by Martin Streight | 6/18/2020
Some coaches consider a pro-level strength and conditioning job to be the ultimate career goal whereas other coaches prefer the collegiate or the high school level. My career path has led me through all of the above at one time or another and has given me a unique perspective. I’ll give you my take based upon 18 years in the National Football League as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning coach as well as 3 years in NFL-Europe as a Head Strength coach.
I’m very fortunate to have worked as a strength coach and have had the opportunity to work with high school students to elite level athletes. For me, working with athletes to achieve their goals and helping to play a small role in their athletic success was always the greatest reward. My hope is to give the reader some general insight from the NFL programs that I have been associated with.
The pro head strength coach and his assistants are responsible for designing a program to prevent injuries and physically prepare the team to endure the rigors of the season and perform at the highest level. The team invests in each of the players to perform on Sundays and a strong, healthy, durable player is in the best interest of the athlete and the organization. There are many members of the team that aid the players in this respect such as: athletic trainers, physical therapists, sports scientists, nutritionists, chefs, chiropractors, massage therapists etc.
The strength coaches at the professional level are generally pragmatic and less authoritarian than the collegiate strength coach who mentors young athletes, and instills work ethic, discipline and accountability. In both scenarios, team culture is set forth by the head football coach who details his expectations for the team and what is required of each player. The difference is that in the NFL, players are held accountable by the head football coach and these standard procedures are dictated the Collective Bargaining Agreement. These CBA standards have been established and agreed to by the Player’s Union and the Team owners. This agreement defines the protocol, rules and penalties to be put in place to ensure accountability and fairness in the workplace. For example – if a player is overweight – the collegiate strength coach may hold the athlete accountable by extra conditioning, monitoring his food intake or forcing him to eat candy bars while the team is training. On the other hand, the overweight NFL player can be fined up to $730 per pound – per day! These fines are administered by the head coach and general manager; although players aren’t penalized unless the violation is reoccurring.
Strength and conditioning positions in the NFL are few and far between – as there are only 32 teams. The old cliché is that you have a better chance of being a governor of a state than you do an NFL head strength coach. Each strength staff is dependent upon each team’s structure but can vary in size from two coaches up to 5-6 coaches. Of this team of strength coaches, each may have a different role such as sport science, nutrition, recovery etc. The salary is dependent upon each team’s structure as well – some head strength coaches are earning well over +500k annually and first assistants are earning up to +250k annually. As you move down the totem pole – the salaries can drop significantly where the third assistant salary could be as low as 30k. Unfortunately, in this day and age, the NFL is a place where job stability is predicated upon wins and losses. Coaching staffs are routinely fired and along with that goes the strength staff.
As an NFL strength coach, your time commitment during the yearly calendar is dependent upon what phase of the season you are in. One benefit is that NFL strength coaches have is there is no recruiting in the NFL which takes up considerable time at the collegiate level.
When training camp and the in-season programs are underway – a coach can expect to work 7 days per week from August until the last game of the season in January with one weekend off for the bye week. The season is long and arduous but is very rewarding – especially if you are winning!
Strength and Conditioning Calendar
Beginning from the last game of the season to the start of the off-season (3rd week in April) program is considered a “dead” period – where players may use facility but are not permitted to participate in club supervised workouts. “The Club’s strength and conditioning coaches may not direct players’ individual workouts, but may supervise use of the weight room to prevent injury and to correct misuse of equipment” as directed by the 2011 NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement. Strength coaches can only work with players returning from injury / surgeries during this time period. The coaches time commitment is generally 5 days per week.
Off Season Program: (Voluntary)
The voluntary off-season program usually begins in the 3rd week of April. It is a nine-week program that is broken down into three phases. During Phase 1 & 2 – players are limited to 4 hours in the building and two hours of which are strength and conditioning. Players are compensated $235 dollars per day up to four days per week. The focus of this period is to prepare the athletes for football = OTA’s. For a strength coach – the time commitment is generally 5 days per week with a rookie minicamp scheduled on one weekend.
Phase 1: Two weeks – strength and conditioning only.
Phase 2: Three Weeks – strength and conditioning + drills with the coaches.
Phase 3: Four Weeks - Organized Team Activity – football takes priority + strength and conditioning.
*At the conclusion of the Off-Season Program – the “dead” period resumes until the start of Training Camp.
