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How college strength coaches are handling quarantine

The simple answer: the same way everyone is doing anything right now.

Getty Images Photo, Banner Society Illustration

While postgraduate-level football teams have free agency square-dancing parties to entertain themselves during the spring months, the college football galaxy must content itself with breathless pearl-clutching over the respective attendance numbers of Ohio State and Alabama scrimmages.

Not in 2020! While we don’t especially miss those stories, we do miss having anything to do. Welcome to spring training in isolation, with your SS&C (Slothful Strength and Conditioning) coach, Spencer Hall.

So um … what are football players doing right now?

Probably the same thing as you: Reading Twitter, playing video games during conference calls, and FaceTiming their families more than they might like to admit. We’re really all the same, underneath it all.

Rephrased: What are football players doing instead of practicing and working like they normally would in spring?

Being bored. There’s a lot of boredom, mostly because it turns out that football players, like everyone else, have a lot of meetings they really don’t need. Some players have stayed on campus, but with classes cancelled and many campuses closed, most have gone home. At home, most gyms are closed.

Unless they have a home gym — and most people don’t — this means improvisation.

Define improvisation.

Let a Michigan Man lead us here. If you or someone you love has tried to do pull-ups this week on a playground, doorframe, or other dodgy substitute, let it be known. You are not alone. This is what semi-pro athletes are doing right at this very moment.

That is 6’4”, 245-pound Michigan defensive end Luiji Vilain. Because he’s committed, he’s doing chins on a playground jungle gym somewhere near his house on a bar that is easily a foot too short for his huge self. Because he is a Michigan Man, he is prepared, and using proper protection when handling public surfaces. Because he is named Luiji Vilain, he was born to play college football.

So workout-wise literally everyone is making it up at home right now?

Not entirely. Strength coaches have adapted spring workouts for the coronavirus era by stripping routines down to the essentials. Every player gets a workout spreadsheet. Workout broken out in days and sorted by amount of available equipment on hand. Players do their work. Every player without equipment thinks about how much they miss weight rooms, and wonders why people ever did any of this in the days before barbells and machines.

That sounds like some old-school Jack LaLanne, Charles Bronson-in-prison-type workout thing.

For players without equipment, unfortunately yes. (Ugh, reps.) For strength routines, it’s gonna be lots and lots of military basic training standards: push-ups, bodyweight squats, and planks. (So many reps.) Please note that in the following take-home routine from Northern Illinois University’s football training staff, the home workout legend “Couch Dips” appears. With those and every other exercise for the homebound football player, the typical stay-at-home coronavirus isolation workout builds up to hundreds of them a day. (All. The. Reps.)

But there’s way, way more than the average home workout in the take-home player’s guide to voluntary quarantine fitness. Conditioning workouts — sprints, jumps, more sprints, and even a sprinkling of gassers — follow every strength day. Throw in warm-ups, mobility, stretching, and fumbling around with the paint cans and water jugs used in place of actual weights, and it could take someone a while to finish it all.

That seems like a lot.

It is a lot, and always has been. Before Nebraska’s Boyd Epley introduced actual weightlifting into college football conditioning in the late 1960s, this was how it was done. Some players stuck with old-school bodyweight training even after the Cornhuskers started lifting, got huge, and swamped opponents at the line of scrimmage. Georgia’s own Herschel Walker famously did 3,500 situps and 3,500 pushups a day when he was a running back at UGA and in the NFL.

Is that going to work?

Yes, and no.

Someone doing all of this even without equipment or a proper weight room will be in a very good kind of shape, but not exactly football shape. Football requires power. Power requires strength. And for anyone who has ever gotten slightly obsessive about lifting weights, strength requires maintenance — in other words, time under the stress of what the legendary Ronnie Coleman would call “heavy-ass weights.” All that beef built up in the weight room requires more maintenance time in the weight room. Without it, our beefy boys will inevitably become less swole than their coaches would like them to be for peak performance.

In other words: In a use-it-or-lose-it situation, football players are about to lose it.

Every football player’s strength coach is now in the same position as your supplement-pumping meathead friend locked out of their gyms: Worrying about losing THE GAINS, but also concerned with keeping up their work capacity. Strength coaches like Ryan Napoli, Director of Sports Performance for football at Northern Illinois University, have a better, more scientific way of putting this, of course.

“Training residuals state that strength gains are maintained for around 30 days. Without any equipment, it is going to be hard, come May.”

That is when most players kept away from weight training will become ever-so-slightly less jacked than usual. That is the kind of thing strength coaches weep into their beards over, but also something they’ve already written into their plans for this very unusual year.

Napoli says with a month at the very least taken out of the training calendar, home gym training for football players will be in part about the basics: Preserving the ability to move and produce effort.

“For us the biggest thing is keeping our work capacity up so when we do get back, we can hopefully speed up the process.”

What on earth does this mean for a possible 2020 football season?

Which is the least of our concerns right now, right?

Which is obviously the least of our concerns right now.

Just had to get that out there first. If we end up playing any football in the 2020 season at all — something even former COVID-19 skeptics like Kirk Herbstreit are putting out there as a real possibility — then the player who takes the field in the fall might be a marginally smaller and weaker athlete.

That’s a might and not a will. Some of this is determined by genetics. Some players might do the Herschel Walker caveman workout and end up just as strong or stronger, and some might wither to being merely large humans instead of absolutely huge. A lot of it might be based on diet, a variable that could produce a lot of wildly different outcomes here, and not the ones someone might expect. Offensive linemen, for instance, often struggle to stay at 300 pounds despite a constant stream of encouragement to eat well and often. They could come back faster and lighter without the constant availability of the program’s training table, but without the mass and strength needed to boss around big defensive tackles.

Wouldn’t the same hold true for defensive tackles, though?

As someone who has watched defensive linemen bear the brunt of the performance staff’s ire on weigh-in days: In a few cases, yes. In most, absolutely not.

That’s not the only aim here though, right?

Absolutely not. According to Napoli, football programs and their players are trying to solve the same problem as everyone else: how to keep things as normal and healthy as possible, all in a moment that is not at all normal or healthy.

Spoiler: it is not easy for them, either.

“This is a challenging time for all across the board. With the home workouts, it is about keeping them in a routine and keeping them active.”

In the absence of the normal, all football players or any of us can do is work and prepare as thoroughly as we can. Staying ready to make that transition back to carrying the full load — whenever that is — is the most you can ask of yourself or your team right now.