Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature

New strength center a marriage of science, sweat

Strength and conditioning room

DU has completed work on a new strength and conditioning facility.

Tucked under the seats of DU’s new soccer stadium is the University’s not-so-secret weapon in the battle to be competitive in Division I sports.

That weapon is a brightly lit, trapezoid-shape tunnel, its ceiling contouring the soccer rows above it, then rising to meet the Ritchie Center’s west wall. Banks of weight machines and racks of dumbbells hug the tunnel’s perimeter. A 65-yard tongue of green AstroTurf stretches down the middle of the floor like a football grid painted on the center of a highway.

The ceiling is covered with a spray of rough, sound-absorbing foam, the floors are rubber and mirrors on side walls help give heft to the narrow space. Wall-mounted speakers blare everything from hip-hop to country-western twang, depending on which student’s iPod made it into the docking station.

The tunnel, which can accommodate up to 120 athletes at once, has no formal name yet, pending ceremonies this spring. For now, it’s something between the University of Denver Strength and Conditioning Center and Mike Sanders’ House of Pain and Gain.

Either way it’s 12,000 square feet of workout space and $300,000 worth of state-of-the-art equipment for making varsity athletes better and DU recruiting more effective.

“We take the bare roots of what an athlete is and we make those bare roots stronger,” says Sanders, head strength and conditioning coach. “We put a lot of thought, sweat and tears into getting this room user-friendly so kids will want to come in and work.”

Accomplishing that requires Sanders to be part scientist and part exercise expert. He, two assistants and three interns consult with coaches and study all 17 varsity sports. They painstakingly tailor programs for about 300 student athletes, then test skills, teach technique, inspire effort, monitor results, solve problems, dry tears and kick butt.

“I don’t get angry very often, but when I do, the kids know it,” Sanders says. “I want them to want to work hard for me. But also to know that I’m here for them, to see them succeed.”

At first blush, the new strength center seems just another metal-clanging home to gym-rats in sweat-stained workout gear hefting barbells til they bend. But that impression would be wrong. It’s actually more program than place to sweat. Sanders, for example, spends a lot of time teaching athletes the proper way to run. And stop. And turn. You might think accomplished athletes would know that. They don’t.

Science says if you can jump high, you can run fast, Sanders says. So athletes work on vertical leaps to improve their sprints. Who knew?

Nearly all DU sports involve movement, so Sanders modifies strength exercises so they’re done while standing.

“A hockey player is different from a gymnast who’s different from a basketball player. So we look at the science to tell us what these athletes need and how to use the right type of stress to get the outcomes they need,” Sanders says. “That’s where the art and science behind strength and conditioning comes in.”

In other words, a pushup isn’t just a pushup. Who knew?

Sanders does, which is why so many DU coaches rely on his expertise about how to train, when to train and when to rest. And it’s why the coaches usually back him up when he bumps into “kids who don’t want to be here.”

As it turns out, turning slackers around usually takes more education than discipline, Sanders emphasizes, especially since he’s teaching technique they’ll use long after their playing days at DU are over.

“We have them more than some of their own coaches before all is said and done because we have them all year round. We spend hours teaching these kids the very basics. Then more difficult things. And it’s a four-year process. They never stop.”

Most athletes buy into the program, in part because they train with their team and peer pressure helps. But so does the simple wisdom of what they’re doing and why, which often is what Sanders calls “pre-hab,” a kind of preventive exercise.

“Hockey teams have a heckuva time with shoulders because they’re always getting crushed up against the boards, and with lower backs because they’re tripods, their lower backs are always on stretch,” Sanders says. “We come up with exercises to strengthen those areas so they won’t have issues down the road.”

Same with volleyball, which can produce rotator cuff injuries to shoulders if Sanders isn’t able to make players strengthen that area.

That degree of specificity can make for a dizzying variety of exercises, each aimed at a specific result for a specific sport. Another reason why the new strength and conditioning center isn’t just a roomful of weights but a space for carefully crafted, sport-specific, individual training programs.

Or maybe Mike Sanders’ House of Pain and Gain.

“I can have kids run for 20 minutes straight. I can have them do a 30-second sprint. I can have them bring a barbell out and do a clean-and-jerk. It’s all based on what the science is showing us.”

And what Sanders and his team can accomplish. So far, he couldn’t be happier with the strength center, which is about four times bigger than the training facility they used to have.

Nor could University Architect Mark Rodgers be happier. He listened carefully to what athletics said they needed, then worked hard to include it in the building. The collaboration paid off.

“Unlike the Coors Fitness Center, which is about the individual doing their thing, this is about being a team, part of a group. Working together and working in sequence, and if I’m injured, I can still be with my team.

“It’s worked out incredibly well.”

Ed. note: After this story was written, Mike Sanders left the University of Denver to accept a position with the United States Navy. Michael Bridges is now the head strength and conditioning coach at DU.



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