Training Camp / In-Season: (Mandatory)
During training camp mandatory strength and conditioning begins and players generally perform two total body lifts per week. The initial workouts are designed to have a lower intensity and volume. Initial training camp workouts do provide some systemic overload, but the primary goal is to promote active recovery by increasing blood flow and moving the muscles and joints throughout their range of motion. Once the players become acclimated to the increased volume of running in practice and hitting during camp; the intensity and volume of the lifts increases.
As the weeks progress – the team will move from a training camp practice schedule to a regular in-season weekly schedule. The strength program will transition as well by increasing the prescribed intensity and volume and be geared towards strength and power development. During the in-season – the starting 53 players will perform two total body workouts per week as scheduled and the practice squad will lift three times per week. Additional lifting and conditioning are performed based on the players needs or desires.
In all the strength programs that I have been associated with our aim was to progressively overload the players musculature throughout the season and have the strongest team once we reached the post-season. To account for the cumulative effects (fatigue / wear and tear) of the season we would decrease the volume of the strength workouts. Maintenance? Definitely not! It was not uncommon to see players handling heavy weights and setting personal best efforts in week 17!
Strength and Conditioning at the next level – what’s the difference?
At the professional level such as in the NFL, the biggest difference is the individual athlete. Each team is comprised of 53 players that have been selected based upon their talent, ability, and their physical development. Most of these players are drafted whereas the others are undrafted and veteran free agents who make up the team’s roster for the year. The age range of an average NFL roster can be as young as 19 to well over 40+ years old. Compare that to a collegiate roster that on average is approximately 18-21 years of age.
When you look at these elite athletes, you must consider the duration of the season as well as the span of a player’s career. A standard NFL season is 20 games long (4 Pre-Season + 16 Regular Games). If you add the playoffs, you could be looking at 24 games. To say there are a lot of miles on the tires is an understatement and with each player you must consider the age, game experience and injury history.
Understanding the demographics of your team is vital in programming the yearly training schedule. Considering age, injury history, number of games played, and success within varying strength and conditioning programs – you can imagine that these athletes will require individualized programs.
At the high school and collegiate levels; the athletes are generally healthy and are able to follow a program comprised of similar exercises. At the NFL level – the workout template is the same for each athlete yet the exercise selection may vary widely. Our goal of being at our strongest by the end of the season involved a considerable amount of individualization and requires modifications on a player to player and week to week basis.
Programming these individual workouts involves a great attention to detail. In every program that I have been involved with we kept detailed records of every strength training session of our players. These records allowed us to track each player’s current training weights and best efforts so that we could use these numbers to establish starting weights, adjust and modify workouts, and track progress in return to play protocols.
Modifications to the strength routines were based upon current and pre-existing orthopedic issues as well as exercise preference. Often times, if a player preferred to press with dumbbells or a machine as opposed to a barbell, we encouraged it. The goal was to have them be able to train in a manner that the player would work the hardest and become the strongest.
Tools such as the safety squat bar and the belt squat become invaluable during the season. With dislocated fingers, sore backs and shoulders; the lineman who loved to squat during the off-season were appreciative of an alternative exercise when it got into the later part of the season. In fact, we would offer up to 6 different ways to perform a squat pattern. We implemented many ways to work around injuries such as Non-Grip / Press upper body workouts for athletes with injured fingers, thumbs, hands, elbows and Non-Press / Squat lower body workouts for those athletes with knee, ankle and foot injuries. No matter what the injury there was a way to get it done – no one would ever be excused from a training session unless the workout would do more harm than good.
To sum it up!
One can only imagine the personalities you get when you build a team of 65 players from every conceivable part of America. This can be a great environment when you combine all of these athletes together. You never know what you each day will bring and what you might hear or see in the weight room. It’s safe to say that there is never a dull moment.
Most players are husbands and fathers, who when not playing football - work with their foundations and charities to give back to the community. Of course, as with any team, there are egos to contend with – but as a coach you learn to manage personalities, develop relationships, maintain open and transparent communication, earn player’s trust and make the best of any situation.
Every program has its own unique and individual challenges and your personality and goals will take you in the direction that fits you best. Continue to read, learn and give back to the profession. Thank you for taking the time to read this and I hope this has provided you with some insight into strength and conditioning at the professional level. Please feel free to reach out with comments or questions my email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.