FNF Coaches Report
Brian Johnson agreed to become the Cal head football athletic performance coach in January. Johnson has spent the previous 11 seasons on strength and conditioning staffs at FBS schools and in the NFL. Most recently, he served as director of strength and conditioning at Arizona (2018-20), where he heavily implemented sports science while also working as a liaison between the football program and the Center for Innovation in Brain Science.
Johnson, a former NFL player, recently joined the FNF Coaches Podcast to share his strength training philosophy.
Here is an excerpt of the interview.
How has your strength and conditioning philosophy evolved since your playing days — both at LSU and in the NFL?
“It’s definitely evolved. There is less of an emphasis on longer distance running like 110s, full gassers and half gassers. People are finding ways to build aerobic fitness that doesn’t have to be running. There are so many other ways to do it without putting them on their feet.
“We spend more time looking at the central nervous system so we can get the most out of high load days and reduce injuries. We look at soft tissue injuries and manipulate high load days to reduce those injuries.
“The big change is that there is more information out there. It’s not a matter of saying the old coaches were doing it wrong. They were doing the best they could with the information they had. Now? There’s new information.”
Is there a shift to more training outside of the weight room?
“Yes, there’s more anaerobic training on the field with sprinting, accelerating and decelerating. That trains forces that we can’t get to in the weight room. So, there’s more emphasis on sprint work. Some coaches work on sprinting techniques. A lot of coaches want the efforts and the exposure of tissue to high velocity. So, now the weight room complements the running. It used to be the other way around, but we can only get so specific in the weight room.”
Do you customize programs for position groups?
“We customize it first for size groups. It’s more by skill than anything else — based on the demands of their roles. I’m not teaching them how to play the position; I’m regressing it down to the most fundamental, basic movements. The key is being explosive out of a stance, and making sure they’re mobile and flexible enough to get in and out of a stance comfortably — but still as fast as possible. You have a lot of stuff going on at one time on the field, so we give them what they need once they strap up the pads and helmets.”
How do you break down the calendar year by strength and conditioning phases?
“After a Bowl game, we give them a couple of weeks of recovery. Then it’s a general prep phase. Everything is simple; we’re evaluating movement. We’ll give guys time to recover from overuse injuries. We regress it down to its simplest form.
“What do we want to get to? For me, I want them to catch a power clean and catch a snatch. So, it’s tissue prep. It’s prepping thoracic mobility. It’s getting low in those catches. It’s front squats and deadlifts. We make sure they have core stability. We build the posterior chain and get the hamstrings as strong as possible so that once they’re sprinting fast and lifting heavy in spring ball, they won’t have soft tissue injuries.
“After the spring, we really get big and strong because we’re working on output on the field. We get more fit and build the aerobic foundation. It’s about repeatability for these guys. Then, we go on a break and come back with another phase of output. We microdose aerobic work to build a foundation. At the end of the summer, we work on capacity and might even go through another power phase — depending on where we are as a team.”
And what’s your philosophy in-season?
“It’s all about getting ready for football. During training camp, I limit the soreness as much as I can. They’re getting hit hard, and that’s a completely different stimulus. Training camp is about maintaining. We might go concentric only and limit eccentric muscle contractions. That could be a trap bar deadlift; we’ll still go heavy but we’ll just have them drop it at the top. Eccentric lowering is the most taxing part on the muscle. They already get the eccentric piece on the field when they’re decelerating.
“That being said, in-season, we’re working for gains. We have to be strategic about what lifts. We probably won’t max out on power cleans or back squats. Maybe we’ll do deadlifts. It’s all about prepping the tissue for what you want out of it. At the end of the season, we don’t want to be watching guys get knocked off the ball in the fourth quarter. We like to get gains in-season.”
Johnson and his staff don’t have set testing days on the calendar. Instead, he tries to keep the players peaking at all times.
“I’m not huge on saying, ‘Circle this date for a one-rep max.’,” Johnson said. “I take the approach that if you stay ready, you never have to get ready.”
Johnson tests players using force plates, jump mats and GPS wearables to determine their readiness for exerting themselves in the weight room or on the field.
“If they’re feeling good and want to hit a PR after practice, they know they can come in and do that,” Johnson said. “We know we’re preparing them to play every Saturday. We don’t want them to be good for one day. For us to be successful, we need to be good 12 days. We need to peak all of those days.”
The two speed tests that Johnson prefers are 15- to 20-yard acceleration sprints and 30- to 40-yard measures of max velocity.
“In high school, those skill kids should probably be running track,” Johnson said. “At the high school level, they should be exposed to all kinds of stimulus. Soft tissue injuries happen when the body shuts down because it hasn’t been exposed to that level of exertion. Limit the time you spend pushing the athletes, and don’t just take pride in kids crawling off the field on the field day of practice.”