Hunches About Weight Lifting – Based on a Small Sample Size

John Brumund-Smith Coaching Blogs, Illinois HS Cross Country, Opinion 1 Comment

There will be no real “science” in this article, mainly hunches. The sample size is small, just the five years I have been the Head Boys Track & Field Coach at Lake Forest High School. And if you have ever actually seen me in person, you would probably wonder why I would be writing an article about weight lifting (I have the lanky build of a distance runner, though I was a sprinter/hurdler). But this small amount of data is helping confirm some hunches I have about weight lifting, specialization and specification.  Let’s dive in.

First, off here is the data.

FootballLifting4x1

I believe the 4x100m Relay is a good measure of the elite speed of a team. Every single one of the times you see here was achieved at the Sectional Championships (I am hoping my current foursome can improve on their 42.15 at State this weekend, of course). As you can see, every year since I have been head coach, Lake Forest has had three football players on our 4x100m Relay at Sectionals. The fact that 75% of my fastest kids every year are football players is not surprising or overly interesting.

The last column is what interests me. That shows how many of the athletes who made my 4x100m Relay were still doing the football lifting that season.  Like at virtually every other school in Illinois, the football players at Lake Forest have a year-round lifting program. So the freshman, sophomore and junior football players on my track team do the football lifting in the spring. The seniors do not; they do our track lifting program.

Lake Forest Football

Chuck Spagnoli, the head football coach at Lake Forest, has a great relationship with our track team. He lends us their vertical leap pad a few times a year for testing, lets us know when their voluntary max outs are to make sure it does not interfere with any track stuff, understands the football players who make our championship teams will not be lifting for a few weeks in May, etc. Communication between programs who “share” athletes is beneficial. I love having my athletes on his team, and he loves having his athletes on my team.

Football players make great track athletes, and vice versa. Quinn Julian (11) and Chris Meng (23) are both State qualifiers in the 4x100m, 4x200m and 4x400m.

Football players make great track athletes, and vice versa. Quinn Julian (11) and Chris Meng (23) were the starting running backs on the football team and are both State qualifiers in the 4x100m, 4x200m and 4x400m.

Lake Forest has an enrollment of 1674. They play in a conference with Lake Zurich (1993), Libertyville (1969), Mundelein (2068), Stevenson (3840), Warren (4275) and Zion-Benton (2677). Next year they add Waukegan (4476). So Lake Forest goes into every conference game with some sort of disadvantage in school size (some slight, some huge). They usually have a disadvantage in actual human size as well. For whatever reason, Lake Forest just does not have huge linemen walking around the school. And if they do, they probably play Lacrosse in the spring. Most of the throwers on your track team are probably the football linemen. In my five years at Lake Forest, we have only had two athletes throw over 41′ in the Shot Put: one played soccer and one just lifted all year. We have only had three athletes throw over 120′ in the Discus: one wrestled, one was a swimmer, the other just did track (he also hurdled). Not one was a football player.

But Lake Forest is very competitive in football. They have adapted to become a fast-paced team with quickness at every position. Since I have been the track coach at Lake Forest, the football team has won at least one game in the playoffs every single year (not suggesting I have anything to do with it). They made the second round in 2011, the semi-finals in 2012, the quarterfinals in 2013 and 2014, and the second round in 2015. This is despite the fact that while most other 6A teams are playing other schools their size, Lake Forest has to play behemoths like Stevenson and Warren every single year, which often gets them a record of around 6-3 or 7-2 heading into the playoffs. Stevenson was the State champion (8A) in 2014. Libertyville made the semi-finals (7A) in 2015. Lake Zurich has three State runner-ups and one State championship (7A) in the past 10 years. The North Suburban Conference is very good at football every single year. “Little” Lake Forest, without very big kids, competes extremely well.

Correlation with lifting

Year-round lifting programs are a big reason any football team has success. Lots of football players going out for other sports such as Lacrosse, Basketball, Baseball, Track & Field, Wrestling, etc. also contributes to success. But if a football player is doing football lifting during a spring sport, is that lifting helping the spring sport? My hunch says it does not, and the data listed above (albeit from a small sample size) supports my hunch.

“If a football player is doing football lifting during a spring sport, is that lifting helping the spring sport?”

Football players, especially seniors, are great at the sprints. Three of these guys (all but #3543) were football players.

Football players, especially seniors, are great at the sprints. Three of these guys were football players.

You will notice two of the five times on the chart are significantly better than the others: 42.06 in 2014, 42.15 in 2016. In both of those cases, nobody on the team was doing the football lifting. Everybody on those teams was a senior, which obviously is a benefit in itself. You should expect your athletes to get better every year. Two times on the chart are significantly slower than the others: 43.78 in 2012, 43.39 in 2015. In both of those cases, three of the four athletes were performing the football lifts in the spring. The remaining time is the 42.67 from 2013. That team had one athlete on it doing the football lifting.

