It is that time of year where all eyes are in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine. Where numbers rule and fractions of seconds can mean the difference between millions of dollars; all eyes on a battery of performance tests. The NFL Network devotes and entire week of coverage and now that it is concluded; analysts will debate over the meaning of the results from now until the NFL draft in May. The combine is a big deal for players, coaches, and owners alike. The amount of emphasis placed on the results of these performance drills is staggering.  These tests include:

  • The Vertical Jump
  • The Standing Broad Jump
  • The 20-yard Shuttle
  • The 60-yard Shuttle
  • The L Drill
  • The 40-yard dash
  • The 225lb Bench Press

There are plenty of coaches who may argue the validity of these tests in terms of projected success on the football field. More emphasis is placed on the proficiency of the position specific drills and the most telling sign of potential: college game film.

The most important factor in success on the football field is the ability to play football.

That being said, the combine gives a standard set of data that is quantifiable. These comparisons of numbers are reliable when rating athletes of the same position and even from year to year. Whether the tests themselves correlate with success and longevity on the field is irrelevant. That is essentially what game-film is for. These numbers are just a preview –a showcase of sorts– for owners, GMs, and coaches to reinforce or contrarily question their multi-million dollar investments.

Combine testing has branched out from the NFL to all levels of football and been modified for other sports. The NBA and MLB have their versions of combines and Pro-Days (combine hosted at satellite locations including the athlete’s university). The notion of a battery of standardized tests to predict on-the-field or on-the court success is coveted by just about every Olympic sports strength & conditioning staffs as well.

“Combines are necessary evils,” explains Joe Kenn who is the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach with the Carolina Panthers. “Because all coaches are intrigued with measurables.” Quantifiable measurements of performance testing is objective – and in some ways – a coach’s best friend. Combine numbers are not the only factor in determining success, but if organized correctly, can sift through some of the subjectivity in evaluating players from game-film.

Just about every high school football player will need to go through some kind of combine test. These are often modified by the coach and the results, when submitted to college coaches, are often scrutinized for their inter-rater reliability.  For all intensive purposes these numbers when submitted to recruiting services can get the prospective student-athlete recognized. Scholarship programs can be big money as well. Athletic scholarships are investments made by coaches, which have serious consequences in terms of program success and job security. For this reason, most major universities hold “Senior Days” to conduct their own versions of the combine.

The Vertical Jump

Training to Jump Higher

Maximal Strength. Training for the vertical jump should require a more comprehensive methodology than just jumping. Other determining factors of vertical jump success should be incorporating into pre-combine programming as well as any sports performance enhancement programs. While conducting research that lead to his philosophy on Velocity–Based Training, Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning at The University of Missouri Bryan Mann found a unique correlation between specific characteristics and the performance of the vertical jump.

“The number one relationship we found was improvement in body composition,” Mann says, who is also an Assistant Professor in the Physical Therapy and Athletic Training Departments. “Number two was actually the squat.” Mann did the research to find the correlation of the power clean with improved vertical jump height, which came in third on his list. That placement was mostly due to improper loading of the exercise to Mann’s admission. This is not to say that jump training will not yield positive results. The SAID Principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands) would absolutely reinforce this training.

The Best Exercises to Improve the Vertical Jump

  1. Squat with Bands or Chains
  2. Trap Bar Deadlift
  3. RDL
  4. Hang Snatch
  5. Hang Clean
  6. Kettlebell Swing

Tips when Testing the Vertical Jump:

Joe DeFranco has revolutionized training for the combine and he has given some fairly basic points to enhance the performance of the vertical jump. Some of these have been adapted, but it provided a quick checklist on test day.

  1. Retract the shoulder blades during the reach. By exhibiting proper posture, you can reduce your total reach. Testers are getting smart to standardize this process, but retracting with your hand above your held can be helpful.
  2. Stretch the hip-flexors. This may be the only muscle group that would be beneficial to static stretch and increase range of motion. The hip-flexor group is the antagonists to the prime-movers and synergists when jumping and tight hip flexors can lead to an anterior pelvic hip.
  3. Hold your breath. Creating intra-abdominal pressure will improve force production for the squat and deadlift. Jumping is no different.
  4. Throw your hands down. This will increase the amount of force into the ground, which in turn will produce more force for the jump.
  5. Don’t look up. Looking up while reaching can pull your shoulder girdle back. This in turn will decrease how high you can reach above your head. Look straight ahead when jumping.

 Standing Broad Jump

The standing broad jump may be the most telling athletic quality of all the tests “You can beat any tests on training as far as techniques or cheat principles except the long jump,” proclaims Kenn who is one of the many NFL strength coaches that are active in evaluation stations at the combine. It is arguable that the standing broad jump may be a better indicator of lower body power than the vertical jump due to its specificity of what some coaches call horizontal force. There are however less factors to consider when implementing the test from a logistical standpoint.  Inconsistencies in testing the reach and the testing equipment can occur. This is almost eliminated with the broad jump, especially with large groups of high school athletes.

