Frank Wintrich relied on bodyweight training and general physical preparation to deliver a new stimulus to UCLA’s football players during the COVID-19 lock-out. Upon returning to the weight room, Wintrich went straight to the one thing the players missed the most while at home: building neck strength with the Iron Neck.
Frank Wintrich had a simple goal for UCLA’s football team during the COVID-19 shutdown: The Bruins would return to the field, whenever that may be, as the best conditioned team in the country. “Shame on us if we don’t.”
Simplicity runs through many of Wintrich’s goals and methods as UCLA’s director of football performance.
During the lock-out, Wintrich and his staff divided the players into three groups, depending on how much training gear they had at home. Some players didn’t have anything, so the performance staff sent them resistance bands. Others had a few med balls and kettlebells, while some had a barbell and bench on hand. Those simple pieces of equipment were enough for Wintrich to program an indefinite stretch of general physical preparation (GPP) for the players.
“The most important thing they can do is their field work,” Wintrich said early in the lock-out. “Their sprints, their jumps, their throws, conditioning work. You don’t need a ton of space to do a sprint or a very basic ready prep, like our movement dynamic work.
“If you are training for athletics, you should be sprinting and jumping right now. If you have access to a med ball or something that weighs 10-15 pounds that won’t get wrecked by you throwing it across the yard, you should be throwing it right now.
“A sprint doesn’t cost you anything. You don’t need any equipment to jump. And from a neurological activation standpoint, there is no higher bang for your buck than sprinting, and a very similar thing with jumping and throwing. We’ve had a lot of success at a lot of places for a lot of time doing those three things, and using the weight room work to support that.”
For many players, GPP training with bodyweight and resistance bands were a new stimulus, a break from lifting weights through high school and into college. “They start doing push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and variations they’ve never done before. What have we done? We’ve varied the stimulus and created a new training effect, and so the body is going to have a positive adaptation to it. It’s a different challenge to the body.”
The movements Wintrich built the lock-out program around were the same ones that every UCLA football player learns when he arrives at his first football camp.
“We assume a training age of zero with our kids who come in for the first time. We do a long-term bodyweight development program when they first get there,” Wintrich said.
“Our basic developmental program is bodyweight movements outside of the weight room, teaching our speed dynamics program, teaching how we do our ready prep and then increasing our work capacity. This game is very different from the high school game, and it’s changing dramatically year in and year out.”
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One limitation Wintrich encountered with his at-home GPP training was neck strength. For most people and most sports, neck strength would be too specific to be included in “general physical preparation.” But for football players working with Frank Wintrich, neck strength is as foundational as the squat, bench press, vertical jump and broad jump. And whereas those movements are “merely” performance-oriented, neck strength directly effects player safety and health.
“We had 26 concussions the year before we introduced the Iron Neck. We had to bring that down, and we did.”
Wintrich teaches new players how to build neck strength the same way he does the other movements: master one movement, and your reward for mastering that one is learning another one.
“Sometimes, particularly with young athletes, you can get into doing too much at once, and it looks cool, but does it reach the desired training effect? We see too much strength & conditioning entertainment on Instagram and wherever else. We have to get good at the basics and master the basics. We teach players how to be very deliberate and intentional in their training.”
Iron Neck provides a progressive framework from which Wintrich’s student-athletes can demonstrate control and mastery of each movement before incorporating the next.
“We use the six foundational training movements. Start with 1-2 sets early on, build up to four sets. With freshmen when we have four weeks before we go into camp. We have to be cautious and gradually progress the workload so we’re not overdoing it and setting them up for risk of injury. Deltoids, rhomboids, traps, upper chest… We want to strengthen the muscles that articulate the neck. For football players, this area presents the biggest risk.”
Once the players learn their way through the foundational movements of the Iron Neck and build their training volume, neck strength becomes part of the pre-training and pre-game routine.
Neck strength is most important for UCLA’s “bigs,” Wintrich’s nickname for the linemen. These are the players who have the most direct, regular and forceful impacts to the head and neck - the sort of impacts that can cause concussions acutely or raise susceptibility over time. While the backs, receivers and secondary are working on mobility pre-game, the bigs are on the Iron Neck.
“Working up to 4-5 sets in summer training gets players ready for fall camp. Then it’s 1 set a day for each of the six core movements in the season. It’s preventative and preparatory - no different than warming up. Everything we can do to strengthen that area, we do.”
Neck strength is an area where Wintrich was, for many years, unsatisfied with what you could accomplish using bands and manual resistance. With the Iron Neck, he had a way for the athletes to move in three dimensions and strengthen the entire musculature that supports the head.
Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 lockout, he wasn’t able to set up the Iron Neck outside. Even when the players were back on campus, until they were allowed in the weight room, they could not work on their neck strength.
The Bruins were finally able to get back in their weight room in mid-September. They had been locked out for about six months, doing their GPP work at home and then on UCLA’s training field. One of the first things Wintrich did upon getting into the weight room was setting up the Iron Neck and overcoming one of the few gaps in the summer at-home program.
“Our guys hadn’t done any of the neck work. It’s a foundational part of our return to lifting weights because we need to protect their necks and their brains.”
The pandemic will dominate talk of player health and safety this season, but concussions are always at the top of medical concerns. Wintrich will know soon enough if he and his players achieved their lock-out goal of being the best conditioned team in the country, and another year of decreasing concussions at UCLA will show the Bruins’ long-term success in using neck strength to boost player well-being.