No 'Off' Season: Going behind the curtain of Fisher football's strength and conditioning program

'Volt' is not a typical strength-building program, but Fisher’s outside-the-box offseason workout regimen has provided the backbone of success, durability and health for its football team

FISHER — As Jake Palmer taps Andrew Koslowski on the left hip, he looks the junior in the eyes before bellowing out directions.

“When we run that post route, we want you to attack his outside hip,” Palmer says, lightly hitting his fist onto the side of the wide receiver’s left leg. “Get that corner to swivel to the outside and get him off balance and then explode inside.”

The third-year Fisher football head coach’s instructions are simple enough, but it provides a key example of one of the most critical cores of the game Palmer demands from his players: hip flexibility.

Put even more simply … all-around flexibility.

Being as pliable and bendable as possible has been a major factor in creating what was one of the life bloods of the program last year: durability. It’s why during a 2017 season in which the Bunnies reached the playoffs for the first time in four years, there were no major injuries. Bumps and bruises, sure, but nothing serious.

The coaches, players and training staff readily admit there is a bit of fortune to credit, of course, but more than luck, the season-long health can largely be attributed to Volt, Palmer’s workout program of choice he began implementing in February 2017.

Strength and power workout programs are the main building blocks for any football team, but what makes Volt stand out is its outside-the-box approach to conditioning.

“The best thing about Volt is it really works every part of your body. You work on everything from speed to power to strength, and I think that all correlates to being the type of team we want to be,” Fisher junior captain and quarterback/safety Will Delaney said. “Since we started doing it, we’ve got a lot better and a lot more flexible, and that’ll help with injuries a lot during the season. All this kind of builds up to staying healthy throughout the season, and that’s going to help push us towards wins.”

When I approached Palmer in the spring about the idea of going into the weight room and working out with the team, I had what I thought was a general idea of what to expect. Since it’s a football team, all of the players are going to be lifting as heavily as possible on bench press, squats, deadlifts and curls, right? Football players are supposed to be big, so lifting heavily is the best route to being a successful team. Au contraire.

“Volt has a bunch of stuff for mobility and flexibility and does a lot of stuff on the functional side, which I really like,” Fisher athletic trainer Nick Retherford said. “A lot of people think that when it comes to football, you need to do a bunch of power lifting and strength and get as big as possible. Volt kind of takes a different approach and says, ‘Let’s be mobile and really quick and functional with our bodies, maintaining and increasing our strength.’ And I think that’s almost deadlier when you get on the field.

“When you have a team with 30 or 35 kids on the squad, you’re going to have to have endurance. As opposed to bigger schools, they’re able to have guys go one way, and when you get to your really, really big schools, almost every person’s going one way. But at Fisher, probably over half the kids are going both ways. That’s a lot of plays in one game. (Volt) really takes advantage of the situation and puts them in the best possible scenario to succeed.”

Now, I’m obviously not training to become a football player. I work out five-six days a week with a program designed to make you bigger, stronger and more defined. But I’m not running routes against Fieldcrest, reading Heyworth’s defensive ends on a read-option play or working in the trenches to try and bully LeRoy.

That’s why, when I saw the workout we would be doing two weeks ago, it was a slight shock to my system since I have not been doing most — well, any — of the hip flexibility and foot quickness exercises that were on the docket.

After quick warm-ups and team stretches outside, we got right into the lifts with kneeling medicine ball throws in which firing your hips out is the central focus, a superset of barbell towel bench and stability ball pause hip extensions, another superset of dumbbell standing parallel presses and bodyweight single-leg Romanian dead lifts, band Superman pull-aparts with supine leg raises and then finished with foot quickness drills and more leg/hip work outside the weight room.

On the second day, we did ice skaters, barbell front-rack split squats, dumbbell bent-over rows with a parallel grip, dumbbell bench press, stability ball leg curls, plank up-downs, side-lying hip abduction and the foot quickness/leg/hip workouts outside once again.

Then, we ended on what Palmer’s crew calls a “Finisher.” This day, the finisher of choice was called “Sally.” To the tune of “Flowers” by Moby, better known as the “Bring Sally Up, Bring Sally Down” song, the entire team squats down every time “Bring Sally Down” is sung and remains in the squat position until “Bring Sally Up” is heard, at which point they stand up. And OhByTheWay, it only lasts 3 minutes, 27 seconds, but when you’re in the middle of doing it, it feels like the length of a freakin’ Bob Dylan song.

“During the spring, we do what we call our finishers because we talk about finishing, and that’s what we’re all about,” Palmer said. “Those are CrossFit-type workouts that my dad (assistant coach Jeff Palmer) and I dream up. Earlier this spring, we did five minutes of as many burpees as you can. It’s just building that mental toughness.

