PSR In Depth
Weighting For Answers
Are Penn State Linemen Being Out-Muscled?
By Tony DeFazio
Run the football, stop the run.
The phrase has been uttered by football coaches so often it has become a well worn clichˇ . But, like most clichˇs , it rings true. And nowhere is it ringing louder than in Happy Valley .
At press time, Penn State 's record since the 2000 season is 21-23. The team's inability to run the ball and their failure to stop the run are inescapable reasons for their recent mediocrity. What once was a source of pride for the Nittany Lions has become a source of frustration.
Between 1994 and 1999, the Lions piled up 60 wins against just 14 losses. Over that stretch, the offense ran for 208 yards per game (at a clip of almost 5 yards a carry), good enough to average 20th in NCAA-1A. The defensive front was almost as stingy as the offense was productive, allowing just 136 yards per game, 3.4 yards per carry and ranking 39th.
Since then, however, Penn State has managed only 157 rushing yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry, dropping 38 spots to 58th. Defensively, they've allowed 173 yards a game and 3.9 per carry; a 35-spot drop to 74th.
And those numbers include the 2002 season, during which Larry Johnson ran for 2000 yards and the defensive line had three players drafted into the NFL. Take '02 out of the equation and Penn State 's rushing offense ranks 73rd; the rushing defense 91st.
So, what's the problem? Is it possible that Penn State is simply getting beat physically?
Penn State 's strength program focuses on High Intensity Training, or "HIT." High intensity training utilizes weight machines rather than free weights. Michigan also uses HIT, as do several NFL teams including the Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars and a few others. An underlying principle of HIT is working muscles to failure or exhaustion.
Most college and NFL programs, however, use an Olympic training style, consisting of free weights: barbells and dumbbells.
George L. Panzak , MS, is a biomedical researcher who also runs a sports performance training business. He sees free-weight training as vital to football players, but says there is a place for HIT when administered properly. But he also adds that constant use of HIT as a conditioning program can actually be counterproductive.
"Working muscles to failure every workout, as you do in HIT, is similar to a marathon runner running 26 miles each time he trains," explains Panzak , a certified Olympic weightlifting coach who also works with the football teams at Manheim Central and Woodland Hills high schools. "Machines have a place in weight training, no question, but a bar is like an opponent. No machine can teach you what you can learn with a bar in your hand."
Penn State 's strength and conditioning program made news during a recruiting battle between Penn State and Virginia Tech over Kevin Jones, now an All-American running back for the Hokies . Jones' decision was rumored to have come down to Penn State's program vs. the program at Virginia Tech. Jones himself said the issue was "part of the reason" he chose Virginia Tech. Tech assistant coach Whammy Ward, who recruited Jones, has said publicly that Penn State's HIT program sealed the deal: for the Hokies .
"Our kids get bigger and faster and that doesn't happen at Penn State ," Ward said at the time.
HIT vs. Olympic
The main criticism of HIT is that it simply does not produce the explosiveness needed in football, especially for linemen.
"Olympic is better for
football players because it requires more stabilization," says Tim Beltz , assistant strength coach at the University of Pittsburgh . "On a machine bench, you just push straight forward using linear strength. When a player is pass blocking, the lineman isn't coming at him straight on, so firing back in a straight line, as you do on a machine, won't get it done. The stabilization process gives you strength outside of a straight line. Free weight exercises do a better job of that than machines."
Green Bay Packers' strength coach Barry Rubin agrees. "Free weights and dumb bells simulate what you do on the football field," Rubin explains. "They work your body more functionally and force stabilization. Without a doubt, it's the best training for football athletes."
Steelers' strength and conditioning coach Chet Furman, who uses HIT, contends that Olympic movements don't necessarily simulate what happens on the field.
"I've never seen a squat mimic a player coming out of his stance," counters Furman. He also stresses that Olympic training programs put players at a much greater risk for injury, a point echoed by Baltimore Ravens' strength coach Jeff Friday.
"The risk of injury with Olympic movements outweighs the benefits," Friday says. "I'm working with men aged 21 to 35 years, almost all of whom have orthopedic histories, some quite extensive."
Dave Kennedy is the head strength coach at Pitt, formerly of Ohio State . Kennedy acknowledges that there is a greater risk of injury with Olympic movements; yet his teams don't use any machines.
"There is almost no chance of injury when you're strapped in a machine," he admits. "There is also nowhere near the reward from a machine."
Former Penn State tight end Kyle Brady, now with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, trained using exclusively HIT at Penn State and does the same with the Jags. He cross-trains in the off-season with free weights and says the risk of injury can be easily minimized.
"We have trainers and strength coaches whose forte is kinesiology and human movement, and they help you pick up the proper techniques so you're not hurting yourself," Brady said.
Some former Penn State players now in the NFL have come under fire because they seemingly lack the strength of their peers, Brady being a notable exception. The St. Louis Rams made defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy their number 1 pick this season. Rams' coach Mike Martz said of Kennedy on the eve of the regular season, "He needs to learn the speed and physicalness of the game. His strength just isn't there yet."
Penn State strength coach John Thomas, along with offensive line coaches Dick Anderson and Bill Kenney, did not respond to several interview requests for this story. Former Nittany Lion defensive lineman Michael Haynes, now with the Chicago Bears, also declined to discuss Penn State with PSR.
San Francisco 49er Anthony Adams, who played alongside Haynes and Kennedy on the Penn State d-line last season, said only, "As long as you're working hard you'll do okay, no matter what the system is."
The Packers' Rubin isn't so sure.
"Take two equal people and work one on HIT and the other on Olympic movements and free weights for three months each," Rubin offers. "In the end, the Olympic person will be the better, more athletic, more explosive player. There really is no question about it."
The question, "What is wrong with the Lions?" is still valid: although the answer may not be too far away.
In fact, it may be as close as the weight room.