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Got rings?

Weight room warrior Seth Branham built himself into two-time state champion

Posted: May 14, 2018 12:58 p.m.
Updated: May 15, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

LUGOFF-ELGIN SENIOR SETH BRANHAM has a ring for each hand after having won back-to-back South Carolina High School Strength Coaches Association state championships the past two years. He also has enough trophies, plaques and medals to fill up a good-sized room

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Too large to crawl in through a window and not allowed to have a key to its two doors, if given the chance, Seth Branham would probably live in the weight room located inside the Lugoff-Elgin High School Wellness Center.

Branham, who earlier this year signed to play football at Mars Hill College, is a near-constant presence in the facility; sometimes, stopping by as often as two times a day, five days a week, to get in a quick or, an extended workout. Those long hours doing what needs to be done away from the cheering Friday night crowds have been the backbone for Branham’s being selected as the South Carolina High School Strength Coaches Association (SCHSSCA) 2017 Athlete of the Year.

The honor comes after the L-E senior won consecutive state weightlifting championships in the 260-pound division in 2016 and 2017. The state record holder for total weight lifted in the squat, bench press and clean and press with 1,035 pounds, Branham leaves his high school lifting career as a three-time all-state weight lifter.

“I wanted to win. I’m not going to lie, I was kind of stressing about it,” Branham said of his mindset in defending his state title as a senior after having won it his junior year. “I didn’t want to have won the year before and then, not come back and win it again. It was a big deal for me.”

Standing 6-foot-2 and now tipping the scales at 270 pounds, Branham smiled when thinking back to the first time he walked into the L-E weight room. At the time, he was a 180-pound, wet behind the ears, incoming freshman who was trying to make his mark on the football team and impress the staff of then-interim head coach Dave Thomas prior to the start of the 2014 season.

“When I first came in, I just wanted to play football. I just loved it,” Branham said. “I knew that I had to get big and strong and the weight room was the place to be.”

At the time, Branham knew little to nothing about weight lifting and nutrition. He relied on the advice of older teammates and the expertise of the Demon coaching staff when it came to doing what was best and, doing it the right way. 

“When I first got here,” he said while standing inside what has become his home away from home at school, “I was watching all the older kids lifting weights and it was just amazing to me. I just wanted to be one of those guys one day.”

In the span of four short years, Branham went from being just one of the guys to being The guy in the L-E weight room. Branham’s name sits atop the school record board for squat (625 pounds), bench press (405 pounds) and clean and press (320 pounds.) In 2015, he started a string of lifting his way to three consecutive years as an Iron Demon Club member. He was the recipient of the school’s Iron Demon Award in both 2016 and 2017.

Like most freshmen, Branham learned the ropes both on the field and in the weight room as he paid his dues in both places. 

The hiring of Matt Campbell as the school’s football coach prior to the start of the 2015 season brought a new sense of stability to the program. In the weight room, Campbell’s bringing aboard strength and conditioning guru Dr. Mike Armstrong was a game-changer for Branham and the entire Demon and Lady Demon athletic program.

The arrival of Armstrong, who was recently named the SCHSSCA State Strength Coach of the Year for the second straight year, took the school’s strength and conditioning program in an entirely new direction. Branham was only too happy to jump in with both feet when it came to buying what Armstrong was selling.

“It changed things tremendously,” Branham said of Armstrong’s impact. “He modified the workouts so much. He brought in his nutrition plan and all the new equipment we got for the weight room helped a lot.”

In Branham, Armstrong found a young man who was ready and willing to do whatever it took to get better on the football field. The first step was to re-shape the rising sophomore’s body, step-by-step.

“When I first got here,” Armstrong said, “Seth was raw but you could see that he had a really great baseline of strength to begin with. Then, when I saw that he had the mechanical ability as far as being able to hinge at the hips, which some people don’t have, I knew that there was something special about this guy and that he was probably going to be the strongest kid that ever came through here.”

