A Peek Inside “The Graveyard”

“Just as those who practice the same profession recognize each other instinctively, so do those who practice the same vice.”

Marcel Proust

Note 1: This subject may seem over and above what any “normal trainee” need worry himself with, and to some extent, that’s true enough.  However, the take away message here — Know thyself, know thy goal, and train appropriately — applies to any trainee (or potential trainee, even) at any skill level.

Note 2: For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, SS/HIT in the Strength & Conditioning community parlance, simply refers to Super Slow (as in rep speed)/High Intensity (as in one set to failure) Training.  For all intents and purposes, and at its roots, this is essentially the same protocol as that espoused by Dr. Doug McGuff in his book, Body By Science.

Chris, of the fabulous Conditioning Research blog, alerted me to this Sports Illustrated article which apparently hit the Net last month.  I don’t know how this one got past (what I though was, at least) a pretty thorough article screen, but alas,  it did.  Anyhow, much thanks again to Chris for sending it my way.

I “Twittered” about Ross Tucker’s SI article at the time Chis alerted me to it (I make Twitter updates frequently with little finds like this), however, in light of the discussion having ensued as a result of the Body By Science Part 3 review, (and the Conditioning Research post cited below), I’d like to re-visit the article now, as it somewhat verifies – even amongst the most highly trained and resilient of athletes – a notion that Dr. McGuff has pointed out in his book. Namely, the point of injury (and especially cumulative trauma injury) incurred directly as a result of questionable training practices. As Dr. McGuff (and Nassim Taleb) are fond of saying, one really ought to “survey the graveyard” as part of any complete study on the efficacy of any purportedly “successful” training program. The fact of the matter is that  survivors of certain questionable training practices (or hell, any training practice for that matter) are just that — survivors — and there’s a big difference between merely surviving a protocol and actually having been made a better athlete by that training protocol. And this difference is very, very hard to discern. 

One victim of this Strength and Conditioning coach carnage, as described in the article above, was Houston Texans S & C coach, Dan Riley (link here).  Some discussion of Dan’s methods (SS/HIT intensive, for the most part) vis-a-vis his firing were discussed recently over at this Conditioning Research post dealing with the idea (or lack thereof?) of functional training in relation to SS/HIT.  Additionally, you can glean some insight into Dan’s training philosophy here, at the achieve of the “Fitness Corner” articles he did for HoustonTexans.com.  Be warned, though, that the preceding link may not be around too much longer, for obvious reasons.  The point of this post, though, is not to attempt to discredit the SS/HIT methodology — I happen to think that SS/HIT, properly applied/dosed, can be a productive methodology if employed under certain circumstances — but to emphasize the need for individually customized training protocols.  And this, is my mind, would be a dictate for every trainee, regardless of skill level or specificity of goal.  Follow any “canned” workout protocol (including my own) without adjusting for your own goals and needs, and you’ll end up with, at best (and only if you’re lucky) lackluster results.  The worst that can happen is that you’ll either get hurt, or suffer some other form of a setback; physical, psychological, or otherwise.

Grasping the Contextualized Content; or, Digging for the Underlying Meaning, as Opposed to the Gathering of Specifics

In the spirit of intellectual juxtaposition, I didn’t want to let this blog post from Vern Gambetta, of Elite Track, go by unnoticed. Vern is voicing a sentiment here you’re unlikely to hear very often, especially from such a high-profile coach, as sentiments like this serve to severely undermine the potential profit margins of the few big players in the S & C community. So what does Vern’s post have to do with the Sports Illustrated article cited above?  Well, everything that is Strength and Conditioning, if you ask me.  And here, too, can be found edification of that valuable nugget of wisdom that any trainee, regardless of ability, goal, or “training age” (i.e., experience) can put to use immediately — namely that, to be effective, ant chosen training methodology must be matched to the specific trainee, and to that trainee’s specific needs at the particular time in question.  Identify the need, and pick the methodology best suited to address that need; that is to say, train the specified weakness, in the context of current circumstance, via the most appropriate methodology suitable in the pursuit of trainee’s defined goal . Unfortunately, for NFL (and for the collegiate level, even more so) S & C coaches, this is a theory that’s next to impossible to put into practice.  As Ross Tucker states in the aforementioned SI article:

…There is another well-known strength coach whose program is the same for every position on the team. Now the actual weights the players lift may be different, but the specific exercises that every player is asked to complete are identical, which makes absolutely no sense to me. How can he possibly think offensive linemen and cornerbacks are the same type of athletes and need the same workouts? That’s like training a bear and a cheetah to hunt the same way. They’re different animals.

