From lifting bales of hay on a farm to doing yoga and Pilates with a personal trainer, the offseason workout routine of the NFL player has certainly evolved with the passage of time. Here’s a look by decade at that evolution, as told by some notable Bills and their trainers.
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60s – The Farm Era
It's hard to believe, but long before the days of multimillion dollar contracts, playing professional football was only a part-time gig. Having a job to go home to when the season ended was a necessity for most, if not all of the players long-time trainer Ed Abramoski worked with in the early days of Bills football.
Offseason workouts were not only optional, but weren’t expected, as the demands of players’ lives in the office or on the farm took precedence.
“I’d ask a guy what he did in the off season to get in shape,” said Abramoski. “He’d say, ‘Did you ever throw 250 bales of hay up into the hay loft? That’s work. Did you ever carry a calf two miles from the field?”
Even further, popular opinion in the ‘60s held that too much weight lifting would make a player muscle bound and unable to move as athletically on the field.
Abramoski says Bills legends Jack Kemp, Stu Barber and Al Bemiller were the first players he knew of that lifted weights in the offseason, ahead of their time as football pushed into the next decade.
70s – What’s a treadmill?
As technology advanced, so did the NFL training regimen. The introduction of the treadmill changed the way Abramoski and his training staff worked players to their maximum effort. Instead of pitting players of different abilities against each other in field sprints, they could set the treadmill to the top speed they knew a player could run to effectively prevent him from doggin’ it.
The 1970s marked the beginning of the end of second jobs in the offseason, but while players were given a training schedule for their time away from Orchard Park, they still weren’t expected to be at peak physical condition when they showed up for training camp.
“We used to think that the guys would be so fine-tuned in the off season that it might lead to injury,” said Abramoski. “We didn’t want them in peak shape coming into preseason and training camp when it was so long.”
An eight-week training camp schedule with two practices each day gave trainers plenty of time to whip the Bills back into tip-top shape before opening day.
Workouts began to diversify in the 70s, and metabolic sprints that mimicked a player’s on-field routes became commonplace.
“I always thought guys would get more out of their workouts if they did what they were doing during a football game,” said Abramoski, “By getting into their stance and running their routes in succession.”
80s – Paid to train
With bonus money as an added incentive in the 1980s, players came back to train in Buffalo more frequently during the offseason. Keeping in shape year round was no longer for the most committed, but was a job requirement.
But Abramoski says there is such thing as overtraining, and that was a fear as more mandatory workouts were put into place year round. Thus, cross-training was born into the team’s workout routine to fight boredom from monotony.
“Some of the guys in the league worked so hard to the point where they got stale,” Abramoski said. “This way, you have more enthusiasm for each workout.”
Not in Buffalo, but in the heat and humidity of the peak of the day where he trained in his offseason hometown of Houston, Texas, Bills alumnus Thurman Thomas had his own version of offseason cross-training.
“I worked out like a track runner because we ran the no-huddle,” said Thomas, who began his career in 1988. “I did a lot of sprint work on my own without a coach.”
90s – The Age of Individualism
Just as Thomas trained for his unique set of skills, the workout trends of the 1990s became more individualized than in the past.
“I think I was the first NFL guy to incorporate Pilates and yoga into my training,” said fellow Bills great of the 1990s, Ruben Brown. “It’s core, so you’re lying on your back and lifting your legs and because it was new, guys were like, ‘that’s not a workout.’”
Brown says he’s happy to now be able to say he was at the forefront of what players are doing today.
“We were opening the door and experimenting and building the philosophy for types of workouts that all of the NFL players are doing now,” he said.
From the time Brown was drafted in the 1st round by the Bills in 1994 to his retirement 13 years later, Brown said he witnessed the birth of a new age of training.
“Training was way different when I first started in the NFL,” said Brown. “It was a lot more classical – heavy lifts, bench press, squats, and things of that nature. It turned into specialty training, core training, and plyometics.”
“There are guys today that work on the core more than anything and back when I played I didn’t even know what the core was,” added Thomas.
'00s to today– Trainers here, there and everywhere
If the ‘90s began a new way of thinking about an individual’s goals from an offseason workout, the turn of the century brought on more individual trainers to help pleayers reach those goals.
“The number one thing that I see different in guys that train today is that everybody has a strength coach,” said Thomas. “Everybody has a trainer. You see so many training facilities. I didn’t have my own strength and conditioning coach.”
“Now that training camp is shorter, players have to be ready to go when they walk in that door,” said Abramoski.
Today’s Bills trainers say they set players up with a specialized workout to use wherever they return to after the season ends, often with help at a performance gym as Thomas described. Workouts are more scientific, as are dietary guidelines.
It’s safe to say that between the technological and scientific advancements and the advancement of the game itself, offseason training has come a long way from its calf-carrying and hay-baling beginnings.