Level System Breakdown
While training football teams it’s crucial to split players up by experience level to most effectively train in the weight room. It would be a disservice to young guys to expect them to train like a senior without the strength base with which to do so. Same goes for the seniors, expecting them to train like a freshman for 4-5 years.
You may also be thinking an 18 to 23-year-old man child can progress through lifts no matter the program thanks to the volumes of hormones coursing through their veins (all natural, of course!). This, however, would also be a disservice as they train to a point of diminishing returns, and instead would benefit maximally from speed strength and velocity-based training. While strength is a crucial factor in football, it’s not the ONLY factor. In my 20+ years I have yet to see an offensive lineman get beaten by a defensive tackle solely because the DT can bench 5lb more.
Read on for the breakdown of the level system I have used throughout my coaching career which began as an adaptation of Joe Kenn’s Tier System outlined in his book, The Coach’s Strength Training Playbook.
All incoming players begin at this level. Ideally, a type of movement screen is used to identify areas of weakness or immobility. Exercises are then prescribed to improve those areas. General Physical Preparedness (GPP) is targeted through sub-maximal eccentrics and the modified repetition method. Sound fundamental technique and improvements on core exercises (Bench, Squat, Clean) are emphasized.
General goals of level one program:
- Identify areas for improvement → Movement Screen
- Increase the athletes work capacity
- Begin the education of proper lifting technique in the squat, bench, and clean
- Begin work on joint mobility
- Begin work on maximal voluntary strength (bench, squat)
Despite many high schools now having strength training programs, I still assume beginner level for all incoming level one athletes. In an effort to drill proper mechanics very few, if any, changes occur in terms of the variety of exercises and instead variation is accomplished via changes to rep schemes. Introducing new movements and potentially correcting improper technique at such a rapid pace can be a shock to the central nervous system (CNS) and the athlete must be allowed to adapt accordingly. Any testing at this level consists of a 5-rep max at 85% as the athlete is still learning and true max effort could lead to poor technique and possibly injury.
“… the athlete must be allowed to adapt accordingly.”
Players who begin on-campus training as freshman during the summer will move to level two in the fall. Players who begin in the fall or spring may be able to move to level two after six weeks at level one.
General goals of level two program:
- Continue to increase the athletes work capacity
- Increase max voluntary strength
- Improve body composition (increase lean mass)
By level two, the athlete should be able to differentiate between hip and back extension on the Olympic lifts allowing more clean variation work to be done. With proper technique established in level one, the athlete will be able to spend more time increasing max strength in all lifts. The athlete’s increased work capacity developed in level one allows them to handle a greater total volume in the workout which also aids in improving body composition. At this level the addition of supplemental exercises increases the overall volume of their workouts as well. Testing at this level still consists of a 5-rep max at 85% as the athlete is still learning.
This level consists mainly of second and third year players. Players at this level will have approached and even exceeded some Conference Level Standards. To reach this level players must also demonstrate the capacity to be a self-starter, trust the staff, and maintain a positive attitude.
General goals of level three program:
- Continue increasing max voluntary strength.
- Introduction of the dynamic effort method.
- Increase muscles ability to absorb force (improve eccentric capability).
- Increase the number of movement patterns.
- Increase the strength of the stretch reflex (explosion).
“It isn’t wise to have subpar brakes on a 500+ horsepower mustang.”
To continue improving max strength, we must provide new stimulus for the athlete’s core lifts – think pauses, eccentrics, and other tempo methods. In addition to the core lifts, this level performs various types of jumps, eccentrics, and isometrics to teach proper force absorption which is crucial as we’re simultaneously increasing the force output by these athletes. It isn’t wise to have subpar brakes on a 500+ horsepower Mustang.
By this level the athletes learn new movements quicker due to their extensive motor pattern base from level one and two. The more movements an athlete learns, the shorter the learning curve becomes. We’re able to enhance this effect not only in the weight room, but on the field for direct improvements in skill level. Testing at this level switches to a 3-rep max at 92% which teaches the athletes how to fire more available motor units leading to greater strength gains, as well as more units being called upon to do activities such as running and jumping.
This level is designed for those athletes who have exceeded a majority of Conference Level Standards which is mostly fourth and fifth year players. Players at this level lead by example and possess a positive and warrior-like mentality. They must be able to mentally prepare for each workout demonstrating the highest level of focus while also motivating their teammates.
General goals of level four program:
- Enhancement of dynamic strength (chains and bands).
- Increase motor recruitment abilities (true max effort).
- Refinement of special strengths (starting, accelerative, reversal, etc.)
- Further increase the number of movement patterns
At this point, an athlete’s musculo-skeletal system has been well trained and is approaching the top end of where it needs to be for the sport, so we switch our focus to developing the CNS. Training the CNS increases dynamic strength and allows for improved rate of force development and thereby increases the real-world strength, or strength on the playing field.
To accomplish this, we prescribe true Max Effort (1RM) work which forces the body to use more motor units at any given time. Special strength training allows the individual to work on their weakness since it now can be readily identified; be it starting strength, static strength, accelerative strength, reversal strength, etc. These athletes adapt to new movements faster than the lower levels so both their core and assistance exercises must be changed regularly to prevent burn out. Again, the more movement patterns learned, the greater the ability to learn more movement patterns. Since dynamic strength and most special strengths require moving a lower weight at a high velocity, less mechanical energy is expended, so more time and energy are allowed for refining sports skill. During this level, the Tendo Unit is often used to make sure that the proper loading is being used for the type of strength being trained.
LEVEL FIVE (PRO-PLAYER DEVELOPMENT)
The goal of level five is to prepare an athlete for the NFL combine and/or Pro-Day. Level five is no longer solely for sport, it is to prepare the athlete for the 40 yd dash, I-test, 3-cone, broad jump, vertical jump, and 225. To do this the athlete must become stronger, faster, and quicker.
As one may have noticed, the body adapts more quickly as they gain experience in training. To combat this, there is not only a great variety of exercises used on effort days, but different methods to doing them as well by adding implements such as chains and bands. The same is true for the dynamic effort and special exercises, bands and chains are added to these as well. The bands are heavily utilized on box squat and bench press because they add an over-speed eccentric and a resisted concentric which will force the body to learn to move even faster than it did with the dynamic work. The athlete learns to move their entire body through space more rapidly, which translates into more reps in the 225 test, a higher vertical jump, a longer broad jump.
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