Interior linemen and perimeter skill guys are barely even playing the same sport if you ask me. Offensive linemen need to focus on power, short-area quickness and lateral movement. Cover corners need to concentrate on speed, flexibility and fluidity in and out of their breaks…

This pretty much sums-up my sentiment on the subject as well.  Now, I wouldn’t say that I agree totally with Dan Riley’s application of SS/HIT, but I certainly don’t think that his over-reliance (my opinion) on SS/HIT was the whole reason behind the Houston Texans lackluster, on the field performance the last few seasons.  There are many, many factors to consider — some of which may have been under Dan’s control, most of which, though, assuredly were not.  Back to the point of the previous article excerpt, though, and, as Vern Gambetta puts it:

…I realize it is so easy to get caught up in the trap of the new great exercise or the next great machine, but as I have said many times in this blog, there is so much more to it than that. First of all, do you have a plan, a plan for that session, for the mesocyle, for the block and for the year. What are your goals? Are those goals measurable? How will you measure them? When you get down to selecting the actual exercises in some ways that is the easy part, does each exercise have a specific context? Where and how does it fit into the bigger picture?

and then:

…Frankly that is why when I write or speak I am very reticent to show or print workouts, because people want to copy them and apply them, without any thought to the considerations I previously mentioned. I will put up a couple of workouts this weekend and the audience will try furiously to copy them. My intent will be to show context, but I am sure the audience will be looking for the magic bullet, it is the same everywhere. Coaching is a creative and a scientific process…

Training has always been thus, and thus it will remain; a unique mix of properly applied science, creativity, art, psychology and feel.  Cookie-cutter programs and across-the-board delineations are not, and will never be the answer.  Just as each individual is unique, so is each individual’s training needs at each unique point in time.

In Health,


8 responses to “A Peek Inside “The Graveyard”

  1. It just keeps geting better!!!

    My old MA teacher usued to say….”our art is not for the masses” It wasn’t meant in a condescending tone, what he really meant was that if you want to get really really good, it takes a level of dedication, intelligence and constant learning/discovering that most people are not willing to undertake. I suspect that the “art of S&C” is much the same.


    • Marc,
      Many similarities between mentoring a martial arts discipline and 1 on 1 S & C work. The teacher to student ratio in both cases is inversely proportional to the quality of available (and individualized) instruction. I suppose this is true of any student/teacher relationship, though. I’ve always thought it odd that a thoroughbred owner will shell out plenty of money for a quality trainer, but that professional athletic teams are reluctant to spend the money to employ an adequate number of top quality S & C coaches. With 100 million dollar plus payrolls, you’d think that squeezing every bit of potential out of these athletes (assets) would take top priority, but…

      I think we both produce quality work in our respective niches.

  2. I was under the impression that super-slow was designed for the elderly with weakened support tissue. It should work well for increasing muscle mass. However, from the perspective of athletics, it’s ignoring the threshold principle (i.e. promoting the growth of the wrong types of fibres) and all of the neural aspects of athletics.

    • Robert,
      I tend to agree with you, especially in area of neural adaptation/enhancement. Check out some of the discussion/comments that followed Part 3 of the BBS review, where we kick these ideas around a bit.

  3. Riley’s “over-reliance” on HIT principles were part of 3 Superbowl Championships, four NFC championships, and five NFC East championships in 19 years with the Washington Redskins.

    The single greatest determinant of sporting success is talent. In my opinion, most people don’t fully respect this.

    In my post in the BBS discussion I mentioned winning a state cycling championship after following a 6 month HIT regimen combined with sport specific training. What I didn’t mention was winning the championship was, I believe, the culmination of an excellent overall training program and the fulfillment of my natural talent. 8 months prior I lasted a total of 15 minutes in a 90 minute pro race. Although I am gifted to ride a bicycle compared to the general bicycle enthusiast, competing at the highest level of professional cycling is a whole different story. I simply am not that talented.

