When most people start a new job, they ease into the situation. They fill a chair, maintain the status quo and get a sense of their surroundings. Big changes can wait; those first few months are all about fitting in, keeping things on track and not messing up.
Luke Richesson doesn’t fit that description.
When he was named the Broncos strength and conditioning coach in February 2012, he immediately engaged in a drastic overhaul of the team’s weight room. He gutted the place.
Richesson ridded the facility of the 80-plus plated-loaded machines that had accumulated during the previous 17 years and filled the nearly 9,000-square-foot training center from corner to corner. And he asked for upgrades, seeking an investment in the state-of-the-art equipment he needed to implement his program.
It was a bold move for the new guy at Dove Valley.
“Coach (John) Fox and John Elway were wanting to spearhead going in a direction that was cutting edge, for lack of a better expression; they were all in,” Richesson said when asked about making his pitch to Denver’s top brass. “When we outlined our program, with the goals that we needed to have and the tools that we needed to make it run, it made good sense. They were excited and eager to see what would come of it.”
So much so that they scratched the check, approving a $500,000 expenditure that saw plenty of tried-and-true, traditional equipment go out the door – having been donated to law enforcement agencies and high schools in Denver area, including Mitch Unrein’s alma mater in Eaton – and a bunch of high-tech, digital-readout, compression-based contraptions arrive in their place.
“There’s nothing in our room now that is fluff; everything serves a distinct purpose,” Richesson explained. “There’s a specific reason every piece of equipment is in the room.”
Old school was replaced by new school, and the Broncos weight room was transformed into a 21st Century facility.
But the change wasn’t about gadgets. It wasn’t about being cutting edge simply to keep up with the Joneses. Richesson’s overhaul was about three things – training properly, tracking results and building a blue-collar work ethic.
Those are the cornerstones to his training program, a modern-day methodology that is at the forefront of sports science.
Richesson brings a different perspective to an NFL team for one key reason: He’s spent the majority of his professional life working outside the league. As a result, he hasn’t spent years being indoctrinated in a specific “football way” of training.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have a background in the sport; he does. Richesson played collegiately at Kansas, where he graduated in 1997, and spent time on the coaching staffs at the University of Wyoming (1998) and Arizona State (1999-2000).
But he cut his teeth, honing his craft and learning new techniques, while working away from the game – at least in an official capacity.
For eight years (2001-08), Richesson served as the performance team director at Athletes’ Performance in Tempe, Ariz., a private training facility that utilized ground-breaking training regimens to help all types of athletes, including more than 40 NFL players every offseason, college football players getting ready for the NFL Combine, UFC fighters and boxers.
There were no old ways of doing things. Instead, they were constantly innovating, looking for the newest methods and techniques, anything that would give their clients and edge.
And the results were impressive.
“We saw Arian Foster go from 218 to 228 and actually lose body fat, gaining 10 pounds of muscle; Mario Williams went from 283 to 296, but could run faster when he left,” Richesson said about those days, referencing two of the facility’s star pupils. “We would do strength training 13 times in a week, and we were quite a bit ahead of the curve on training technology.”
During that time, Richesson worked with 250 prospects that would eventually be drafted, including 52 first-round picks and four No. 1 overall selections. And in the process, he learned what football players needed, but often weren’t getting, once they reached the NFL level.
“A lot of guys come back years later and say, ‘That’s the best shape I’ve ever been in in my life,” Richesson explained. “From then on, guys are hanging on and doing the best they can.”
So a notion was born. Rather than only using these training techniques to get players ready for the NFL, teams could also implement them in an effort to help them stay in the league.
“Our goal is to not only replicate that performance in terms of strength and power numbers, but to take players to another level,” Richesson said. “The key is staying healthy. If you don’t take care of your car – alignment, change the shocks – you’re going to eventually have some sort of blow out, alignment issue or something. That’s how we equate it to the body.”
For three years (2009-11), Richesson brought his training approach to the NFL with the Jaguars, serving as the head strength coach under Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville. Now, he’s brought those lessons and techniques to Denver.
“What we did in Arizona, with the methodology being so far ahead of the curve, we’ve been able to specifically adapt for football,” Richesson said. “We’re doing some things that aren’t mainstream yet. And that’s fine with me.”
Before a single Broncos player lifts a weight, runs a sprint or does anything of a physical nature, they first have to undergo a test designed to study the way their body moves. It’s step one in ensuring that training is done properly.
“We do a functional movement screen,” Richesson offered when asked about the first thing each player under his watch does as a part of the Broncos strength and conditioning program. “It’s a quick-and-dirty test that allows us to watch a person squat, lunge, do a hurdle step and a trunk push-up exercise, as well as gauge shoulder mobility, rotor stability and hamstring flexibility, and put a number to it.”
All told, Richesson and his staff grade players in seven different categories, assigning a score of 0 to 3 in each. A perfect score is 21, with 14 serving as the benchmark for a football player.
The test allows the Broncos to spot problem areas before they become too much trouble. If a player feels pain during a movement, he gets a zero. A poor movement is a one. These areas become an area of emphasis in training until they become a passable two or a perfect three.
