This week’s EliteFTS Spotlight features University of Pennsylvania strength and conditioning coach Jim Steel. Coach Steel is a former college football player with an extensive powerlifting background. In this interview, he discusses his training philosophy, his relationship with Elite Fitness Systems, and the unique challenges of coaching at an academically elite institution.

Tell us something about your background, your history, and how you ended up coaching at the University of Pennsylvania.

I played football at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina. I was always just fascinated with weight training. I didn’t powerlift then, although I always did the power lifts, but I didn’t start powerlifting until around 1995. I think I saw a tape of Kirk Karwoski. We’re from the same area in Maryland, and I was like, “Man, I want to try that.” I didn’t even know anything about it. Didn’t know about competing. I just knew I always liked lifting heavy weights and being around it. So I just started training for powerlifting. I got Powerlifting USA, and started looking up meets. I said I wanted to squat 700 because I’d never done that before.

So, I did that in the gym, then was talking to a buddy of mine who said it doesn’t count if you do it in the gym, so I did it in a meet. I just fell in love with the simplicity of the three lifts and the true strength of the whole thing. I set some goals for myself and in 2001, I did a meet where I reached them. I always wanted to squat 800, bench 500 and deadlift 700. I did 820, 505 and 740. I haven’t stopped powerlifting, but I’ve stopped competing since then. I got into some Muay Thai and kickboxing, and I’ve done that since then. Now I’m just really trying to stay in shape.

I was always just fascinated with lifting weights and being strong. I never really had a strength coach when I was in high school or college. I was always making up programs on my own and reading on my own. Now it’s so available to everyone – you know, you’ve got the internet, etc. My dad was a professor at the University of Maryland, and he was good friends with the head football coach there, Jerry Claiborne, in the 70’s. I used to just go watch those guys lift weights. I remember seeing guys curl like 185 and thinking, “Man, if I could just curl 185,” you know what I mean (laughing). Guys were benching 400, and all that stuff. When I was a kid, growing up in Maryland, Randy White was a big guy. He played for the Cowboys. He was the first guy that I knew was a really strong college football player and a really dedicated guy and a motivated guy. Randy White, growing up, was the man. I was like, “What’s he lift?” I used to ask all kinds of questions about Randy White, and followed his career, and it just got me fascinated with the whole thing.

It was never really about competing for me. It was about setting goals and trying to reach them and bettering myself in every meet. I probably did maybe ten meets at the most. I don’t even know if it was that much.

How did you make the transition from playing football and being obsessed with strength to actually doing it for a living?

I was always a football coach. I coached at Gardner-Webb, I coached at Charleston Southern, and I coached at Eau-Gallie High School in Florida. Everybody always said they needed a strength coach, so I was like, “I’ll do it.” I was always, like, the defensive line coach and the strength coach. At Eau-Gallie I was the defensive coordinator and the strength coach. I was still at Charleston Southern, but I was looking for a job – trying to go to another level. There weren’t any football jobs out there, but I had the strength coach background. I called Rob Wagner because we had a mutual friend. Rob was the 198 pound record holder in the squat for many years with 799. He’s a real well known guy. I called him, and he happened to have a job open. It was like $15K with no benefits, but it was a chance to learn from this guy.

You know, when you’re coaching, you just sort of...I mean, I delivered pizzas for my first two years at Gardner-Webb. So I started working for him. I think at that time he was 185, and he’s doing sets of five with 550. Stuff like that, and I was like, “Man, this guy’s really strong.” So I wanted to learn from him. I took that job, part time, in ’99, as his assistant. It eventually went to full time. He moved on and I became the head guy. This was my first job where I was just the strength coach, and I learned so much from him. He’s the kind of guy, when you get around him, you feel like you don’t know anything. He’s so smart with the whole thing.

What’s your training philosophy with the team at Penn?

Well, our big thing is that we’re always in the developmental stage. I look at all these other programs – the big Division I schools – that have all these training models, and they can cut the year into segments. We’re always doing the basic stuff with these guys. We’re really, really, basic. We squat, we bench, we press, we clean and we do some deadlifts, but it’s really basic. You know, I go to all these clinics, and everyone’s so complicated, and I’m like, you walk in our weight room and we can just get by with a power rack and a barbell on all our teams. I’m talking about everyone from women’s lacrosse to our football guys. We just try to get these kids as strong as we can and as explosive as we can. I don’t know if everybody’s pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, but we go from the ground up with everything.

If you had to describe our philosophy, it’s just, “Keep it simple and just try to get as strong as possible.”

How do you organize your programming?

I try to take ideas from everything. We use Prilepin’s Table as far as our intensity levels. I think after you use that for a long time, you can sort of do it on your own and figure out, “Well this is 70%, and this is how many reps we need to do with 70%.”

