New era at PSU begins in weight room

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Craig Fitzgerald didn't waste any time after being named Penn State's new director of strength and conditioning for football.

"We arrived on a Monday," Fitzgerald said. "The next morning, at 5:30 a.m., we started our first official team run, just to get 'em rolling."

Of all the changes that have taken place at Penn State the past three months, the most immediate and arguably most impactful occurred in the weight room. Fitzgerald and his staff began working with the players nearly two months before new head coach Bill O'Brien and his assistants got their turn on the practice field.

The strength program accelerated the culture shift and helped prepare players for an accelerated pace during practices. Fitzgerald redesigned the weight room, removing the machines Penn State used under the previous regime and replacing them with 24 stations that include only benches and adjustable dumbbells. Bigger equipment is on the way, scheduled to arrive around May 1, but the current setup reflects Fitzgerald's emphasis on free-weight work and Olympic-style lifting.

It's a minimalist design intended for maximum results.

"We believe it's the best way to train," said Fitzgerald, who held the same post at South Carolina from 2009-11. "We're not bashful about that. It's an athletic-based program. The movements are explosive and athletic by nature because you have to really use your whole body for it. You have to use flexibility to get in certain positions. You have to use balance to maintain positions. You have to use your whole body, your core strength, everything to stabilize your body and lift the weight.

"The other reason is you can see your gains. We max our guys out at the end of the winter and summer cycles. So we can see that it's the best approach."

Fitzgerald saw gains during his first eight-week session. But he also had to go back to square one with the players.

"We were teaching the barbell movements, teaching power cleans, squats, snatches," he said. "A lot of these guys come in with good technique from high school. A lot of [Penn State's players] haven't done these lifts in three, four years, maybe forever. So for us, it was a rare chance to teach guys the basic movements, be the first ones to teach them."

Fitzgerald knew about Penn State's previous strength program and its emphasis points, so the situation didn't concern or surprise him. He "couldn't wait" to get started.

One group that has seen immediate results is the offensive line, a unit that many felt had underachieved in recent years and had to replace four starters from 2011.

"In just two months, you could see increases in weight [lifted], increases in body weight and just the shape of some of the offensive linemen, more of a V-shape," center Matt Stankiewitch said. "And you could see more explosiveness in drills, our quickness and feet."

While the philosophical change in the strength program is garnering a lot attention, players also notice a new atmosphere in the weight room. Fitzgerald has words like "intensity" and "pride" and "family" displayed on columns and plays WWE highlights on the TVs during workouts.

"They're really high-velocity type guys," linebacker Gerald Hodges said. "Typical jacked-up weightlifting guys. It's totally different. Right now, we're going in with loud music, work out with our shirts off, doing a lot of power clean, a lot of Olympic style. [Before] we went in there with barely any music on, kind of like a dull theme, just go in there and getting it in, getting it over with.

"Now we're going in getting excited to work out."

The winter work has helped players for spring ball, particularly the conditioning element.

"They really conditioned me," tight end Garry Gilliam said," for what coach O'Brien expects."