It isn’t the fastest recorded time ever at the NFL Draft Combine, but 4.50 seconds in the 40-yard dash is still blazing. Add that speed to a 6’3”, 248-pound defensive end like Seattle Seahawks first-round pick Bruce Irvin—who was the fastest lineman clocked in 2012—and you create a nightmare for quarterbacks.
Bigger, stronger, and faster is the name of the game for college and professional football. And now, according to a new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, there’s data to back up what we’ve been seeing players morph into on the field over the past 70 years.
Researchers at Grand Valley State University did an analysis of the average height, weight, and body fat percentage of college and professional football players from 1942 to 2011. While players at all positions gained weight over time and increased body fat, one of the most striking statistics was that college interior linemen gained about 1 to 2 pounds per year over 60 years, and professional players gained up to 1.5 pounds per year over 7 decades.
Add that up and it’s upwards of over 100 pounds of beef in the middle of the line. (Consider in 1980 there were only three NFL players weighing in at more than 300 bills, according to an Associated Press survey, and now there are nearly 400 men playing over that weight.) While that’s good for teams in the present, it may not be so great for these bigger guys when their playing days are done.
“If you have all these individuals who are encouraged to gain a lot of body weight over a short period of time, then that puts them at risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, or kidney disease,” study author Jeffrey Potteiger, Ph.D., a professor in GVSU’s department of movement science, tells MensHealth.com.
One 2008 study even showed that retired linemen exhibited almost double the prevalence of metabolic syndrome—a cluster of risk factors like obesity and high blood pressure that increase your chances of heart disease and diabetes—compared to their non-linemen counterparts. Just this past August, former University of Southern California Trojan and Detroit Lions draft pick Fred Matua died at 28 years old from heart-related issues—he played at 315 pounds. Another notable Hall of Fame defensive end, Reggie White, shone the light on possible risks of being big when he died of cardiac arrhythmia at 43.
One major factor contributing to the growth of football players is the specialization of training and nutrition programs from the high school level to the pros. “Nowadays, every team has a strength and conditioning coach,” says Potteiger. The biggest jump in player size in the study also occurred in the 1980s, after organizations like the National Strength and Conditioning Association created better development of certification programs. (It’s noted that the larger use of steroids in that era could also play a role).
That’s where trainers like Ryan Capretta, C.S.C.S., owner of Proactive Sports Performance in Los Angeles, come in: to build guys up correctly. He’s put players like Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers and Antonio Cromartie of the New York Jets through programs like The NFL Workout to take them to the top of their positions.
“When we look at the trend of athletes getting bigger and faster, I think it’s really about efficiency of training,” Capretta tells MensHealth.com. When he’s given someone who’s genetically gifted, like Arizona Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald, Capretta is able to put the athlete on a specific training plan that pushes him as fast as he’ll go, to get a maximum benefit.
But it’s also about training for the individual, not for the position on the field. “I have an offensive lineman who is 280,” Capretta says. “The mistake is to say you have to gain an unhealthy amount weight. You’ll see an influx of injuries to players like that.”
Whether it’s a lean freak like Jason Pierre-Paul or a behemoth like B.J. Raji, it’s tough to move that amount of mass. Take a look at the infographic below to see the evolution of the NFL lineman over the years.
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