Ripped from Reps: Student-athletes work out year round to prepare for physical challenge of Division I competition

It's 7:30 a.m. as freshman Deshawn Baker-Williams enters the Indoor Athletic Complex weight room. Tired and sore from the previous day's workout and football practice, the 310-pound offensive lineman gets to work.

In order to achieve the team's championship goals, Baker-Williams knows he needs to maintain his physical peak each season.

"It's a sub-motivation thing, and your teammates are motivating you," Baker-Williams said. "Around here, we're built on championships and having a mindset of 'I want to help my team win a championship.' That's what gets you through everything."

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During the season, the time athletes spend on the field practicing and in competition keeps them out of the the weight room.

At the conclusion of the season, more time is spent lifting weights and training. Without as many competitions and practices, training regimens becomes more intense.

Building Up football

All of CMU’s strength and conditioning coaches are responsible for training multiple teams at the same time. Each team reports to one trainer. Football, however, has multiple trainers. 

Trainers have two roles — enhance athlete performance and prevent injuries.

Because there is a week between games, members of the football team spend the most time in the weight room compared to other sports. Without the stress of multiple games on their bodies every week, football players are able to spend more time lifting and training.

When spring practice begins in mid-March, the team goes through the same workouts as the months without practice. The athletes will usually be in the weight room four days a week, with each day focused on a different area of the body. 

Strength and conditioning coaches give as many explosive lifts as possible in order to maximize athleticism.

“It helps with every position," Baker-Williams said. "Say offensive line, they still have to fire off the ball and block into you and get going. Receivers have to have a quick burst off the line to beat the defensive backs."

Sophomore offensive linemen Derek Edwards said working on explosiveness is especially important for a lineman.

“One of the main things about playing in the trenches is having the technique to get yourself in the right places," Edwards said. "But the strength that you get from the weight room is what takes you from being in the right place to winning your block and winning the down. You see yourself excel when you’re excelling in the weight room."

The daily struggles

Going through the process of offseason workouts means the athletes have to push through soreness and constant activity.

"It definitely pays off after a while," Baker-Williams said. "When you're going to practice, you get beat up and when the workouts build up your muscle and make you stronger, it doesn't hurt as bad."

Edwards and Baker-Williams understand that they need to stay motivated to get through their workouts.

"Once you're done with the workout, you feel like you accomplished something," Edwards said. "Your body is a little tired, but it feels like you got a good pump and you go throughout the rest of your day feeling pretty good."

In addition to the wear and tear on their bodies, athletes have to balance schoolwork with their athletic responsibilities.

Recently-graduated football safety Kavon Frazier said balancing time between football and homework required a lot of hard work.

"I was very good at managing my team and using my resources to get all my homework done, but it was still hard," Frazier said. "Even in the offseason, we spend a lot of time with football. People don't understand how hard it is to balance that with school work and a social life. Most of the time we don't even have social lives."

Injury prevention

Avoiding injury is a primary focus for the strength and conditioning coaches. Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning Aaron McLatcher said each workout has some form of injury prevention integrated into it, which comes from working with athletic trainers. The main areas of focus are ankles, hips and knees.

“We like to do 'pre-hab' instead of 'rehab'. We’ll do a lot of the same stuff that physical therapists do, but use it as preventative measures,” said Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning Taylor Larson.

Larson said the focus on injury prevention limits the time an athlete may be out. Rather than suffering a major injury where surgery would be required, pre-hab strengthens muscles.

McLatcher said a majority of the gymnastics team’s training is injury prevention and power and strength-based exercises.

Senior gymnast Taylor Bolender said the team typically lifts four times a week in the offseason, which includes work with the racks and the kettlebells, running, pushing sleds, ropes and Thera-Band exercises.

After completing its weight training regimen, the team goes to its practice facility to work on skills. 

“We do new skills and try to keep up on our floor cardio and bar cardio," said senior gymnast Karlee Teet. "We’re just trying to learn new skills and basically maintain what we did so we don’t lose what we worked for since August."

Gymnasts’ routines run on an individual basis, since each one competes in different events.

“In the summer, we tend to train more than we compete during the season," Bolender said. "Most people train around four events. You warm up, go to your events, spend about 45 minutes on each event and we start doing the conditioning at the end when everyone is done. It’s way harder in the summer and a lot more intensive because we have to build up for the season.”

Customizing an athlete's regimen

Strength and conditioning coaches also provide athletes with a regimen to improve their mobility, flexibility and stability.

The three core lifts CMU athletes perform include squatting, pressing and pulling. Each type of lift comes in a variety of forms, depending on the sport, athlete and time of year.

“I may do some aspects that are different from some of the other guys. Putting a 6’10” basketball player in the same position that is 5’11” is different,” Larson said. “Sometimes they don’t move the same way. Biomechanics can be changed a little bit just because of the force levers (elbows, knees, etc.).”

McLatcher said deciding an individual’s workout regimen begins with what sport the student-athlete is part of, then broken down by position group and the athlete’s specific needs.

Workout routines can change depending on what system the coach is running. For example, having an up-tempo offense in basketball will change what lifts and conditioning basketball players are doing.

Larson said there are a lot of different measures, so he likes to start at “square zero.”

The trainers send basic workouts to freshmen before they arrive on campus. This includes things like how to do a proper push-up and learning how to activate the core, since many freshmen have a weak core and posterior chain, Larson said.

“We work on body weight squats and things like that and then slowly progress," Larson said. "I can’t expect them to come here and squat like my juniors and seniors do when they can’t do a body weight squat properly."

When an athlete arrives on campus, strength and conditioning coaches judge their fundamental weaknesses and then decide how to prescribe workouts to strengthen those deficiencies.

For upperclassmen, the offseason starts with trainers trying to build up their fundamental size. The volume of the exercises increases, but the resistance is lower. After that phase, trainers will try to improve fundamental strength, which decreases volume, but increases resistance.

Building on strength

Many of the workout routines in the offseason are focused on building strength, so they are more intense than during season.

Freshman lacrosse attack Kaitlin Kimble said the team’s workouts are most intense during fall. The team’s workouts are comprised squats, benching, body weight exercises and sprinting. 

“A lot of the sprinting and core workouts helped me as an attack because you have to do quick spurts and movements," Kimble said. "You have to be able to have good body movement getting through to the goal.” 

Sophomore softball outfielder Lacy Tolfree tries to maintain a similar routine throughout the offseason.

“I’ll do the workout routine or do my own kind of lifting running, agility type things,” Tolfree said. “(I do) the same things we do in the weight room during the fall — squats, bench, different kettlebell and dumbbell exercises, push-ups, pull-ups, normal weight room stuff.”

Part of Tolfree’s routine that does change during the offseason is her diet. In the offseason, she said she doesn’t eat a lot of bad foods so she doesn’t watch what she is eating as closely.

“During the season I do more, just because it’s easier to say, ‘Hey, let’s go order a pizza.’ But the cafeteria is open for a majority of the day, so I just go and eat there,” Tolfree said.

For sophomore forward DaRohn Scott, offseason workouts are about improving his athleticism and skills on the court.

“In the weight room, we get back to lifting heavy, max amounts trying to get our vertical jump higher and get quicker, faster and stronger,” Scott said.

Scott said he does different kinds of squats, which helps him get more flexibility in his joints to make him quicker and a more explosive.

“At my position, it just helps me get stronger. I’m naturally strong and athletic but getting in the weight room helps me build upon that," Scott said. "It helps me have more athleticism.”