Iowa Football & Rhabdo

Hey John,

Did you hear about the recent case of rhabdomyolysis at the University of Iowa? I was curious as one of the players said he had to "squat 240lbs for 100 reps and it was timed." 13 players were affected and I was just hoping that with your experience you might be able to shed some light on why this type of training is beneficial for D1 football players at this point in the off-season. What are your thoughts on this incident?


Any chance on getting a comment or position on the developing Iowa State “rhabdo situation”. The WOD seems to have been 100 back squats at 240lbs for time followed by a 100 yard sled drag; my football experience is limited to high school but this seems a little extreme even for college or NFL.



Talk to Me Johnnie and CrossFit Football got hit with more than a dozen questions and requests for comments concerning the 13 Iowa Hawkeye football players would were diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis. For most outside of the CrossFit community, the word "rhabdo" brings on looks of confusion. Honestly, I had never heard the term until I started training at CrossFit gym. Even then, rhabdo sounded more like "Kaiser Soze", than a crippling condition. I had played professional football for 9+ years and had 5 years of college football and 4 years of high school training and had never heard of it or met anyone who had it. Or had I?

It was explained as the rapid destruction of skeletal muscle resulting in leakage into the urine of the muscle protein myoglobin resulting from intense physical exercise or trauma. Its symptoms include extreme muscular soreness, stiffness, pain and a dark colored urine.

Muscle soreness, stiffness and Guinness-colored urine? Sounds like the majority of our training days in college and all NFL games.

Hate to break it to you...but the NFL is extreme. I am not sure I am the best one to answer this question, as my perception when it comes to training is skewed. The amount of work these division 1 athletes did does not concern me in the least. What bothers me is the results of the training, not the training itself.

I have to ask, what was the major breakdown between the coaches and athletes that resulted in injury?

Just to provide some background for those who were not involved in college football, the end of January is the beginning of winter conditioning. School began two weeks ago and this is the first week of team organized training. Most players are expected to lift and run during their winter break and are asked to show up in shape. The first week of conditioning is more a test to see who worked out and wanted to improve upon last year’s 8-2 season.

Knowing all this, what was the major breakdown?

Did the coaches safely ramp up volume?

During the first week of training were these athletes prepared for this volume of work?

Had they prepared their athletes for a workout consisting of 100 back squats at 240 lbs and a 100 yard sled drag done as quick as possible?

I guess not, as rhabo usually follows a dramatic increase in volume.

Maybe many of these young athletes did not train during their winter break. They might have shown up to conditioning out of shape, and their football coaches and strength coaches wanted to give them a gut check workout; find out who was training and whom they can depend on. So they programmed something they felt “should” be doable for an 18-22 year old Division One collegiate football player who had been training since high school and had followed the Christmas break training program. (Just for reference, every strength coach I have ever had from college and NFL, provided every athlete program to follow when they were away from the facility.)

The problem is, these athletes might not have been ready to handle this workload and the coaches should have realized it. Many times as a coach you design something that looks great on paper only to change it dramatically once the workout starts.

Football is a very different animal. While the physical attributes are discussed often, the mental toughness and fortitude to survive the game is not always mentioned. Off-season is where the mental training begins; coaches make it tough – to test players and make the lesser ones quit. Every off-season program across America is designed to weed out the ones without the heart to play the game. Football is not for everyone and the training is hard.


What other factors could contribute to rhabdo?

Poor nutrition?

We know that a pro-inflammatory diet is a contributing factor. A pro-inflammatory diet is one high in processed foods, grains and gut irritants. Most college athletes are relatively poor; at Berkeley I lived off a $740 monthly scholarship check and without the $300 my parents gave me I would not have made it. We can assume that most student-athletes do not have the time, understanding or financial ability to invest in a diet free from fast food and processed foods. I am sure the decision between “2 for Tuesday” or the purchasing of grass-fed meat and fresh vegetables is an easy one for an 18 year old college athlete.


