Real World Testing for Football Players: It Isn't Just a Numbers Game

TAGS: football training, explosiveness, combine, sleds, prowler

The football combine test really makes me laugh. Not only is it ridiculous to presume that how many reps a player can bench 225 lbs for or how fast he runs around cones will predict how good of a player he will be, it’s also a huge exercise in wasted time and effort.

Players spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours each year preparing for combines at all levels. I even saw a combine style tryout held for a Pee-wee football team recently. I don’t blame the players at all. Nor do I fault the strength coaches who specialize in preparing them for the test. To the player, it can make or break a career, and the coach who prepares an athlete to excel on the test is doing the athlete a great service.

The problem lies with the football coaches who still believe this garbage has any merit. We’ve all see the guy who does a thousand reps on the bench but can’t block the sun. We’ve also seen the guy who absolutely stinks up the combine but just flat out owns people on the field. Why the discrepancy?

Well, first the test is flawed. Bench pressing is questionable as a test as it is let alone doing a rep test! I don’t know about you, but when I train a player, I want to get him as strong as possible. I’m concerned with how much weight he moves, not how many times he can bench 225 lbs. First, there are many methods to test well on the bench rep test. As someone who’s had to go through this multiple times, I can attest to the fact that there are many tips and tricks to crank out more reps and test better. I’ll leave those to the experts though.

Now the 40. Oh, the loathsome 40. Running forty yards in a straight line happens so rarely in a football game that it’s actually funny at this point. Sure, there are those big runs/catches that go the distance, but more likely the player will have had to run around or through another player to get into the open field. How many times have you seen a track star attempt to play football and just fail? Football is a game of speed after all, right? Speed kills and all that.

Wrong. Game speed kills. Linemen are tested in the 20-yard dash. Why? Honestly, anyone who’s played with the hogs knows they don’t often dash anywhere in a straight line. Now, they may have to take a three- to five-yard run at a linebacker, or if they're pulling, they need speed to get out in the open. But is this ever in a straight line? No, because football is played in a chaotic fashion. Most players don’t have the luxury of running straight because there’s an extremely large individual lined up across from them who is trying to rip their face off. It can be quite hazardous!

I remember once seeing an NFL films documentary where they profiled the guys who do the evaluations at the combine. One segment really blew me away. One of the evaluators was in charge of measuring the hands of backs, receivers, and anyone who would potentially catch a ball. The theory was if the hand was a certain size, they’d be able to catch.

Now, I’m all for testing and tracking progress, but the size of a guy’s hands? You know what they say about a guy with big hands—he can sure catch a football! Honestly, here’s a good test for catching ability—throw them a ball! Watch film of them having balls thrown to them. Put them in front of a Juggs machine. Have a quarterback throw them a ball. It may seem crazy, but if the guy catches the ball most of the time, chances are he’ll catch it in a game.

Real world testing
So how does a coach or player track real progress? Obviously, in the weight room or on the track, it’s easy. More weight, more reps, and faster times. But measuring on the field progress can be tricky. Does 50 lbs on your squat get you to the hole faster? Or was it effort that could have been placed in a more productive area?

There are several methods for measuring progress. Some are fairly straightforward and others might seem a little out there. Remember though, if everyone is doing the same thing, why not try something different? Anything that gives you an edge should be explored.

Please note that these are tests you would perform throughout the year. These aren't combine style testing methods. My suggestion for football coaches who are into the combine style is to drop it completely and have the guys actually play football. It’s amazing how much you can learn about an athlete’s skills by actually playing the game!

Key indicators
Key indicators are a small group (2–4) of exercises that you use to gauge progress in the weight room. If you tweak the system a bit, you can use key indicators to track football progress as well. See when people set off on a 12- or 16-week lifting cycle, they often lose sight of where they’re going by week three. I don’t recommend planning cycles out that far other than a general
outline. But whether or not you plan for a week at a time or 16 weeks, you need to use key indicators to track progress.

I’m a huge believer in changing exercises often, even as often as once a week for advanced athletes. However, unless you're using movements to test where you are, you can lose sight of progress. Unscrupulous trainers have done this to their personal training clients for years.

