The upcoming Super Bowl features, among other storylines, a matchup between Tom Brady, a 43-year-old quarterback who doesn’t work out with weights during the season, and a much younger quarterback, Patrick Maholmes.
In the run-up, Kurt Warner, a Hall of Famer quarterback who faced and lost to Brady in a Super Bowl 20 years ago (yes, Brady has been doing this for that long), wondered obliquely about the rest of the players in the League. Are pro athletes, particularly football players, facing rafts of injuries from lifting too much?
The question can be read a couple of ways. It’s a telling reading of how football works: a sport where most, if not all, players work out with serious weight, except its most recognizable, and in many ways most successful one — Brady, who eschews the weight room for plyometrics. Brady's workouts are based on the idea muscles need to be "pliable;" he argues standard weight training hardens muscles and creates the possibility of injury.
Warner’s tweet, in turn, rephrases a timeless debate in sports history. To be fair, plenty of quarterbacks and players shy away from heavyweight training. But with weight training such a big part of youth and college football, it’s a question worth asking.
Do athletes need to lift weights?
Athletes in the NFL, faster and stronger than ever, also seem to be getting steadily injured. (Concussions, of course, but in this case bodily injuries, like ACL and MCL tears.) Warner, who played into his late 30s, arrived in the league a few years before Brady, but the careers of their teammates have been mostly succinct. Warner, by litigating the relationship between strength training and on the field injuries, re-voices a historic concern about how weight training might adversely affect athletes. Half a century ago, coaches “didn't want a running back — or any skill-position players for that matter — that was muscle-bound," according to Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame’s head coach from 1964 to 1974.
But weight training and football are in many ways inextricable: some Notre Dame players began weight training as early as 1922, and as the sport professionalized and players moved on from manual labor to football full time, they would spend winters lifting weights — barbell exercises, like squats — to put back on the weight they lost over the fall. Many foundational powerlifting texts, like Bill Starr’s The Strongest Shall Survive, and workout protocols, like Starr’s 5x5, come from high school football weight rooms.
Which makes sense. Barbell training, done correctly, builds up speed and explosivity, and though all workouts can be effective with enough tension and work rate, exercises like deadlifts, squats, and cleans are among the quickest and most efficient ways to do that. And while it’s hard to know exactly which workouts team strength trainers prescribe — at the NFL and college levels, this can be proprietary information — we know barbell work is built into the sport: draft-eligible players test their bench press at the combine. Teams, pro, and college, program hang cleans and squats, and show off ornate, barbell-heavy branded gyms on social media.
Still, weight training wasn’t always part of the sport. Football teams didn’t employ strength coaches until the 1960s — for college, 1969; in the NFL, 1963 — and even then, their work was derided. (Some coaches didn’t get paid, and would be fired if a player ran slower.) The sport has since changed, and the result is a working environment where lifting weights between January and July is considered important.
Back then, traditional wisdom held that regular weight training slowed down athletes — something Brady maintains — and was treated with the same derision Brady’s some fly-by-night exercises seem to be (rightly) now.
Before the 1960s many sports kept their athletes away from the barbell in an effort to keep them quick. Boxers would train in the ring, run sprints, do rope work, bodyweight exercises, and the like, but not really squat. Baseball players would milk cows in the offseason. Even as late as the 1980s, athletes who lifted — boxer Michael Spinks working out with heavy dumbbells; Karl Malone going full bodybuilder — were notable enough to warrant a story.
The reasoning, reflected in stories and held in front offices, was thoughtful, but flawed: weight training was considered too taxing to recover from properly. Lifters who worked out with barbells, the thinking went, would miss a step on a tackle, or be too tired to juke. Given what we know about recovery, it sort of makes sense: These exercises do take a lot. But as recovery methods improved, and strength coaches became more professionalized, the knowledge about weight training became more distilled. Athletes subsequently were encouraged to lift, and sometime in the past 40 years, lifting went from not just a part of the sport to a part of the business.
Weight lifting and the modern athlete — While the inclusion of modified Olympic lifts, like the hang clean, and complex movements, like barbell squats, to athletes’ strength training routines have made them stronger, it’s not always a perfect match. Some workouts aren’t customized enough, and some are too difficult; others might scarifice speed for strength, and do a better job of serving the strength than the athlete.
Some videotaped forays into lifting are scary. Most strength coaches at the highest levels of the sports are conscientious, skilled individuals, but some teams’ workouts, like the ones Yoenis Cespedes, a baseball player, undertook a few years ago, are difficult to watch. (Right after the video came out, his career effectively ended.)
It’s an example of how, with every team in each sport now needing a strength coach, trainers are incentivized to become gurus: the ones who do include neuro-priming headsets get ESPN stories, and promotions. Trainers, by going against the heterodoxy, do better for themselves. But if they’re wrong, it’s the athletes that pay: they might improve their strength in the short term, but grind down ligaments, and destroy their athletic potential.
But it’s not just the new exercises that are tricky. Some of the classic lifts — deadlifts, hang cleans, and squats — are difficult movements to get right, especially for tall, rangy athletes, like, say, wide receivers. Athletes, forced to squeeze them in during shortened offseasons or in difficult workweeks, may glide over form, despite their athletic competency.
Some trainers also believe that Olympic lifts’ focus on backward velocity can create bad movement patterns on the field. (A bar on a clean has to rise in a straight line, so a lifter effectively jumps backward.) Ricky Stanzi, a former NFL quarterback who now trains athletes, has argued about the gulf between Olympic-style workouts and in-game sprinting, theorizing athletes who point their ankles in when they run — which they should for Olympic lifts — are less explosive, and at greater risk for injury.
It’s a healthy critique: What if the workouts designed to build up speed and explosivity hamper it? Much of football’s most intense barbell training is done in the offseason, but if an athlete in a game has to think, even for a second, about how to set their feet, they’re going to be beat.
Warner’s question does not really have an answer: if athletes are lifting too much, well, they all are, and just about all of them have to.
And just as some trainers are good, the sheer talent on display in the NFL means that athletes who do unorthodox workouts — like former Steeler James Harrison and his flotilla of insane lifts — can sometimes have the longest career. Injuries, in sports, have always been there, just like in weight training. If strength training is part of the problem, so is sports specialization, longer seasons, and low body fat percentage. Just like in lifting, injuries are the cost of doing business.
The key, then, feels like minimizing injury while maximizing performance: programming an in-the-gym workout that is not felt on the field. But those programs are hard to program, and don’t come off the rack, and chafe with some sports organizations’ rigid philosophies.
Given the choice between training too much, or too little, most teams and athletes will choose the former. The prisoner’s dilemma — everyone lifts, and athletes play hurt — is a problem, and one Warner is right to notice. Brady’s longevity-focused training regimen, full of plyometrics and avocado ice cream, is as much a magnet for controversy as it is a luxury — one which quarterbacks get to choose, but entering running backs might not be able to. Athletes who want a career that lasts as long as Brady’s might just have to do what their strength coaches say.
Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.