Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
It’s football season, which means lots of gamewatching, junk food eating, and exchanges of predictions and prognostications of various sorts about your favorite team’s performance potential.
For many people, especially those involved in strength sports, one of the unique features of football season is the observation and appreciation of the sheer talent of pro and top college football players. As individual athletes, pro football players (especially) tend to be some of the fastest, most powerful, and strongest people on the planet. Oftentimes, observations turn into speculations and searches for data on just how physically impressive, and especially how strong, these players really are.
Well it turns out that football players and coaches alike put a high premium on strength and that both parties like to brag about strength! Thus relatively good data on the strength levels of top pro football players is not too hard to find. When we look at these numbers, we find that they are simultaneously impressive yet just fall short of being impressive enough to be world-class for strength sports. These are some of the best strength-power athletes on the planet, whittled down into the NFL by a filtering and recruitment structure that allows only the very elite to survive all the way to the pros. But for as good as they are in football, these guys aren’t as strong as the very best powerlifters in the world… Not even close in most cases.
So what’s the reason for this discrepancy? Why aren’t the best football players also the strongest guys in the world? Certainly there is no shortage of hypotheses from onlookers. Some say football players don’t need the kind of strength powerlifters have in order to play football – that just a minimum is enough per each field position. Some say that athleticism trumps strength, and that being too strong can actually make you less athletic. Still others say that it’s a matter of different training priorities, and that if pro football players began training full time for powerlifting, every single record would fall within months.
It turns out there are 3 basic factors (or rather categories of factors) that, for the most part, keep football players from being the strongest powerlifters. Here they are, to be discussed in detail just in a bit:
1.) Football is a multifactorial sport of which strength is only a part. This means that most of the world’s strongest people lack the other needed qualities to play football at the pro level.
2.) Genetics for best football performance and best powerlifting performance don’t overlap 100%, so while some pro players are crazy strong, they may lack the leverage advantages of top powerlifters.
3.) Time investment/competing demands of two different sports. If you spend huge chunks of the year maintaining strength and then recovering from football-induced injuries, your ability to get stronger over time is seriously hindered.
There is a lot to say about these factors, but first, we’ve gotta set the record straight on something. Some powerlifters say that pro football players are ‘pretty weak.’ Is this true?
Are Pro Football Players “Weak?”
Nope, not in the least. The strongest pro football players are legendarily strong. Some of the strongest guys have squatted 800+ to pretty decent depths. How many guys do that without wraps in a typical meet? How many can do that at all? Sure, this is not overly impressive compared to world class lifters, but for anyone else, it’s downright amazing.
Lots of pro linemen bench over 500. How many guys do you know that can do that? I don’t mean talking about benching it ‘soon,’ I mean having it on video. When you think about it, it’s not that many!!! A legit raw 500 bench is super impressive, and for limb-length reasons to be discussed later, even more impressive for someone with a football player’s build. If you can scoff at a 500lb raw bench as pedestrian, more power to you, but after years of being involved in strength sport at a high level, I cannot be unimpressed.
Football players don’t deadlift as regularly as powerlifters, but they do hang-cleans quite often. A small fraction of the players on most any pro team have hang-cleaned over 400lbs. With garbage technique, I might add. How many YouTube videos of Chinese lifters do you have to watch to consider a 400lb clean (over 182kg) unimpressive? When is the last time you saw that at a local weightlifting meet?
Let’s get something straight before we dive into the reasons why football players are not THE STRONGEST athletes on the planet… they are still incredibly strong.
Ok, having said that, let’s get into reason #1 that limits the powerlifting performance of top pro football players: the multifactorial nature of sport.
Factor 1: The Multifactorial Nature of Sport
The first of three reasons for the strength disparity between top pro football players and top powerlifters is probably also the most salient. Put in its simplest form, it is the realization that the strongest people in the world are not playing in the NFL because while they are strong enough, they are not good enough at the actual game of football. Success in football at the highest level consists of 3 factors:
A.) The right psychological mindset for football
B.) The right technical preparation (good enough movements, passing, catching skills to play at the NFL level)
C.) The right fitness characteristics for football (speed, power, strength, mobility)
If we had 1000 of the strongest people at various bodyweights weights lined up, how many of them would be good enough at all of the other factors that determine football to play ACTUAL PRO BALL?
