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Strength Coach Lew Caralla on the Hardest Workout He’s Ever Done

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As you well know, 2020 was a tough year for college football (and for just about everything else). With stadiums closed around the country and schedules thrown into disarray, the season will forever be marked by the pandemic’s disruption. But that didn’t stop one coach from staying connected with his team. Georgia Tech head football strength and conditioning coach Lew Caralla went viral last year for his creative solutions to closed weight rooms: Using everything from street curbs to his own kids, he developed innovative at-home workouts to help his players stay in shape.

In reality, though, his unorthodox pandemic workouts were totally in line with his unique approach to fitness. In previous coaching gigs and at Georgia Tech, Caralla has developed a reputation for building genuine bonds with his athletes—keeping conditioning interesting and even fun. From sending out daily inspirational messages to leading one of his themed Friday lifts, he runs the weight room a little differently than most. We recently caught up with him to learn more about his approach, and he even shared a couple of his famous at-home workouts (scroll down to see them).

Men’s Journal: How does your approach to fitness differ from other coaches and trainers? What sets you apart?

Lew Caralla: I learned under some great mentors that helped me create a vision of what I would want to be one day. When I had my chance to take over my first program, I did everything I dreamed of doing. And I’m still doing it.

I try to make it as exciting as possible for the players. I would never want the kids to come into the weight room and dread it. I always want them to look forward to coming back because I make it exciting for them. Whether that’s with a new competition every day, the teams they’re competing with, or the individual awards I try to hand out daily and weekly on our “hunger board.” There are so many incentives I try to include to make it more than just lifting weights. I think that’s a big separator for me.

Is your approach to fitness influenced by other coaches and trainers you’ve worked with? Was it a reaction to bad experiences you’ve had in the fitness world?

All of my mentors were really different, but they were similar in how disciplined and detail-oriented they were. I took a lot of different things from different people, but being creative is something I’ve developed on my own. I’ve really tried to separate myself from anything I’ve seen before. For example, every Friday is a themed lift, and I never saw that before. I interview every kid I’ve ever coached. I’ve never seen that before. I’ve tried to go above and beyond the examples I’ve taken from my mentors.

Lew Caralla dressed up in a green cowboy hat on a football field
Courtesy of Georgia Tech

What do your themed lifts look like?

In the off-season, every Friday is a themed lift. Every week is a different theme, and it always has a purpose—it’s not just pointless work. For example, the partner lift: It would be you, me, and another guy at one rack, and we have to get through these stages and challenges one at a time together. So, say we have 225 on the trap bar. Well, we have to get 225 reps together, so if I do 40 and you do 30, we’re at 70. And that’s just how we go until we get to the next event. We put a clock on the whole team, and you’ve got guys busting their butts to try to win together.

So, what does it teach? It teaches being a teammate. It teaches holding your own weight. It teaches so many things that are valuable in football. There are other themes like the momentum breaker lift, where they’ll be going through their normal workout, then I’ll blow the whistle and we’ll sprint outside and have to do up-downs and pushups, then run back in and regain our momentum. Because again, that’s football. You throw a pick after driving down the whole field—here we go, defense, you’re on the field.

You went viral last year for the creative workouts you developed to help your players stay fit at home. How did you come up with those?

I didn’t feel like I was going too far out of the box—except with my comfort zone with Twitter. I never thought I’d be wearing a backpack full of books with two water jugs and my son filming me on a playground to send to the world.

If you’re not going to have a lot of weight, you’ve got to do a lot of reps to get the same gains. So I just tried to think about what’s available to everyone, so nobody can make an excuse. I saw the street was good for pushups. I saw the playground was good for pullups. I saw if you had any kind of bench anywhere, you could put your foot up there and do lunges in place.

I just tried to have a good time with it. Coach Collins says I was like half the country’s strength coach during COVID. I could probably sell an e-book of quarantine workouts.

You’re also well-known for posting inspirational messages for your players on social media. How do you come up with those?

I started a hobby when I was an assistant at Michigan. If a player was getting punished for something he did, he had like 30 days straight of workouts at 6 a.m. with the strength staff. If I had a full week with a kid just staring at him pushing a plate, well, that was boring. So I started writing stuff down…key concepts everyone relates to, but I’d twist the phrases in a way that would hit differently. That was my hobby. I’d come up with my own quotes and try not to be the same as everyone else.

Beyond that, I read a lot. I listen to a ton of podcasts. I’m on Twitter, so I see stuff on there. But a lot of it comes from experiences in my early-morning workouts: I write notes on my phone when I think of anything. Writing has been a true hobby of mine that’s turned into those messages I share with my team.

How do you motivate your players to keep pushing in the gym and on the field? What are the keys to motivation?

I think the biggest fear any leader should have is becoming white noise. The players will just tune you out after a while if they don’t feel like you’re genuine. Being aware of that has helped me a lot as a coach.

Then it’s just being what you’re trying to preach. I was never doing any of this for a camera. I gave a message of the day since 2015 with no one ever knowing, but the kids know they can always walk in my office. I know that if something’s wrong with them, I’m pulling them into my office. I can read body language very well, because I know them. It takes time, but if you want to make a difference, that’s the only way.

Can you explain the “hunger board” you use?

There are three categories of hunger. There’s starving (best guys on the team), hungry (which is just average), and then there’s satisfied (the worst).