“We watch a player squat, lunge, do a pull-up, and see, from left to right, are they symmetrical?” Richesson explained. “When they squat, can both heels stay on the ground? If the left foot is coming off the ground, that can lead to a tight left ankle that a player isn’t even aware of. That’s what eventually leads to a blow out.”
For the average Joe, being asymmetrical can cause pain; it might even prevent someone from being engaged in their normal activities. But in a professional football player, it creates a situation that is a ticking time bomb.
“An athlete is going to get a range of motion by compensating,” Richesson explained. “These athletes are the best compensators in the world; they’ll find a way to fight through pain and still get the job done.”
And that’s when problems arise.
“Hamstring injuries can be caused because the glute activation isn’t there, meaning a player can’t get his glute to contract to assist the hamstring when he is running. The hamstring is doing all the work, so it eventually gives out.”
So before the Broncos did anything, they first had to be diagnosed for potential problem spots.
“We weren’t working the (heck) out of our guys right out of the gate,” Richesson said about his early days on the job. “We were taking time to assess movement patterns, health history, goals. We were working, but we were doing it in a different manner.”
That’s where the redesign of the Broncos training facility first paid dividends.
“We had to outfit this room to handle a large number of guys, from the system of teaching movement to introducing our guys to Power Plates and vibration training,” Richesson said, explaining why large, space-consuming equipment was replaced with sleek, inconspicuous, futuristic-looking machines. “We had to open up the floor space in order to teach movement. The room was packed with equipment, but we need floor space in order to teach our guys how to move.”
This may sound a little too new age for a professional football team. But instead of the clanking of weights on racks and the grunts of players pushing hundreds of pounds stacked on barbells, the Broncos were working on movement. They were honing their technique.
“A lot of the concepts were new to our guys; they hadn’t seen them in college, at private training facilities or in the NFL,” Richesson said. “So it was pretty clear that we needed to be fairly vanilla and make sure that we were on point technically. For us, technique is such a priority. If it looks like crap, we aren’t going to let them replicate it. It has to be on point. Taking your time on the front end is a big part of it.”
The extra attention to detail was a hit with the players.
“For a majority of the guys, it was refreshing; they responded well,” Richesson added. “They don’t mind training because they aren’t in pain when they do it; it’s rewiring motor programming with guys.”
But that doesn’t mean the Broncos training regimen is soft. Quite the contrary. Movement is just the beginning of the process; it’s the foundation for the true goal – power.
“One of the misconceptions with our methodology is that our guys aren’t moving weight,” Richesson said. “A lack of mobility is kryptonite to power – whether it’s not being able to keep your foot down when doing a squat, having a pinching pain in your knee or not being able to come all the way down on a bench press because of a tight pec. We understand the proper ways to get mobility and range of motion to let them express their power.”
And that, as anyone who watches the sport of football knows, is the name of the game.
“At the end of the day, it’s a bone-on-bone, man-on-man, I’m-trying-to-whip-your-ass sport,” Richesson said. “You can do all the yoga, stretching and ab activation you want, but if you don’t have horsepower, in your heart and in your body, you’re going to get whooped.”
Avoiding that fate is the main objective of the Broncos’ training plan.
“The whole goal is power output,” Richesson said.
One of the signature pieces of equipment added to the Broncos training facility during the renovation was the Keiser Functional Trainer. It retails for more than $8,000; Denver has 16 of them, allowing multiple players to work out as a group.
The Keiser Functional Trainer is a high-tech version of cable machines seen at every gym in America. But instead of stacks of weight flying up and down when players pull on the ends of the cables, the resistance is provided by compressed air, which allows for safe, smooth exercises at any speed. And with adjustable arms that can be set anywhere from ground level to above the head, players can use them to do almost any exercise; arms, legs, front, back, the list is almost limitless.
“We could switch up the exercise every 30 seconds and still be here for hours,” Richesson explained.
But safety and variety aren’t the key innovations offered by the Functional Trainer. Keiser’s digital readouts, which are tied to a database that record every moment for every player during every workout, are what give the Broncos strength and conditioning staff what they need – knowledge.
In it’s basic form, this allows Richesson and his staff to make sure every player is working out as prescribed. As simple as it sounds, that hasn’t always been the case for NFL teams.
“In other places, guys would walk in, get their card (from a trainer) and walk out the back door,” Richesson said, explaining how players across the league would skip out on workouts in the past. “I’ve talked to guys on other teams during the year who haven’t worked out all season.”
That doesn’t fly with the Broncos, and not just because they now have a system in place for tracking participation.
“One of the first things we wanted to instill was an elite work ethic and mindset,” Richesson said. “A lot of teams will work hard in the offseason, but in-season, guys will find a lot of excuses to take time off. That is something we preached and set the tone for; it’s going to be hard work. We’re going to take an intelligent approach, but there are still going to be days when it’ll be a grind.”
