At this time of the year, a lot of the athletes who will compete at Combine are working out intensively at a variety of gym complexes that often house the athlete and will generally offer nutritional programs, a full kitchen for meals that are specifically designed to permit maximum performance, and a Star Wars workout facility. Machines for testing oxygen intake and CO2 exhalations sit alongside the treadmills that they will be used with. The cold pools that reduce muscle inflammation are filled with shivering, shaking prospects. There are machines for every muscle, and a wide range of other training devices as well.
I’ve written before on Charles Dimry, a one-time Broncos cornerback, and his facility, a franchise of Velocity Performance. There is a big fish in this growth-industry pond that used to be Athletes Performance Institute. Now it’s just Athletes Performance, but nearly everyone still calls it API. Luke Richesson was with them for 10 years. API turns out top professional athletes on a consistent basis - they’re booked solid during the predraft training cycle. Professional athletes from a variety of sports train there year-round.
Luke Richesson himself trained the number one overall draft pick for four years in a row. He’s worked with young men who are trying to get noticed, and he’s worked with professional athletes who need a top level trainer. He’s firmly into cutting edge techniques and has proven himself with Jack Del Rio before - Richesson worked with Del Rio and the Jaguars from 2009-2011 and Del Rio was reported in the papers as having stated that soft tissue injuries were immediately down when Richesson drove the Strength and Conditioning program. It’s no surprise. Richesson understands what NFL players need.
You’ll hear a few words a lot around him. One is functional strength - never mind if you can lift a barbell. Can you push a man around? How do you develop those skills, and the strength for those skills? Richesson knows.
And job one is core strength. This is a matter of training certain muscles in order to create power that flows from the center of the body outward - having a powerful core makes all other activities more effective. These are the muscles in the core that must become both powerful and balanced against each other (via Sports Fitness Advisor):
Abdominals: rectus adbominis, tranversus abdominis, internal and external abdominal obliques
Hip Misculature: iliopsoas; rectus femoris; sartorius; tensor fasciae latae; pectineus; gluteus maximus, medius and minimus; semitendinosus; semimembranosus; biceps femoris; adductor brevis, longus, and magnus; gemellus superior and inferior; obturator internus and externus; quadratus femoris; piriformis
Spinal Musculature: erector spinae; quadratus lumborum; paraspinals; trapezius; psoas major; quadratus lumborum; multifidus; iliocastalis lumborum and thoracis; rotatores; latissimus dorsi; and serratus anterior
Plus, the benefits of core training from the same page:
- Greater efficiency of movement
- Improved body control and balance
- Increased power output from both the core musculature and peripheral muscles such as the shoulders, arms and legs
- Reduced risk of injury (the core muscles act as shock absorbers for jumps and rebounds etc.)
- Improved balance and stability
- Improved athletic performance!
In my case, it was martial arts that taught me about core muscles, but if martial arts aren’t what’s happening in the trenches, I don’t know what is. Among other arts, I learned shotokan karate, which is an Okinawan art. Often used in the waters of the rice patties that cover that beautiful island chain, shotokan emphasized dropping your hips (or pad level) and driving all kicks and punches from the ‘hara’ - different cultural perspective, but same sets of muscles as the core musculature - as well as being able to balance on one leg for extended periods of time before launching a very fast, powerful kick or strike from that posture, which requires balance, leverage, explosion of the initial movement, and very strong core muscles.
The Oriental perspective adds certain attributes of human energetics that are poorly known in the West, while the Western approach deals with a much more in-depth understanding of the physical and chemical structures. Both are very effective in different degrees and situations. Development of the hara has been shown to be an effective adjunct in treating diseases from asthma to cancer. Developing the core musculature can greatly reduce lower back pain, a nearly 100-billion-dollar-a-year industry in the US, and is essential to studying any sport in the modern age. It’s all in how you use the training and why.
Taking that back to Luke Richesson, he’s a man who has found his calling in life, and it has a lot to do with the application of physical training and kinesiology. His wife since 2002, Anita Nall-Richesson, is a U.S. Olympic medalist in swimming who worked with Luke. As a 16-year old at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Nall won a gold medal in Women's 4x100 m Medley Relay, a silver medal in Women's 100 m Breaststroke, and a bronze in Women's 200 m Breaststroke. Earlier that year, she set a then-world-record time in the Women's 200 m Breaststroke, as a 15-year old at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, Indiana.
By the year following the turn of the century, Richesson had come on to API and developed a substantial following. It got to the point where players from the Jacksonville Jaguars were talking about going to Arizona to train with this remarkable guy. Jack Del Rio asked them what was so special about him and got answers that included phrases he wasn’t familiar with. He went out to meet Luke for himself, and came back very impressed. In 2009, JDR poached him for the Jaguars himself, and Luke spent the last three years working for the Jaguars as their strength and conditioning coach. JDR stated that he saw an almost immediate reduction in hamstring and soft tissue injuries once Richesson got his program in play:
“I was looking to bring in a guy that was a little bit outside the box of traditional strength training,” Del Rio noted. “Luke, in the time that he had under his belt at (Athletes’ Performance), was very productive with getting guys ready for the combine, getting them ready to have special years.”