Well, perhaps 50 of them lack the right psychological mindset for the game.
Technical factors? We’re talking about the best in the game here, so charitably we’ll say that’s 500 more guys cut out.
Now of the leftover 450 guys, we need to find the ones that are not just strong, but powerful, mobile, and fast enough… That’s very charitably another 350 people out.
Now we’re down to only 100 guys. That’s 1/10 of the number of ‘strongest in the world’ we started with! So the verdict on factor 1: most of the strongest guys in the world will not be good enough to play pro ball if for no other reason than that so many other factors must be in place! This means that if a pro football player wants to be the strongest guy, he has to contend with another 10 people that have strength genetics just as good as his, but lack everything else he has. That’s already an uphill battle.
And guess what, there ARE other reasons! Let’s take our 100 remaining strongest and take them through the second filter.
Factor 2: Genetics for best Powerlifting and Football Performance do not Overlap 100%
Of our 100 strongest guys, we face another constraint. Chances are, only perhaps 50 of the WEAKEST of that group will have the genetics for pro football. Why? Because at the highest levels of strength AND football, there is some diversion of anatomical concordance. In plain English, the best football players are not built the best for strength, and vice versa.
To be the best at football, most positions require long legs for fast field moves and running speeds. These very same long legs make deadlifting a problem (possibly) and make squats a huge problem (almost certainly). The long arms needed for reaching for tackles, blocks, and passes are an obvious hindrance in the bench press, and the short torso lengths that usually accompany athletic physiques further complicate squatting, though they may help in deadlifting. On the net balance, the very same long limbs that make better football players make one worse at powerlifting (certainly at squatting and benching, even if they may help with deadlifting), and vice versa for short limbs. Powerlifting standouts with short limbs are sure good at the powerlifts, but lack the limb lengths for best football performance. Another concern is that most pro football players are tall. In order to maximize leverage advantages at a tall height, powerlifters usually have to weigh a whole lot. A wide receiver may be 6’3, 220lbs, and may be very strong, but the number of 220lb record holders over 6’0 in powerlifting is… maybe no one? To be good at powerlifting, that same wide receiver would have to throw away his football career and get to weighing 275+. Not likely, or easy for that matter.
To further complicate matters, tendons that insert further away from the joint are best at producing high force movements, but tendons that insert close to the joint are better at high velocities. Because football is so dependent on high velocity and power movements, those strong people with joint constructions that very highly favor strength will by definition just not be as fast as they could have been, which spells poor outcomes for football excellence. Now our group of 100 strong guys from the last factor are down to perhaps 50 from limb lengths and down to 45 from those individuals who had joints designed so well for strength that they cost too much speed. Just 45 of our world’s strongest are left over, and there’s one final factor, and it’s a big one!
Factor 3: Time Investment/Competing Demands
Here’s a new flash: football players play football. Crazy, I know.
But they don’t just play the game. They practice the game, they recover from practice, they get hurt playing, and they recover from injuries.
So imagine how your powerlifting training would be affected if you had to do an entire sport on top of it, and a sport as physically taxing and risky as football! I do Jiu Jitsu for my bodybuilding cardio, and let me tell you, recovery is just not the same. My pressing has been affected for weeks on end as I recovered from slight elbow injuries received in bjj, my grip strength takes a beating, my arms are tired all the time… All sorts of issues!
In order to survive both football and strength/power training, pro football players cannot train hard with weights year-round. Right before and during the season, they intentionally go into power maintenance mode to reduce fatigue so that they can play their best football.