That translates into two workouts per week during the season, which is down from four during the offseason. Everyone on the team is in the facility on Mondays, with half there again on Wednesdays and the rest in for session two on Thursdays. Each workout lasts two hours.
“We’re not just trying to put miles on the car, but we’ll push the envelope mentally to see where guys are at,” Richesson explained about the philosophy. “When we got into the season – week 10, week 11, week 12, week 13 – we didn’t take our foot off the gas. There were guys setting personal records in squat for power and bench press late in the season. That’s a good measuring stick for us.”
Which leads to the other benefit of the Broncos new high-tech system – it tracks a player’s performance in every workout, allowing Richesson and his staff to look for the improvement they expect. If they don’t see those results, they know that something is amiss.
“Either they’re not getting the sleep that they need, they aren’t getting the nutrition they need, they’re stressed about something that they aren’t letting us know about, they have a physical deficiency or they just aren’t into it,” Richesson said. “Any way you cut it, that’s not good.”
Again, the Broncos are able to spot problems – physical, mental or emotional – before they become major trouble. That allows them to instead focus on being prepared for the wear and tear of a 16-game, and hopefully longer, season.
“Our guys are built to handle loads; that’s something that they’ve prided themselves on,” Richesson said. “They get the big picture that late in the season, especially with the altitude, it’s not important that we can run all day. I never understood why teams do conditioning in season; you’re not going to get out of shape when you’re playing football every day for 24 weeks. It’s more important to focus on building strength. We want our guys trying to peak at the end of the season. Our guys grasp that.”
This breeds a mental toughness that translates onto the field.
“That has been critical for us, instilling the mindset in our guys that they can know in the fourth quarter that there’s no way that anyone has outworked them,” Richesson said.
Richesson joined the Broncos staff in February 2012. As a result, he had to hit the ground running, updating the team’s training facility and putting together an offseason program in less than two months.
This year, he’ll have even more time to implement his methodology. And that goes beyond the physical part of training; it’s also a team-building exercise.
“We train a little bit different, in group settings; there aren’t individual workouts,” Richesson explained. “I like getting the guys together because football is the ultimate team sport. At the end of the day, when it boils down to those tough games at the end of the year – and we saw it crystal clear this year – the team that can band together and respond and do the little things necessary to win in tough situations is going to come out on top.”
That’s a work in progress.
“This was the first year for this team; it was year one for a lot of us being together,” Richesson said. “As we grow callouses together, look left and right and realize, ‘Look, there’s not a weak link in this chain; everybody is paying the price,’ we’ll be that much better.”
And from what he’s seen so far, there’s little doubt that the commitment will be there this offseason to continue that growth.
“Even before we signed Peyton (Manning), it was a damn good feeling when the veterans – Champ Bailey, Elvis Dumervil, Ryan Clady, all of them – jumped in headfirst, didn’t ask any questions and said, ‘Let’s get to work,’” Richesson explained about his first season in Denver. “We had 100 percent attendance. Once we signed Manning, the sense of urgency went up. Everyone just pinned their ears back and got to work. That’s why this team is special and can be even more special; it’s a selfless group. Let’s just get in and do the work, cut the bull and get after it.”
Perhaps that means an end to a training camp tradition – sled pushing. Many mornings, a Broncos player who wasn’t ready to practice would have to endure the agony of pushing a huge, heavy sled across a deserted practice field. It was humorous to watch, but sent a disturbing message; it was evidence that not everyone was ready to perform.
“If I have to punish guys, I’m not educating them,” Richesson answered when posed the question about this time-honored tradition. “They need to know that if they do A, B and C, that X, Y and Z will follow. And they’ve been rock solid in terms of buying in.”
That process starts up again on April 15, when the Broncos can officially gather as a team for their offseason conditioning program. And when they do, Richesson and Company will have more surprises in store for them.
“Having a strength staff of four really allows us to do some special things,” Richesson explained. “A lot of teams will have five or six interns and rotate them; we have four full-time guys on the strength staff. That allows us to do some unique things that other teams aren’t able to do.”
Having Jason George, Anthony Lomando and Mike Eubanks on board underscores the commitment the Broncos have made to revamping their strength-and-conditioning program. In the team’s attempt to eliminate the training-related problems that many believed prevented Denver from reaching their goals in recent years – including late-season fades, non-contact injuries and lingering ailments – the decision makers at Dove Valley were willing to make the tough calls.
No dollar was spared, from the initial investment in equipment to the ongoing cost of a four-man staff. And nobody enjoyed the luxury of tenure, a point made when Rich Tuten – the Broncos strength and conditioning coach for 17 years, including two Super Bowl seasons – was replaced after the 2011 campaign.
“I applaud Mr. Bowlen, John Elway, Coach Fox and Greek (Steve Antonopulos) for seeing the vision that I laid out,” Richesson said. “They get it.”
Judging from the results of year one, which included a season-ending 11-game winning streak and significantly fewer non-contact injuries, so too does the Broncos forward-thinking strength and conditioning coach.
There was no easing into the Luke Richesson era in Denver. And that’s just the type of revamping the Broncos needed.
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