Jack Del Rio, far better than many coaches, understands the value and responsibilities of a strength and conditioning coach. Most fans couldn’t name three of them around the league, but it’s a position that carries with it enormous responsibility and a potential benefit that is rare - the ability to increase the effectiveness of the players’ efforts and to simultaneously reduce the number of their injuries.
Del Rio had been a linebacker and a very good one. He’d become a consensus All-American in his senior year with the USC Trojans at the position. He was immediately drafted by the New Orleans Saints, made the All-Rookie Defensive Team, and was named the team’s most valuable rookie. Often on the move from one team to another as a player, Del Rio was voted to the Pro Bowl after the 1994 season, and he credited that in great part to the ferocious attitude that he’d always brought to his own conditioning. It was an attribute that others noticed.
Del Rio retired after the 1996 season, but a lunch with Tony Dungy resulted in an offer from New Orleans head coach Mike Ditka for Del Rio to bring his knowledge to the Saints as their strength and conditioning coach. It was an entry level position for Del Rio, who was promoted to linebackers coach the following year, but his work in that role showed the kind of commitment that Del Rio expects from the players under him. It also explains why, when Del Rio went to Arizona to see the trainer that his players were raving about despite the vast changes and improvements that were and are sweeping through that field, JDR understood enough of what Luke Richesson was doing to make sure that the Jaguars made him an offer that brought him first to Florida. After seeing the results he got over three seasons, JDR has now brought him to Denver.
How sure of Richesson’s knowledge and ability are the Broncos? Denver has already designed and built a new team fitness center. Now, that’s a solid, physical demonstration of their commitment to that aspect of player development. Del Rio talks about Richesson as thinking ‘out of the box’, but in fairness, it’s been that box that has defined how slowly the NFL has generally bought into and applied the most modern advancements in kinesiology, injury management and physical training. Richesson, along with many other things, is focused on core strength, which we talked about last time, on a patient’s functional strength and on the proper balancing of the physical musculature. The immediate result of hiring Richesson by Jacksonville was a clear improvement in the number of soft tissue injuries, particularly those of the lower body and legs, including the ever-feared hamstring pull. Denver expects the same kinds of results.
How does Richesson get such good results? It’s not that complex, in overall theory. He makes sure that all of the muscle groups of the leg, ankle, foot and knee are strengthened, that they’re functioning at optimum capacity, that they are ‘turned on’ (not a term of sexual arousal, what this means is that for a long time applied kinesiology has known that for a wide range of reasons, certain muscles in the body (no matter how strong) can simply refuse to kick in and function at the proper moment and in the proper way. In the vernacular, they are ‘turned off’ in that state. Muscle testing, as backed up by extensive computer data, has shown how accurately an expert can move through the body and re-balance the musculature and even the organic neurology. I’ve learned some and worked with that technique, found it extremely valid, and benefited from it personally. I also know quite a number of NFL players who have done the same. Richesson has learned it from the viewpoint of a physical trainer and strength coach, and he achieves similar results in terms of turning on the musculature with specific, targeted exercises. It’s a highly effective, very well documented approach.
I caught a brief clip today on NFLN about former Broncos DE Nick Eason, who was filmed briefly while he was watching John Randle tape. He said he wanted to watch what made Randle great, and I happened to notice that on the play that was on in the background, Randle was visibly using his core musculature to power through an offensive tackle’s attempts to stop him. He employed excellent technique in terms of attacking the outside shoulder, footwork, using his power to its best advantage and a swim move, but as they disengaged the posture of his hips and lower body were obviously coming from the core muscles. What Richesson brings to the table is cutting edge information, yet it’s also as basic as good football gets. The better you use it, the better your technique can become and the stronger your attempts to employ it. His reputation precedes him and it seems clear that the Broncos organization has completely bought into his philosophy and techniques.
Let’s start here. In this video, Richesson talks about the high school athlete, which might not interest all of our readers, but it’s an area that many fans just don’t grasp. It should be important, though - NFL scouts are often beginning to get used to the HS names in their region by the time a student graduates and in many cases will be looking at them carefully as soon as they hit college. Their bodies’ needs are totally different from what you'd expect players with the Broncos to need. It’s important to see that Richesson really understands the progression of changing needs as the players go from their teens to early twenties and into the pro game. He has specific training options for the different stages a player goes through.
