Seven Steps for Building the Perfect High School Lineman

TAGS: Josh Henkin, football training, explosiveness, max strength, prowler, speed

It still blows me away how linemen, both offensive and defensive, were disrespected for decades. Even the great Vince Lombardi considered the big men to be like pawns. They were the sacrificial lambs, interchangeable, and were paid nothing. OK, but that was the 50s and 60s, right? Well, if you read “The Blind Side,” you know that until Lawrence Taylor came into the league, no one gave a damn about the left tackle position or the rest of the line. Linemen were paid the equivalent of minimum wage until they had to develop specialists to deal with this maniac known as L.T. who was damn near murdering quarterbacks.

Times have changed. Linemen are now high price commodities and even dopey announcers concede that they are the backbone of the football team. If your line loses the battle up front, you lose every time. This is true from pee-wee to the pros.

A few months back, I was asked a question that got me fired up both as a coach and a player—“Coach, I wanna be the perfect lineman. What do I need to do?”

Ah, the perfect lineman. As a long time lineman, I have devoted plenty of thought to this query. While different systems favor different traits in their linemen, at the base, the perfect lineman should be:

  • Super strong
  • Explosive
  • Quick
  • Fast for five yards
  • A great technician
  • Able to use his strength on the field
  • Most well-conditioned player on the field
  • An animal on the field

Sure, genetics plays a role in this. A guy who’s naturally six feet, six inches and 300 lbs will have an advantage over a guy who is five feet, eight inches and 185 lbs. But I’ve seen too many small linemen dominate high school football games over the biggins. So while genetics play a part, there is a way to turn even the smallest high school players into linemen who destroy the competition.

Here are the seven steps for building the perfect high school lineman:

1. Build max strength

We can’t all be six feet, six inches, but we can all be as strong as humanly possible. Maximum strength is the base for all other aspects of athleticism. It controls quickness, explosiveness, speed, and power. And linemen need it in buckets, especially in high school. You’ll play guys who outweigh you by 30 lbs or more. If you plan on kicking that guy's ass, you'd better be stronger than him. I know there are plenty of “high school players shouldn’t lift heavy for low reps and should therefore waste their careers doing 3 X 10" types out there, but truth is, you need to lift heavy and get super strong.

Despite what many think, adding five pounds on to your eight rep weight isn’t getting you stronger. First, that kind of progression will dry up quickly. Second, the only way to really build strength is to improve your raw strength. How much can you do for a single or a double? That’s what counts. In a cruel twist of fate, improving your eight rep max does a big fat zero when it comes to increasing your one rep max. That’s why all those percentages on max prediction charts are for the proverbial birds.

Linemen need raw, brute strength. In its most basic form, line play is a three-hour fight. Being stronger and more physical than your opponent is the easiest way to beat him. You will face guys with similar technique and comparable speed. When this happens, guess who wins the battle?

You need to focus your main exercises on heavy, low rep sets. “But beginners shouldn’t use low reps! It’ll crush their bones and steal their souls!” Bull. If a beginner is taught good form and has a coach who has half a brain to keep the newbie’s ego in check, low reps are not only more effective, they’re also safer. The more fatigued you become, the more likely you are to break form and get hurt. On rep 11 of a 12 rep set, form becomes atrocious.

If you’re that afraid of singles, have your new guys do max sets of threes or fours. And stop with the “they need a certain amount of reps to perfect movement patterns.” What you do for ten reps is a different exercise than what you do for a single. Form will change at 85 percent or higher of your max. And you get plenty of reps on assistance movements.

So if you want dominatingly strong linemen, do heavy work on:

  • Box squats
  • Box front squats
  • Bench
  • Incline
  • Push presses
  • Deadlifts
  • Snatch grip deadlifts

Master those moves, get super strong on them, and your linemen will literally transform into unstoppable machines on the field.

On upper body day, start off with bench, incline, and presses. Go heavy and keep adding weight until you reach your three or four rep max. In the next session, try to beat this. If you’re really afraid that doing this will stunt your growth, crush your bones, make you muscle bound, or whatever other old wives' tale you choose to believe, simply do either six sets of four or eight sets of three. This allows for a fairly heavy weight and is a decent introduction to working up to a max.

2. Build upper body explosiveness and hand quickness

Linemen on both sides of the ball need explosive upper bodies and fast hands. One of the biggest mistakes high school defensive linemen make is engaging with the offensive lineman and then not getting off the block. Usually, this is because they have slow hands and are unable to escape the clutches of those big ogres on the offensive line.

On both sides of the ball, the ability to deliver a breath-taking, rib-cracking blow is crucial. Being able to throw a shot to your opponent's ribs that literally knocks his air out is a pretty big advantage. Knock the wind out of someone and they’ll be a little hesitant to raise their hands to block you.

Having quick hands and an explosive upper body also allows you to control your opponent. Again, these traits are controlled by max strength, so plenty of hard, heavy work on the bench and incline are a must. But we must also train to specifically get your arms blasting through the motion used on the field. Concentrate your efforts on three exercises.

