No slowing down: Wolverines finding ways to stay in shape at home

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

One has done arm reps with a can of paint, another with a full propane tank. There have been shoulder presses with a long, thick, hard-to-balance tree branch, a homemade device to toss for hand-eye coordination, and there's always good old-fashioned running and sprints. A few of the lucky ones have the luxury of a full gym in the garage at home.

Michigan football players are with their families now, spring practice canceled, and they must take classes online like the rest of the student population as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. But they must also try to stay in shape for the upcoming football season.

Caden Kolesar lifts a tree log outside his home in Westlake, Ohio.

The players have had some guidance from strength coach Ben Herbert and football performance dietitian Abigail O’Connor, but with gyms and exercise facilities closed, the players are improvising workouts. They also were divided into six teams with a captain and each day they receive a different assignment for competition from the staff.

“I’d rather be doing spring ball right now, of course,” said defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who will be a junior this fall. “I was looking forward to this spring ball and working on a lot of the stuff I had in mind, stuff I saw last season I wanted to improve so much more on. Unfortunately, I don’t get that opportunity anymore, but no one does because everyone’s spring ball got canceled.

“I’ve been making use of my resources to the best of my ability. I will come back stronger and faster from this because I know I’m working so hard and I’ve got a lot of good resources. My neighbor trains a bunch of NFL guys and college guys so I’ve got him telling me what to do in these hard times to find places to work out. I have really good resources all around me to help me succeed in this environment.”

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The players were informed March 12 that spring practice, which was to begin five days later, was canceled “until further notice.”

“We were all just like, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’ It was crazy,” safety Caden Kolesar said. “I think all of us were looking forward to spring ball to get the coaches to look at us and try to earn a spot on special teams and defense. Obviously, we don’t have access to the Michigan football weight room, but we’re in the comfort of our own homes, and you can find something anywhere. You can lift a table or something like that to get better. I think it’s a perfect time to perfect your habits and get your habits right. It’s time we can focus on ourselves which will make our team better.”

The Wolverines are preparing for the season although everyone acknowledges there are plenty of unknowns. Still, there is no time to slack off. The players and coaches have remained engaged through video chats, texting and phone calls, and the coaches issue daily challenges.

“We got put in these groups for football and we’ve got these daily competitions every day,” said Hutchinson said, who works out six days a week for two hours. “One of the days it was a single arm press and you had to find anything in your house. Some guys were using tool boxes, cartons full of water, ladders, anything.”

Aidan Hutchinson does push-ups with a resistance strap at his home in Plymouth.

Hutchinson used a bucket of paint found in the garage.

“And believe it or not, that was one of the hardest things I’ve had to press because it was so hard to balance in my hand,” he said. “It was so unstable.”

Todd Rumler had to build a home gym for his son, Nolan, an offensive lineman, when he was in seventh grade because he’d get kicked out of gyms for being too young.

“I haven’t parked in my garage in six years,” Todd Rumler said, laughing. “We kept adding to it over the years. When Michigan got their new weight facility, I started buying some of those things I saw there. Nolan is probably one of the more fortunate ones. I bought him a few things last week and had them shipped in so he can do all the exercises he does at Michigan.”

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Nolan Rumler and fellow offensive lineman Zach Carpenter are roommates and both are weight room junkies. Rumler is in Akron and Carpenter in Cincinnati, but they still push each other.

“These kids are where they’re at because how driven they are,” Todd Rumler said of the players finding it easy to stay motivated with their workouts. “They’re not going to let something slow them down. What you’re seeing from all of them is the reason they’re there anyways.”

Carpenter works out four days a week with two days of cardio and two days of footwork drills. He was sent a football from Michigan so he can work on snapping. He is using a gym under the deck that belongs to his cousin who used to compete in UFC.

“I have everything I need,” Carpenter said. “But it’s not about what you have. You just have to go and do it to stay in shape. I’d find a way (if weights weren’t available). I’d be looking for everything around the house, something to press, something to pull.”

Zach Carpenter lifts on a "weight room" that is set up on the back porch of his Cincinnati home.

Back in the day, John Kolesar, a Michigan receiver in the late '80s, created what he called “The Rocky Workout” on the steep stairs at Huntington Beach on Lake Erie near his home in Cleveland.

“'Rocky' came out and we were in our formative years and we reveled in that,” Kolesar said. “We didn’t have a lot of money and facilities, so we had to make do with stuff we made up.”

Now his son, Caden, who will be a sophomore on the football team, does his dad’s workout. He runs up and down the stairs three times, then jumps rope and does push-ups and repeats this four times. But Caden also has found other ways to stay in shape. His first night home, he needed a workout and found a full propane tank in the garage. He did lifts and lunges, with his back foot on an empty flower pot. He also has a large bucket full of rice to use for lifts.

And then there are the team-wide daily assignments.

“We have daily competitions where we send what we’re eating and Abigail rates that, and we send in pictures of our made beds,” said Kolesar, who is on kicker Quinn Nordin’s team and insisted they’re the leaders so far. “One of the days was how many push-ups you can do, bench reps, stuff like that. We had to send a video of us running (last Wednesday).

“It helps us keep each other accountable. That’s the biggest thing. We don’t want to lose what we gained in our winter training cycle. Right now, it’s an extension of the winter training cycle is how we’re looking at it from a strength perspective.”

Aidan Hutchinson

Most players don’t have a Division I weight room in their homes, so they’re being inventive and proactive. Hutchinson said he occasionally works out in his friend’s basement but at 6-foot-6, he has to make sure he ducks his head to avoid the ceiling.

“I didn’t get blessed to have a gym in my garage,” Hutchinson said, laughing, “so I had to make do with what I have. I got kicked off every turf field that I went to, but I finally found one and I’ve been using that for all my field work. I bought so much stuff on Amazon, about $100 worth of stuff, so I can work on my D-line work, my footwork, everything like that just because I’m going to be home for so long. So I made a good investment in that.”

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Hutchinson also has gotten crafty. He saw a triangular color-coded contraption for sale. You throw it, yell a color and the other person has to catch it by the specific color. The device, which focuses on hand-eye coordination and reaction time, was $50.

The homemade device Aidan Hutchinson uses to improve hand-eye coordination.

“And I was like, ‘I’m not going to spend $50 on that,’” he said. “So I asked my dad (former Michigan All-American defensive lineman Chris Hutchinson) and we went to Home Depot, got a bunch of PVC pipe and connectors and made two for $5. They work great.”

The players must also try to adhere to a solid diet.

“It’s a lot easier to be so conscientious when I’m making my own food or my mom is making it because my mom makes really healthy food,” Kolesar said.

Hutchinson’s mother, Melissa, makes sure he’s being well fed.

“My diet has gotten so much better from momma’s cooking,” he said, laughing. “She makes these killer breakfasts. I’m eating really good every day, and I’m at the weight I want to be at. I cut some weight after last season. I just want to play football.”

Carpenter usually has eight eggs every morning, fried or scrambled. He adds cheese and spices to “mix it up.”

”It’s not about gaining weight, it’s about not losing weight just because we’re always eating up there,” Carpenter said. “You come home and food is on your own expense so it’s a little different. I’ve been able to maintain (my weight). I’ve only lost a couple pounds, but I’m not worried about it.”

This is their new reality, and this is the case for college football players across the country. Carpenter said after the initial shock, they all understand why these moves were made.

“At least we’re safe,” Carpenter said. “At the end of the day, it’s better that we’re all on our own and not everybody else is sick because then we’re really in a good position going into the season.”

Twitter: @chengelis