 40-yard Dash

No test has as much meaning in terms of athletic prowess quite like the 40-yard dash. A few tenths of a second difference in this test have been the difference between a few million dollars or the difference between a scholarship and a preferred walk-on.

Improve the 40 by Improving the 10

Legendary coach Buddy Morris, who has over 30 years of coaching experience attributes success in the 40-yard dash to success in the 10-yard dash. Morris mentions the research by Ralph Mann which say that sixty percent of max velocity is attained in the first 10 yards with another ten percent happening in the next 10. “So at 20 yards, you are already at 80% of max velocity,” summarized Morris. This is proof-positive of the benefits of improving the ten and twenty yard dashes.

Improving the stride length will undoubtedly improve the first half of the 40-yard dash. This adaptation usually derives from strength training and the ability of the athletic to apply more force to the ground. Tom Shaw, who has trained the likes of Chris Johnson and Deion Sanders for their NFL combines, explains the relationship between stride length and stride frequency.

  1. Increasing the length of each stride with the same number of strides will decrease the number of steps the athlete has to take to run 40 yards
  2. Increasing the number of strides taken in a given time frame while maintaining the same stride length will cover more ground in less time.

These may seem painfully obvious, but these adaptations need to be made during training and not as changes in running technique. As Buddy Morris has stated, “stride length and stride frequency are bi-products of the training adaptations.”

The 20-yard Pro Agility Shuttle, the 60-yard Shuttle, and the 3-Cone L-Drill

These tests require very specific skill sets. There needs to be a balance between enough sub-maximal reps to reinforce proper mechanics but so slow as to change the stride length of each step. These drills are tests of eccentric strength and dynamic flexibility more than they are tests of speed. Strength training and mobility work combined with specific skill work on these drills can benefit more than simply performing endless reps at full speed.

Quick Tips for the 20-yard Pro-Agility Shuttle

The Start

  1. Push to get your center of gravity over your lead foot
  2. Drive the back knee toward the first line and rip the elbow back
  3. Keep your shoulder level low

Direction Changes

  1. Attack each line as if you were running through it
  2. Take less steps and stop at each turn with both feet, pushing off the outside to crossover (like the start)

225 Bench Test

Train for Maximum Strength

One of the biggest misconceptions of training for the 225 rep test is that an athlete must train by doing the 225 rep test. There have also been drop sets, clusters, rest-pause sets, and a plethora of other variations used. Regardless, all of these methods have the same drawback with these methods of training; the weight on the bar is still 225 pounds.

Buddy Morris sums it up this way, “The key [to the 225 test] is continuing to increase your maximal strength so that the bench press now becomes a less percent of your one-rep-max.”

Here is an example with a necessary precursor stating that I am not or have never been very strong in the grand scheme of things.

Once a year for the Bench Press for Breast Cancer hosted at Denison University, I would perform the 225-rep test. Just once per year. For two years in a row, my best performance was 40 reps. My one rep maximum was 440 at that time and I never did a set of bench press over 5 reps during that time.

Those forty reps could be attributed to the combination of my protruding abdominal area and my T-Rex arms. Most likely, it also was related to the fact that 225 pounds is about 51% of 440. Remember the 225 pounds for the combine is the constant; the variable you control is the maximum strength you possess thereby “reducing” the load used for the test.

You have a time limit. Regardless of strength level, every athlete will reach his lactate threshold at some point during the test. When Morris and Jacksonville Jaguars Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Tom Myslinski were with the Cleveland Browns organization, they timed their players while performing the 225-combine test. “After 44 or 45 seconds they were shot, regardless of strength level.” Using this time limit as a standard, muscular failure before your team average can signify substandard maximal strength levels.

During the 225 Test

  1. Shorten the stroke. This is a fairly common practice for powerlifters but not necessarily for athletes. Maximizing the grip width, learning how to arch, and retracting the shoulder blades can accomplish all this.
  2. Don’t pace yourself. Perform as many repetitions as possible as quickly as possible. Remember, you have a relative time limit until total muscular fatigue sets in. Dave Tate suggests to avoid keeping the bar motionless for too long of a period. “No more than one to two seconds,” Tate confirms.

Keep in mind, the performance tests are just a piece of the total picture.  These tests give an objective snapshot of the overall athletic profile of a potential player. Whether the event is the NFL combine, a division I university senior prospect day, or even an off-season testing day at the high school level; the performance tests involved can reinforce opinions or leave doubts.  Most coaches will admit that position specific drills carry much more weight regardless of level or sport. The combine tests, however, leave little doubt in the athletic potential of the athlete.

Following this advice may not land you an NFL contract, a college scholarship or even a spot on the travel squad. Hopefully, you can score high on a few tests you already know the answer to.

The Parisi Combine Training Method DVD