When I first arrived in the ‘burgh 26 years ago, and played through to the end of the season, the next time I saw any of my teammates was at St. Vincent College for the annual Hope You Can Survive Chuck training camp. Getting together for off-season training wasn't in vogue at the time.
Offseason conditioning back in the day was left to the individual; no organized training protocol existed. The annual running test consisted of five 350-yard runs all done in 60-65 seconds with only 40 seconds rest between each run (I still haven't figured that math out). You proved your dedication to running on your own recognizance. In other words, as long as you didn't fall out or yak on a teammate, you were good to go.
The strength test consisted of the notorious "Oklahoma" one-on-one drive blocking, slay-the-loser gladiator spectacular. Oh, for the good old days.
Offseason training has evolved from "do your own thing, just make sure you're ready to prove it at camp" to a detailed, mapped out progression. And forget the simple squat, bench, and deadlift formula of the powerlifters as in the days of old. That too has gone the way of zubaz (80's-style fat-guy sweat pants that I loved), courteous drivers on the Parkway and Jerry Garcia.
Today's Steelers enjoy supervised formula-driven weight-training programs on machines that have more gadgets than my car. Toss in some outside-the-box disciplines such as yoga and boxing to keep them limber and feisty for good measure. Then, mix the new-school training equipment with some old-school training tools like the medicine ball and kettlebells and it all adds up to stronger, faster athletes with programs that identify strengths and weaknesses and adjust the training regimen to address those specific needs.
Adding boxing and yoga was a great get for the players. Steelers strength and conditioning coach Chet Furhman deserves all of the credit for going to outside sources to bring in knowledge that helps the players and keeps the training from becoming sheer drudgery.
Yoga is different than traditional stretching routines. From my background in the martial arts, I got into yoga after I retired (although I'm not a granola eating tree-hugger as Tunch Ilkin claims). The postures of yoga and the breathing techniques that go with it not only promote flexibility, but also help an athlete to retain the suppleness of his muscles. And suppleness, along with a hefty dose of strength, protects an athlete from high-velocity hits.
As the athletes of today grow bigger and stronger than us old guys ever were, and their muscle mass continued to grow, a hardening or rigidity of the muscles became an issue. Yoga specifically works to promote that suppleness by encouraging not only the lengthening of the muscle tissue, but space between the joints that keep the tendons and ligaments loose. When you have a supple muscle, ligament or tendon under high stress, it can withstand much higher incoming forces without blowing out. A rigid muscle is much harder and doesn't have the ability to give as much. Adding yoga to your training is like adding inflatable air bag crash safety devices to your car instead of just rigid seatbelts.
Boxing, on the other hand is a great way to work your cardio and hand speed at the same time; not to mention that it's wonderful for blowing off steam and getting your ya-ya's out. Boxing footwork, so important to boxers, is also of tremendous value to offensive lineman in particular. As a Marvel Smith kicks back on pass pro, just watch as he steps with his rear foot and drags the front foot. The next time that you go to a boxing match, watch the feet, you'll know exactly what you're looking at.
The punching mechanics of pass protection are very similar to boxing. Another plus to boxing is that by having large-body masses that move into and out of your punching range, one begins to learn intuitively his own range and timing, which is an acquired skill that takes time for young lineman. Knowing when to punch is just as important as knowing how to punch. During the off-season that skill can now be trained.
When a player learns to apply the strength that comes from heavy bench presses to snapping jabs and ripping crosses while having a boxer's balance, it's like adding high octane jet fuel to a tractor. Fighting in a phone booth takes skill.
Interestingly enough, my wife, the good lady Faith Wolfley, a former two-time AAU national karate champion and an undefeated kickboxer, teaches the boxing program to the Steelers. And you guys think you got it tough at home.
Craig Wolfley is the sideline reporter for the Steelers Radio Network and co-hosts the sports talk show "In The Locker Room" with Tunch Ilkin every weekday from 7-10 a.m. on Fox Sports Radio 970.