CHAMPAIGN — Lou Hernandez has had to adjust plenty about his summer workout plan for the Illinois football team in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Protocol requires smaller groups — just nine athletes and a coach. Workout times are spaced far enough apart that equipment can be cleaned between groups. And only the use of Illinois’ old workout space at Memorial Stadium as a second facility along with the Smith Center has kept Hernandez from having to run group after group from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m.
Social distancing is the norm in the Illini weight rooms. A sparsely-filled weight room provides a remarkably different atmosphere than normal.
What hasn’t changed, though, are Hernandez’s expectations. Those remain high from the Illinois strength and conditioning coach.
“Our guys know there’s a standard when they step in the room when they see that, ‘Get your mind right’ sign,” Hernandez said. “They’re going to have to flip a switch and pick up that intensity the minute they hit that room.
“If they don’t match their expectations or don’t match my expectations, then we’re going to do a few things to motivate them to make sure that they start to get their energy level up to an acceptable standard.”
The acts of motivation are simply different. Hernandez wouldn’t have shied away from a bone crushing hug after a successful lift before mid-March. High fives would fly. Now, physical contact of any sort is restricted.
“The best we can do is maybe give them the elbow bump,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez and his strength and conditioning staff also have to wear face masks when they’re working with their group of nine players. Communication is different. The strength coaches also have to maintain a measure of physical separation, too.
“We’re normally right in it with them feeling their sweat,” Hernandez said. “It’s dripping on us. That’s how close we are to these guys on a normal day. To help encourage and push these guys to be the best they can be, it is challenging because your face is behind a mask and you’ve got to stand a few feet away. Not that that’s what we want to do, but that’s what we have to do in order to keep everyone safe.”
Hernandez is all about energy in the weight room. Smaller groups — nine athletes compared to a regular group that might total 40-plus — make creating that energy more difficult. That high-energy atmosphere is something the Illini simply can’t duplicate with nine athletes and one coach at a time.
“We do everything we can as a staff to keep everything motivated, but I don’t want my strength coaches to come out and try to pretend to be something that they’re not,” Hernandez said. “I want our guys to be driven internally. That’s what they have to do on the football field. Yes, it helps when you’ve got fans. This year we may not have fans. We have no idea. I want those guys who are self-motivated and driven from within.
“The guys that are coming in right now are doing a great job. I think they’re just so excited to be back and have a sense of normalcy and be back in their support system and be back getting themselves prepared for what we’re all hoping is going to be a season coming our way. That excitement right now is driving this room and our players. These guys are ready to go.”
Some social distancing in a weight room, though, just isn’t safe. Hernandez has modified some of his weightlifting workouts to limit the need for spotters, but some lifts, like bench press and squat, necessitate a watchful eye. Especially when a guy like Illinois offensive lineman Kendrick Green regularly puts up 600-plus pounds when he squats. Not having a spotter on hand would be dangerous.
That’s something Hernandez said he addressed before any athletes arrived back on campus earlier this month.
“Can somebody drop a bar? Absolutely,” Hernandez said. “You just don’t want to drop a bar over their face or have them go unconscious or it rolls down to their throat and there’s nobody there to keep them from suffocating. We want somebody around and set and ready to go.
“Is somebody actually right on top of the player? They aren’t at this moment in time, but they are within striking distance if anything appears like there could be an issue. That was a very big concern for us when it came down to the overall safety of the athlete. Yes, we all understand social distancing, but so many things can go wrong in a weight room even when you’re doing things right. We do want a spotter in position to help save a life versus having something that would be very tragic.”
Before the Illinois players even got back in the weight room, though, Hernandez ran them though a conditioning test Illinois soccer coach Janet Rayfield has long used. The beep test helps measure heart rate and VO2 max — the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise.
Hernandez used the beep test, which is basically successive timed 21-meter sprints with the period between sprints shrinking, as a base line for the Illini’s level of conditioning. The forced split for the team the past three-plus months put players at different levels of readiness.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had a few guys who have struggled with that,” Hernandez said. “They’re going to continue to work with our medical staff until they can get to a better conditioning level. … It’s a very solid test, and Janet has been using that for years. We felt like this year we needed to do something different. It’s easy for me to say, ‘Hey, let’s go run 10 100s.’ I would probably do that if it were a normal time break that our guys would have had in the summer to return.”