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Texans Fitness Corner

Welcome to Dan Riley's fifth installment of Texans Fitness Corner. The response continues to be overwhelming. Dan responded to five of the questions this time around and we will continue to post selected answers to your questions throughout the year. Join in by shooting over an e-mail to

NOTE:Before engaging in any new physical activity, always consult your physician. *I own several fitness stores in the Maryland area and I grew up and around weight training and Olympic lifting all my life. I define functional training as weight training that allows for improved strength, speed, and explosiveness through a series of lifts and exercises that closely simulate the actual sporting action and movements. I have also learned that there are two sides of belief in the strength and conditioning community. Those who believe my methods and those who closely follow your methods, which favor machine exercises over traditional, free weight movements. What sports specific benefits can be achieved through machine training? I wish to understand the methodology of a well- respected expert like you since I do most of the sales to our area colleges and sports teams. *

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-- John

Carter Toole is the director of the Houston Texans website. I've received many compliments on the design of the Texans website. I believe it's the best in the league. Carter receives the questions submitted to my website. He selects the questions and gives them to me. Each week I tell him, "Carter, you are killing me." I'm looking for something simple. Maybe a true or false response. Instead he keeps giving me questions like this.

Marc Boutte is a former player with the Washington Redskins. He actually lives in Houston. Whenever he and I had some professional discussions, he would always finish our conversation by saying, "D'ster, that's deep." It was a term we all used for saying, "that's pretty in depth."

If Marc read your question he would say, "John, that's deep, real deep." You've raised two basic issues. What is my philosophy regarding free weights vs. machines, and imitating a skill in the weight room. I'll try my best to provide you with enough information to adequately answer your question with the limited time and space we have available. I'll answer your questions in two parts. **

Part 1


I'm going to use this opportunity to present some information about my past. I'll give you a brief historical survey of how my current philosophy evolved. I'd also recommend you read my last column.

I'm currently 51 years old and continue to run and lift several times a week. I began lifting weights seriously, when I was 14 years old. Like everyone else during this era, I had no other choice but to learn from the weight lifters, the body builders, and the muscle magazines.

Lifting wasn't popular or accepted. Our high school football coach made it clear to our team that he didn't want us lifting weights. Any player caught lifting would be thrown off the team. This was the accepted practice by most coaches.

My brother wanted to play major college football. He wanted to get bigger and stronger. I wanted to lift so I'd have a chance to compete at the high school level. We both ignored our coach's advice and snuck down to our local YMCA at night.

The weight room was located in the basement of the building. It was poorly lit, the floor was wood, the room was dirty, it smelled pretty bad, and there was no air conditioning. The year was 1965. You can be assured there were no machines in this facility.

Primarily older lifters populated our gym. The majority of them were power lifters. Most of those that didn't compete used the methods employed by the power lifters. My brother and I learned from these lifters. We quickly developed a preference for the power lifts over the quick lifts.

My brother went on to play Division I football while I pursued an undergraduate degree in physical education. I continued lifting weights and tried to learn anything I could about strength training.

I bought as many Hoffman and Weider supplements, as my two part-time jobs would allow a college student to buy. I sent away for Energol, super high protein pills, dessicated liver pills, multiple vitamin kits, and gain weight powders.

I graduated from Indiana University in 1973 with a Master's Degree in physical education. I received no formal strength training instruction during my entire undergraduate and graduate work.

At Indiana I took a graduate course taught by "Doc. Councilman." He was the Indiana swim coach and one of the most respected authorities on conditioning in the country. He had just returned from the Olympics as the USA swim team coach. While teaching his course he admitted he knew little to nothing about building strength. Few coaches did.

After graduation from Indiana University in 1973, Colonel Jim Anderson offered me my first job as the Director of Strength Training, at the United States Military Academy, at West Point. I was 23 years old and felt like an "expert" in the field of strength training.

At this point in my young career, my professional strength training background was my lifting experience, muscle magazines, a few research articles in Research Quarterly, and a book written by Gene Hooks, the baseball coach at Wake Forest University.

