A Significant Failing of Clemson Strength & Conditioning

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Editors Note: this is a user fanpost.

I finally got fed up enough with people defending Batson in the comments. I have no personal beef with him, but our players display lifting technique that is so bad as to be criminally negligent. While much of the lifting videos on S&C programs in other NCAA schools is pretty sad, I think ours is the worst I was able to find. I’m only going to comment on lifting technique, not conditioning or programming.

I'm basing my observations on this video of the Spring 2012 workout, which I'm sure most have seen. I was appalled at the technique on display:

A quick rant that is a general comment and not specifically directed at Clemson:

A problem, specifically, with a powerlifter approach is that the goal is to move more weight by any means necessary. Sumo deadlifts, especially-wide-stance squats, using boards to limit the ROM of bench press, wide-grip bench press, and use of chains to push past sticking point on the upper part of a movement are typical of powerlifting but not always useful for football.

Every single strength program tailored to football should include squat, deadlift, power cleans, overhead press, and bench press. These establish strength through full range-of-motion (ROM), and should never be too far removed from a lifting day. They are the most effective lifts at giving people functional strength, bar none, IF taught with proper technique. Once sufficient strength has been established on these lifts, front squats and the Olympics lifts, particularly snatch, should be taught and incorporated into a program. The problem with a lot of S&C programs (and this is at the NFL level, too) is that proper technique seems to be treated like a disease. There's so much sloppy form out there, especially with the squat. Almost no high school coach will have their kids squatting anywhere in the ballpark of parallel. Part of the problem with Division I and NFL athletic trainers is that they are guaranteed a measure of success because they're dealing with the best of the best. A guy like Sammy Watkins could blow his nose and gain some explosiveness in the 40. So a lot of success is dependent on the gifts of the players who have been selected through playing pee wee, then middle school, then high school, college, and finally making it to the pros. That said, there's obviously a difference among this select group between players trained with proper S&C and those who aren't, and one very important aspect is lifting technique.

Good technique=safe lifting=more weight moved=less injuries and more powerful players.

Anyway, the first thing I look at to figure out if someone has any clue what they're doing in the weight room is to look at how squats are performed/taught. The squat is the single most important exercise for developing sports-carryover strength, and I think is worth the most attention. If you go to 0:15 in that video, things that are immediately wrong:

1. One person cannot safely spot the squat. You need at least two guys positioned to cradle the weight plates on the outside of the bar. If a single spotter helps this lifter by grabbing his chest, the lifter will immediately lose some of the tightness in his chest that is critical to supporting the spine and leaves the back more susceptible to injury. Another video (this one from LSU) showing an example of this in action here:

If you fast forward to 1:41, you'll see the spotter add his hands to help with the lift. Notice by 1:43 there's a slight collapse in the chest of the lifter=spinal flexion. VERY CRITICAL when you're moving heavy weight that this doesn't happen. Mostly agree with how Moffitt's explaining the squat, although I think low bar is more useful...but that's another argument. Either way, sans the whack spotter, the LSU player is squatting with better technique than our guys, even if not ideal.

THE WORST PART ABOUT THE SPOTTER IN THE CLEMSON VID? THERE ARE SAFETY BARS IN PLACE IN THIS POWER RACK. You don't need spotters. If the Clemson lifter fails, he can and should dump the weight. If a spotter is getting a workout from helping you finish multiple reps, you are not lifting correctly or at a correct weight.

2. DEPTH!!!!!!!!!! A healthy, knee-strengthening squat is at or below parallel. For most athletes, an inch or two below parallel is what to strive for with a back squat, ATG for front squats (which are an assistance exercise for the olympic lifts, and not a great strength exercise in and of their own right). Look at the crease of your hip. When this crease is at the same height as the top of your patella, you're at parallel. Walk into globo gym and you will rarely see a squat performed and practically never to depth. It should be obvious that it's way easier to move more weight if it doesn't have to travel as far. A partial squat stresses the quads more at the expense of the hamstrings, glutes, and adductors. There’s also much more stress on the knee joint with a partial squat.

Try this crude model: make your hand flat and pretend the tips of your fingers are your knee; your hand represents the upper half of your leg; press down on a table with just the tips at about a 45 degree angle – this approximates partial squat depth; now, place your hand flat and feel the distribution of pressure – this approximates parallel squat depth. In a full squat the front force created by the quads is able to be balanced by the posterior force of the hamstrings. Weak hamstrings lead to a greater incidence of ACL injuries. I’ll bet the number of ACL injuries in college football would be cut in half if all players squatted to at least parallel. Further, the stress on the knee felt in the finger tip model registers in the change of direction from descent to ascent as increased stress on the ACL and PCL, which are virtually unloaded in a full squat.

Here’s Knile Davis, who is NOT coming anywhere close to a full squat:

The Clemson lifter at 0:23 in the original video is doing an interesting sort of off-balance good morning. If you pause at 0:24 and see him looking up that’s, ironically, a pretty common cue to keep the chest up. It’s not a cue I like because it puts the neck in hyperextension, but you’ll often see powerlifters do it when squatting. A study of Alexander technique and/or basic anatomy will demonstrate why compressing the posterior of the cervical spine with a large amount of weight nearby is not the best idea, even if the "pros" do it.

It seems like the philosophy of trying to lift more weight at the expense of technique is carried over from high school coaches who are trying to inflate how much their players can lift to college recruiters. My apologies if that is common knowledge to everyone reading this but I find it offensive and worth noting.

