responds differently due to their genetic makeup.

After spending thirty-two years as a strength coach I'll give you my opinion regarding the criterion I utilize to evaluate quality of a strength program.

  1. First and foremost it must be safe. Sudden injuries in the weight room cannot be tolerated by athletes using strength training as part of their physical preparation to play another sport.
  2. Injuries that develop over time due to the accumulative affects that come from performing an exercise(s) must be eliminated regardless of the short or long-term benefits. Exercises must be joint friendly.
  3. Total body development. Multi-joint and single joint exercises must be performed for every major muscle group.
  4. Sports involving collisions involving the head must place the highest priority on neck and trap development.
  5. Sports involving collisions involving the upper body must place a very high priority on single-joint exercises surrounding the shoulder capsule (external rotators of the rotator cuff, posterior deltoid, medial head of the deltoid).
  6. In-season strength training must be emphasized more than lifting during the non-competitive season. The exact same routines should be used during the competitive season and during the off-season. If testing is used test the players before the season begins and again at the very end of the season.
  7. Routines must be time efficient to get the best results in the least amount of time. Athletes have little time or energy to waste during the competitive season. Eliminate non-productive exercise.
  8. Create variety in your program. Use a variety of equipment to include barbells, dumbbells, machines, bodyweight, and manual resistance. If performed properly each is capable of generating maximum benefits.

Remember, the key to maximum gains is how you perform each rep and how you complete each set. In most cases the harder it is to perform an exercise, the better the results.

My advice to you Nik is to gather as much information as possible and then experiment with various to determine what produces the best results for you. Once you identify which format produces the best results, apply those techniques to every workout you perform.

Each of our players utilizes the same techniques to perform a rep and complete a set. The only difference is the results they get. Good luck and stay healthy.

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