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The Crazy Practices of Professional Athletes - by Matthew Romans

The Annual National Football League Scouting Combine takes place next week, and as a former college player and self-admitted football junkie, I usually tune in and watch for an hour or so. If you have never watched the Combine before, it's essentially a job interview for prospective football draftees in which they are tested on speed, jumping ability, strength, and their ability to perform football-related drills. It's hard to accurately describe the amount of insanity that is present at this event. The atmosphere resembles a meat market, where the players are poked, prodded, and given rigorous medical exams by team physicians. They participate in football drills that are supposed to gauge their abilities to play in the NFL, yet they perform these drills in a t shirt and shorts, not in helmets and shoulder pads. There are "strength" coaches and football coaches screaming all kinds of inanities in the hope of motivating the players to perform at their peak level. While the atmosphere is circus-like it is entertaining to watch for a little while, and that's why I tune in.

You might ask what this has to do with exercise. Watching the collection of physical specimens reinforces my belief that the vast majority of professional athletes (and not just football players) are people who have won the genetic lottery; they probably make up less than one percent of the population. They will get larger and stronger in spite of their weight training/conditioning program rather than because of it.

There are two types of conditioning: general and specific.

General conditioning (weight training) should be done to increase strength, metabolic and cardiovascular efficiency, enhance flexibility, and improve resistance to injury. Weight training, above all else, should be safe and efficient. Unfortunately, most of what professional athletes perform that passes for weight training is anything but safe and efficient. Exercises are often performed in an explosive fashion, with no consideration to the primary cause of injury (force); workouts are too time-consuming and are performed too frequently. In my opinion, these practices increase the risk of injury unnecessarily; participating in a sport already carries an inherent risk for injury. One's weight training routine shouldn't add to that risk.

The other type of conditioning is specific (skill) conditioning. This involves practicing the specific skills that are utilized in playing a sport. There are three types of skill transfer: positive, negative, and indifferent. Positive transfer occurs when the activities of practice and performance are identical and this is beneficial for the athlete; negative transfer occurs when the activities of practice and performance are almost the same, such as shooting on a nine foot basket; indifferent transfer occurs when the two activities are completely unrelated, such as weight training and football. Outside of specific skill practice involving positive transfer, most of the activities performed by professional athletes produces negligible benefits at best, and at worst can decrease skill and exponentially increase the risk of injury.

Baseball players often swing a weighted bat while in the on-deck circle prior to an at-bat. Because the weighted bat is slightly heavier than the bat they will use in their at-bat, this results in negative skill transfer. Boxers punch a heavy bag during training for a fight. While it may look impressive, they will not face a heavy bag inside an actual prize ring. It is a completely different skill to hit a stationary bag than it is to try and hit a live, moving target that is punching back at you. Former National Basketball Associaion All-Star Alonzo Mourning began practicing his free throw shooting with a weighted basketball during the mid 1990s. This resulted in a significant decrease in his free throw shooting percentage for a few seasons. Because the ball he was using in practice was heavier than the ball he used in games, it resulted in negative skill transfer.

As a former high school and college football player, I experienced first hand many of the drills and so-called exercises that were designed to help us improve as players but in reality, accomplished very little. I'm fortunate that I was able to walk away from the sport without incurring a serious injury.

The takeaway here is that the practices and conditioning routines of professional athletes have almost nothing to do with safe and effective exercise. Proper weight training, like the philosophy we hold at Total Results, should emphasize workouts that are brief, infrequent, and intense, while tracking muscle and joint function properly and using a very slow speed of movement. If you are preparing for an athletic contest or competition, in addition to weight training, practice the specific skills required in the performance of that competition. Remember, just because a genetically gifted professional can do something and get away with it doesn't mean that the rest of us can or should.

Posted February 22, 2019 by Tim Rankin