The hard, cold world of pumping iron is finally meeting with some human resistance. Forget flesh against steel; the wave of tomorrow may be flesh against flesh.

"Manual resistance training . . . is better than any other method," says Redskins strength coach Dan Riley. "It provides variety in strength training, and in some cases is the only option for rehabilitation."

Riley devised the technique when he was director of strength training at the West Point Academy in the mid-1970s. Faced with a shortage of weight equipment but a surplus of young men to get into shape, he decided to improvise. The cadets paired off, and one pushed while the other resisted. That is the principle of manual resistance training, or MR. His book, "Maximum Muscular Fitness: Strength Training Without Equipment" (Leisure Press, $7.95) describes 34 exercises, which are broken up into five body groups: the lower body, the upper body, the arms, the abdominals and the neck.

The Army uses 12 partner-resisted exercises, which are a variation of MR. "The principle is the same, but it's different in performance," says Capt. Dave Lucoski, chief of the programs branch of the Soldier's Physical Fitness School. "It's effective to supplement weight training. We use it with up to 120 people at one time and can do it in a short time." The Army makes its version of MR mandatory for at least one session during basic training. Subsequent training is optional.

An MR exercise is done in four phases. The lifter goes from a relaxed position to the lifting phase and proceeds to the contracted phase, then pauses momentarily, and completes the exercise with the lowering phase.

For example, to strengthen the shoulders, the lifter sits on a bench with the spotter standing behind him. The lifter pushes up with open palms while the spotter pushes down with open hands on the lifter's hands. The spotter should be expected to provide adequate resistance.

The advantages of MR over weight training, Riley says, are: No equipment is required (except a towel and stick for some exercises); large groups can be trained at the same time, and the speed of exercise can be carefully controlled. Riley notes that the exercises can be performed any time and any place and that two people can do at least 13 exercises in 30 minutes.

Perhaps most important from a rehabilitative standpoint is that the rate and intensity of resistance is controlled by the spotter. This has allowed some of the Redskins to continue strength training while they're injured.

"When Joe Jacoby broke his hand, he couldn't grab a pole," says Riley. "So we used MR to work out his shoulders, back and arms. George Rogers has a pin in his shoulder and can't turn his palm to the ceiling while doing bicep curls standing up. So we use a towel. We get guys from other teams who did no strength training after injuries, but they can work out with MR."

Riley introduces MR to the Redskins as soon as they don the burgundy and gold. Rookies learn neck and shoulder exercises in training camp, and, as the season progresses, they exercise with the veterans twice a week. "These guys are strength training 11 months a year," says Riley. "You've gotta keep them happy."

MR also appeals to recreational athletes. It is inexpensive and can be done at home, so there's no need to join a fitness center.

"Putting MR in a strength training routine keeps the client interested," says local fitness specialist John Philbin, who learned MR while working for the Redskins as Riley's assistant in 1982. "MR will build tone. To build size, it can be combined with various types of conventional strength equipment."

After working for Riley, Philbin's knowledge of MR came in handy. One of the first things he noticed as the strength training coordinator at the Winter Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid was the inadequacy of the strength training equipment.Until some new equipment came in, Philbin improvised with MR training. "The athletes were overwhelmed," says Philbin. "They wondered why they didn't learn about it earlier."

Philbin warns that doing MR properly takes practice. "It took the Olympic athletes about three sessions to grasp the technicalities," he says, "so the casual athlete should allow twice that time."

It is important, Riley and Philbin say, that the spotter and lifter work well together and know each other's strengths and weaknesses. The lifter must learn how to perform each exercise, and -- more important -- the spotter must learn how to safely and effectively apply the resistance.

It is also hard to mark progress. With weights, the amount of weight lifted and number of repetitions are recorded. With MR, there is more guesswork.

And, says Riley, some people will just never feel comfortable unless they're pumping iron. "We have a cult of people," he says, "who feel they have to use a dumbbell."

Safety Tips

Do each exercise 12 times, or work 40 to 70 seconds for one set of each exercise.

Take 4 seconds for the lowering phase; 1 to 2 seconds to execute the raising phase.

Exercise two or three times a week. Alternate days. Change the order regularly

The lifter should:

Communicate with the spotter.

Keep tension on the muscle.

Pause in the contracted position.

Exert an all-out effort.

The spotter should:

Not apply maximum resistance during the first few repetitions in order to allow the muscles to warm up.

Vary the resistance of each rep during the raising phase.

Give a smooth transition from the raising phase to the lowering phase.

Add resistance in the lowering phase.

Change the angle of resistance applied.

Provide enough resistance to stimulate strength gain.

Gradually increase the intensity of exercise in succeeding workouts.

Apply less resistance as the lifter approaches the muscles-extended position.

Dave Ungrady is a Washington-based free-lance writer specializing in fitness.