“That’s what they would probably tell us is the hardest thing. We just do some different things to build their mental toughness. Do as many reps as you can and go all out. That’s to build that mentality that we’re just going to compete and go as hard as we can.”

‘It’ll pay off in the end’
So … confused yet? Don’t know what any or all of those lifts actually entail? Good. That’s the point because … I didn’t either! Since explaining exactly what you do on each of those exercises would take up a ton of space I don’t have (and, frankly, it would be a boring read and would take up more of our time than either of us cares to spend), I’ll just boil it down to this … almost all of them mainly work on flexibility to create durability.

“This program really helps you get flexible,” senior captain Tanner Diorio said. “It’ll see what set you did do, and then next time it’ll push you a little bit farther with just 5 or 10 more pounds of the same weight, or one or two more reps. It’ll just keep pushing you farther as you continue to gain strength and get conditioned. Being in our last year with the program, you really want to push to get the best out of yourself and all your teammates every single day to have the best season you can have out on the field.

“It’ll pay off in the end if you show up. You always want to be the best in the weight room and push yourself. You don’t want to regret anything when you get out of high school, so push yourself harder and leave it all out there.”

On day one, I was partnered up with senior captain Tyler Martin, a wide receiver projected to be Delaney’s top target this season after the Bunnies graduated second-team All-Heart of Illinois Conference wideout Brandon Henson. On day two, I worked out with Diorio (watch out for him on the offensive and defensive lines this year because I have a feeling he’s in for a monster year on both sides of the ball) and fellow lineman Hunter Foster.

There are 14 total lifts that we did across those two days. Now, I’m an experienced lifter who most definitely considers himself a gym rat (I probably go too often and for too long than I should, but I digress). But I had no clue what I was doing on 10 of those 14 exercises and most of the foot quickness drills in the parking lot, so I had to ask Martin and Diorio what the hell to do on each of those 10 lifts since I hadn’t even heard of them.

“I feel like I’ve increased (size and strength) pretty well since we started Volt to now. I don’t think a lot of teams use it, but I think it works to our advantage,” Martin said. “They’re definitely different (lifts). Before we started Volt, I don’t think I had ever done some of those exercises before. They definitely help prevent injuries, though.”

“(Palmer) showed me Volt because I was curious to see what they were doing,” said Retherford, who was hired in June 2017, four months after Palmer had already begun implementing the program, and played football at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley and Millikin University. “Having been around and played high school football and college football and studying this stuff, I was curious. He showed me, and I kind of tossed in that I like this, and it’s some good stuff.

“It’s not the mainstream because of all the mobility and functionality of it. It’s just got more functional-based exercises instead of the more traditional weight room stuff. It’s a little more off the beaten path, but I really like what it’s got going on. He showed it to me and was explaining it all, and I was pretty impressed by it.”

Searching for something new
During his first offseason as head coach, Palmer was seeking a new workout program to kill two flies with one slap. He needed a regimen that would prevent injuries and one that would be different enough to prevent his players from leveling off.

The main issue that sparked the new approach was Palmer noticing that during his players’ workouts with a program called “Bigger, Faster, Stronger,” they were plateauing. They weren’t able to make a jump and keep climbing. Instead, players were getting strong and then leveling out, and it was a struggle to get the players to always calculate the right weight and make sure they were pushing themselves. Palmer and the coaching staff wanted to break through that level and continue to get stronger as the weeks and months rolled on.

Around February 2017, Palmer received an email from Bo Pearson with information about Volt, which is based out of Seattle. It piqued the coach’s interest, so he and Pearson emailed back and forth, and Palmer got on the phone with him to learn a little more. Pearson sold Palmer on the program, and the coach feels as if he’s struck oil with the three-day-a-week system.

“It’s a little bit more of an expensive program, but to me it’s worth every penny when you talk about getting our guys more prepared,” Palmer said. “And it’s nice because it’s on an app on the kids’ phones, so we don’t have to mess with it.”

“BFS and the stuff we did in college was a lot more strictly lifting based, whereas Volt will do a lot more bodyweight stuff and plyometric stuff,” said Retherford, who trained under the BFS system at GCMS. “It seems like it’ll be pretty easy, but then you’re kind of going through your reps on it and finish your set or exercise, and you realize that it definitely hit you. It just looks easy on paper or on your phone, but when you get done, you’re like, ‘That was exhausting,’ when you didn’t think it was going to be. You walk out of there realizing it was a true workout.”

I can attest to that … I was pretty spent after the second workout even though it was a light week of work.

The workouts in Volt, which doubles as an app each player has on their phone and allows them to input the weight they did for each exercise electronically, never remain the same for an extended period. It’s an ever-changing routine that is not complacency-friendly. It works off periodization.

There are power blocks and strength blocks, and as the season gets closer, it shifts to a more agility- and speed-oriented approach to ensure the Bunnies’ speed and endurance are peaking at the right time.