3. That stupid vest the first Clemson squatter is wearing comes where the bar should be in contact with the back – can lead to a bar slipping and also requires a greater effort to "hold" the bar. You should not hold a bar on your back when squatting. The shoulders should be pulled back tight to create a shelf for it to rest on. The hands are there to pin the bar down to this shelf. Any added weight from a vest can be added to the bar.

4. The use of chains and pussy weight. No division I football player who is a sophomore or older not rehabbing an injury should squat less than 315, kicker included. I realize that this clip is out of context. I don’t know what he did before or is doing after in that particular workout, but he has 245 on the bar plus the weight of the chains (I’d guess 25lbs a chain, but that varies – could be 44, 60, etc.). Chains are a Louie Simmons Westside thing to help lifters through a sticking point, but a player who is among the most genetically gifted athletes in the US (which is usually the case if you’ve made it to NCAA Division I football, the greatest farm system we have) with proper programming and nutrition at that young age should reasonably get to a between 385-405lb (4 wheels on each side) squat within a year of stepping on campus. It’s silly to even consider adding chains to a squat before you’ve built up the core strength required to squat 405. That he isn’t even squatting this weight to parallel adds insult to injury (or potentially injury to insult).

5. Wobbly knees. I’m going to pick on our first squatter again. 0:17-19 you see his knees come in. If you’re taught to fully engage (and therefore strengthen) the adductors by forcing your knees out so that the knee tracks in line with the toes, you don’t subject your knees (esp the MCL and LCL) to lateral/Valgus force. I’ll give credit that most of the other squatters, while possessors of horrible squat form, are usually keeping their knees out. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to keep your knees out through a shorter range of motion so all the other Clemson lifters shouldn’t get too much credit.

I’ll be a lot briefer with the power cleans and bench.

BENCH: the use of boards limits the range of motion and is analogous to a partial squat. At 0:11, 0:30, and 1:05 we see the boards, plus our old friend the vest, and each Clemson player using a hip thrust (wow) to help move the bar up. Now, a slight back arch giving you a chest-up position, if maintained and solid, is ideal when benching. But that should be set BEFORE the lift, and the butt should always remain in contact with the bench – not thrust up – because that’s part of a chain connecting the lifter through the bench and properly set feet to the floor. If you’ve ever seen someone benching with their feet off the ground and especially if feet are set on the bench, you’ve seen someone who’s losing a lot of power and stability (and thus weight that can be added to the bar) in their lift by interrupting the power chain with the floor.

Clemson player at 1:26 is bouncing the bar off his chest which is a) cheating part of the strength element of the exercise b) asking for cracked ribs or a sternum. That vest won’t negate this danger.
Clemson player being spotted at 2:20 doesn’t bounce the bar, but you can see the spotter grab the bar briefly at turn around – even a slight assistance with fingers VOIDS THE REP. You do not have a spotter touch the bar unless you’re in trouble. And you do not gain strength by adding more weight to the bar then having your spotter do more to help you lift it.

Sammy trying for a cracked rib at 2:43 then his spotter gives him a little a lift at 2:45-47.

3:03, "let me give a little hip thrust to actually move the bar because my arms can’t do it. Spotter, you got this? Cool, thanks."

3:14, "yes, my chest will become a trampoline in time!"

I can’t think of any logical argument for bouncing a weighted bar off the chest. And to have to do that at 225lbs is kind of sad. Finally, shoulder blades should be squeezed back tight and down against the bench. When you bounce, ignoring the danger to your sternum/ribs, it’s very difficult to keep that tightness that is protecting your rotator cuff and helping you avoid shoulder impingement.

POWER CLEANS: The closer lifter at 0:04-0:05 is asking for broken wrists. You don’t catch PCs with your wrist, you clean them to your delts. This requires elbows to be up much higher. There’s also not much explosiveness (jump) to his lift, which is the whole point of a power clean. Lifter at 0:12 gets it racked, but he’d be less dependent on his grip to hold the bar up if he got his elbows up earlier and higher. At 0:41, you see the lifter catch more with his wrists, again. The bar should remain closer to the body through the lift. At 1:06 he racks the bar in a good position, but again the bar goes too far away from the body, which translates to a loss of power. Clemson player in the foreground at 1:39 is doing the best PCs in the video. The man behind him again lets the bar travel too far away from the body and you see it force him to transfer his weight onto his toes, which puts bad stress on the knees. You’ll see an even more exaggerated version of this at 1:53 as the wide set of the feet and the large moment arm between the lifter and the bar pull him forward to his knees. Interestingly, his knees come in on the ascent at 1:52 before moving wide out. I’m not convinced his hip angle is ideal for his anthropometry either (looks too open). Also, he’s using his arms to muscle up the weight which is not good for PCs. You basically treat your arms like a taut rope and the explosiveness from your legs should translate to bar movement. The arms and wrists are flicked up quickly to get in rack position and are a virtual non-factor in terms of upward bar velocity.

One last thing - weightlifting shoes. If you're gonna squat, deadlift, power clean at a high level, it's much safer and effective to use weightlifting shoes than running shoes. The instability of running shoes doesn't have a positive training aspect or any carryover WHATSOEVER to football when squatting or deadlifting or power cleaning heavy. A minor point, comparatively, but still worth mentioning.

There's more to say, but I'm tired of writing. Sorry for the tone. DrB went into a lot of specifics about the general approach to S&C at Clemson. I hope this helps supplement the argument of the STS staff about why change would be good. There's a lot of strength left on the training room floor that could be added with proper and critical technique, and maybe more importantly a lot of injuries that could be avoided on the playing field.

These opinions are not necessarily those of the Proprietors of Shakin' The Southland.

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