Penn State Football

Penn State football: Nittany Lions making considerable gains in offseason strength and conditioning program

Second year player Curtis Cothran competes in the bench press during the 12th annual Uplifting Athletes Lift for Life on Saturday. Numerous Penn State football players have been seeing an increase in weight room production since February.
Second year player Curtis Cothran competes in the bench press during the 12th annual Uplifting Athletes Lift for Life on Saturday. Numerous Penn State football players have been seeing an increase in weight room production since February. CDT photo

Dwight Galt uses a straight-forward method to evaluate Penn State players’ efforts in the team’s sprawling weight room.

It’s a pass or fail grading system. More specifically, Penn State’s director of performance enhancement uses a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ eye test.

“When we’re done (lifting) every night at 6:30 or 7 o’clock, it’s either yes, that’s what Penn State needed to win or no it wasn’t,” Galt said. “The good thing about this summer is there’s been an awful lot of Yeses. Almost every day.”

Since Galt arrived as part of James Franklin’s staff, he’s seen Penn State players make strides transitioning from former strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald’s system. Galt, who was a mentor to the younger Fitzgerald, utilizes a similar program with free weights and exercises focused on dynamic movements.

Speed and agility are key.

“It’s all about movement,” Galt said. “So we push that.”

And the Nittany Lions have been pushing more and more weight around. In just six months, Galt has supervised as players have raised their averages in nearly all of the most critical exercises. With four weeks remaining in the summer program, players are turning in impressive numbers and the results are showing.

Galt and his staff tested players last week and to his delight, 39 players reached the 300-pound threshold in the power cleans after only 26 players reached the level in February. Meanwhile, 22 players are approaching the 300-pound mark, Galt said.

Bench press and squat averages are up too. On average, Galt said, players are squatting 21 pounds more and benching 13 pounds more than what they were able to during February’s workouts. The changes in players’ bodies are noticeable, especially among the Nittany Lions, who have changed positions and players who are in their second year in a college strength and conditioning program.

Of second-year players, 20 have packed on considerable muscle gains since last season ended. Twenty of them have gotten bigger and have added on average 91/2 pounds since last season ended. Overall, 53 players have shown considerable muscle mass increases from last season.

“It’s been a pretty good six months. Let’s just put it that way,” Galt said. “Obviously, I inherited a pretty good product, which is a blessing. And we just try to add onto that. But we’ve got some excellent, excellent strength gains.”

Despite the differences in their personalities — Fitzgerald’s fiery demeanor lent itself to an always intense aura in the weight room while Galt is described by players as more subdued — Galt’s program hasn’t been easier on them by any means.

“D’s a little older than Fitz and he has a more laid back mentality,” running back Akeel Lynch said. “He does work us hard though, and I love him for that.”

Summer lifting sessions have been evenly paced with players taking the lead on organizing position-based workouts in between lift days. Under Galt’s tutelage, players are in the weight room on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. They lift for about an hour with an hour of running afterward. Wednesday’s are set aside for position-specific workouts. Skill position players take part in 7-on-7 passing drills while linemen work one-on-one or with tackling dummies.

Friday mornings are all about legs, speed and conditioning as players report to the Lasch Building for 6 a.m. running sessions.

“Leg strength is the foundation of all your movement,” Galt said. “I’m a huge speed, agility, conditioning guy so if I want to maximize it I’ve got to get those legs strong.”

In addition, Galt has sought to harden players in certain areas in order to make them more durable. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been a primary focus.

Hackenberg reported to training camp last season as an 18-year-old true freshmen not lacking for size. He was listed at a healthy 220 pounds and has added 15 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame with most of his gains taking place during winter workouts.

He was sacked 21 times last season and held up well for the most part. Hackenberg had to exit the Ohio State game after taking a beating that resulted in soreness in his throwing shoulder. Senior guard Miles Dieffenbach is currently rehabbing a knee injury and it is not known if he will be able to play when the season begins. Dieffenbach’s absense leaves junior tackle Donovan Smith as the lone returning starter along the offensive line that protected Hackenberg last season.

“I want him to be able to take a hit,” Galt said. “Not that it’s going to happen but I’m trying to make him as durable as possible in the shoulder region, elbow region, wrist region. So we do a lot of stuff with shoulder strength and rotator cuff and things like that to make sure he stays as bulletproof as possible.”

Improving his durability isn’t a new strategy for Hackenberg. Fitzgerald did the same thing with different medicine ball exercises geared toward strengthening all of the quarterback’s shoulder joints.

As a result, Hackenberg said he feels like his arm strength has improved considerably.

“It’s just natural progression,” Hackenberg said.

Althought the true results of the offseason program will be measured on football fields, Galt in the meantime will continue building on Penn State’s offseason progress.

"And now we go on for four (more weeks) and bring the ship on home,” Galt said.