If you take a football season, starting in January with our winter workouts, we’re trying to lift as heavy as we can. We’re running hard two days a week, but the kids are in there squatting heavy and cleaning heavy, staying between 75% and 85% on all their lifts. As we get into the summer, the running increases to where they’re running five days a week. I still try to keep them strong, though. If we’re talking about periodization, it’s...I hate to start talking about the classic periodization model where Bompa would say, “Well, now we get more explosive.” I mean, we do, and we’ll add some more jumps and snatches and things like that, but I always hated the thing where guys say they’re not going to be as strong because they’re running more. We try to stay strong. I keep the intensities and the percentages up there. You just have to be smart. We spend a lot of time being smart with our recovery, being smart with their nutrition and being smart with their lifestyle. I read that from Dr. Mauro DiPasquale one time. He said everybody wants a secret supplement or whatever, but you have to break down your lifestyle and see how that’s going in order to recover.

We talk to the kids a lot about that. A lot about recovery. It’s not just taking whey protein. It’s your whole lifestyle to achieve what you need to achieve. So they’re running in the summer, but they’re still lifting heavy. When the season goes, I don’t run them anymore because they’re running during practice, but I still lift them three days a week. I keep them in the 70’s, percentage-wise. We do all our heavy lifting on Sunday – the day after the game, and then the rest of the week we’re doing dumbbell work, etc. My goal during the season is to just get them ready for the game. I don’t have an ego about how strong guys are during the year. I played nose guard in college, so I know what it’s like. You’re in the eighth game of the year and you’re all banged up – your elbows, your knees – so I try to remember what it was like to play a little bit when I’m getting them ready for the game.

After that, you’re back into winter training, and you’re trying to recover it. We can’t go to the playoffs in the Ivy League, so we end at Thanksgiving. They go home with a workout. We never stop training. We just try to get back into it and try to get strong again and rehab them from the injuries they got during the year. One thing we do that I think separates us a little bit is that we individualize tons of workouts. I’ve got kids coming out of high school with injuries, so a lot of our kids have notebooks, and they come in every single day and we work around stuff. If a kid can’t squat, he can push the Prowler. If he can’t clean, he can do jumps with a vest on. We never say, “Well, don’t do anything today.”

We just try to keep them active and keep them going. A kid doesn’t have to squat to be successful. We’d prefer for them to squat, but we can work around things. We individualize a lot of stuff.

Are there unique challenges at a school like Penn, where the kids are so academically advanced?

It’s different. I always joke at seminars, where at other places, kids will run through a wall, but here, they want to know what the wall is made of. They’ll still run through it, but they need to know why. They need to know the composition of the wall. You have to be prepared. The biggest thing here is time management. They start meetings at 2, they’re on the field at 3:30, and they’re lifting, after practice, until 7:30. The time commitment is the same as it is at other schools. The difference is that academics here are so much more challenging. We always talk to our freshmen about time management. You can’t do things here that maybe you can do at other universities. You have to be able to study, coming out of high school, especially. You have to set your time aside and be really organized with it.

The kids are just kids, you know? You’ve got some kids that are motivated to train and some kids who aren’t. Our strongest kid, he’d stay in there all day and I’d have to kick him out. Then you have other kids who just do the work and get it done, just like any other place.

What’s your philosophy for conditioning?

January, we start running them. On Monday mornings, we work on tons of change of direction. Tons of jumps – in-place jumps. A lot of skips, and lot of hops, and a lot of jumps. We jump over each other, we do upper body jumps like wheelbarrow hops, we do some med ball work, and we do tons of change of direction work, really short. We’ll line up, like lanes of a track, like a line of four people. We’ll have all 110 guys, and we’ll just do agility drills over and over again. We’ll get on our belly, we’ll jump up, sprint-backpedal-sprint, shuffle-shuffle sprint, etc. We’ll do 45 minutes of that, just getting...

My big thing is, if you’re training a guy and you only get ten reps in, it’s not going to help him. We try to get as many reps in as possible of all the change of direction drills to try to make it part of his muscle or motor memory. It’s pretty tough conditioning on Monday morning.

On Wednesday morning, our sprint coach, who was a decathlete All-American at Penn State, trains the whole team how to get faster. Everybody does it. It’s a lot of low back, a lot of abdominal stuff, but he’s working on running form, kinesthetic awareness, awareness of where your body is when you’re moving. There’s a conditioning aspect to it, too.  Basically, on that Wednesday, we’re trying to get our kids faster. Tons of reps on that day, too. I’m a big believer on lots of reps with this stuff. Each workout I start out with dynamic mobility and dynamic flexibility, stuff I’ve stolen over the years. A lot of low back flexibility. Not a lot of static stretching, but a lot of dynamic stuff – walking lunges, front hang kicks, stuff like that. We’ve reduced a lot of lower back injuries over the years by really getting into that.

How’s your relationship with the football staff?

It’s good. The big thing is that they’re really supportive. I meet with them every Wednesday, as a staff, and we go over the performances of all the kids. We have a big max night in March called the Iron Quaker, where we film it and put out a DVD. It’s on the website. There’s always a coach in there after practice, either offensive staff or defensive staff. They know it’s really important. They do a great job.