While at West Point, I continued to spend many hours in the gym lifting weights. At this point in my life the only equipment I had ever used was a barbell and a dumbbell. I didn't go anywhere without my lifting boots, my lifting belt, and chalk. I was a very biased free weight user. I had never used a machine. West Point had four old Vic Tanny lat machines. I discouraged their use. Instead I told the cadets to perform behind the neck pull-ups or, bent-over rows with a barbell.

During the early 1970's strength training was becoming more popular. At West Point a new football coach was hired. He wanted Nautilus equipment for recruiting purposes. He said all the colleges were getting Nautilus and he had to have it. At the time I was opposed to buying any machine. That year we had $12,500 allocated for the weight room budget. A committee was formed to make a decision on how to best spend the money.

The committee was composed of the Director of the Physical Education Department, the Athletic Director, the Head Football Coach, the Head Trainer, and myself.

Representatives from York Barbell, Cybex, Universal Gym, and Nautilus, were invited to West Point to make a formal sales presentation. I met with the York Barbell rep before he made his presentation to the committee. I explained my dislike for the machines and wanted him to know whom he was competing with.

The vote was 4 to 1 for spending the money on Nautilus machines. I was outnumbered. In addition, the committee recommended that additional funds be allocated for ten Centurion Universal Gyms. They were placed throughout the cadet barracks. Needless to say it was a bad day for me. I didn't know anything about this equipment. It was easier for me to discredit the equipment than to admit I didn't know how to use it.

The Academy conducted many research studies to determine more effective ways to train. I quickly learned there was a great deal of factual information I was unaware of, and it made me uncomfortable and concerned. I reached a point in my professional career that I wanted to stop relying on my empirical past experiences to use as a justification for training athletes. I went back to the classroom. I bought books, videos, and scientific newsletters. I asked questions and I listened. I stopped reading muscle magazines.

I spent and continue to spend a great deal of time studying each of the disciplines that make up my profession. Most of the concepts we use in our program are based upon the facts that are available. There are some questions that continue to exist. If I can't justify something with facts I'm forced to rely upon my 29 years of experience and what is best for our players.

Your question regarding machines vs. free weights is a common one. I've learned it's not the equipment you use that is the key to producing results, it's how you use the equipment. Our weight room at Redskin Park had barbells, dumbbells, and machines - and we used them all. I've trained hundreds of athletes. Some prefer one over the other.

It doesn't make any difference what equipment is used when performing a multi-joint exercise in a vertical plane. We use barbells, dumbbells, and machines to perform the exercises listed below.

  1. Squats.
  1. Multi-joint upper body pushing movements; the decline press, the bench press, the incline press, and the overhead press.
  1. Upright rows and standing calf raises.

We use a machine to perform most single joint (isolation movements). For smooth and full range exercise, it is essential to have a piece of equipment that provides direct and variable resistance.

Your training background has been with a barbell performing the Olympic lifts. That is your preference. I have many friends in my profession who incorporate those movements into their overall program and are very successful. I also have friends in my profession who don't incorporate and have experienced success also.

There are many things far more important in our strength and conditioning programs than the exercises included or the manner in which they are performed. During my 29 years as a strength coach I have not included the quick lifts in my program. I admire the skill used to perform these exercises but it is my preference to not include these movements. I prefer not exposing our players to the impact forces of the quick lifts.

There is no right or wrong. For example, you may prefer a competitive bent-legged deadlift while I prefer a stiff-legged deadlift. It is a personal preference. The strength coach profession is a relatively new one. Most of us learned our trade from former weight lifters. Many strength coaches model their programs after the programs used by weight lifters. That is their preference.

All strength programs work if progressive overload is provided. Arguing over which one to use is silly. We don't hear football coaches arguing over which offense to use. Some prefer a one back with two tight ends. Others prefer two backs with one tight end.

You have strong beliefs and a preference for your philosophy on building strength. I suggest you continue with your current regimen. That is your preference. **

Part II


In part two of your question you asked "what sport specific benefit can be achieved through machine training?" and, you recommend "performing exercises that closely simulate the actual sporting actions and movements."

In the past I had a similar philosophy. I believed you could transfer skills from the weight room to the practice field. Imitating a skill in the weight room was common. For example, we had an isokinetic device with a football attached to it. We had our quarterbacks perform the throwing motion. As they performed the motion the isokinetic device provided resistance.