    Put another way, Keith could train me for 6 months in any fashion he wants, and Andy Schleck from Team Saxo Bank would still beat me up Mount Ventoux, with no strength training, riding a Huffy. That is talent.

    It’s also the difference between the Redskins and the Texans.

    Regarding Riley, his firing was quite a shock apparently:


    It didn’t get any coverage nationally, but the firing two weeks ago of Houston Texans strength coach Dan Riley by general manager Rick Smith shocked much of the NFL – and the Texans community.

    “The dismissals of Riley and trainer Kevin Bastinrank as two of the monumental acts of stupidity in the brief history of the Texans,” wrote Houston Chronicle columnist . . .  Richard Justice.

    Riley, who had just concluded his 28th year in the league, was one of the giants in the strength community. He was hired by Joe Gibbs with the Redskins in 1982 and remained there through 2000, when Capers scooped him up to start the Texans franchise with him in ’01.

    Riley got a few phone calls to gauge his interest in returning to work. But upon reflection, Riley decided to retire.

    “It’s time for me to spend more time with my family,” Riley said this week. “To do that job right, you have to put in a lot of time. I just didn’t think it was worth it anymore.”

    Riley pointed to the decline in weight room hours designated by coaches and how injuries are quick to be blamed on the strength coaches.

    “You go through a season with hardly any injuries, and you don’t hear any compliments from the coach and you don’t get any bonuses,” Riley said. “But as soon as injuries start to become a problem, it’s our fault even though coaches don’t give you enough time with the players to really do your job right.”

    Riley’s excellent conditioning manual for the Texan’s can be found here:

    • Patrick,
      First, thanks for posting that lifting/conditioning link. I knew that was out there somewhere, but I couldn’t put my hands on it.

      I tend to make a habit of comparing S & C work to thoroughbred training, but really, the two disciplines are quite similar. First and foremost, in both disciplines, the trainer is only as “good” as the incoming talent level. Now, match a quality horse with a quality trainer and something very special will emerge. Same with S & C work. Unfortunately, the very nature of S & C work — the mix of hard science, art, gut, etc., lends itself to being the sacrificial lamb when things get wiggy with the team as a whole. And let me just reiterate here as well — I totally appreciate what DR has done/produced throughout his long career, even if I am of a somewhat differing opinion of his methods.

      Let me just throw this thought out there for the purposes of discussion: Dan came along at a time when (early 80’s) when S & C, in football at least, was in its infancy. It’s hard to believe that a sport like football was so late to the party, but it’s true (and baseball is just recently coming around, but that’s another story). Now, much of his success came early on, and, if you track his career, that success trailed off somewhat. Some would argue that DR’s early success was due to (assuming all other things equal, which of course is not true) the “anything not harmful is better than nothing phenomena”, and that as better training methods came down the pike, and the athletes using those methods became even more proficient at their “craft”, the lackings in DR’s theories were made all the more apparent.

      I don’t think it’s that simple at all. I hold to the notion that each athlete, no matter the talent or training “age”, has a unique set of weaknesses, limitations, and relatively weak(er) links that, in order to push the athlete to a higher plane, must be addressed. Each athlete’s issues must be addressed individually using the best methods/techniques available to service that particular “weak link”. Today my issues might be addressed with SS/HIT; 8 weeks from now, I might need to incorporate a block of more power-oriented work. The guy right next to me might really “need” to work out some hip power issues, but due to a particular injury, might be better off plugging away, and at least maintaining, with SS/HIT. It all works, and nothing works forever. Find the weak link and make it better. Best tool for the job, so on and so forth. Now, I bet DR would totally agree with me on this — and then he’d say “ok, now you’ve got to address the issues of 80+ highly diverse (in talent, “training age”, and in position-related requirements) individuals with no time and little resources…now what, oh wise, philosophical one?” And then I say, well, SS/HIT is a pretty good across the board method — and it’s quick, to the point, and it limits potential weight room injuries as well…

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