Inside S&C: Training to prevent injuries

Almost as important to any football team as recruiting the best five-star prospects and the campus studs who will emerge as stars on the gridiron is keeping them healthy through the course of a grueling SEC season.

That’s something new strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman and his staff have taken an extra careful approach to as the team progresses through its pre-spring workout program.

“Those are the little elements that people don’t understand,” Dillman said. “You’ve got to educate the athlete how to warm up properly, how to train, how to do the movement stuff properly and how to be biomechanically efficient as a mover.”

Florida’s workout program includes four basic phases. Dillman calls them the pre-generation program, the dynamic warm-up, the actual training session and the regeneration program.

Using a variety of vibration technology, power plates, the Rotex system, trigger-point therapy and soft-tissue compression, the pre-generation program gets the athletes’ muscles loose and ready to work out.

From there, they progress into a dynamic warm-up before attacking Olympic lifts in the weight room, followed by the regeneration phase that reincorporates many of the techniques of the pre-generation program to cool the muscles down and speed up recovery times.

While the methodology behind each stage and each technique can seem rather complex, Dillman and his staff do their best to explain to the athletes the thought process and purpose behind each exercise.

“We don’t worry about just the how to do it, but the why,” he said. “The why is very, very important, because if you know why you’re doing something, how much effort you going to give into it if you know it’s going to help you?”

The main focus is on proper biomechanics, and each of Florida’s strength coaches are acutely aware of just how important lifting properly is to prevent injuries in the weight room and to build muscle pattern recognition that can prevent injuries on the field.

Part of getting the athletes to train properly is erasing some of the pre-conceived notions they may have from high school lifting.

“We talk a lot about posterior chain, which is everything from the back of your neck all the way down to your ankles,” assistant director of strength and conditioning Jesse Ackerman said. “Everyone trains what they see in the mirror. That’s what we have when these kids come in. What’s the first question when you go into a gym? How much do you bench press, right? They don’t say hey, how much do you squat and do it properly?”

Ackerman, who has Masters degrees in clinical mental health counseling and exercise science, does his best to explain to each athlete the importance of lifting properly.

Particularly with Olympic lifting, the mechanics of every lift are extremely important, since Olympic lifts require a lot of total body movement and putting weights into precarious positions. If the technique isn’t right, an athlete can really hurt himself.

“Essentially when they squat, a squat can do a lot of damage,” Ackerman said. “But it can also be extremely beneficial. So if I put a bar on my cervical spine and I don’t get back far enough, the weight is distributed over my knees. The patella is going to wear down. Once that wears down, the integrity of the knee goes down and now you’re going to have issues.

“We’re all about stability. It’s a joint-by-joint approach. I want mobility of the ankle, stability of the knee, mobility of the hips.”

Florida is also well aware of the dreaded ACL injury, and the strength and conditioning staff works closely with the athletic training staff to prevent such devastating injuries.

Matt Delancey, the assistant director of strength and conditioning for the Olympic sports on campus, works extensively with Florida’s athletes to ensure that their “pre-hab” leads to fewer injuries over the course of a season.

Delancey works with the volleyball, track and field and swimming and diving teams. The volleyball program has had just two ACL injuries in the 10 years he has overseen its strength and conditioning, well below the NCAA average of one per year.

The volleyball team – as well as several other teams on campus – go through an extensive testing phase before each season to identify weaknesses in the body that could potentially lead to injuries.

Using the University of Florida OSMI Motion Lab on campus, the athletes undergo a series of about 55 tests to isolate weaknesses that could lead to injuries. The athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches then meet to discuss ways to individually strengthen the weak spots in each athlete.

With the results of these tests, the staff examines several key factors that can lead to knee injuries like ACL tears. Those include quad-to-hamstring and left-to-right-leg strength ratios, jumping and landing mechanics, ideal body weight and fueling.

Based on the strength ratios, the staff will target weak spots to get the ratios as close to even as possible. From a mechanics standpoint, the goal is to make sure the athlete is landing with as little room for injury as possible on a consistent basis.

“When a female athlete lands, whether she’s on two legs or one, and this goes for guys, too, it’s the same concept, are they landing with knee in line with the middle toe, but back, chest in line with the knees?” Delancey said. “The injuries happen when knees are going side to side. Mechanics are the No. 1 reason why people get hurt or stay healthy.”

Fueling and eating properly are the final steps the staff takes in trying to ensure the athletes stay healthy. Hydration is one of the biggest keys, so that the athletes don’t suffer from fatigue injuries.

Right now, the football team is focused on building back up to their ideal body weights – or cutting down – and rebuilding the muscle memory of proper lifting, running and jumping.

“The season’s so taxing,” Ackerman said. “We’re re-educating them right now on certain motor patterns maybe they lost during the season. We’re getting those back right now. What we’re doing right now is getting those motor patterns ingrained.”

Once the muscle memory patterns are re-established and Florida gets through spring football practice, the real building of the offseason program will begin. Players will quickly get try to get to their ideal body weight and then begin building muscle at that weight.

For guys already at their ideal body weight, the process is simple. Dillman and his staff will begin to lower the overall volume of their workouts, while increasing the intensity, which Ackerman said helps build overall strength while maintaining the same weight.

Until the summer, though, everything is about getting the basics down and doing them right. Preventing injuries starts with everyone being on the same page and a well-rounded approach to strength training.

“Lift here, it doesn’t matter how hard you lift here if you’re not eating right,” Dillman said. “So we talk about nutrition, we talk about the athletic training room. We work side-by-side together on everything, and we get feedback with our kids all the time about what are they not doing, what do they need to be doing.”