Strength Program Benefits Cal Football Players

May 2, 2001

BERKELEY - It's a simple equation for Todd Rice: Flexibility plus strength and speed equals power.

That's the philosophy that Rice, now in his fifth year as director of strength and conditioning at Cal, instills in the more than 800 student-athletes that will enter Memorial Stadium's 2,000-square-foot weight room this year.

'Weightlifting is movement against resistance,' Rice says, whittling the program's core term to its most basic definition. 'But our guys know that it's not just weightlifting. It's a combination of movement skills, flexibility training and weightlifting.'

Rice and his staff know what they're talking about and they may know the Cal football team better than even the position coaches. After spending all summer and winter evaluating each player's strengths and weaknesses, the 37-year-old former college-level football and baseball player speaks candidly about how good the future looks for the Golden Bears because of the emphasis placed on developing strong, flexible athletes.

'We've got more guys this year that can do what it takes to win games,' Rice says. 'If we continue to recruit good athletes and they continue to develop, I think we're going to have some pleasant surprises around here.'

Starting With the Basics

Explaining that Olympic weightlifters are as flexible - if not more flexible - than the world's best gymnasts, Rice and his assistants work with athletes to improve flexibility even before a single pound of weight is hoisted above the athlete's head.

'Our lifting concentrates on Olympic movements,' Rice says. 'But most of the athletes we recruit are not prepared to get into the position to try Olympic lifting. Our guys have to play catch-up when they get here.'

Even Cal stars like former All-America defensive end Andre Carter and current tailback Joe Igber started at square one with the team's lifting regimen. Prior to Rice's arrival in Berkeley, Cal's strength and conditioning program focused heavily on upper-body strength. It demonstrated that bench pressing was the most important lift, something Rice doesn't believe.

'It's different than any other program,' says former Cal center Reed Diehl of Rice's weight training philosophy. 'If you go to any other school and ask them what their main lifts are, cleans will be on the bottom echelon. Coach Rice doesn't even care what we bench here because it's not a lift that's going to make you faster and more productive on the field.'

Four years after scrapping the previous weight training program, Rice's weightlifting philosophy continues to promote athletic development through improving flexibility, increasing speed and building strength. And it's paying off for Cal athletes.

'Look at Andre Carter, a premier guy,' Diehl says of San Francisco 49ers first round pick (7th overall) in the 2001 NFL draft. 'He works his butt off in the weight room, works his butt off on the field, he's never injured and he never misses a play. That's the perfect example of what this can do for players.'

The Cal weight room includes eight Olympic platforms, each with $7,000 worth of equipment, more than 5,000 pounds of Olympic bars and bumper plates, and an array of aerobic and anaerobic equipment. Originally opened in Memorial Stadium in 1983 as part of the Cal Sports 80s facility project, the weight room has expanded to more than 2,000 square feet of space for approximately 800 Cal athletes, including the entire football team.

In terms of equipment, Rice says that Cal has what any other school has, but the reason the Golden Bears program is envied by Pac-10 coaches is that Cal athletes are trained so they know that what they're doing is technically correct.

'Biomechanically, we probably do more than any other place in the country,' he says. 'These guys really understand the Olympic movements, the bar positioning, timing, the agility involved and the flexibility they have to have to do the lifts.'

To illustrate the value of correct lifting technique, Rice spikes a wooden dowel toward the floor and watches as it bounces high off the ground. He then takes the same dowel and simply drops it and watches as it barely bounces. 'You have to move the floor fast,' he says as he explains that the players aren't just lifting a bar, they're moving the globe. 'If I'm a defensive lineman and I strike a tackle, I have to be able to strike him by getting force out of the ground.'

Committed to Improve

Always quick with a real-world comparison, Rice says that much like learning to be a great golfer, weight training requires a substantial time commitment in order to be a great football player.

'I can go out and golf eight hours a week, which is only a couple rounds,' he says. 'But if I only play a couple rounds and don't hit any balls or practice, I'm not going to be a great golfer. At least not the best golfer I could be.'

In the winter and throughout the off-season, the team arrives at the weight room by 5:30 a.m. to warm-up before starting their 6 a.m. workout. The players lift until 8 a.m. and Rice says almost every athlete returns after classes in the afternoon to lift some more. 'Just doing what everybody else is doing isn't going to be enough,' he tells the team. 'Their knowledge is their best motivation. They know what needs to be done and they know what it takes to get it done.'

Often a team's commitment to improvement is evidenced by seemingly little things. Rice remembers arriving at Memorial Stadium in 1997 and noticing the football players' footwear. He was amazed that these athletes weren't wearing specially designed weightlifting shoes.

'There wasn't a single kid that owned weightlifting shoes,' he says of the special shoes. 'Now nearly everyone owns them and they bought them themselves because they see Andre Carter wearing them, they think there must be something to it.'

Rice teaches incoming freshmen the importance of the shoes in protecting their knees during lifts when the athletes are actually accelerating their bodies into the ground. With a deviating heel, a lot of unnecessary stress is placed on the knees. Still, Rice acknowledges that Cal is one of the few programs where the athletes where the shoes, but Cal is also one of the few schools that utilizes an Olympic lifting program.

'With the type of lifting we do, to not wear them would be like going out on the field without your helmet on,' he says. 'It makes a huge difference flexibility-wise and biomechanically.'