Again, the sample size is small, but what do we see? There is a pretty perfect correlation. The less athletes on the relay performing the football lifting, the faster they ran. Part of that could be explained, again, by the fact that most athletes are just plain faster their senior year. Maturity and experience have a lot to do with it. But I have noticed far greater improvements in the seniors at Lake Forest than I have at any of my other coaching gigs in my life. I believe specificity is the reason.

How does football lifting differ from track lifting?

While I do not know the entirety of our football lifting program, I know the gist of it.  Three days a week of lifting with each day focusing on one of the main lifts:  squat, bench and hang cleans. The rest of the lifts that day are based off those core exercises. Very standard and very effective for football players.

Our lifting focus in track is obviously to make the athletes run faster and jump higher.  Absolute strength and bulk mean very little and can actually be detrimental.  We started the French Contrast this year with great success. Our lifting sessions are short, focused, powerful and effective. There are no bicep curls, triceps press, shoulder shrugs or anything like that.

Bodybuilders who try to sprint are usually pretty embarrassing.

Bodybuilders who try to sprint are usually pretty embarrassing.

You want to know exactly what we do? It’s no secret. All our varsity lifting forms can be found here. For the six weeks we practice before Spring Break, we lift three days a week. However, we are only doing 10 lifts total across those three days. For the first five weeks of the outdoor season, we cut down to two days a week. There are three lifts with a super set. All are a basic lift followed immediately by a comparable explosive activity (i.e. Incline Bench, then push-up claps). Our last week of lifting is the week of our Lake County Championships (week before Conference), and we only lift one day that week. I would struggle to call this last session “weight lifting” since it is essentially an explosive body weight circuit.

We do some squats, we do some bench, we do some hang cleans.  But we do them very differently than the football team does. We do not lift nearly as heavy or focus nearly as much on bulk and overload. We had one day this year where five kids were too sore after the warm-up to complete our running workout. All five were sophomore or junior football players who had done the football squats during their lunch period. That caused some future adjustments, of course.

Hunches

Let’s look at our chart one more time. But let’s put it in order from fastest to slowest.

4x1Lifting2

There are three hunches I have that can be supported by the information in this chart.

1. Football players make great sprinters.

Duh. I am sure you have seen the stats.  I am sure you have seen athletes out there on the football field. I am sure you know the evils of specializing too early. Track is practically spring football practice.  Virtually no two other sports complement each other as well.

2. Athletes should focus on one sport per season.

We all have these kids on our team. Kids who are in a 7-on-7 football league, play club lacrosse, club soccer, club volleyball, club basketball, or whatever other money maker (not for the athletes) is out there. Another reason our seniors always explode at Lake Forest is that they drop all the club sports.  We have at least a few track athletes every year who also do club soccer. We’ll give them two days off over the weekend and they’ll play in eight soccer games while the rest of their team is taking it easy. Senior year, unless they are going to play soccer in college (virtually none do), they drop the club soccer team and focus on track. Athletes, please do not spread yourselves too thin.

3. The type of lifting you choose makes a huge difference.

Some coaches feel that as long as their athletes are lifting something, that’s good enough. That is exceptionally wrong. I can’t tell you what the perfect program is; my own program has changed dramatically over the past five years. I can tell you, however, that a power-based or speed-based program is significantly better than a strength-based or size-based program. Again, specificity.

One soccer player and three football players, all seniors having a great season in the 4x100m Relay.

One soccer player and three football players, all seniors having a great season in the 4x100m Relay.

Also, less is usually more. I recently was an assistant for a coach who gave the athletes seventeen lifts to do each session (including six different types of squats, on arm day). So, of course, the athletes would pick and choose the easy lifts or the body building lifts. If they hustled, they might get through nine in the time given to them (still way too many). Weight lifting is a supplement to your program, not an end in itself.

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Good luck to everybody at the IHSA State Track & Field Championships this weekend. You can follow Lake Forest Track & Field on Twitter at @LFHStrack.

Comments 1

  1. I would presume a football player who lifts in the off-season is doing so in order to stay in “shape.” Or, specifically: football shape. This fundamentally puts up walls towards performance in track running. Take for example the 800m world record holder David Rudisha and Tom Brady. One of them is in running shape, and the other is in football shape.
    When people are still growing and developing perhaps “3 football players can hold the school’s track & field records.” My question is if this experiment would work for anyone older, as specialization takes a thicker hold. You could really begin doing groundbreaking research on malleability of the body.
    ~Vc

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