Dollar Drinks?

If the workout was on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday morning during the first two weeks of school you have to assume more than a few of the athletes could have shown up to training having consumed alcohol the night before, later in the day or both.

Lets face it...the best time to go out is during the first few weeks of school. No one has to worry about finals or midterms, you have a few dollars in your pocket and you have been gone for a month. Time to go out and have some fun. I am sure there are a dozen spots that are Hawkeye-friendly in Iowa City.

Anytime 13 football players out of a team of 85 get a life-threatening condition as a result of their training, there is a major disconnect.

As a coach, you have to understand how crippling volume can be and the need to be increase it intelligently. The coaches need to realize these are 18-22 year old men in college and might not be making the best choices when it comes to nutrition, sleep and alcohol consumption. However, the players need to take responsibility for their bodies and report in the off-season in shape and ready to train. They need to be well rested, not hung over and ready to get better each day.

The coaches need to be smart and realize the goal of the off-season is to strength and speed and the "Go Fuck Yourself" workouts should not come the first week of the off-season. I am sure if this workout had been programmed in the 8th week of the off-season you would not be reading this.


John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.

Latest posts by John (see all)

Posted in Football, Lifting Weights, Talk to Me Johnnie, Training | Tagged , , , , | 28 Comments

28 Responses to Iowa Football & Rhabdo

  1. Ben

    You don’t need my validation but your perspective doesn’t look skewed to me.

    [Note: I can’t pretend to have played to your standard] Pre-season in contact sports sucks (my background is rugby – league and union) but the post off-season test session is weeks and a world away from the deep water pressure test session. One is checking your plan before you set out, the other is checking the heart and balls of your players.

    I reckon there’s a time and place for both while chasing performance.

  2. Joakim Lundgren

    Good post!
    Both regarding what it takes, and coaches responsibility!

    Cheers Jokie

  3. CBOS

    Thanks for weighing in on this John. I appreciate the time you spend on the websites and was hoping you would pick this up which you did with your normal velocity and ferocity.
    The community also needs to understand what happened at Iowa in the Fall. After being a preseason top 10 they went 8-5 only gaining that 8th win in the Insight Bowl against a good Missouri team.
    What happened between end of season and the Insight Bowl was a college coaches nightmare: Upwards of 20+ players failed their school administered drug tests for street drugs. The best receiver in Iowa history was arrested and indicted for selling marijuana (with “other drug” related charges being dropped). a 1000 yard rusher was kicked off the team for drug related offenses committed while on suspension. They are a team in turmoil that is in complete “Go Fuck Yourself” mode.
    This set of workouts was definitely a means towards taking back their team and regaining the discipline that won them the Big Ten.

    Thanks for the post John!

    This all makes sense now. This team is in nasty turmoil. 20+ players get suspended for failing a street drug test. The street drug tests only happen during a bowl game, so chalk that up to stupidity. Two best players kicked off the team for drug related offenses. The coaches were more than a bit angry and this was a way to weed some people out quick and see who trained; find out who wanted to be part of the team and who was just there b/c of a free ride.

    Thanks for filling in the missing pieces.


  4. John,

    I am with you. I was in charge of football programming and workouts at Division II Nebraska-Omaha and immediately after winter break, we went into gut check mode but we did a lot of cluster work to progressively increase volume. We also focused on escalating density training to get the volume up first. Most of the beat downs in the first few weeks came from being out on the field or in the fieldhouse with conditioning. Short sprints, etc.

    In late 2007, when Joe and I started getting into CrossFit, we started toying with the concept of heavier weights and lower volume type met-cons. Obviously, we first looked at CrossFit’s benchmark workouts such as Fran, Elizabeth, etc. From here we started creating our own benchmarks and daily workouts. Most took into consideration lineman, middle skill, and skill players and the workouts were appropriately matched.