For example, following an off week, from April 1-21, Fisher went through three weeks of a power block that focuses on explosive movements. Then, four weeks of a strength capacity block followed from April 22-May 19 in which steadily building size and strength is the focal point.

Following another off week, three rigorous weeks of a strength block and then three weeks of a max strength block preceded the unload week that I participated in (an unload week consists of light lifting, essentially designed as an “off week” that’s not truly an off week, to give bodies and minds a rest but still stay active).

Then, two weeks of another power block follow before an off week from July 29-Aug. 5, and once the season gets rolling, everything is pared back with lifts designed to maintain strength but not necessarily build it (during this period, there are no max strength weeks, which are the most strenuous as players lift the heaviest weight they can for each exercise). And, yes, each workout is chock full of odd lifts that most people probably have never done before.

“From my junior year to now, I’ve definitely gotten a lot bigger, and I’m pretty proud of that,” senior captain and offensive lineman/linebacker Andrew Zook said. “It’s mainly because of Volt. My maxes have really shot up since we started using this program, and it’s really been great. These workouts are high intensity and time-under-tension. We’re either doing heavy weight with low reps or low weight with high reps, so that really pushes your body.”

“Strength and power is the hardest (phase) because you’re doing high reps with high weights,” Delaney said. “Through that period, those three weeks are really a grind because you’re pushing heavy weight every single day. Unload’s kind of taking a week off but not really taking a week off. You’re lightening it up and really focusing on flexibility and everything like that. You’re really working hard at it and taking your time to do everything right.

“Usually, we only unload for one week then we get back to heavy. We just went through three weeks of max week with really high weight. Usually, the last week of max weeks are challenge sets, so you’re doing as many reps as you can at one of your highest weights. Then we drop down into unload to let our body recoup.”

Staying durable
Referencing an article he read about the Chicago Bears’ training staff, Retherford provided a good point about different training philosophies.

When John Fox was head coach of the Denver Broncos, several weird injuries began popping up which were related to training. And when he came to Chicago, the same training staff followed, and those same odd injuries came with them, including two linebackers tearing a pec.

“That’s such a weird injury to have happen,” Retherford said. “That’s my example of bad training, or a bad training philosophy. Whereas, if you get a good training program in the offseason, you’ll see a lot of success on the field, but also it plays a role in keeping your team relatively healthy. Obviously, different scenarios and injuries pop up, and it’s unfortunate that’s the way it goes, but it gives you your best situation possible.”

That’s what Palmer wanted when he brought Volt to Fisher. The coach talked about New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who said that durability is more important than ability.
“You want to come in and get bigger and stronger, but overall that weight room is for injury prevention,” Palmer said. “And that’s something you’re trying to create is durability. … As a coaching staff, we’re really trying to get smarter as far as how much we’re hitting, how we’re doing contact drills and stuff like that. We’ve really pared that back. We’re not overly aggressive with one another in practice, but, man, we do it fast and we attack. We’re going to tackle wheels and tackle each other onto high jump mats. We’re going to attack and do it fast and physical but in ways that aren’t going to get guys hurt. That’s really helpful with 35 guys, we need to make sure we’re staying healthy.”

Finding motivation
Fisher got to work early this past offseason, getting into the weight room one week after its season ended in heartbreaking fashion to Freeport Aquin in the first round of the Class 1A playoffs last year.

That 30-27 loss, which was the result of a field goal with less than 10 seconds remaining, has fueled the players to grind it out in the gym.

“It’s a great thing that we start that early,” Delaney said. “You’ve just got to put your mind to it if you want to win in the fall, which we all do. That’s why we got after it the week after we lost in the playoffs. That’s what really drives us to get after it that early, because we know we’ve got to be better than what we were last year. That’s what drove me, for sure.

“It’s tough, and I always think about those 6 inches that the ball went through the post by. I use that to motivate me out here because every rep counts, and we all know how close we came to forcing overtime and winning that playoff game.”

If the Bunnies ever start up a new workout program, it won’t be any time soon. The coaching staff loves it, of course, but more important, the players do as well.

“We’ll keep it up. The kids understand, and I think they like it,” Palmer said. “It’s all on their phones, and the weights are all calculated. And the nice thing is when they punch in their numbers, they can look back and see their growth. Like Hunter Coon knows, ‘My max isn’t 185 pounds anymore. It’s 195 because I did that twice.’ Being able to look at those numbers and see that concrete improvement I think is a big deal.

“No matter what program you do, your kids have to buy in. The enthusiasm and excitement is a little better during max weeks when kids are really getting after it. Our culture is getting a lot better, and it’s taken a lot of time, but I’m really pleased with how we go about our business in the weight room. You saw it; there aren’t a lot of guys standing around in there. Throughout the workout, everybody’s working all the time. That’s what I like about it, is it really utilizes that time as best as possible.”

Contact Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.

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