API did a lot more than just physical training - nutrition, training and regular physical therapy were all parts of what he brought to Jacksonville after his time at API. Richesson was a huge proponent of integrating every possible aspect of human training into his program, recognizing that missing any single aspect could mean a player developing problems instead of power.
“I interviewed him and he was terrific,” said Del Rio. “He’s more into functional strength, a lot of core strength, a lot of cutting-edge technology in regards to training the human body and recovery and all those things. He’s a tireless worker. I think he’ll be an asset to the organization.”
In the years from 2001 to 2008, Luke’s work at API, the outcomes show the quality of his abilities. You could see why players wanted to get in with him - he helped train four No.1 overall selections, 52 first-round draft picks, over 90 Day 1 picks (prior to the 1st round-only setup) and more than 250 total draftees. He also understands who exactly he’s working with.
“Maximum absolute strength gains are not the goal,” Richesson said (video). “There’s a time and a place for that, but someone that early in the game (predraft college students), they’re not prepared mentally or physically for that.” It’s a good point. When they’re in the NFL, they’re expected to reach higher standards, but you have to develop them over time, not expect them to reach elite NFL standards in their first year, the Von Millers of our world excepted. Richesson understands how to develop players and what they need at different points in their careers.
Richesson was interviewed by student and devotee Sean Casey, who is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in both Nutritional Science-Dietetics and Kinesiology-Exercise Physiology. Sean graduated academically as one of the top students in both the Nutritional Science and Kinesiology departments. Here’s a partial quote from the interview, which I’d recommend:
Q: It’s well known that there is a major jump going from college football to the NFL. From a physical standpoint, are there any areas of performance (raw strength, movement mechanics, core strength, etc) that most college athletes are lacking?
A: “You see the typical patterns of weakness (strength) and poor movement (position specific) but these guys can overcome these limitations because of their physical ability and knowledge of football. In our realm (Strength & Conditioning) one of the areas we can impact the NFL Player is by correcting their movement compensations due to a past injury (Note from Doc - issues with Nate Irving will be interesting to watch on that basis).
“A college athlete can be hammered in their workouts and you do not have to worry about any residual side effects; they will bounce back the next day & ask for more… a 21 year old kid is pretty resilient! On the other hand, the body of a veteran with 3+ years of experience in the NFL shows wear and tear. When they’re repeatedly put in a bad position, due to compensations from past injuries, their body will quickly remind them of this fact. Thus, a premium has to be put on proper movement technique and the training methodology has to be sound in order for athletes to enjoy long careers in the NFL.”
Q: Outside of football, what types of sport athletes have you all trained?
A: “My time in college and the private setting I was exposed to all types of athletes; in the private setting I’ve worked with quite a few team sport athletes who competed in the NHL, MLB & NBA. Additionally, I also worked with many athletes who were competing in individual sports.
“While in the college setting, I worked with the soccer, tennis, swimming, basketball and wrestling teams. When I reflect on my college experience, I get a big smile on my face whenever I think about training the wrestling teams for Arizona State & Wyoming. Those were, without a doubt, some of the most enjoyable times I’ve ever had as a coach. College wrestlers are unquestionably the toughest of the tough in the NCAA. What those guys go through on a daily basis would mentally & physically break most athletes. It’s a shame that the sport does not get more attention.
“Although football is my bread & butter I have also enjoyed having my hand in the Mixed Martial Arts & Boxing.”
Q: Everyone always talks about sport specific training programs. What are your thoughts on this issue? In order to achieve great athletic success, must one specialize at an early age?
A: “With the popularity of the NFL Combine and the National High School Combines, it appears that performance training is gaining popularity every year & with that has come a lot of people that don’t know what the hell they are doing. Unfortunately these individuals are guiding kids in workouts. As a result, many kids lack a basic athletic skill set that should serve as the foundation for future development; this critical step has been skipped over for “sport specificity”. Kids no longer play the seasonal sports, they ‘specialize’ in one area and it’s a shame. Kids are missing out on great experiences & areas that would actually help their ‘main’ sport.”
Richesson’s experienced, knowledgeable, highly trained, extremely intelligent and he doesn’t brook a lot of nonsense from his charges. Actually, some of his rules will have to be reworked to fit under the new CBA - he used to require extensive offseason workouts, and he once said that if you weren’t there with them, you were against them. He’s already at work on new perspectives for the revised situation.
Richesson is the kind of piece to championship teams that many almost-rans never quite get. Looking at the physical shape and the ripped physiques of the Giants, especially on the DL but across the field, you know that they count on strength coach Jerry Palmieri to provide them with the best conditioned athletes they can put on the field. Denver needs to take that next step to get themselves into that kind of shape, to put out that kind of power and to take those 104 missed tackles - many of them arm tackles or careless flying body blocks - and turn them into defensive stops. Core strength, functional strength, matching drills to the exact needs of the position - all of these and more are the functions of Denver’s newest coach.
I’ll be doing a second article that will get more in-depth into his training approach and how he achieves the success that he does. Ronnie Brown guest-stars in a brief video about balancing the leg muscles, and there will be other video action as well.
Oh, and one thing he won’t be doing? Looking for some non-existent ‘cure’ for playing at the Mile High altitude: It improves performance, not diminishes it. Denver’s fortunate to have a coach coming in who understands the difference.