It’s something that he’s commented on many times: knowing and meeting the differences in the needs of athletes at every stage - high school, college, pre-draft, post-draft, young professional and experienced veteran. I’ve seen the outcomes of a ‘one size fits none’ approach to physical training, and while that’s not where the Broncos were with Rich Tuten, there are clearly areas where the team can benefit from a cutting edge approach - based on the cutting edge in physical training, but with decades of clinical experience and research to back it up.
The next video is very brief, but it’s essential. Here, Richesson approaches the idea of getting the muscles ‘turned on’ for the first time. While it’s a valuable technique in a clinical setting, it’s equally efficient when applied to specific training exercises that do the same thing - turning all the muscles back on - through specific forms of movement. It’s a concept that’s essential to his philosophies of training, and central to increasing everyone’s understanding of athletics and athletic development.
Next, Richesson then takes Miami running back Ronnie Brown through a pair of workouts. The first is done with the Keiser speed squat machine. You’ll want to note that Richesson here differentiates the goals for veterans and for younger players - the younger players are building to their full potential and they have different needs. The veterans are working on keeping that edge - improving it when possible, of course, but mostly emphasizing working hard to keep it honed, as well as to peak just prior to training camp so that they go into TC in the best possible condition so that injuries can be minimized..
In this video on Brown's final offseason workou, Richesson explains that the one, single goal is to maximize the performance of the individual athlete. He takes us through some simple concepts on the way, including the idea of working out somewhat less right after the season and then peaking just prior to training camp. A lot of athletes seem to forget that between OTAs and training camps, your body has time to deteriorate when what you require is having the kind of glittering edge that will both improve your performance and catch the coaches’ eyes. That’s even more true with the rookies, who don’t yet know what a professional workout regime would look like. Richesson’s ability to connect with and communicate with the players is an essential aspect of why he’s so well suited for the job as his encyclopedic knowledge of training.
Every NFL player needs quick feet. You know within moments of watching a player, even if you’ve never wanted to learn from film, that there is just something not right about a lumbering player (granted, some lumber very fast - but you have wonder how much better they’d be with proper training). That’s what Ronnie Brown is being trained in maximizing and maintaining. Luke takes that concept a level further by making sure that the foot is ‘interacting’ with the ground - that the muscles, fascia and connective tissue in the foot as well as its supporting structures are working completely and properly in unison, and that he’s contacting the ground in a balanced and powerful way in this next video on the Lateral Skip.
Here, Richesson also touches on a topic that is key to every fans’ experience - getting the glutes, not the groin, to fire when stepping, juking and cutting, whether that’s a guard pulling or a wide receiver getting yards after the catch. When that happens, you’re moving from the core musculature, to reducing the number of potential hamstring pulls and maximizing player performance. Properly employed, it’s going to reduce the number of hammie and groin pulls we’ll see. If you add knee and high ankle sprains to those two you’ve got a short list of the toughest and most common injuries that afflict NFL teams. Richesson’s work won’t get rid of all the injuries in a sport that violent but this approach makes the most sense of any I’ve seen or followed for minimizing them. I also like the amount of information that Richesson is imparting - I noticed when watching these and other videos that almost every statement he makes is fairly brief, direct and has a point that matters specifically within the greater realm of the athlete’s training. He’s clearly a talented communicator and teacher as well as being top drawer educationally. It’s a nearly optimal combination.
Okay, a return to the past - barbells. But, where are the weights? They don’t matter at this stage - he’s prepping the athlete for his workout, turning the muscles on, getting him warmed up. It’s because the purpose of the exercise is not to build strength - it’s to get all those tissues (muscle, nerves, connective tissue, etc.) firing at the right time and in the right direction when the players’ repetition of the exercise is done properly. These videos are as short as the average Americans’ attention span, but they’re chock full of information: try to catch all the nuances he covers on just this one simple technique, and extrapolate that to the amount of information and the needs that he will cover in detail on all individual players.