    I am not at liberty to assume anything that lead to the hospitalization of these young men but I can say that we did some pretty crazy shit behind closed doors but in the end, there was always progression and time allowed for adaptation.

    On the other hand, you’re right, we always sent home a winter break manual that explained in explicit detail what they were to be doing while away from school. Once back, we would check to see who paid the piper but there are multiple ways to skin a cat.

    Good piece John.

    Ricky – the first block of training we did in college during winter conditioning was metabolic conditioning. We did 10 BS on the minute for 10 minutes then went to bench 10 for 10 and then RDLs. A version of GVT mixed with metcon. People threw up and were wrecked, nobody died. We had some character issues on our team in 95-96 and our coaches asked our strength coach to instill disciple, make the weak and the turds quit and forge a team that wanted to play. It was not easy and workouts were harder than what the Iowa players did. When I saw the workout of 100 BS and 100 yards sled drag, I was more embarrassed for the kids that they were not in shape enough to survive. This goes back Uncle Rips thoughts “Strong people are hard to kill”. I guess these kids were not strong.


  5. Travis Jewett

    Being an Iowan I have always had great respect for coach Doyle at Iowa. I even had the bizarre fortune of eating breakfast with him before a powerlifting meet in a tiny Iowa town. We were both lifting and he recognized me from weigh ins and asked me to sit with him. The man is an animal, but I just can not see him putting his players at risk like that. Like you said, there had to be a disconnect between the coaches and players. He is the reason Iowa always does more with the talent they have, I hope he isn’t vilified here.

  6. CBOS

    Thanks for the reply John. You and Chris Doyle would be fast friends.
    He was a four year starter D-1 (Boston U) o-lineman and a student of the iron game from an early age. He’s coached at ND, Wisconsin, Utah in both football and S&C capacities before he landed at Iowa under Coach Ferentz. On top of this he’s been a nationaly ranked PLer, Strongman competitor, and Highland Games champ.
    This winnowing process started before the Insight Bowl where they instituted camp-like two-a-days (which in your experience wouldn’t be too uncommon before a bowl) but ratcheted up the intensity and found out who really wanted to play. That resulted in a great bowl win against Mizzou.
    These GFY workouts are just a continuation. My bet is these 13 players all come back and continue to pursue excellence under Doyle’s supervision…after a moment of “adaptation” of course!

    Travis-No way he is vilified. Ferentz and Doyle are like brothers.

  7. Travis Jewett

    I figured as much, but you know how espn can be!

  8. Jared Towner

    I want to know what the best times were???

  9. Joe

    Wouldn’t a 1RM back squat or bench have been a better test of who fucked around over the break? Or a mini-combine, like say vert jump, max bench reps with 225lbs and a timed 40m, or a max set of chinups? 100 reps back squat, 100 reps bench and a sled drag seems like something a weekend certified, wallet chain wearing, lululemon, fauxhawk’d, 150lb CF coach would come up with, not something a legit S&C coach would do.

    We had a simple test in college to see if we had been training. 1 max height box jump, you get three tries. Our coach tested max height box jumps a few times a year. If you came back from vacation and he suspected you had not been training he would test you. If it went down he knew you had not been training, lost strength and your ability to generate force. That is when the punishment would ensue.

    What surprises me is you think that CrossFit invented metabolic conditioning and terrible workouts. Metabolic conditioning and horrendous workouts have been around a lot longer than 1999. Football players, rugby players and other strength athletes have been doing “mat drills” and sick shit since they thought to run with a pig skin. Our first block of Winter Conditioning from 1994-1998 was called “Metabolic Conditioning” and it was terrible. Trash cans set up next to squat racks, 3 miles of Indian Runs and Stadium repeats till someone quit. Metabolic conditioning is a tool in the training of athletes. The problem is many people instantly dismiss due to the context in which a certain group uses it as their only form of training. Creating a base line level of conditioning is necessary to get strong and increase speed and power. However, if your only focus is increased conditioning you will never maximize strength, speed and power.

