Beyond Size and Speed: Trunk Strength
Mike Tanier and Michael David Smith / FootballOutsiders.com
The prospects line up at the combine, waiting to bench press 225 pounds as many times as they can.
Strength coach, John Lott, the combine's weightlifting supervisor, calls them "meatheads" or "cavemen." Then the prospects lie down and lift, again and again, until their arms are shaking and Lott hollers for them to complete one last lift.
Sometimes, an offensive or defensive lineman will lift that huge barbell 40 to 45 times; suddenly, he's a first round pick. Another lineman will inexplicably complete just 15 or 16 reps, and his draft stock will plummet. After all, the guy at your local gym who is always gulping down energy drinks and grunting can bench 225-pounds about a dozen times, maybe more. Surely an NFL prospect, particularly a lineman, must be able to do more.
Football players must be strong, of course, and college players who can bench press a booster's Lexus are going to get a lot of attention. But the bench press isn't the only measure of the strength needed to play football. In fact, it isn't even the best measure. After all, at this year's combine, there was much talk of Ohio State defensive lineman Mike Kudla, who tied the all-time combine record with 45 reps in the bench press. But there was much less talk of the person whose record Kudla tied: Former UTEP defensive tackle Leif Larsen, who played two mediocre years for the Bills and is now trying to make it as a professional boxer.
In short, bench press totals don't mean squat.
Packing the trunk
The "squat" is an exercise designed to improve strength in the thighs and torso. To perform a squat, start with the barbell resting on your shoulders behind your neck, your back straight, and your feet shoulder length apart. While keeping your back straight, descend until your upper legs are parallel to the floor. Then, lift back to a starting position, again keeping your back straight. Repeat until your thighs look like marble pillars.
The squat builds trunk strength, the muscular potential of your body's core. That's the strength needed to do many strenuous tasks. Have you ever pushed a stalled car? You shift it into neutral, brace yourself against the frame, and then shove. But you don't push with your arms: you strain with your thighs and hips to start your momentum forward. Your forearms and chest get a workout, but they are stabilizing the car and protecting your body, not supplying the thrust.
As you might imagine, playing offensive and defensive line is a lot like pushing that car. The upper body provides control and helps linemen steer their opponents, but they generate power in their cores and lower bodies. But linemen aren't the only football players who need trunk strength. A fundamentally-sound tackler drives with his thighs and rolls his hips when striking a ballcarrier. A running back pumps his thighs to power his way through tackles. Even quarterbacks generate much of their passing strength by using the muscles in their hips, legs, and backs properly, just as a golfer uses his whole body to execute a perfect swing.
There's another key advantage to improving trunk strength: thigh, back, and ab muscles are huge, and they get heavy when pumped up. If you do enough squats, you'll get heavier without getting fatter. Football players at most positions want extra bulk.
Trunk strength is so important that most football coaches at the prep and college level consider the squat much more important than the bench press. They emphasize the squat when weight training, though most players would rather hit the bench and work on their picture-perfect pectorals. Thick thighs and a strong lower back won't make the ladies swoon, but they'll help knock an opponent on his butt.
The weighting game
So if the squat is so important, why do players bench press at the combine? Why aren't squat numbers all over the internet?
First, remember that bench press totals aren't meaningless. Upper body strength helps players succeed in the hand-to-hand combat of pass rushing and protection, jamming defenders and beating the jam, and other activities. If an offensive lineman is using his trunk strength to push his defender backwards, then he can administer a coup de gras using his upper body: a twist that pancakes his opponent, throwing him to the ground. And a player who can bench 225 pounds 25 or more times is demonstrating outstanding muscle stamina: he won't get tired and lose some of his power in the fourth quarter.
But the bench press is like the 40-yard dash. It's a number that is easy to understand. The 40-time is shorthand for scouts to assess speed, and the bench press totals are a quick indicator of strength. The kid who came up short on the bench isn't necessarily a weakling, and practice squads are full of behemoths who are much stronger in the weight room than the gridiron.
Ideally, NFL coaches want to see players who can lift like Niners guard Larry Allen. Allen can squat 900 pounds and bench 700 pounds. But Allen isn't just a weightlifter: he knows the proper techniques to get the most out of his strength, and he plays with intensity. Core muscles are important, but the ultimate core muscle remains the heart.
We don't have weight room numbers for most prospects, besides the good old bench press. But here's a list of prospects who have demonstrated excellent lower-body strength on the football field, as well as a handful of prospects who don't appear to have done squat, or at least enough squat.
Good trunk strength
Vernon Davis is faster than some receivers and stronger than some offensive lineman. (Lisa Blumenfeld / Getty Images)
Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland: He shot up draft boards at the combine by benching more than most linemen and running faster than most wideouts. But the real key to Davis is the way he can churn his legs. His 685-pound squat was the stuff of legend in the Maryland weight room.
Manny Lawson, DE/OLB, North Carolina State: Lawson is nowhere near as good an overall prospect as his teammate Mario Williams, but in terms of trunk strength, Lawson is particularly impressive for a relatively skinny 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds. How strong is Lawson's lower body? When was the last time you heard of a defensive lineman who was also a conference champion in the long jump? Lawson won the ACC indoor long jump title in 2003.
Haloti Ngata, DT, Oregon: At about 340 pounds, almost all of Ngata's weight appears to be in his thighs and butt. Watch film of him, and you'll see his legs churning and opponents (usually two of them) struggling to stop him.
Davin Joseph, G, Oklahoma: Joseph does a good job using his upper and lower body strength in tandem. He pops defenders with his arms on first contact, then uses leg drive to keep them off balance.
Matt Bernstein, FB, Wisconsin: Some scouts think Bernstein is too slow for the NFL, but he's one of the most powerful blocking fullbacks to come out of college in the past five years, Bernstein maximizes his lower body strength by following through with his hips after every block.
Bad trunk strength
D'Brickashaw Ferguson, OT, Virginia: This is Brick's lone flaw. He played his final season at Virginia weighing around 295 pounds. His frame is a little thin for such a huge man. Lack of lower body strength wasn't an issue in college, but he won't be able to use his arms to shove defenders around in the pros.
Mathis Kiwanuka, DE, Boston College: Kiwaunka has a basketball body: he's thin and lean in the hips, with much of his weight in his chest. Defenders with Kiwanuka's body type must always stay low at the snap; otherwise, blockers get their hands under the shoulder pads and toss them around.
Leonard Pope, TE, Georgia: When you hear about a tight end who goes in the 260-pound range, you just assume that he's a fierce blocker. That's not the case with Pope. He's a playmaker as a receiver, but in blocking he gets overpowered too often.
Ernie Sims, OLB, Florida State: Sims is a great athlete who will fit in nicely with a team that likes small and fast linebackers (Kansas City, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis fit that mold), but any team that thinks he can fill holes against the league's top blocking fullbacks will be disappointed.
Sinorice Moss, WR, Miami: Yes, even little wide receivers need trunk strength. Moss can break tackles when he's in full stride, but he cannot block well and can get locked up on the line. If he improves his overall strength — upper and lower body — he'll be impossible to jam.