LB Shelton Quarles is one of dozens of Buccaneers dedicated to the team's offseason conditioning program
Step into Mark Asanovich's office.
Asanovich's workspace is, oh, a couple of hundred square feet, filled with thousands of dollars of equipment and a stereo system that's often on. Of course, there are usually dozens of sweating, stressed men sharing his space and using the equipment, so it's not exactly a palace.
Asanovich is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' strength and conditioning coach, the man responsible for helping Buccaneer players remain in peak physical condition. His office is the team's weight room with its usual complement of barbells and workout devices. Yes, he also has an office proper, with the standard computers and filing cabinets. Asanovich, in fact, is about as high-tech as an NFL strength coach comes, with an extensive database of conditioning efforts and results. And, with most of the league's players using the last couple of months as a rare period of rest, Asanovich has spent more time recently with his computer than his strength devices.
Now it's time to get back to the weights, and Asanovich is eager. He thinks the team's players will be, as well. On Monday, March 20, the Buccaneers' 16-week offseason strength and conditioning program begins, and a vast majority of the team is expected to participate. These workout sessions, while not mandatory, are always heavily attended, a fact that speaks to the depth of commitment at One Buccaneer Place.
"It's not just the program," said Asanovich, "it's our head man (Head Coach Tony Dungy) emphasizing the offseason program. So, yes, we've had very good offseason attendance. We averaged 53 guys (per week) last year, which is higher than the norm around the nation. The other thing that helps us is the climate. Up in Minnesota, we'd average about 20 players a week, because most of them lived down here. And it speaks to the character of our players."
Factoring in the Bucs' post-draft mini-camp and a week off to follow, the 16-week effort will bring the team right up to training camp, not including a league-imposed 10-day moratorium before camp begins. NFL training camps have gradually evolved from a period to get into shape after an offseason of inactivity to an intense mental and physical preparation for a rigorous season. An offseason conditioning program such as the one beginning in Tampa on Monday helps players enter camp already physically prepared for the stress. In addition, it helps guard against injury, increasingly crucial in an era in which it is difficult to maintain depth at every position.
Thus, individual weight-training workouts are not specialized, but full-body affairs that last approximately one hour. In between, the players also complete anaerobic conditioning sessions. "They play the game of football with their whole body, said Asanovich, "and when they walk onto the football field, every joint is exposed to injury, so we train from their neck all the way down to their toes.
"We emphasize every muscle to increase performance and prevent injury, but we really emphasize the neck to avoid catastrophic injury to that area."
Players can sign up for weight-training sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with Tuesdays and Thursdays reserved for conditioning work. There's nothing mysterious about the conditioning workouts, which are mostly good, old-fashioned running. "The only thing that we do that's unique in administering our anaerobic interval program is incorporate competition into it," said Asanovich. "Everything is set up in a competitive format so that we can get maximum effort out of it."
Weight sessions take a little more coordination, because nothing is left to chance. A player scheduled for a weight workout knows that he will have Asanovich or an assistant with him every step of the way. That requires extensive manpower, and Asanovich's staff for the 16-week program will be seven people strong. Asanovich is assisted full time by Les Ebert, and the pair also gets help from a part-time assistant, Matt Jennings, and four interns with college strength-training experience, Mike Berezowski, Brian Ferguson, Joe Shufelt and Garron Warwick.
"Everything they do is individually supervised," Asanovich explained. "When they come in, they're not just handed a workout card and told to go lift weights. They are individually taken through each one of their routines. Everything that they do is also documented. We do that to make sure we are progressive with their programs."
While strictly supervised, players do have a choice of workouts, as there are eight routines they can choose from ranging in intensity and volume. In fact, Asanovich has separated the sessions into four categories: high-volume, high-intensity, super-high intensity and, recently debuted, super-duper-high intensity. Higher intensity workouts emphasize rapidly increasing repetitions, allow much less recovery time and thus require a higher pain threshold. Those that opt for high-volume workouts don't get off easy, completing more repetitions overall but with increased recovery time.
"What they lack in intensity, they make up for with more work," said Asanovich. "There are some guys that can't tolerate as much pain, but they can do a lot. There are other guys that can tolerate high-intensity routines and go for shorter exercises. The majority of the team does super high intensity workouts."
Opting for the highest intensity workouts can decrease the number of sessions a player has to complete in a week, sometimes to as few as two or three. "A lot of people ask, is that enough," said Asanovich. "The biggest question I get as a strength coach is, 'How much do I have to do to be in the best shape possible.' See, you're asking the wrong question. What you have to ask yourself as a professional – and these professional athletes have limited time available – is, 'What's the least amount of work I have to do to be in the best shape possible.' If they're working at that level of intensity in addition to the work the coaches put them through on the field, they'll over-train (if they do more). So, it's just the perfect amount of work they need to get the maximum stimulation for growth and for strength."
Asanovich indicated that, in addition to excellent attendance, Buccaneer players have consistently given maximum effort over the past four years. While singling out one or two players as the hardest workers would be an injustice to the dozens of dedicated Bucs in the weight room, Asanovich did share the names of the offensive and defensive players bestowed with last year's 'Ironman' awards: RB Rabih Abdullah and LB Shelton Quarles. Those two Bucs attended the highest percentage of team-organized workouts during the 1999 offseason program.
As if on cue, Quarles strolled into the weight room on Friday just as Asanovich finished explaining his soon-to-begin program. Quarles checked out the sign-up board and loudly asked Asanovich if he was ready for Monday's kickoff. Both agreed they were more than ready.