Our women’s lacrosse team is second in the country right now, I think, and they lift just as hard as our wrestlers. Once you get the support of the coaches and they see that it’s helping, and the players see that their coaches are really into it, then you’ve got them. A lot of people are surprised when they walk in and the women’s lacrosse team is doing hang cleans and front squats and push presses, just like any other team. They don’t go near a machine. They don’t leave the platforms the whole time, and I think it contributes something to their success.

Where do the Olympic lifts fit into your program, and what do you say to strength coaches who say they’re not an efficient part of an effective program?

We include them because the force summation is greatest on the Olympic lifts. I think a weighted box jump is great, and we do tons of them, but I don’t think you can get as much out of a kid box jumping with a 40 pound vest on as you can with a kid cleaning 350. Do I think you can have a successful program without them? Yes. Can they be an integral part of a program? Yes. I mean, I didn’t do them when I was in college. My assistant, Brett Crossland, is a collegiate Olympic lifting champion. He brought them in, and I see the benefits with our kids. When I ask the kids what exercises help them most on the field, it’s cleans and squats. I met with the Jets strength coach a few weeks ago, and he showed me a graph which said the clean required the most force production – where you summate the most force. I think the triple extension transfers right over onto the field – when you’re running, jumping, hitting or exploding into somebody. It’s hard to duplicate with other stuff.

The thing about it being hard to teach...we teach them on the first day. I’m not saying other guys don’t know how to teach them, but I’ve hired some guys that I think are really good teachers, and I’ve learned a lot from them. We start with the bar, and we just jump and shrug with the bar, and by the end of the day they’re hang cleaning. You just try to perfect it after that. It really doesn’t take that long. Everybody we have does it. I think squats are the best exercise for any sport, but cleans are definitely in there.

You’ve got to watch when you say, “Well, this transfers right over,” but they do. They transfer right over. I love the deadlift, but it’s a slow lift. You’re not summating as much force. You know, Bill Starr never deadlifted in his life. He just did the Olympic lifts, and the first time he ever deadlifted, he did 660, or something like that at 181 or something crazy. He taught me so much about the Olympic lifts. The guy does it in his bedroom, still, every day.

I know some great lifters. Kirk Karwoski came and stayed at me house, and he is as basic and simple as it gets. If you read his lifting routines, he squatted and left. He would squat and leave on Monday. Tuesday he would close grip and do curls. Thursday he would do some shrugs. Saturday he would wide grip bench. That was it, man. He was so strong that if he had to put 300 pounds on some skull-crushers, he’d be wrecking his elbows. You see that philosophy where everybody tries to get so fancy, and you really don’t need it. If you do what we do, and what these other successful guys are doing, I think you’re going to be okay.

What does EliteFTS mean to you and your program?

There’s a couple of things. Number one is information. As soon as they get an e-book out, I order it. I couldn’t wait for Wendler’s 5/3/1. I think Jim and I have a similar philosophy. I read his stuff over and over again. His philosophy is just like ours – keep it simple, keep it basic. The hill running stuff? We do tons of stadiums. Tons of them. Pressing, squatting and benching. Nobody can reinvent the barbell. Everybody’s looking for the next gimmick, and there isn’t any. You get in there with a kid who’s motivated, and you get him stronger with the basic stuff, and that’s what EliteFTS is. It’s a real basic philosophy that we adhere to. I’m on there all the time.

We’ve got Prowlers and sleds, which I got from Elite. The sleds we use for rehab stuff. Every single team at Penn uses the Prowler. I took it on vacation with me last year and made my wife do it every morning. I said, “If we want to have a good time today, we have to do the Prowler first.”

Our kids get strong as heck from the Prowler. We do Prowler gassers, Prowlers up hills, down with the black, back with the white – we do it with 400 pounds and we do it with 90 pounds. Every single team does it, from men’s squash to wrestling and football. We’ve got three of them. They’re fantastic.

The information is the thing. I’ve learned a lot from those guys. Nobody wants to hear that the basics work, because it’s too hard. Nobody wants to go and push the Prowler. These guys go home for the summer and train with these personal trainers, and they get weaker, instead of staying with us and doing the basics. Nobody’s reinvented the barbell. That stuff like pushing the Prowler and pulling sleds has been around forever. Dick Butkus used to push a truck. It’s all basic, basic stuff. That’s why I read all of Wendler’s stuff, because he’s just simplified things. One basic exercise, and just a couple of assistance lifts, and they you’re out of there.

Jim’s book? That “North of Vag” thing? Worth the price of the whole book. I was showing it to everyone, and they were all reading it. I worked with Shelby, too, and lost like 30 pounds. I’ve used Elite for everything. Dave Tate’s diet stuff was really inspirational, too. Elite Fitness Systems is a huge part of everything we do.

The information is great because you get new and different stuff to do. I get bored, and if I get bored, imagine how the kids are doing.

Any parting words?

Keep it simple. My biggest father was a professor at the University of Maryland teaching the psychology of sport. He taught me the philosophy of the mind, and how everything in life is motivation. So if you’re motivated to do something, you’re going to be successful. My dad taught me that. We try to focus on that with the kids. We try to challenge them. If a kid can only do three reps in a lift, we have everyone gather around and see if we can push it to five. That’s what I’ve learned.