Why American football’s strength and conditioning doesn’t, and shouldn’t, resemble other sports

Posted on October 22, 2018

(Last Updated On: October 22, 2018)

Every year it’s somebody in football. A few years back it was a bullying phenomenon in the NFL. Oregon’s strength and conditioning program was thrust into the spotlight last offseason due to multiple players being hospitalized. This past offseason Maryland has been scrutinized.

Some get outraged, going so far as to say football is holding back the strength and conditioning field (!). Some think the players are pansies.

Let’s try to find middle ground.

Yeah, inflicting rhabdo is stupid

Rhabdomyolysis, where skeletal muscle is breaking down so quickly kidney failure can occur, is not beneficial for athletes. This is what made CrossFit infamous. Nobody is getting better because they became hospitalized.

But football strength and conditioning is the problem? Really?

There is absolutely a lot of old school / military type minds in the football world. My head coach in college had zero exercise physiology knowledge, yet he often dictated conditioning drills. This goes on at all levels, professional included.

But the fact is American football players are the best athletes on Earth. They out jump basketball players, there is probably at least one guy on every NFL team who could have made a run at the olympics (100 / 200 / 400 meters, shot put, high jump, etc.), many quarterbacks were drafted in the MLB, they are considerably stronger than CrossFitters –in lifts they do recreationally– half of any division I college team could compete in a bodybuilding competition. There is barely a sport these guys couldn’t fall into if they wanted to. There is not a sport which can say the same about falling into football.

-> I know the rugby crowd is wondering. I don’t know it well, but here’s one article going over the fastest rugby players. Nearly all of them are mid to high 10 second 100 meter times. Off the top of my head, Adrian Peterson, Tyreke Hill, Terrence Newman, Reggie Bush, Chris Johnson, all ran mid to low 10 seconds.

When it comes to college sports football players by far take the offseason program the most seriously. Look at the bodies of basketball players. How many of them really look like they’re hitting the weights? The average NBA weight is about 210 lbs, at 6’7″.

Credit: SeatSmart.com

Credit: SeatSmart.com

Football players, while shorter, are just a tad (sarcasm) heavier:

Weights football players with lines

You can be 5’10”, 190lbs, and have a beer belly yet be a hall of fame baseball player. If you’re seven foot, you can move like a snail yet be in the NBA.

Football stands alone punishment wise

Someone attempting to define toughness in sports,

“When we are racing, it’s about choosing to push on and cover the surge versus slowing down when we hit halfway in the mile. In football, it’s about having the capacity to stay calm and run your precise route as a receiver with full attention despite being exhausted and beat down. It’s about running it at max speed instead of half-assing your way through the next play because you are tired. Toughness is getting it right when stress, fatigue, and pressure are high. It’s about handling uncertainty and being able to adjust to whatever is thrown at you.”

This is the common thought process in those who either played football but only up to high school, or merely a casual fan. What you see above is the focus on skill players. “Precise routes.” Beyond the fact receivers barely get tired in football games, there is another world “in the box,” or “in the trenches,” where the linemen, running backs and linebackers are.

This is not a world you can appreciate from a television.

There is no concept of understanding this unless you’ve done it. The shit that goes on in there is straight up primitive.

-> MMA obviously is too, but you have ~six months until you fight again. And you often have a lot of say when you fight again, where you can dictate how much time off you get. It’s no doubt violent, but the recovery time is as extreme.

-> Forwards in rugby average ~110 kilograms. About nine guys on a given NFL field will weigh 30 kilograms more, each. Rugby is brutal though. However, while I’m not going to put up much fight, there is a reason rugby players play so many more games than NFL players. A good rule of thumb is the less matches a sport has per season, the more violent each match is.

Look at the attrition rate in the NFL. There are eight teams in 2016 who had 20+ guys on the injured reserve list. That’s only major / basically season ending injuries. Nearly HALF the roster gone for the season. How many other sports need 50% more players than their initial roster just to fill the team each year??

Nothing like being 150% higher than the average college sport:

Credit: Epidemiology of Collegiate Injuries for 15 Sports: Summary and Recommendations for Injury Prevention Initiatives (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1941297/)

Credit: Epidemiology of Collegiate Injuries for 15 Sports: Summary and Recommendations for Injury Prevention Initiatives (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1941297/)

-> Compared to football, rugby injury rates higher in high school in this study, but lower in college in this study. That jives with my experience with football. Once you get to college the brutality goes up exponentially.