Slowly but surely, Branham made Armstrong’s words prophetic but, the tranformation did not happen overnight. Armstrong said the light came on for Branham in the weeks and months leading up to the 2017 state strength meet. “His strength level just started taking off,” Armstrong said.

As he got more acclimated to the weight room, Branham became a frequent visitor inside the glass- and cement-enclosed facility. He has not strayed from that routine to this day.

“I’m here five days a week, two to three hours a day,” he said of his schedule. “I come in here every morning for first block weight training class, then after school, I like to come in here a good bit and will do some band work and work on my foot work.”

“He does a few things extra but he comes back in the afternoon does a little bit extra, which we call our champions workout, for kids who want to go a little beyond the normal call of duty,” Armstrong said. “He also does things on his own like body tempering, which diffuses the muscle tissue. He’s a big proponent of that.

“He always pays special attention to his diet. I guess it’s all the extra things he does that makes him special.”

Branham said he will pack away as many as 10,000 calories a day eating, “all the big linemen food. I eat a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, drink protein shakes and eat all the big linemen food like hamburgers, chicken, barbecue … all that good stuff,” he said with a wide grin.

“Honestly, I didn’t know anything about what to eat or, how to eat or, what I needed to be eating to do what I wanted to do.”

What Branham knew was that, as he got stronger and fit, he wanted to prove himself against the best lifters in the state. Armstrong was more than happy to oblige Branham and the other members of the Demons’ weight training community. He not only took the student-athletes to region and state competitions but, the former USC offensive lineman made the L-E Wellness Center a home base for competitions in which teams from throughout the Palmetto State attend.

Branham has been at the forefront of the L-E success story as he is a three-time Palmetto Power Clean champion and a two-time Explode Competition --- an event which Armstrong devised --- winner in which Branham set a new standard earlier this year with a 320-pound power clean lift.

A two-time All-Region 6-4A offensive lineman in football, Branham looks forward to weightlifting event as much as he did Friday night games. “It’s just another way to compete,” he said. “It teaches you how to be a competitor and how not to quit, work hard and be the best you can be.”

One misnomer which Armstrong said many people have about football players and in-season lifting is that time in the weight room tails off in the fall. That, Armstrong said, is a myth.

“I think a lot of people and even a lot of strength coaches with football programs have this idea of maintaining strength levels during the season. We really don’t go at it like that,” he said. “Our frame of mind and our point of view is that if you’re in the weight room, you’re there to get stronger.

“Seth actually hit his best bench the week after the season ended. He was getting stronger as the season was going on and that is what we expect our kids to do. If you’re maintaining, to me, you’re not going forward but, you’re going back. It’s a waste of time.”

“During football season,” Branham said, “we don’t hit it as hard as we do during the off-season but, we’re always working to get bigger and stronger. Coach Armstrong always says, ‘If you’re not getting stronger, than you’re getting weaker.’

“It is a little heavier (load) in the summer and in the off-season than it is during (football) season.”

With the start of his college career just weeks away, Branham said he would like to report to preseason camp at Mars Hill weighing 285 pounds so that, “I’ll be able to mix it up with those guys, a little bit,” he said with a smile.

When he arrives on campus, he will be working with a new strength coach for the first time in four years. He said he will adjust to any changes which come his way. “I can adapt,” he said. “As long as you’re working hard to get bigger, strong and faster, I’m going to do what I have to do.”

As Seth Branham has done under Armstrong’s watch, the L-E coach expects his top student to not just survive but to thrive in the Mars Hill weight room and on the football field, as well

 “Seth has always been one of our best kids in the weight room as far as work ethic and intensity are concerned,” Armstrong said. “He never ever misses a workout. He’s the first one in and the last one out. His intensity level, from day one and the three years that I’ve been here is top-notch.

 “I am quite sure that when he gets to Mars Hill, he is going to be the strongest guy on campus. In my honest opinion, after talking with Coach (Jonathan) Sarratt, who recruited him, I think that he’ll not only be the strongest but he’ll also be one of the more knowledgeable guys there. He’ll probably, automatically be the leader in the weight room. That’s just who Seth is ... it’s his personality.”


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