At the end of an hour-long weightlifting session on a Friday morning in late April, Florida basketball strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene told the Gators he had a surprise waiting outside.
"The first time we did the tire flips, my legs were wobbly, my butt was on my fire and I was gasping for air," said Patric Young, Florida's chiseled 6-foot-9, 250-pound center. "I was like, 'Oh my goodness, I don't want to do this again.'"
If the Gators thought the tire flips were tough, the strongman-style workouts only got more brutal from there. Each Friday from mid-April until August, Florida players would finish their weightlifting, walk outside and find Greene waiting with a sadistic new form of strength training torture.
Sometimes they pushed a sled loaded with weight up and down the street or did sprints carrying a 110-pound heavy bag over their shoulders. Other times they pushed a three-ton Ford pickup truck uphill for 75 yards or used a rope to pull a car hand-over-hand 100 yards up an incline. Worst of all was when Greene would combine four or five of these disciplines into one workout to create what he called a strongman medley.
"I swear he just made up some of the stuff on the spot," senior forward Erik Murphy joked. "It was a little unorthodox, but it was fun too. You weren't so much training for basketball as pushing yourself beyond what you thought you could do."
Strongman-style workouts are unusual training for basketball, but Greene believes they were perfect for preparing the Gators for coach Billy Donovan's relentless, up-tempo system.
They were quick, high-intensity workouts that required the same bursts of explosiveness as basketball does. They burnt fat and built strength and endurance without putting players at risk of stress fractures or other overuse injuries the way long-distance running would. And they instilled confidence among the Gators that they could achieve goals that once seemed impossible.
The idea of incorporating stuff like tire flips and truck pushes came from strength coach Charles Poliquin, Greene's mentor and a longtime proponent of strongman training for everyone from athletes to those in law enforcement. Greene had dabbled with strongman workouts at previous stops at Clemson and Stanford, but this offseason was the first time he had players do it regularly once a week.
"When you get guys doing this crazy stuff they don't think they can do, it gives them some sort of mental toughness," Greene said. "At the end of the day, they're face-down on the ground and some may be vomiting and wondering what just happened to them, but they do have a sense of accomplishment."
Selling some coaches on an unconventional training technique might have been difficult for Greene, but Donovan embraced it from the start.
Donovan himself is a fitness fanatic who not only works out daily at age 47 but also asks Greene to "bury" him during each session. Furthermore, Donovan is a proponent of strenuous workouts that force players out of their comfort zone since that's what he experienced playing for Rick Pitino at Providence in the 1980s.
If Donovan happened to glance out his window on a Friday morning this summer while the Gators were working with Greene, he no doubt liked what he saw.
Attendance was technically voluntary since NCAA rules prohibit schools from holding mandatory offseason workouts, yet no Florida player skipped even one session. The Gators worked hard enough that it was common to see guys puking into trash cans or lying exhausted on the asphalt at the end of the session.
"Usually we couldn't even move afterward," Murphy said. "Each week there was a 6 a.m. group, a 7 a.m. group and an 8 a.m. group. The 7 a.m. group would come in after their workout and the 6:00 group would still all be laying on the locker room floor not moving."
Between their regular strength and conditioning work and the strongman training, the Gators made a lot of progress, according to Greene.
Spindly 175-pound guard Scottie Wilbekin could run for days without getting tired, but now the junior has added muscle that will enable him to better absorb contact going to the rim. Young was already built like a Greek statue, but he is gradually adding endurance that will allow him to go longer than three-minute bursts without getting tired. And Murphy may have been the most impressive since he took first place in the team-wide competition by posting the fastest average time in the strongman medley.
Of course, not everyone outside the team appreciated Florida's unorthodox training method. Someone at a nearby dorm called the campus police to complain about the noise because the Gators were screaming for each other so loudly as they flipped tires one summer morning.
"We had eight guys out there yelling and puking at 6:30 in the morning, so the cops come up, lights flashing," Greene said. "The police officer said, 'We got a call about a disturbance, what's going on?' I said, 'Officer, we're training to win championships here. He got back in his car and left. The guys got a kick out of that.'"
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