Football subsequently stands alone in teammate reliance

Because of the injury rate, along with the amount of people on the field at the same time -all running the same play together- there is no other sport where you are so reliant on a teammate to keep you protected.

  • Running back doesn’t pick up a blitz and the quarterback can be concussed
  • Quarterback throws it too high and the receiver can break his neck
  • One teammate doesn’t block well enough and gets rolled up on his teammate, tearing his teammate’s ACL
  • Lineman misses a block and running back gets his head knocked off

That’s just the physical side. There are no Kevin Durants or Lionel Messis or Clayton Kershaws in football because one guy can’t win a game for you. Yes, I realize those guys don’t actually win by themselves, but they can do more than a football player can. In football you’re only on the field half the time to begin with.

This is why football coaches love the military mindset so much. It’s as close to “you screw up? your brother dies” as sports can get. I don’t know the military well, but from what I’ve seen things like Hell Week and a lot of military training is not because that’s what soldiers do in battle. It’s to build trust, to weed people out, to figure out who you want to put your body on the line with. Snipers, who the movies tell us sit in one place for days on end, still do all the physical training with everybody else.

-> No, it’s not war, but the violence of football is a major reason it has an unusual connection to the military, and, subsequently, why the anthem issue has been such an uproar.

It’s common for football teammates to be life long friends. One of my high school teammate’s grandfather still got together with his high school team once a year. They were in their 70s. I doubt many cross country teams are doing that.

Those who didn’t play football at a high level, those who work with sprinters, soccer players, long distance runners, they’re never going to fully agree with what most football strength and conditioning programs look like. Because there is going to be an element in there of “Uh, why are your guys doing this? It’s not similar to the demands of the sport.” But they’re only looking at the physical demands.

When Bill Belichick sends his guys –including coaches– to take a lap because one guy screwed up, he’s not doing it because they need endurance or because running a lap is at all similar to an average 3.5 second play. He’s doing it because he’s trying to get across you mess up = we mess up.

When a football team goes out and practices in pouring rain, it’s not because that’s the best way to practice that day. It’s because it sucks.

I had a high school strength and conditioning coach who was a regional level olympic lifter, aka a pretty damn strong dude. The majority of our training was directly applicable to football. One day the gym floods so we don’t have access to it. All we have is the track. He decides we’re doing 100 meter walking lunges, then turning back and sprinting 100 meters. We do this for an hour. That was the entire workout. The track was stained with vomit for six months.

He wasn’t doing it because it in any way applied to the physical demands of football. He was doing it because our day was thrown off, we’re not going home merely because the gym is inaccessible, even if many wanted to. So let’s see how we react to all of a sudden being in a crappy situation, which has now become more adverse. Who is going to complain about what spot we’re in? Who is going to stop? Who is going to say “why am I playing football? I quit.” Which happened. People never showed up again after that. You quit because of one crappy workout? Good. We didn’t want you there anyways.

You can argue that’s not the best way to approach it. That there has to be a better way, because rhabdo is too much.

But you can also argue doing something off the wall once every two weeks is fine. Because there has to be some way to get this across, as you can’t run into people as hard as possible all year long, and lifting weights for 8-12 reps and sprinting 40 yards don’t do the job. There has to be some infliction of one guy does X => we all suffer Y. While this often happens in a game physically and mentally, such as the pain of losing or an injury, you again cannot simulate that in the offseason. Where burning muscles are used to attempt to cross that chasm.

This is more true than ever due to the turnover for teams. Big time d-I teams have more transfers than ever, more guys declaring for the draft after junior year than ever. NFL players and coaches move more than ever. 30 of the 53 players, more than half, of the 2015 Patriots Super Bowl team were not on the team in the 2017 game. For their 2018 Super Bowl run, basically another half of the roster was gone again. You can’t wait until training camp to start that bonding process. Even once practice starts, leagues are more and more limiting how much contact can happen.

What the exact best way to do this is, for each team, that’s part of what we call coaching.

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