Plyometric push-ups: Plyometric push-ups are push-ups where you attempt to push yourself off the ground with so much force that your body actually comes up far enough where you can clap your hands between reps. I see high school linemen struggle with push-ups and complain that they can’t do them because they’re big. Again, bull. You should be able to not only do regular push-ups but be able to do them explosively. You need to train your upper body to be fast and these are one of the best ways to accomplish this.

Once you get good at these, you can make them harder by placing yoru each hand on a 45-lb plate and doing the Plyo Push Ups this way. This gives you an extra inch or two of depth.

These can be done before your heavy upper body work, for 3 – 5 sets of 5. Or, you can superset them with your higher rep upper body movements as a basic form of complex training.

  • Concentrate on speed…if you start to slow down, terminate the set.
  • Keep your elbows close to the body and tucked in, just as you would when blocking

Rapid Standing Band Press

Here is an exercise that you can do anywhere…before heavy Benching, before practice, before a game…that will wake up your Central Nervous System and train it to enable your hands to deliver rib-breaking blows.

Stump a band, get into an athletic position, and literally do a two-armed punch. These reps are rapid. There isn't any slow down phase—punch, recoil, punch, recoil, punch. These shots should be delivered with the kind of violence that makes old linemen everywhere smile.

Do these for 3–4 sets of 3–6 reps pre-workout/practice/game.

Sandbag clean and push: If you’re serious about being able to coordinate the hips and hands so that you can make opponents crumble, you need the sandbag clean and push. This is very similar to the traditional clean and jerk but with several advantages:

  • Because the bag changes shape and moves around, it builds the type of upper and lower body strength that easily carries over to the football field.
  • You can literally push the sandbag up and out using the same arm motion you would when blocking. This isn't advisable with a barbell.
  • Because you start in a low position, triple extend, and end with releasing the sandbag, you teach the body to transfer power from the ground all the way through your arms and into your opposition.

Use this as a finisher at the end of your regular training session. You can go with a medium bag for high reps as a conditioning exercise or you can go with a heavier bag for a more traditional 3–4 X 3–5. Just make sure to concentrate on the speed of the movement and coordinating the hips and hands.

3. Build short-range speed

When I hear linemen or coaches discussing 40 times, I want to scream. The 40 is borderline useless for football, but it is absolute garbage for linemen. The wasted hours that go into training for this stupid test is mind boggling but to see my fellow linemen doing it is vomit inducing.

Linemen need to be fast in very short distances. How fast you are for 1–5 yards is crucial. If a defensive linemen is to penetrate to a yard deep, he essentially has about three yards to cover while staying low and beating an offensive lineman. I know...what about when he has to chase down a play backside? Again, nothing to do with 40 speed. He comes up field for those fast three  yards, usually scrapes laterally a big, and then takes off toward the ball carrier. We all see defensive linemen tackling backs on the far sidelines in every NFL game. It must be because of their 40s, right?

No, it’s because they beat their opponent, read the play, and took a great angle. A football player who knows how to take a good angle suddenly becomes much faster. God knows I’ve chased down backs who’d blow me away in a race, yet there I was making the tackle. Burst, read, angle, tackle. And offensive linemen have even less ground to cover. Even on a long pull, it’s the initial burst and then reading the play.

This kind of short burst speed is built with…any guesses? Yes, max strength. Working on the hamstrings and glutes hard and heavy will make you faster. But recently the football training world has lost their minds yet again. With the emphasis on the posterior chain, quad training has been thrown out the window in many programs.

To be fast for those first few yards and able to drive block someone into the cheap seats, you need strong quadriceps. The quads are largely responsible for quick burst speed and change of direction speed. You can accomplish this with plenty of heavy:

  • Front squats
  • Box front squats
  • Bulgarian squats
  • Prowler pushing
  • Backward sled/Prowler pulls

4. Build lateral strength

About 90 percent of the average football speed training programs concentrate on straight ahead linear speed. They train you like a track star. But as anyone who’s watched a converted track star try to become a great football player can tell you, track speed isn't football speed.

In football, especially on the line, we have to move laterally quite a bit. Reach blocks, fighting reach blocks, scraping down the line, pass setting, kick sliding, and ripping all have you moving sideways in a violently fast motion. Yet the vast majority of football training programs completely ignore this range of motion. How often do you see lateral movements in a football strength workout in a magazine or on the web?

If there are any, it’s usually limited to the 20-yard shuttle, usually with an emphasis on improving form in the drill rather than building the strength needed to actually become faster. If you can’t move sideways, you’re cooked. So you’d be wise to include these assistance exercises in your football strength program:

  • Side lunges
  • Lateral sled/Prowler pulls
  • Scissor walks with sled
  • Asterisks lunges
  • Lateral box jumps

Place one or two of these movements into your training sessions at least once per week. Movements like side lunges and asterisks lunges can cause big time soreness if you aren't used to doing them, so start slow and don’t add them before a big practice or game. Movements like lateral sled pulls can be done any time as they don't cause much next day soreness. Plus, you can get into a low position and shuffle or even kick slide.

All of these movements also have the added benefit of strengthening the knees laterally, which is especially useful when some big dummy gets thrown down and into the side of your leg.

