“They Certainly Have Surpassed My Creativity”: Illini Strength Coach Impressed By Players In-Home Training

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Whether it’s trying to impress their strength coach, keeping themselves accountable with their own fitness or sheer boredom, Illinois football players are getting creative in their individual workouts.

Recent social media videos show Illinois center Doug Kramer pushing his truck in a parking lot, offensive tackle Alex Palczewski pulling his Jeep down his home street and wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe using water jugs for resistance while doing power squats. Illini strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez said Friday he couldn’t be happier his players are finding unique ways to stay in shape if or when training camps open for the 2020 football season.

“They certainly have surpassed my creativity, that’s for sure,” Hernandez said. “It’s really exciting to see how much it matters to these guys to find a way to continue to stay the course on everything that we have set coming up for our season.”

The Illinois football program finished its winter strength and conditioning program two weeks ago just days before the athletics department shut down all athletics activities, the university campus elected to quarantine its campus, send students home and switch to strictly online spring semester classes due to concerns over the COVID-19 world health epidemic. Hernandez did say Friday he was impressed with a majority of the results and numbers of the players that were healthy enough (not coming off surgeries or major injuries) to participate in the eight-week winter program.

“Good teams get better and bad teams just go home and these guys could have potentially had six to eight weeks off anything if they didn’t have bowl prep and that’s a long time,” Hernandez said. “That is starting back at ground zero. This year they had about four weeks off and that’s just about the right amount of time. Is it important to have some off time? Absolutely. That’s part of the training process. That’s how you maintain the health and safety of the athletes’ training and lifting careers. We were able to jump back in (after the four weeks off) and get incredible numbers.”

During what would be normally considered an off-season schedule for players to be separated from its strength and conditioning coaches, Hernandez and staff would normally hand out personalized workout plans for each player on the roster. The biggest difference during these in-home orders/recommendations due to the coronavirus epidemic is coming up with workout plans for each player bearing in mind what they have to work with in their specific home situations. Without access to hometown gyms, a local school weight room or modern-day workout equipment, players are using primitive means to stay in the shape they need. This is why you see Kramer and Palczewski physically pushing their automobiles and Imatorbhebhe using his garbage container for box jumps. Hernandez said in a media teleconference Friday morning that he’s using basic Strongman and CrossFit regimes.

“We’re kind of going back to some of the things we did maybe when we were younger and didn’t have the amount of equipment we have,” Hernandez said. “The things we’ve had to see and adapt to and kind of exploring different kinds of training methods that are out there right now.”

Monday was supposed to represent the beginning of spring practices for an Illini program coming off its first bowl bid since 2014 and now little to no hope exists of any organized spring workouts being possible due to the worldwide and national medical experts advising in favor of social distancing practices and against crowd gatherings of any kind. In the meantime, Hernandez is being forced to ask what players have to work with in their family homes in order to keep them properly prepared for a summer program that is starting to become a doubt at starting on time.

“Can you find a sledgehammer in the garage?” Hernandez said. “Can you get out and just skip the lines on the cement outside and do some footwork drills on that? At the end of the day, the biggest thing we want our guys to do is stay active. So if they can go for a jog, if they can find a field and they can just hit a few strides, and whatever it takes for them to continue working on their fitness goals. It doesn't necessarily always have to be about lifting. We would love for that to be, but we’ll take whatever we can get at this point.”