Every week in the off-season, the kids fall into one of those three categories. I meet with the strength staff every week and we go down the roster and talk about every guy. It’s all opinionated and there’s no concrete reason sometimes, but there’s a feel about a kid that you just know. If a guy stays late, if he does extra work all the time, if he’s there on optional Saturday, if he gets the most out of his guys every day, if you would miss him very much if he wasn’t there, he’s starving. If a guy is just going to do what’s required of him—he’s going to do well, he’s just not going to do much more—he’s hungry. And if a guy’s satisfied, then he’s showing up late or he doesn’t show signs of improvement.

You hold one-on-one interviews with every player that enters your program. What are you looking to learn?

The interviews are so helpful before we get going. It’s crazy how you can ask the simplest questions and get the deepest answers. You ask about the biggest obstacle they’ve overcome and that could be a half hour. You just don’t know. Some kids have more to say, some kids don’t, but either way, at the end of that interview, the goal is to make sure they know you’re there for them, regardless of what happens in their career or how much playing time they get. I don’t see that. I see effort. I see a person, because I have a son, and I know someone feels like that about them.

Lew Caralla spotting a player at the bench press
Courtesy of Georgia Tech

What are the biggest mistakes you see in the weight room?

I think a lot of coaches will sacrifice technique to get a number. They’ll post videos of a kid’s power clean—he got it, but his legs buckled in, his back was bent, he looked terrible, but they’re praising it. And that’s how kids get hurt forever.

So many times coaches just copy and paste programs they’ve done, and they won with it, so they have to do that. It doesn’t matter if a kid feels like hitting 85 percent today, he’s going to hit it because it’s on the card they wrote six weeks ago. You can’t do that. I think that’s where people get in trouble. They discount the feelings of the players, the vibe of the whole squad, and the game that just happened. You have to be careful about programming so far in advance.

What’s the toughest workout you’ve ever done?

At North Texas, where I was the head strength coach, they had this steep area at the back of the end zone called The Wing. Before I got there, if any kid was in trouble, they had to run The Wing once. They would always complain about that. On my 30th birthday, one of the kids challenged me to do it 30 times. I started laughing it off at first, then I’m like, “I’m going to do it.”

So at midnight on my birthday, I headed out to the stadium with some Pedialyte, some Bengay, and my Rocky Balboa soundtrack ready. I ran it in the middle of the night, just me, the stadium, and the moonlight. That was so hard. No one would have known if I finished it, either. No one would have really even cared, but I made a commitment to it, and I did it. It took three hours and 45 minutes. That’s how I started my thirties.

Lew Caralla’s At-Home Workout No. 1

Warmup: Jog for 7 minutes, then complete 100 situps, 100 Russian twists, and 100 crunches.

Directions: For the moves that require a backpack, use a pack that’s loaded to weigh 20 pounds. Some moves will require two backpacks. For moves that require a water jug, use a full one-gallon jug.

Lower Body

  1. Backpack Single-leg Lower 3 x 10 reps each leg: Wear the backpack on your back. Hold the down position for four seconds on each rep.
  2. Backpack Forward, Lateral, and Reverse Lunge 3 x 10 reps each leg: Wear the backpack on your back.
  3. Backpack Single-leg Romanian Deadlift 3 x 10 reps each leg: Wear the backpack on your back.
  4. Single-leg Glute Bridge 3 x 15 seconds each leg
  5. Calf Raise x 100 reps each leg

Upper Body

  1. Double Backpack Shrug 4 x 50 reps: Instead of dumbbells, hold two 20-pound backpacks by their top handles. Hold the shrug position for 2 seconds on each rep.
  2. Backpack Pushup 4 x 15 reps: Wear the backpack on your back.
  3. Pullup Iso Hold Ladder: Use a pullup bar if you have one or a local jungle gym if you don’t. Grip the pullup bar with hands shoulder-width apart. Pull yourself up so your chest touches the bar and hold for one second. Complete 10 sets of pullups, starting with 10 reps and decreasing by one rep each set all the way down to 1 rep on the tenth set.
  4. Water Jug 6-Way Shoulder Raise x 50 reps
  5. Water Jug Rear Deltoid Raise x 50 reps
  6. Backpack Curl x 100 reps: Hold two backpacks, one in each hand, by their top handles.
  7. Bench Dip x 100 reps: Place your hands on a bench or another raised edge to complete the dips.

Finisher: Complete as many pushups or pullups as you can in 5 minutes.

Lew Caralla’s At-Home Workout No. 2

Warmup: Jump rope for 5 minutes, then complete 100 situps, 50 supermans, and 100 crunches.

Directions: For the moves that require a backpack, use a pack that’s loaded up to weigh 20 pounds.

  1. Backpack Squat x 20 reps superset with Backpack Pushup x 20 reps: Alternate between these two exercises for 10 minutes. Wear the backpack on your back.
  2. Backpack Bentover Row x 20 reps superset with Reverse Lunge x 5 reps each leg: Alternate between these two exercises for 10 minutes. For the bentover rows, hold two backpacks, one in each hand, by their top handles.
  3. Pullup Iso Hold x 3 minutes: Grip the pullup bar with hands shoulder-width apart. Pull yourself up so your chest touches the bar and hold.
  4. Wall Sit x 4 minutes: Wear backpack on stomach or rest on legs.
  5. Backpack Shoulder Press x 20 reps superset with Backpack Romanian Deadlift x 20 reps: Alternate between these two exercises for 10 minutes. For both exercises, hold two backpacks, one in each hand, by their top handles.
  6. Lunge x 3 minutes

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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