Building stronger student athletes

By Heather Cass, publications manager, Penn State Behrend
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Chris Viscuso, coordinator of strength

Earth, Wind & Fire is just one of the many tools Chris Viscuso, the college’s new coordinator of strength training, uses to motivate his student-athletes.

“I try to make it fun and keep things lively and upbeat,” he said. “I make them listen to my music, which drives them nuts. They tease me about it, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, this group is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. If you can tell me who it is, you can cut your workout short.’”

Rare is the 20ish-age college student who gets to skip out of strength training early.

Like any good coach or fitness guru, Viscuso takes an approach that mixes pleasure with pain, walking  a line between the two. He looks the part of a bodybuilder—he’s bald, bearded, muscled, and tattooed. He’s often grinning, but with just enough seriousness to convey without words that if you slack off, he’s going to call you on it.

Throughout December, an Elf on the Shelf perched on the bleachers in Erie Hall, where additional fitness equipment is set up for students. Viscuso’s elf didn’t move very much, but every day the holiday mischief-maker posted a new workout.

“Sometimes, he was a kind elf and it would be an easy workout,” Viscuso said. “Other times, he was an angry elf in a bad mood, and he’d make students do 150 body squats, run a half mile, and crank out some push-ups and pull-ups.”

Back to Behrend

Viscuso joined Behrend’s Athletics staff in September of 2020. It was a homecoming for the 1992 History graduate who had played basketball for the Behrend Lions. He has bragging rights as the first player to score a basket in the newly renovated Erie Hall when it reopened in 1992.

Nearly twenty years later, Viscuso is back in Erie Hall, though the building will soon be replaced by a new fitness and recreation center. It’s bittersweet for Viscuso, since he has made a lot of memories in Erie Hall.

He has several more months to imprint that facility on the college’s student-athletes, though, and he’s making the most of it.

“I’m the only ‘coach’ on staff who works with all 300 of our student-athletes,” he said. “And, I get to work with them year-round, not just when they are in season.”

One could argue that good athletes are built in the off-season.

“If you get stronger, you’re going to be a faster runner, a more explosive basketball player, a better soccer player,” he said. “There is not a sport you can play that you can’t play better with a stronger body.”

Hard? Yes. Complicated? No.

Like his musical taste, Viscuso is old-school when it comes to building stronger bodies. He likes the classic moves.

“The biggest mistake people make when it comes to strength training is making it too complicated,” he said. “Fads come and go in fitness, but the basics never really change. I’m going with meat-and-potatoes workouts – lunges, plyometrics, squats, sprints, pushups, etc. We use the weight room, but we also just add weight doing movement-based workouts.”

He likes to work unilaterally. “We do a lot of one-legged squats and one-arm dumbbell exercises, things like that,” Viscuso said.  It’s important for almost all athletes, but especially those who do a lot of pivoting on the playing field, like those in basketball, soccer, and tennis.

He’s also big on flexibility, another thing that benefits every athlete. “If your heels are coming off the ground when we are doing squats, everybody thinks of hips and sometimes it is that, but it can also be tight Achille’s tendons; all of these parts are in play.”

That’s why Fridays are for yoga, but if student-athletes think they are going to find inner peace, Viscuso sets them straight pretty quickly. “It’s actually more stretching and more of workout than they expect,” he said.

You might call Viscuso’s approach intense, and he’s perfectly OK with that. It’s one of his three ingredients to success. “Intensity, effort, and enthusiasm are key,” he said. “It’s hard to stop a determined man or woman.”

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Viscuso Vitals

Before Behrend: Assistant basketball coach at Brescia University in Owensboro, Kentucky, then at Gannon University in Erie for fourteen years. At Gannon, he also served as the director of performance enhancement for the men’s basketball team, too.

On one measure of athletes: “I ask them to do 40 unbroken pushups and 10 pullups on their own; it’s not a huge challenge, but it tells me where they are, physically. Then we have a starting point.”

On pandemic-era training: “With no sports happening right now, it’s been a great time for strength training. Our philosophy has been, let’s just work on getting stronger, then.”

On a long winter break: “I told the student-athletes, ‘I’ve spent months working on you. Don’t you go home and let it all go. Do the workouts I post on Instagram (a private page for student-athletes).’ I’ll know if they didn’t.”

On Behrend student-athletes: “As a whole, our athletes have impressive GPAs, unheard of in sports-scholarship-level schools. Personally, I have found them to be hungry for information; they love feedback. In general, they are just good kids—smart, hardworking, respectful.”

2 thoughts on “Building stronger student athletes

  1. Glad to see such a great motivator and extensive skillset return to Behrend Athletics. Chris was my personal trainer for a period after I graduated. You were guaranteed to be challenged, laugh, and he always made you want to match his intensity level! I was never in better shape! Congratulations “Scus”!

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