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Zook, Hernandez pump up Illinois
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Published: 12/15/2007 11:56 PM

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When Ron Zook arrived at Illinois in Dec. 2004, he inherited a roster that featured the scrawniest players in the Big Ten.

Zook's solution? Hire Lou Hernandez, who had been Florida's assistant strength and conditioning coach, and give him $150,000 to upgrade the school's current weight room buried underneath Memorial Stadium's east stands.

Then, Hernandez, utilizing his master's degree in Exercise and Health-Related Fitness as well as his competitive powerlifting background, transformed the Illini into one of the most imposing, well-conditioned teams in the country. As a powerlifter, Hernandez -- all 5-foot-8 and 225 pounds of him -- could bench 507 and squat 720.

Players boast proudly of their "Body by Lou." And, soon, those bodies will get to train in the nation's largest football-only weightlifting complex.

Hernandez hopes to have their new 14,000-square foot room -- located underneath the North Stands and roughly three times as large as the current weight room -- ready to go by August.

Hernandez, a native of Alice, Texas, with arms as huge as most people's thighs, talked about that and much more in an interview with Lindsey Willhite on Friday.

Q: What's this new place going to look like? Whatever Lou wants, Lou gets?

A: We're working on that part of it (laughing). Right now, I'm working real close with Power Lift, who is going to provide the majority of the equipment that will be displayed in that weight room.

They're real excited about what we're doing -- things from the largest amount of poundage with plates and bars coming from one particular company to one university. Almost 50,000 pounds (of weights).

It'll be custom-made and engraved and Olympic-grade as well, too, so we're really excited about we're about to do.

Right now, I am somewhere close to $1 million in equipment. That's what I'm shooting for right now. I'm just excited to be making my wish list.

Q: Can you gauge the progress the team has made from the summer of 2005 until now?

A: In 2006, we started to see a lot more of the success of the weight room come about on the field.

Guys really started to see it with how they were matching up against other teams, physically how they were staying in the games and just the benefit of the working that was occurring.

When we got here in '05, we had maybe one guy that could bench 405. Last year we had 10. This year we have 10 again.

We had one guy (in 2005) that could pull 300 pounds from the floor. Last year we had 39. This year we have 42.

Our overall explosiveness, power, output and general strength have improved tremendously. We even started to the point this year where, How big did we want our guys to actually be? We had to be really careful about guys getting too bulky and too big.

Q: I'm presuming you haven't had time to go to the County Fair or State Fair, where they're big on showing prize steers or horses or whatever.

If you had to take a couple of your prize pupils to show off as an example of the "Body by Lou," who would they be and why?

A: You look at someone like (Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year) Rashard Mendenhall. He is currently 221 pounds and 4 percent body fat.

Last year during the season, he was 205 and 4 percent body fat. So he put on 15-16 pounds of solid muscle and lifting just some incredible weight, so he looks tremendous.

He has had a 405-pound bench before, he has had a 555-pound squat, he had a 352-pound power clean and has gotten real close to a 400-pound hang clean.

The interesting thing about where he is now to where he was last year: With extra 16 pounds, he has maintained his explosiveness and his vertical jump and his agility tests and runs.

(Sophomore second-team all-Big Ten cornerback) Vontae Davis would be another. He weighs 205 with 3.9 percent body fat.

Last year going into camp, he was 200 pounds and 2.9 percent body fat. That was too low, so this year the goal was for him to get fatter (laughs).

I told him he could get a little sloppier with his diet. If he wanted to get a pizza one day or a hamburger the next, he could.

Q: Based on their weight-room performance, who are some redshirt freshmen or little-used guys who should emerge in 2008 and beyond?

A: (Freshman offensive tackle) Craig Wilson is a guy who had tremendous results in-season.

He got his bench press up to 405. He was comfortably handling 500 pounds on the squat. Pulled a 308-pound power clean.

(Freshman linebacker) Ian Thomas was another. We got his weight up to 220. His bench press is 405, his squat is 500 and he's pulling a 308-pound power clean, too.

I think (freshman guard) Jack Cornell is going to be another. He had just some tremendous results in the room as well.

Q: When recruits visit campus, do the coaches want them to meet you? Or do the coaches want to keep you away from them so they don't know what they're in for?

A: (Laughs). I try to spend as much time around them as I can. The (current) guys will tell them stories anyway.

I tell recruits straight-out -- and I tell their parents as well -- (the weight room) is going to be the place they spend most of their time besides the library.

We don't hide anything about that. We let them know they're going to feel lots of pain and discomfort once they step foot on campus.

Q: Since the Mitchell Report came out (Thursday), that's been all the rage in the news. How easy or hard would it be easy for one of your guys to start using steroids or human growth hormone and you not be able to tell?

A: We'd be able to tell rather quick. We know where our guys are with their strength levels and what they're capable of doing.

Obviously with that particular type of supplementation, so to speak, the numbers are going to shoot through the roof with their body weight and their lean muscle mass and body fat and things such as that.

We have everything documented from all their sets and reps and weights, as well as the testing and evaluations we do with their body fats and weights.

A competitive athlete is going to do anything and everything they can to be the best.

We will provide supplements here, but we're just big believers in the basics: Protein and recovery drinks and vitamins.

And everything that we provide is turned into our compliance department here as well as our medical staff. We're not going to do anything to compromise their overall health.

Our guys, they know the rule: They're more than welcome to bring in anything they want to try to take. But just because they sell it over the counter at Walgreen's or Wal-Mart or GNC, it doesn't necessarily mean it's compliant with the NCAA.

Q: Here's what I don't get. Roger Clemens' lawyer came out with a strong rebuttal of the trainer's testimony. What would a trainer get out of making things up?

A: That's a great question. I don't see how that could bring any type of positive credibility. I don't know what that's going to do to your future profession, for your overall credibility.