Right after the season, they may take up to several months of easier training just to recover from injuries sustained in-season. And during the remaining months in which they can train hard, they still need to balance strength training and football practice. So basically, take your normal PL training, put it on the back burner for 4 months out of the year, and only go 90% as hard as you can the rest of the year… What are the chances you’ll be as good as you could have been in powerlifting? MUCH smaller.
Lastly, football players use the powerlifts to enhance sport performance, and not just to be good at them for their own sake. Thus, most football benches are relatively flat-backed and most squat high bar. Flat backed benches with long arms? Now that 500lb lineman bench starts to look more and more impressive! Of our 45 remaining guys, maybe 5 have the sheer genetic talent and dedication to still remain the strongest. MAYBE.
So out of our 1000 best possible lifters, 955 don’t even play pro ball, and the remaining 45 that do are almost certainly too involved in football and not involved enough in powerlifting to challenge for top spots in powerlifting competition. And how many all-time world records are there? Maybe 100 total for the men (squat, bench, deadlift, and total for all weightlcasses and some left over for wraps vs. raw). I counted 77 total untested records, but in any case, 100 is a charitable figure. Well, our 5 or so NFL players that survived all the cuts now have to compete with 995 others with at-least-as-good of strength genetics and almost always better circumstances. Is there a doubt as to why no current NFL players hold any of the all-time world records, and in reality, almost none come close?
Before closing out the discussion, there are some things that I’d like to clear up about the nature of football and the preparation for it. Here they are:
Football Training Insights
1.) The most dominant fitness characteristic of football is power (the ability to combine high forces with high velocities of movement). The most fundamental underlying factor of power is strength (and the most trainable, since speed is largely genetic). Getting stronger is the best way to improve power, and football players should be spending most of their off-field training in that pursuit. As long as they stay around their playing weight and manage fatigue well, football players should try to get as strong as their circumstances and limitations will allow, plain and simple. Closer to the season and in-season, power development should be the goal, and smaller, younger players should also focus on gaining size, but other than that, strength training is king. Is there such a thing (given the above limitations of commitment and fatigue) as being too strong for football?
Pure nonsense in its highest form.
2.) There is a career-length periodization that’s best for football players. Younger players should focus more on putting on size for their position, establishing basic strength, and learning the technical basics of the game.
High school and early college players should focus on expanding their strength and finding their playing style with the techniques they have ingrained.
Lastly, top college and pro players need to focus the most on maximizing power and learning to play a more advanced tactical and strategic game.
The take-home point of this is that young players should not copy the programs of the pros, and that football programming should evolve with the player. ‘But the pros do it’ is not a conceiving reason for Pop Warner coaches to adapt training approaches, and ‘I’ve always done it this way’ is not an excuse by pros to avoid updating their training.
3.) Be wary of training that supposedly improves general athleticism. It’s possible to get faster, stronger, more powerful, more flexible, and better at actual football techniques and movements. But to get to be more athletic in such a way that allows all further learning to proceed better? Sport scientists just are not sure that this happens, and most of them guess it probably doesn’t happen to any meaningful degree.
In the very least, if it does happen, this is the realm of a sport coach, not a strength and conditioning coach. The weight room is a place to get stronger and more powerful, not to run useless ladder drills in a pointless effort to attempt to improve athleticism. Even most good sport coaches will tell you: talent is recruited and developed, not manufactured.
Are pro football players super strong? You bet, almost all of them. But are they the strongest? The multifactorial nature of sport, limb and joint factors, and specialization and commitment tradeoffs make this almost impossible, which of course explains why we don’t often see the best football players as the strongest people.
On a related note, if football was gone tomorrow and powerlifting was the IT sport, would all powerlifters be out of a job (or hobby, rather) and would all the records fall the next meet? Unlikely, as most of the strongest people already don’t play pro ball. It’s funny when you think about it, but Ed Coan would still almost certainly be king. And the Russians? Well they don’t have football anyway (or if you watch Belayev’s 395kg pull, apparently they don’t obey the laws of physics, either)!
Until next time, keep training hard and smart!
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Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”
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