HISTORY OF POWERLIFTING, WEIGHTLIFTING, AND STRENGTH TRAINING PART 92: ’TIS THE SEASON? Part One
By Dr. Ken
The title of this blog, or article as I continue my slow and agonizing journey into the jargon of the modern computer era, does not refer to “Deck the Halls,” the mid-1800s song about Christmas nor to the few months preceding the actual Christmas holiday. Once again dating myself and clearly attaching the label of “older guy” to my lifting singlet, I would like to inform the younger generations of lifters that there used to be an actual “Powerlifting Season.”
Both major and minor sports, athletic activities at all levels from Pop Warner and Little Leagues through collegiate programs, and the relatively obscure amateur activities like the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (Roller Derby) has “a season.” A competitive season in any sport allows one to build their strength and skill to the point that they can compete for and hopefully win a specific championship. An off-season then allows for rest, recovery, the healing of injuries, and the opportunity to plan a program of preparation that will allow for the obviation of weak or negative aspects of one’s performance. With the advantage of a playing and coaching background in football and having sons who played college football and now coach at the highest levels of college and professional football with the added perspective of my family’s participation spanning a number of decades, allow me to explain how “the seasons” actually were and remain structured and then apply the concept to powerlifting.
Told he would move from noseguard to inside linebacker for his senior season of college football, the author’s son Gregory reduced his body weight from a usual 252 to 235. During that summer’s preparation period, he is shown completing a strict press of 319 pounds. Told weeks later that he would be returning to his usual starting defensive line position, he immediately sacrificed new-found “cuts” for a more appropriate increase to 255 pounds.
“My day” refers to playing and coaching football at the high school through college level, with a brief detour into the Atlantic Coast Football League which served as the farm system for the National Football League. My involvement as a player and coach stretched from the late 1950s into the 1970s. I returned for my second stint as a high school football coach from 1984 through the 1991 season, covering a period of time that has brought changes in all sports. First, a brief summary of the difference among high school, college, and professional football, in three sentences:
As a high school player one is not expected to play if injured and frequently, participation by an injured player is not allowed by the governing body of the state or school district.
As a college player one is expected to play if injured because one’s scholarship is dependent upon practice and game performance.
As a professional player one is expected to play as well when injured as when fully healthy because the player is being paid a great deal of money to perform.
For those who have played, one of the first thoughts is that “you always compete at the highest level because you don’t want to give up a starting position, fall out of favor with coaches, or disappoint one’s teammates .” While true, the “weeding out” process from high school to college and then college to pro football often comes from the ability or inability to play with injury. The weeding out process comes in equal measure from the psychological ability or inability to practice and play well/effectively/consistently with an injury that can be deemed minor or major. Every fan has watched their favorite collegiate team’s best player and projected their next-step-to-the-pros and then perhaps wondered why what was an exceptionally talented player, one that perhaps was obviously the best on the field in almost every college game, never makes it in the pro game. For more than a few, it is their inability to play or play well while injured. They are held back by a perceived or very realistic concern that they “just can’t do it” with “it” being defined as performing at their best, while hurt, yet, that is the requirement and thus, they have a non-existent or brief career. There is a definite pattern of preparation that allows a football player to heal, recover, rebuild, build further, and compete better. There is the same structure in powerlifting but many don’t realize this.
A rather old photograph converted from a Polaroid print, the author’s son Kevin prepares for his junior season of college football in the garage gym, using a power rack fabricated by the author. Just as it is, or should be in the sport of powerlifting, there is a season and time in each season to vary resistance and reps in preparation for competition. Here he is in the midst of a 20-30 reps set with 425 pounds
In college, typical was arriving on campus illegally in early or mid-July or “more legally” in late July or the first week of August and beginning pre-season practice. Every team in “my day” suffered through two-a-days or two full practices a day of varying severity. The review and learning of formations, plays, and fundamental techniques in combination with conditioning drills and on-field technique work gradually brought the team into “playing shape” while also building camaraderie, and within a few weeks, weeding out those not fully committed to or unable to meet the rigorous demands of the game. The season would play out successfully or not, and at least in the early to mid-1960s, players were more or less on their own from the conclusion of the last game in early or mid-November until the start of the New Year and beginning of the following new semester. Again typical was the start of Winter Conditioning and while weight training was not yet a part of college football preparation, there were requirements for three to five days of varying quantities of “mat drills,” jogging, wrestling, and calisthenics that were meant to reduce any holiday and home-from-school body fat that might have been accumulated between the end of the season and organized practices, and the start of the winter or off-season program. The conditioning work that extended from January through mid to late-March would prepare the squad for spring football practice, with the previous rules allowing the staff to hold twenty official practices within a twenty-eight day period. This spring practice was important to try players at different positions, perhaps make changes in the offensive or defensive formations or philosophies, detect weaknesses in specific personnel units, and allow for a more realistic and focused plan for preparing for the upcoming season. The players would complete spring practice, take another two or three weeks off from football or physical training activities while preparing for final exams, complete school work, and then return home for the summer.
Ideally, one would have a summer job that was physical in nature. Many of the more talented players on the team would have the assistance of the coaching staff in securing a well-paying summer job doing some type of construction work that would both provide plenty of money for expenses once the new school semester began while insuring that the player was working hard enough physically to maintain or build their muscular strength. With a suggested running program in hand, the staff was assured that these players would return to school in the type of physical condition that allowed them to immediately dive into the strenuous training camp work necessary to prepare for the actual season. Providing summer jobs, even legitimate jobs as opposed to jobs of the “no show” variety, and often at rates of pay far above experienced union labor that might be doing the same tasks, was an area of continuous NCAA investigation.
Coaches were in fact in favor of “real jobs” so that the players were at their best physically. Few lifted weights but those of us that did put a great deal of time into our strength training over the summer months. It would be the time spent at home over the summer and the break from football between Thanksgiving and the start of winter conditioning that was the primary time to make our greatest gains.
The reward for hard and consistent off-season training is the opportunity to compete at one’s best in football, powerlifting, or any other sport. Here Kevin carries against Syracuse
Presently, even at the college level, football is a full-time, twelve months a year endeavor. There are so many bowl games that even relatively average to poor teams are invited to a post-season contest much to the delight of their coaches. This provides approximately a month of additional and legal practice time for bowl game preparation. For many programs, part of that will be devoted to the type of personnel experimentation that distinguishes spring practice but if nothing else, it is a bit more difficult for any player to eat or drink his way out of condition if he must practice almost daily into December. There will be a brief few weeks respite from football followed by winter drills and spring ball. Perhaps the most obvious difference between “then” and “now” is the addition of organized and supervised strength training programs at every school. A full time strength coach and staff will have players lifting weights the entire year, including during the actual competitive season. The demands will vary but lifting is to be done weekly. Once the school year ends, players may or may not be released to come home for a week or ten days. Most often they are required to be a part of the “voluntary” strength training program and football drills. While the football coaches have a defined period where they may not contact or speak with players, certainly not about football, the strength coach becomes a surrogate for the entire staff, monitoring all of the players, their relative physical condition, and their work ethic. At almost all but the lowest level universities, the athletes will attend summer school and otherwise be kept to a rigorous program of running and weight training. By the time that the coaching staff can legally have contact with individual players, like Santa Claus, they know who has been “naughty or nice,” who has been running, who has been lifting, who has been in class, and who has been loafing. The annual cycle will then begin again when pre-season training camp opens.
Part Two to follow