Two post grad courses in Motor Learning and the purchase of several motor learning textbooks later, I now know different.

In your question you ask "What sport specific skills can be achieved through machine training?" The answer is none. It's the same answer for a barbell or a dumbbell. The motor learning community is in total agreement regarding skill transfer. Skills do not transfer from one task to another, regardless how similar they might be.

Observe a person who has bench pressed with a barbell for many months. Observe that same person perform incline presses for the first time. The same muscles are used to perform both exercises. The movement is similar yet the person struggles initially with balance, until the specific neurological pattern is developed to perform the incline press.

Once that person develops the skill to perform incline presses with a barbell, observe him performing incline presses with dumbbells. Same muscles, same angle, yet again he struggles with balance. Skills are very specific.

Coaches commonly confuse the terms skills and abilities. Skills are the actual movements you perform. A skill is learned through practice. Throwing a football, kicking a soccer ball, serving a tennis ball, shooting a basketball, rushing a passer, etc., are all skills.

Abilities are the physical qualities used to perform the skill. Abilities include speed, power, strength, flexibility, balance, timing, coordination, endurance, agility, reaction time, etc. Strength building exercises will improve some of the abilities used to play football. The only skill a strength building exercise improves is the exact skill to perform that specific exercise, regardless of the equipment used.

There are specific skills required to perform the Olympic lifts. Those skills will not be transferred to any skill performed on the football field.

Pick up a basic motor learning book from any college bookstore and read about skill transfer. Skill transfer is a term used to describe the impact that the practice of one skill has on another. There are three types of transfer: Positive, negative, and neutral.

Positive transfer occurs by rehearsing the exact skills used to perform a task. Motor learning experts agree that it is impossible to reproduce the neuromuscular pattern used to perform a skill, unless that specific skill is performed. This is best defined by the specificity of motor learning principle. Motor learning expert John Drowatzky states, "Transfer occurs only when the practice units or parts are identical to those contained in the criterion task."

In his text, "Introduction to Motor Behavior: A Neuropsychological Approach," author George Sage states, "Practice of nonspecific 'coordination' or 'quickening' tasks will not produce transfer to specific sport skills." The skills needed to pass protect can only be developed by attempting to block a defender rushing the quarterback at full speed.

Motor learning expert Bob Christina states, "It is the intent to raise a weight fast that is the key to developing explosive power, not that the weight itself is lifted fast."

Observe the raising speed of a power lifter in competition attempting to bench press a heavy weight. He pauses momentarily (as the rules demand) with the bar touching his chest and then tries his hardest to "explode" - raising the weight as fast as he can.

It is the power lifter's "neurological intent" to raise the weight fast. The bar however moves in a smooth and controlled manner. This occurs because the weight is heavy enough, and the form strict enough, to eliminate momentum.

How the muscles connect to the nervous system is the primary factor determining the potential magnitude of a person's explosiveness.

When lifting a weight we encourage our players to think, "explode." However, we ask them to eliminate any momentum, bouncing, or cheating.

There are many more similarities in most strength programs than differences. Some people enhance the differences to make it look like their program is really different than others. There are a few basic concepts that must be stressed for a strength program to be successful, regardless of the exercises performed or the equipment used.

  1. The greatest emphasis must be placed during the competitive season, from the first day of summer camp until the last game of the season.

a. Our in-season program is identical to our off-season program.

  1. Every athlete must participate.
  1. Total body strength must be maintained.

a. Exercises for every major muscle group should be performed.

  1. Meaningful exercise must be performed each and every workout.

a. A near maximum effort must be exerted to maintain near maximum strength levels.

b. Accurate records should be kept every workout to insure strength is being maintained, or improved, if possible.

The system used is not the key. All systems work. Use the system that works best for you. Whenever possible rely upon the facts. If the facts aren't available use your experience and what is best and safest for your athletes. * *

References: Riley, Dan, Arapoff, Jason, Washington Redskins Strength & Conditioning Guide, Spring 2000. Sage, George H., Introduction to Motor Behavior: A NeuroPsychological Approach, Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1977, p. 338, 437-439, 454.

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