The Dying Breed of Natural Athletes
Earlier this year, I wrote about the passing of weightlifting great Tommy Kono. Recently, we saw the passing of two more of the greatest athletes in sports. The first was boxing’s Muhammad Ali who called himself “The Greatest,” and quite likely was. The second was “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe.
I shall not quibble about whether either was the greatest in his sport. If they were not, they were so close to the top that it is not worth wasting column inches arguing.
Gordie Howe (back row, second from left) with the USHL Omaha Knights during his rookie season.
When Lifting Weights Was a Sin
My articles usually focus on Olympic weightlifting and general strength training, so you may be wondering why I am commenting on these athletes. Neither of them was known to be a practitioner of weight training. Ali rose to fame during a time when boxing trainers had little use for weight training because of the notion that it would make you too big, too slow, and worst of all, muscle-bound. This was the received orthodoxy for more than 100 years.
Gordie Howe played his rookie season in the NHL in 1946, before anybody in any sport outside weightlifting would even dream of using the iron pills. He would have seen little need to do so, especially since he was already stronger than most. Howe stood six feet tall and was 205lbs of pure muscle. This may not be that impressive from a weightlifting standpoint, but he was one of the biggest players in the league during his heyday in the 1940s to 1960s. In those days, hockey players were average-sized men who did not stand out from the fans who cheered from the stands. Since salaries were not high, many players had to supplement their income with summer employment. The players favored physical labor jobs that would help them stay in shape in the off-season.
Like the football players of the 1950s, if hockey players and boxers used weight training it was often kept a secret. Coaches were against the idea and many athletes did not want their fans to know they were doing supplementary training. Fans liked to believe that their heroes were naturally big and strong. The silence did not lift until well into the 1960s.
While Tommy Kono was a weightlifter extraordinaire, Ali and Howe never lifted weights to any great degree. Howe used to advocate wrist roller curls to develop the forearms, but apart from that, you would never see either of them doing power cleans, squats, or presses. It just wasn’t done in their day. But “their day” was fast coming to an end. Athletes in all sports were discovering the advantages to systematic weight training. They discovered the same thing that people like Tommy Kono had known all along: weight training makes you stronger, not slower or tighter.
Weight Training and Hockey
Today, NHL teams have state-of-the-art weight training facilities and hockey players start weight training at a young age. They know the scouts are in the stands and that their chances of getting drafted are better if they are bigger. Players today are taller and heavier than they were back in Mr. Howe’s day, to the extent that Gordie would not stand out physically today like he did in 1946. There’s still the odd wiry little guy that makes it to the NHL, but he is now the exception. Wayne Gretzky weighed only 155lb in his rookie year, but even he was encouraged to gain weight as he got older.
Most encouraging now is how hockey players train for their sport. In the early days, weight training programs were often little more than bodybuilding routines. I recently read that in 2014, the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team was coming off of an unloading phase before Sochi. This implied that they were using periodized programming. These hockey players were now all lifting weights, and even more amazing to many old schoolers, they were also women.
Weight Training and Boxing
While boxing has been slower to accept weight training, the thin edge of the wedge has been driven in a little bit. A lot of old-school trainers still would not consider the use of weights, but there are younger ones who are exploring the possibilities. This is especially true now that the Eastern Europeans are dominating the heavier weight divisions. They have no doubt been influenced by emerging research into the science of speed-strength training.
Concepts like starting strength, explosive strength, and reversible strength are relevant to the power needed to throw a punch. Even before the Eastern Europeans, there were a few pioneers who extensively used weight training, among them Evander Holyfield, George Foreman, and Bernard Hopkins. These three used weight training to great advantage even though they were getting older and presumably slower. Perhaps that bit of extra power compensated for the slower reactions that all of us experience in our fifth decade.
The Last of Their Kind
The passing of these three great athletes - Kono, Ali, and Howe – is evidence of a changing of the guard in regard to sport training. These men have been referred to as pioneers in their sport, and they certainly were in a lot of ways. However, in regard to the world of physical training, they were not pioneers so much as they were the last of their breed, from a time when one’s natural physical endowments were the greatest determinant of sporting success.
Ali and Howe were part of the last generation to rely mostly on their inherent traits to bring about athletic success. While genetically gifted specimens will still appear, the scientific weight training now available means that smart, hard work can help close the gap for the rest of us.
What can we learn from the sporting greats of the past?