As an example, LB Mike Mohamed has rightfully earned some concern regarding his functional strength when on the field. It’s one reason why he was a later round pick. Richesson will be working with him on his core musculature to improve his overall conditioning, maximize his output of strength, on how to make sure the legs, hips and abdominal region are fully ready for this and then add specific exercises that are designed to improve his speed and quickness. He also needed time in the weight room to change his body from college guy to NFL player, increasing muscularity as well as power output.
The exact angle and function of the shoulders, hips, knees, and legs as the exercise is done is essential to gaining complete benefits. Anyone can do it. Most of them though, without a Richesson-type of trainer in their stable, will do it wrong. You can derive from his comments just how many things you can do incorrectly and some of the negative outcomes that would occur as a result. At this level, training is about detail. You have to get it right, or you’ll actually harm yourself, even though it’s a simple warmup exercise. You do it the right way all the time or you don’t. Richesson makes sure that the players know how to do it right. In most cases, whether they do perform it unsupervised isn’t the main point - that the coach has made sure that they have the tools to implement it correctly is. The player can use it in the proper way as often as it's appropriate in their specific regime.
Love seeing your guy tiptoeing down the sideline for a score? Me too. Richesson prepares players for that eventuality and improves any player’s overall balance with the 45 degree lateral skip and hold. Just as those I was trained with back in my shotokan karate days (in ways that were remarkably similar, in terms of leaping side to side on one foot), the exercises demonstrated here develop the small as well as the larger muscles that are required for optimum balance. They also help to strengthen the joints, which is essential - many people don’t know that the joints strengthen more slowly than the musculature, so it’s comparatively easy when you first start to train in new ways to hurt a joint, if you’re not properly supervised. Richesson also covers the use of the mini hurdle, and again talks about getting the muscles turned on. He also mentions a neurological ‘leak’ that can result in using the foot, ankle, knee, leg and hip incorrectly in this next part. By the way,‘leak’ used in this context is a reduction in the degree to which the muscles are turned on and working at full capacity. If a key muscle is at 40% capacity, it doesn’t matter if you can squat 600 lb. You’ll still lose both effectiveness and functional strength, as well as potentially exposing yourself to injury when you fail to use that information appropriately.
I’m going to let you end, if you want to (as I did), with a two-part, 20-minute interview discussion of Richesson’s theories, applications and philosophy of training. It was filmed in the Jacksonville facility when he was working there. It covers a wide swath of information, so if you’re someone who wants to know how the team is being trained, why they’ve gone in this direction and what they hope to gain from those changes, or if you’re a athlete from ‘weekend’ to ‘warrior’ who wants to know what’s going on in this field, you’d do well to catch both parts one and two.
I find the direction that Richesson is taking the team in to be one of the most exciting developments so far in this new offseason, but also one of the most enjoyable since EFX took over. The fact that they’ve already redone the workout facility in Dove Valley to permit him and his staff to work with and develop the Broncos in ways and on equipment that are consistent with the most modern of medical, kinesiological and biomechanical theory and application approaches is exciting to me on a lot of levels. It shows how serious the team is becoming about winning, and it’s a great change of pace.
I’ve worked with these techniques, mostly back during the 1990s and the early 2000s. I’ve seen myself how well they work and I’ve seen the difference when they’re not employed. It wasn’t that Rich Tuten wasn’t a good coach (he has an excellent reputation around the league) but it’s quite possible that the sheer volume of new information flowing into this field wasn’t fully integrated by him, while Richesson was literally in the heart of that info stream when he was at Athletes' Performance in Arizona - his particular facility was and is one of the top, elite centers of its kind in the US. It has a built-in, massive knowledge stream and Richesson was well-placed there, in a setting where his knowledge was used and honed even further before he took his approach to the gridiron in 2009 and proved how well it worked. He seems to also be the kind of man who revels in the constant process of learning as well as that of teaching - I doubt that the field will pass Richesson by. Quite the opposite.
Now it’s the Denver Broncos' turn to move firmly into the 21st century in terms of their training, rehab approaches and injury prevention. You’ll find, by the way, that there is another full page of short videos involving Richesson on the STACK TV website. I enjoyed every one of them.