1. Pull-ups/chin-ups
Studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between the ability to do chin-ups and sprinting speed. It seems contradictory because chin-ups are a body weight upper body exercise, but it probably has to do with the improvement in relative strength.

When you improve your relative strength, even in the upper body, there seems to be a positive effect on lower body relative strength as well. Remember, sprinting is essentially a dynamic body weight exercise. If you don’t have good relative strength, you won't be able to sprint effectively. The same goes for agility. Straight ahead speed is much less important than side-to-side speed, multidirectional explosiveness/speed, and “closing” speed. The bottom line is that if you aren’t strong enough to propel your body through space, you won't be a very good football player.

I realize that many big guys will grumble about chin-ups. Get over it. I used to be like that when I was in high school. Now I’m 253 lbs and do chin-ups regularly. Use a band as an assistance aid at first if you need to. Just get them done. If you can only do one or two at first, fine. Keep plugging along. There are a million and one resources on how to improve your chin-ups so I won’t go into detail. Pavel’s stuff is pretty good, so you might want to check his stuff out. Chin-ups and pull-ups can be a part of your regular program, but test every six weeks or so.

2. Deadlifts
Again, this may seem a bit contradictory to what was said earlier about the limitations of weight room performance on tracking football success, but deadlifts are an exception. Squats are great. The bench is fine, but nothing seems to measure pure leg power and strength like a deadlift.

Actually, I’ve found that snatch grip deadlifts are an even better indicator. Coming from a lower position due to the width of the grip really puts athletes in the athletic position and requires them to be explosive off the floor and keep the power going through the entire lift.

It’s been pretty well agreed upon that training the posterior chain (the muscles on the back of your body, especially the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back) will lead to success on the athletic field. Well, the snatch deadlift is an excellent exercise to train these muscles. Any deadlift variation will work. Personally, I test myself and my athletes on the snatch deadlift.

Test every 4–6 weeks. I can guarantee that improvements in the snatch deadlift (and other variations) will lead to improvements on the field.

3. Overhead medicine ball throw
This can be done with a shot put, kettlebell, medicine ball, or sandbag. Charles Poliquin once called this the best indicator of athleticism in young athletes. It will measure full body explosiveness and the ability to coordinate the transfer of power from the lower body to the upper body. If there’s a “leak,” power will be lost.

Think of the job of an offensive lineman. He’s coming out of a quarter squat, popping the hips, and delivering a blow with his hands. If this same guy has strong legs but leaks power in his mid-section, the shot he delivers with his hands will be much less than it could be. This happens all the time and usually players will bench press more in the hopes that it will improve their punching ability. However, this misses the point. You can bench press the weight room, but if you lose the power in your hips, you’re done.

Measure the throw in terms of distance ,but it's also a good idea to videotape this test. We all know that the tape doesn’t lie and this isn't any different. Weak abs causing the loss of power? It’ll show up on the tape. Pulling to one side because of a tight area on the body? The tape will catch it. This exercise will help you identify weaknesses and/or form/structural

You can use a variety of implements and weights. Bigger guys can use up to a 25-lb weight. Try out different methods and see which works best for you. Obviously, you need to keep the testing consistent. If you test with a 20 one day and a 25 a few weeks later, the results will be way off.

Some key points to look for on film are:

  • Pulling to one side or another
  • Inability to bend at the knee and hip (in the athletic position)
  • “Pauses” or breaks in the transfer from the bottom to the top (any breaks in this “chain” will indicate a leak of power, which will really hamper performance on the field)

Test every 4–6 weeks.

4. Simulated game conditioning
This is the one method that gets me some rather comical stares, but it gets results. There are a few ways to use simulated game conditioning as a performance indicator. First, you will need your trusty old video camera. Second, understand that this is for the most part a small group test.

Use metabolic conditioning as your platform. Metabolic conditioning comes in many names. I was first exposed to it about ten years ago when preparing for my first college football camp. The system was supposedly developed at the University of Nebraska (at the time, it was the football version of having a “secret” Russian method of training).

Basically, instead of just running a bunch of mindless “wind sprints,” run in a position specific way. For example, a wide receiver would run a series of ten sprints, but instead of the loathsome 40 yard, he would vary the length and run them like a pass pattern.

