Dan Riley, the Washington Redskins' strength coach, knew all along that there was more than one road to Muscle Beach. The difficulty lay in carving a path through the jungle of conditioning theories, grunts and groans and in proving that his approach was not just another musclehead's heresy.
"Most professional conditioning and strength coaches are taking the stupid way out by discrediting anything they're not familiar with, namely anything other than a barbell," said Riley, who joined the Redskins in 1982 after five seasons as strength coach for Penn State. "There's a lot of incompetence when it comes to training our athletes. I thought in time it would get better. But those people using bad practices are multiplying faster than those that aren't."
When the barbell was manufactured in 1898, so was the first musclehead, who, by definition, is a hybridized human--half iron, half flesh and bone. Riley believes muscleheads are what's wrong with his business of training for total body fitness, which is still in its genesis but has already become a mandatory practice for all NFL teams. Thirty years ago, however, weight training was all but cursed by coaches: lifters were freaks and pulling guards weighed 195.
But when strength training was finally accepted as necessary for a football player's success, coaches called on that misunderstood breed of human brickhouse most often portrayed as the Brute of the Beach in comic book classifieds. According to Riley, the guy with big arms who was always kicking sand in the face of the 98-pound weakling is now kicking misinformation into the minds of the ignorant.
"We're getting the freaks at muscle joints teaching us," said Riley, who has published four books on total body conditioning and is writing a fifth. "There isn't any information out there that isn't laced with the ridiculous superstitions and intuitions of body builders and weight lifters.
"I blame the college physical education programs, the President's Council (on Physical Fitness) and the Alliance of Health, American Physical Education and Recreation. Their job is to teach those people who are going to go out and teach our kids. But that's not being done. If it was done, you wouldn't see 14-year-old kids injecting steroids into their arms with needles and hurting themselves."
Research into strength training is now being conducted mainly by those coaches, like Riley, willing to experiment with athletes in their own programs.
Eight years ago, when he was the strength coach at the U.S. Military Academy, Riley first worked with Nautilus equipment and other strength-conditioning machines and discovered he could achieve muscular fitness without the use of free--or Olympic--weights.
He says he "used to be a diehard barbell freak," but has since eliminated free weights from his program, finding that working out with them caused too many back injuries. Thus, his players do not practice the dead lift, the power clean or the bench press, heretofore the core of a football player's workout.
"Most programs are inefficient, nonfunctional and outdated," Riley said. "You cannot train as a college coach using the traditional practices. If so, you avoid many vital parts of the body."
Riley said he works the neck, the torso, the lower body, the midsection and the arms to "get each guy as strong as he can get. The neck is most important because it's so vulnerable. We train to protect the athlete more than anything else.
"Most programs, however, stress the bench press. A kid might be able to bench 500 pounds but that doesn't mean he can play football. Genetic factors alone make good bench pressers. In the weight room, long arms are a disadvantage, but not on the field. People still promote exercises like the bench press, the dead lift and the power clean because they are all exercises handed down from the competitive weight lifters and what they do. That's their game. There are much more efficient ways to train an athlete than the way a weight lifter does."
Riley considers himself "a real rebel" in the field of strength training. If only by their methods, so do Howard University's Alonzo Lee and the University of Maryland's Frank Costello.
"There's no way a program can get around lifting weights any more," said Lee, who spent last week observing the Redskins' practices at Dickinson College. "Everybody might go about it a little different, but I don't care where you are, you can't get around the bench press. We believe in free weights, 100 percent."
Lee played under Joe Taylor, Howard's head coach, at Eastern Illinois. He turned to the weight room after a shoulder injury sidelined him as a sophomore and pumped iron to build up his upper body. He and the entire Howard staff work out with their players.
"All coaches lead by example," Lee said. "We believe the days of the fat coach are dead. Our facilities might not be on a par with those at other universities, but that's okay. Sometimes you can become so luxurious you end up turning soft, anyway."
Lee uses a mix of Nautilus equipment and free weights in his program. "It's a high-intensity workout. We believe the more iron we can pump, and the more repetitions we do, the better we'll do in the fourth quarter. It's a confidence thing for us, too. We know that when it's late in the game, we'll have the psychological edge because we'll know what kind of shape we're in."
Costello, a former all-America high jumper at Maryland, studied weight training in East Germany, China and the Soviet Union. Like Lee, his program revolves around free weights and Nautilus equipment, but he also uses pliometrics, a combination of bounding, running and leaping exercises first popularized by the Russians. "I want a 280-pound guy to move like he weighs 180," he said.
His main exercises are the bench press, the squat and the power clean. "Dan Riley and I differ there, I know. But there are lot of things he and I aren't in agreement on. I think he would agree with me, though, that it's almost impossible to win without a conditioning program of some kind. You beat people by having the best physically conditioned team you can possibly have."