Athletes push their limits, but how much is too much?

Clay Cook, 17, of West Branch, lowers the barbell during a training session on Thursday, March 31, 2011, at Got Strength Gym in Iowa City. Cook, a West Branch senior, plays football, basketball and baseball. (Liz Martin/SourceMedia Group News)
Clay Cook, 17, of West Branch, lowers the barbell during a training session on Thursday, March 31, 2011, at Got Strength Gym in Iowa City. Cook, a West Branch senior, plays football, basketball and baseball. (Liz Martin/SourceMedia Group News)

IOWA CITY — Off-season football training at the University of Iowa conditions the mind as much as the body.

Workouts test the limits of each player, whose boundaries are determined by the strength and conditioning staff, not the players themselves.

“If it was 100 degrees and they want us out there running, I think we’ve just got to go out there and do it,” said senior defensive end Broderick Binns. “Me personally, I’m not going to give up. You hear that, if you give up now, what happens in September if it’s 100 degrees, especially on the turf and it’s that hot? Are you going to quit then?”

Many athletes push themselves to their physical limits in training and competitions. Spartan training methods are designed to put them in challenging situations and overcome their physical limitations with mental discipline. That approach also may result in potentially dangerous situations.

In late January, 13 Iowa football players were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis, an ailment often caused by intense physical exertion that releases muscle fibers into the bloodstream and can cause kidney damage. The hospitalizations followed a timed workout consisting of 100 squats.

All the players were released from the hospital within a week, and the condition won’t prevent them from practicing this spring. A recent investigation by a UI panel did not find fault with the football staff, and Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said the trainers won’t repeat the workout, which also was conducted in 2000, 2004 and 2007.

Ferentz said his program won’t let up on off-season drills, either.

“I don’t think we can,” he said.

Ferentz wouldn’t elaborate on specific changes in how the program trains its athletes but said: “At the end of the day, we’ll be prudent.”

Finding a person’s breaking point is rooted in the individual, said Iowa State University kinesiology professor Warren Franke. Kinesiology is the study of body movement.

Franke said it’s not a gender issue. A workout regimen based in overexertion or bravado is specific to the sport or coaching staff, he said, and is “kind of reflective of the mindset that’s generated.”

"It’s tricky. When you’re working with anybody — whether they’re athletes or the average person — you have to know your person or client or athlete,” Franke said. “It’s inappropriate to use a cookie-cutter approach. So in terms of where is the fine line, there’s no one answer. It really depends on the person.”

Phil Johnson gets the most out of his athletes by customizing their workouts through constant communication.

Johnson, who owns and operates the Got Strength Gym in Iowa City, works with local sports teams, small groups and individuals in strength training. Johnson, a UI graduate, interned with the Iowa and Florida State football programs, as well as with Mike Boyle, a renowned Boston trainer.

He said it’s a careful line between guiding an athlete toward success and pushing them too far.

“If that’s the message that I can get across is that you have to listen,” said Johnson, 31. “You have to listen to what they’re saying; you have to get feedback constantly.

“Kids want to get after it. They want to go hard. So if anything, I’m kind of pulling the reins on kids most of the time. It’s an interesting question: How far can you push it, and how do you know?”

Football players persevere through pain and often put the team ahead of their well-being. Incoming senior Tyler Nielsen, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 235 pounds, injured his neck while tackling Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson on Oct. 16. He played through the pain and started the team’s next two games as well.

“You’ve got to remember there’s 100 other guys on the team that are doing the same thing you are,” said Nielsen, a Humboldt native. “So you get out there with 100 guys who are working to get things done, you’re not going to let them down. They’re not going to let you down. That’s kind of how we are as a team.”

Nielsen reinjured his neck on Oct. 30. He tried to re-enter the game, but Iowa’s training staff kept him on the sidelines. Had Iowa’s training staff not intervened, Nielsen might not have walked off the field. He suffered a broken neck — a fracture of his C7 vertebrae. He said the trainers watched him walk off the field, and he barely moved his arms.

“I know growing up in the Midwest in a small town, my dad was always like, ‘Walk it off, walk it off,’ when you get hurt,” said Nielsen, who is cleared to play this spring. “You’ve got that going through your head. You’ve got a bunch of guys on the team that are like that. Everyone’s playing with some pain.

“You’ve just got to know the difference between when it’s something that’s ... maybe your neck is a little bit more serious than your ankle or wrist or something.”

How can athletes know the difference? That’s where communication is vital, said Johnson, the private trainer.“The essential ingredient is that I’m listening to you as an athlete,” he said. “I think that’s so, so important and so overlooked. I have to listen to how you feel.” 

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