5. Fix strength gaps with sandbags

We all know the linemen who can deadlift half the weight room yet can’t block the sun. I was once this guy. Before my freshman year of high school, I started lifting weights like a mad man. I got pretty damn strong for a 12-year old, but I couldn’t use one damn bit of that strength on the field. Then, in between freshman and sophomore year, I learned about sandbags and what we called at the time dinosaur training—lifting heavy, odd shaped objects. My skill level when through the roof.

This story plays itself out thousands of times every year. Take a strong guy or guy who is getting crazy strong, give him some specific sandbag exercises and some modified Strongman exercises, and watch him go from strong, stiff player into all-conference lineman.

Sandbags are excellent for linemen because often linemen suffer from extreme strength leaks. Simply, their hips, legs, or shoulders either aren’t strong enough in all the necessary angles or they aren’t strong enough in relation to the bigger, stronger muscles of the hamstrings, glutes, quads, and pecs.

Because sandbags force you into awkward angles and low positions and have you lifting a “weight” that continually moves and shifts, they're an excellent remedy for fixing these leaks. They can build the necessary strength in the smaller but all important stabilizer muscles so the big muscles can do their job.

Grab yourself one of Josh Henkin's ultimate sandbags and start lifting. Yes, you can fill a duffle bag with dirt, but if you train football players, you already know that the way they treat equipment isn't conducive to homemade pieces. All sandbag exercises are good for linemen, but concentrate on these five to start:

  • Sandbag shoulder and squat
  • Sandbag swing
  • Sandbag clean and push
  • Sandbag bear hug and duck walk
  • Sandbag shoulder and lateral lunge

You can use any of the sandbag exercises as assistance exercises on leg training days or as conditioning exercises or finishers. Do them for high reps or for multiple sets of low reps. Start off with one sandbag movement per week and then progress to 2–3.

6. Build extreme two-way conditioning

All linemen should be able to play both sides of the ball, even if they don’t have to. In high school, you never know when you’ll be called on to play on the other side without any rest. Smaller schools deal with this all the time. Small schools don’t have the luxury of having enough talented linemen to have separate starting offensive and defensive players.

To combat this, you need to get into extreme physical condition. And you shouldn't be far from this high level of conditioning at any time during the year. The off-season doesn't offer any excuse to get out of shape and turn into a fat ass.

Now, let’s just establish some things right up front:

  • You have no business jogging.
  • Jogging is what lazy coaches use for conditioning.
  • You don't jog on the football field so don't do it off the field.
  • You weigh more than half the cross-country team combined, so stop it already.

There are several ways to condition so that you're able to go both ways all year long:

  • Short sprints (keep them short—5–20 yards)
  • Prowler sprints (The Prowler owns all when it comes to conditioning for football, especially for linemen. You can use it a few different ways—load it with a moderate weight and sprint for 20 yards or more, go light and push it for time, or go heavy and drive block the monster for multiple bursts of 5–10 yards. Push it forward, pull it backward and sideways, add the new drive pad, and work your ass off. Keep the rest to a minimum and keep pushing hard with short, choppy steps.)
  • Position sprints (Based on the old Nebraska inspired “metabolic conditioning,” position sprints simply involve getting into your stance, taking the steps you would in a game, and then sprinting in the direction a play would go. For example, a defensive end would fire out of his stance, come up field, and then turn and sprint as if chasing a play down back side. Or an offensive lineman would take a reach step, stay low, and sprint 10 yards as if cutting off a linebacker. There are endless variations, so get creative. Group these short bursts into groups of ten. Sprint, get down, and sprint again. When you do all ten, rest for 60–90 seconds and go again. When you can do six sets with minimal hard breathing, you’ll be able to play both ways in your sleep.)

7. Build real toughness

This is a difficult point to express. Toughness is an absolute necessity for linemen. The game is simply a three-hour fight between you and your opponents. In almost every game, one team asserts itself and continues to pound away until the other side simply quits. When toughness wanes, so does strength, speed, power, and skill.

But how do you build toughness? Do you withhold water like the idiotic coaches of the 30s through the 70s did? Do you simply scream at the guys until they become so bored they tune you out? Of course not. Both of those methods have nothing to do with toughness.

Toughness is built in the weight room and on the field. It’s built every time you do that last set even when you feel like quitting. It’s built every time you finish your sprints all the way through the line even when no one is looking. It’s built when you go after a PR and fail but come back next time and smoke it. Simply put, it’s a long, slow evolution.

Many coaches feel that if a player isn’t naturally tough, he won’t be a good lineman. But this is simply untrue. Some people are born with that 'never quit' attitude but most need to be taught. And let’s not confuse toughness with having a mean streak. Developing the attitude of a sociopath when on the field is a subject worthy of a whole separate article. But let's just say that without toughness you can’t be a killer.

Always finish what you start—your reps, your sets, your sprints, and your homework. Learn to fail and come back with a vengeance. We all mess up. We all miss tackles and blocks, even NFL Hall of Famers. But they also know how to come back and make the next play. They don’t sit on the sidelines and pout or throw their helmet and curse. They figure out what they did wrong and come back and do it right. That’s the kind of tough linemen I want on my side.

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