1. 20-yard out
2. 10-yard stop
3. 5-yard slant
4. 30-yard post
5. 40-yard “fly”
6. 20-yard stop
7. 15-yard hitch
8. 40-yard fly
9. 10-yard in
10. 12-yard hitch

This is repeated for usually five sets with two minutes of rest between sets. On each pattern, a quarterback would throw the said receiver the ball. See—conditioning and game skills all in one! This method provides the obvious benefit of allowing wide receivers to catch a ball while running and it gives the quarterback some throwing practice. It’s also good conditioning, but with a twist or two, we can make this an excellent testing method.

First, involve more players. Use defensive backs to cover your wide receivers. If possible, use two wide receivers and two corners. Now start the camera. When watching the video, get out a stopwatch. Measure to the best of your ability how long it takes the corner to break on the ball. How much time is lost on the wide receiver's pivot? How fast is everyone coming off the ball? How about your quarterback's release time? Some of this might be hard to gauge with a stopwatch, so some good old-fashioned coaching is in order. Watch carefully. You will notice differences from session to session.

The throwing method can be used with receivers, tight ends, corners, safeties, quarterbacks, linebackers, and running backs (use handoffs as well; drill the importance of getting a good handoff, staying low, and exploding; use a gauntlet if you want or chutes or any other tool you have available).

OL, but what about the linemen? It’s actually even easier to measure progress here. You can have them fire into pads, run the chutes, or fire out and then do their short sprints. Make sure they're using the proper steps! Build good habits with footwork early and your linemen will be

Time how long of a lag there is between the snap and their fire out. Are they staying low? Do you notice flexibility or strength issues (high school coaches, pay attention to their hips and hamstrings, as these areas are chronically tight and out of shape, especially in your younger guys)? This test is a great indicator of a lineman’s technique, stamina, and explosiveness. It does not address the issue of power, but there’s a test for that coming up as well.

Are there form problems on set five when they're getting tired? Again, you will notice improvements from session to session. Defensive linemen can do this as well. Have them use cones/bags if necessary. Explosion, pass moves, hands move, and wasted steps can all be measured on film. Pay attention and you’ll be able to coach these problems and turn them into

If you want to make this less boring for the big men, throw them the ball on their last sprint of each set. Make them feel like there’s actually a chance you’ll send their big butt into the end zone on a tackle eligible. It’ll never happen, but we can all dream.

5. Timed Prowler/sled sprints
This is so simple, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done. Why not load up a Prowler, sled, or blocking sled and “sprint” with it? Have a lineman line up in front of the high bars on the Prowler and sprint/push it. He can deliver a punch if you like or he can fit and then drive. Keep the distance short—5–10 yards. The load should be medium to heavy. This is all about power. If he lets his hips rise for even a second, the sled will slow. If he doesn’t keep his feet moving, the sled will slow.

Obviously, over such a relatively short distance, technique is important…just as it is when blocking an opponent! Power is key…just like when blocking an actual opponent. I’ve tried timing sprints with a sled or Prowler while moving laterally, but there just isn't any real way to mimic the lateral pattern one would run on the field. However, you should definitely train on the sled in multiple directions. If there’s one aspect of speed that is totally ignored, it’s side-to-side speed. Don’t make that mistake.

6. Shuttles

OK, I’m going to buckle a bit here. The 10-yard professional shuttle is a decent test. It’s far from perfect, but it’s still good for measuring improvements in side-to-side speed. Again, technique improvements can improve times, which can mask actual football skill improvements, but once form is good, it’ll all come down to strength and power.

There you have it—six surefire ways to test your players' progress on the field and in the weight room. Remember, no matter how good the test, nothing will ever replace actually playing the game to measure skills. Use the tests as a guide to measure progress, but don’t base a player’s whole worth on drills.

Final note on the combines
I realize that no matter how hard smart coaches rail against the combine style of testing, it will probably never go away. If you're in high school, college, or the professional leagues, chances are you will be tested combine style at some point. My advice is to prepare specifically for the test. Check out Joe DeFranco’s site and his combine training DVD. Joe is the best in the business when it comes to preparing for the combines, so it would be a very wise investment to look into his services.

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