Coaches' Involvement

Cal's football coaches understand what Rice is doing and fully support the strength and conditioning program. Head coach Tom Holmoe and defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich are actively involved in the program. Defensive line coach Bill Dutton synchronizes his practices with what is said in the weight room. Rice says that Dutton is known for regularly asking his players rhetorically what the three most important things in football are. He quickly answers: lift, lift - short pause - LIFT!

'Dutton is here at winter conditioning at 5:30 a.m. watching them lift and making sure the kids are doing it right,' Rice says. 'They get it as well as any football coaches I've been around, and that's helped their guys tremendously.'

Al Borges, Cal's new offensive coordinator, won't know how good the strength and conditioning program is for a year or two, Rice says. 'He's going to need to see a guy that he recruited that's not very good, but two years from now he'll say, 'Hey, I never thought that guy would be much of a player, but look at him now'.'

Living Proof

Cal is loaded with living advertisements for Rice's strength and conditioning program. Former star Andre Carter is one of the most striking examples of what the program has the ability to accomplish.

'When a guy like Carter goes from 235 pounds to 263, improves his vertical jump by seven inches while gaining 28 pounds, that's like the difference between getting hit by a tricycle and getting hit by a bus,' Rice says as he looks at side-by-side 'before-and-after' photos of Andre Carter. 'When you watch tapes of Andre physically dominating guys his senior year, you know he wasn't doing any of that as a freshman.'

Jacob Waasdorp, a former defensive tackle who signed with Green Bay in NFL, came to Berkeley, as Rice says, 'as a 220-pound wrestler.' Four years later, Waasdorp turned into an explosive lineman by bulking up to 275-pounds and walking away with two consecutive All Pac-10 nods.

Other examples that show Rice's weight training philosophy works include Scott Fujita, former 200-pound walk-on safety who has blossomed into a 250-pound force starting outside linebacker on defense. Or how about Nolan Bluntzer, a 250-pound redshirt freshman last season, who filled in for Reed Diehl early on and could start this year. 'He's now 265 or 270, which is still light for a lineman,' Rice admits, 'But he's a tough kid, a team player, and does everything he's supposed to do even though he may be outmatched physically.'

When these players arrive as freshmen and they aren't familiar with how physical football at the collegiate level can be, Rice says it takes a while for them to understand what Cal is doing in the weight room and why they're doing it. But he adds that each new group of freshmen is learning the philosophy more quickly than the previous year's class simply because the preceding athletes have bought into the program and are selling it to the new guys.

'A lot of this has less to do with me and more to do with these guys being smart enough to know that what they're doing in the weight room makes sense and it's the best way to become a better football player,' Rice says. 'Yeah, maybe I'm good at teaching something technically, but it really comes from the coaches and then the players. We just try to give them all the information and the attention they need.'

A Bright Future

Rice says he'd be shocked if the Cal football team didn't improve on last year's record, but at the same time he says that wins and losses can't be equated with what's happening in the weight room.

'There's no comparison between this team and last year's team in terms of how top to bottom more athletic, flexible, faster and agile they are,' he says. 'Last year was the best we were, and this team is much better, so I'm excited about this season.'

As it's been each year at Cal, Rice's coaching style depends heavily on how much of an effort the athletes are willing to expend. A lot of the skills taught in the weight room help players not only physically, but mentally, as well.

'We coach confidence more than we coach courage,' Rice says. 'The guys who see themselves getting bigger and getting more explosive know that they can go out and physically intimidate and dominate opposing players. That's a huge mental edge, but there's a big physical edge that goes along with it.'

During workouts, Rice tells players to only compete against themselves in the weight room, 'just be better than you were last week.' He adds that the athletes' best motivation is knowledge, and his experience allows him to share a great deal of knowledge with his players.

'We do a lot of things technically that a lot of schools don't do, but part of my background in terms of Olympic lifting and biomechanics has helped,' Rice says. 'I respect that our athletes are smart and I treat them all the same. I assume that they want to get better.'

At a result, Rice admits that the weight room isn't designed to be a place for athletes 'to hang out and shoot the breeze.'

'We're very tough on them and most of the kids when they get here probably don't like me and they don't like what we're doing,' he says. 'We're open and honest about saying, 'if you can't do this, you won't be able to do those things on the field and if you aren't doing those things on the field, you aren't helping us win.''

But to succeed on the field, Rice believes there must be success in the weight room - and that takes time.

'We can't even teach them our lifting philosophy in less than a year,' he says. 'And yet when I first got here, we were asking them to go out and play football in less than 10 days. That's just not realistic.'

After bringing his coaching philosophy to Cal, Rice says that the program trains athletes to be more like bullets and less like glaciers. He explains that although a glacier is enormous, its impact is measured over a long period of time.

'It can take a million years to move a mountain, but a glacier can level a mountain,' he says. 'A bullet, on the other hand, can accelerate and do a lot more damage in a much shorter period of time. If as a football player you want to propel your center of gravity through someone else, whether it's blocking or tackling, you have to generate a tremendous amount of force quickly.'

But in the end, Rice understands that the knowledge gained in the weight room doesn't matter much if it doesn't make for better football players on the field.

'We don't talk about being better Olympic lifters or better benchers or better squatters,' he says. 'We try to make sure everyone knows about being athletic. That's what football is all about.'

By Tim Haran

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