Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: The Evolution of Pro Football Training


Coleman Gray
Staff Writer

Like many people, I spend my Sundays watching football…and my Saturdays, and my Mondays, and also my Thursdays too. And also, like everyone else who watches football, much of the time I am terribly disappointed with the players’ performances. I can’t count how many times I have shouted “Oh come on! I could’ve made that throw!” or the even more egregious “How did you miss that tackle? My grandma could’ve made it, and she’s on her fourth hip!” But while belittling these human giants from the comfort and safety of my own couch may make me feel slightly better about my floundering fantasy teams and my shattered NFL dreams, I (let alone my grandmother) have no business being anywhere near a college or pro football field. These players are bigger, stronger, and in better physical shape than any of us could ever possibly be, and while you might think going to the Rec Cen could be enough to prepare you, let me tell you: it cannot.

The physical prowess of college football and the NFL athletes has always been astounding, but in recent years those physical skills have been tuned finer than ever before. This is due to a few factors, including a greater understanding of the human body (specifically involving the formation of muscle), more sophisticated technologies, and more money to spend on strength and conditioning.

Modern collegiate strength training first began with priest Bernard Lange who oversaw the workouts of Knute Rockne’s storied Notre Dame teams of the 20s and 30s, but the so-called “Godfather” of strength training was Boyd Eppley whose work with the University of Nebraska in the 1970s paved the way for collegiate strength training. Before Eppley took over (and Nebraska football did as well), strength training was seen as a hindrance to athleticism, as former Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian put it, “The coaches felt that the muscles would contract, not expand. [The prevailing thought pattern was that] you didn’t want a running back — or any skill-position players for that matter — that was muscle-bound.” Now, for reason fairly obvious to anyone who has watched a football game, that is no longer the prevailing thought.

Football players are bigger and stronger than ever. According to research done by Grand Valley State, players across the board have gained weight over the past seventy years of football with “college interior linemen gained about 1 to 2 pounds per year over 60 years, and professional players gained up to 1.5 pounds per year over 7 decades.” This statistic is staggering when you consider that even the average players now weigh in at roughly 100 pounds heavier than their grandfathers. And with the extra training comes added strength and increased agility due to the work done by their strength coaches.

All football teams, pro and college, have dedicated strength and conditioning coaches who work yearlong to get and keep their athletes in playing shape. Every NFL strength and conditioning specialist makes well over $200,000 a year and many collegiate coaches also pull in the same salary. These coaches also have nearly every resource at their disposal to turn men into better athletes, and as more research is done on how the human body operates, these coaches have even better techniques to increase development. Nearly all strength coaches now employ nutritionists to create a player-specific diet to aid in muscle development and increased endurance, and some coaches even use such space-age technologies such as data-transmitting pills to better understand how their athletes’ bodies work.

Fitness is a science, and the NFL and NCAA seem well aware of this fact. Players aren’t just let loose in the gym during training days and told to just figure it out themselves. There is a coordinated and innovative system of nutrition and targeted exercise that is more deliberate than one might think. So next time you yell at your favorite wide receiver for not making a one-handed diving catch in the middle of three defenders, just remember to keep the insults to a minimum. Chances are, you wouldn’t be able to do it any better.