Checking in with ... Mike Barwis, Part I

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
If you've read anything about Rich Rodriguez and his mission at Michigan, the name Mike Barwis should be familiar. As Rodriguez tries to transform the team on the field, Barwis is doing the same in the weight room.

Before coming to Ann Arbor, Barwis spent the last 14 years at West Virginia, the last five as the strength and conditioning coach for the Mountaineers football team coached by Rodriguez. His training programs became legendary at West Virginia, which thrived behind an offense that demanded athletes at every position. He's looking for similar success with the Wolverines, who have taken flack for their conditioning and toughness in recent years.

Oh, and Barwis is sort of intense. OK, he's insane. He'll fire up teams before games with four-letter words, and then launch into scientific language most Ph.D.'s couldn't understand (if you can figure out his explanation of his training philosophy, let me know). I chatted with Michigan's gravel-voiced director of strength and conditioning on Monday, and here's the first part of our discussion.

Are you surprised how popular you've become? Your name is out there quite a bit.

Mike Barwis: You know, it's not really anything I pay much attention to. I just do the best I can to help Coach Rodriguez. I'm just lucky to be a part of everything. Every day I just try to do the best I can in this life.

A lot people think this will be one of Rich's biggest challenges as a coach. For you, how much of a challenge has it been so far, working with a new group of players?

MB: They've given us an outstanding effort since we've arrived. It's a major transition or change in their training protocols, but they embraced it. They've been excited about it. They've taken a great attitude and for me, everything in life has its challenges. The thing is how we enter those challenges and what we're willing to pay to make things successful. We've really made an effort to make sure the kids understand what they're going through. The training's been rigorous, I'm not gonna lie. It's incredibly difficult. They've been put through a lot, but they've made tremendous adaptations and they've had the will to sustain. Guys have really pushed themselves.

You mention they had some pretty dramatic changes in what they're doing with you. What are some of those changes?

MB: We're very, very holistic in our approach. We're probably one of the most holistic, if not the most holistic program in the country. We do a lot of variances of training. Not to say that there was anything good or bad about the old training program -- I have the utmost respect for Mike Gittleson, he was a tremendous strength coach, he's a guy who was a pioneer in the field -- but what we do is very different. They've never done Olympic movements here. They never really squatted here. So basically in the winter, we came in and we had 100 freshmen. We had to teach them all the movements and work through the progressions. I do all the Olympic movements, we do squats. Some of the things we do that a lot of people don't do; we do a lot of balance and functional movements, working on kinesthetic awareness, or awareness of the body in three-dimensional space. We also work on functional flexibility progressions, flexibility through different active movement progressions and range of motions. We also do injury prevention and stabilization of the common joins that are injured in the game of football: neck, knee, ankle, shoulder, those types of things. We work on the abdominals, low back and the pelvis region, trying to strengthen that using instable apparatus so that the body learns to transfer power from the upper to lower extremities and vice-versa. We do plyometrics, explosive training and impulse training. Tuesdays and Thursdays, we do speed and agility progressions. For speed progressions, it's training our team like elite sprinters. I've worked with a lot of elite sprinters, and we run all our guys through speed cycles. The agility pertains specifically to football. It's a pretty heavy progression. Most of those modes were not things that were part of the old program because the old program had a different agenda or result they were looking for. Ours is more about athletics, explosiveness, speed, power, those types of things. On Mondays and Fridays, they go through conditioning, and conditioning is absolute hell with us. I'm not gonna lie. It's a rigorous, punishing conditioning. It's all based on bioenergetics and how the energy systems adapt to accommodate the game of football the way Rich Rodriguez plays it. Everything we do is designed to make better football players, not better weightlifters, not better generalized runners. Everything we do ends up with a scientific approach for results on the football field. And it comes down to one thing. I can give them all the tools and all the direction in the world, but if they're not willing to pay the price, we're not going to go anywhere. These guys have been willing to pay the price.

Of all those new things that you mentioned, for a guy that hasn't done them before, what aspect is the most challenging?

MB: It's funny. [The players] were joking around with me the other day and they said, 'Coach, is there anything we do that's not hard anymore?' And I started laughing and said, 'No. You can pretty much assume that it's all hard, fellas.' They're all going to be challenging because as things adapt, I continue to adapt with them so that their cycles continue to press them further and further. Each one of those phases is significantly challenging. Once you've developed to a certain point, then we adapt that aspect so that there's always going to be a challenge for the athlete. They get through one thing and they think, 'Well, that doesn't look that hard,' and soon they think it's the hardest thing on earth. We move to the next exercise and they say, 'Well, this is the hardest thing.' I say, 'Well, hell, that was the hardest thing.' They say, '[Shoot], they're all hard.' That's a good thing. It's difficult to adapt to things we've never done before, however, after we get into training, the idea is to eliminate all the weaknesses we have and develop the greatest performance. These kids have been able to elicit some tremendous results out of themselves.