    Check this site for the article called “do I need to be in shape?” or google Westside Barbell GPP for some good information.


  10. Joe

    I don’t think crossfit invented metabolic conditioning, and I don’t doubt it’s application to sport (metabolic conditioning that is, not crossfit). But wouldn’t you agree something like a max box jump as you said or max reps with 225lbs on the bench would better show who fucked around over the break, rather than rhabdo’ing a bunch of guys with a workout that achieves nothing? That would show who trained properly, and who needed to be cut. Then you can ramp up the conditioning, but what they did doesn’t make sense. Surely someone could train hard and get strong&powerful in the offseason, and still get rhabdo’d from that workout, it doesn’t prove anything.

    Westside GPP is smart and useful towards a goal (increased fitness to handle a greater capacity of heavy training, active recovery, hypertrophy to an extent and injury prevention, plus a mental break from regular training), but what most CFers (not CF football) do and what the iowa football coach did seems to just be stupid. Getting a 50 year old executive to do kipping muscle ups until they get a slap tear is retarded, especially when they don’t have the strength to do a deadhang muscle up or the shoulder internal rotation for it either, and the fact that it’s probably not helping the overweight 50 year old achieve his actual goal, of losing a few lbs of fat and staying healthy.

    Alas, I’m sure you’ll break-away from the CF pack eventually when the tipping point comes, you’re a smart guy with a well programmed system, you don’t need to use the CF banner to do certs and have online daily workouts, eventually like rip and robb wolf you’ll see that being associated with them is doing more harm than good to you.

  11. Stephen

    Just to clear up some confusion – there WERE NOT 20+ players suspended. That is an unfounded rumor, and since only two players were missing from the Insight Bowl, you can verify it for yourselves. Just look at the sideline in any coverage, the difference between 60 and 80+ young men should be obvious. The rest of the disappointment is sadly true. The school career leading WR was busted for minor possession charges, the 1st team RB was suspended for academic reasons and then arrested in Des Moines for possession the night before the bowl game. The AD admitted that mistakes were made in the university’s drug testing program, but nobody was suspended beyond the two previously mentioned players. Thanks for your input on this topic that’s getting just a wee bit of attention in Iowa City lately.

  12. JM

    Thanks for the insightful post. I’m an Iowa fan (learned about your post on and just wanted to clarify one thing about the drug tests: the official line from the university is that some unknown number of athletes may have found a way around the tests, not that 20+ failed the tests. One star player was arrested and charged with possession of a variety of drugs (cocaine, marijuana, muscle relaxants), and then shortly after that, another player was arrested for marijuana possession. All that is still pretty bad, of course, and I could see why the coaches would be pissed at the players, but the “20+ player tested positive” rumor does not seem to be true.

    Also, to add to the point made above, this season was a huge disappointment. Not only did Iowa have a talented, senior-laden team, but their schedule was favorable (all our tough games were at home) and a national championship seemed like an optimistic but possible goal. To make things worse, we were winning several games in the fourth quarter, only to collapse and lose games late, and some people blamed that on poor conditioning (especially on our defense). Add in the drug thing, and coaches had a lot to be pissed off about this post-season.

  13. George

    Excellent assessment, but the “Kaiser Soze” analogy….that was pure art work!

  14. Well said, Johnnie. Now, can you say this at a press conference, b/c that would be AWESOME!

    I doubt anyone wants to hear me at a press conference. But I always like listening to you Z. Keeping the dirty jerz strong.


  15. Josh

    I’m just wondering when this workout shows up on CFFB next… I kinda want to do it.

  16. Pingback: Comments are working again! » CrossFit NYC

  17. kkickd60

    Ok, first of all, lets get the info straight. The original source was an Iowa Football player who said that he had to squat 240 lbs 100 times for time, which if I remember right from my Iowa playing days with Coach Doyle, the time limit is an hour to complete 100 reps. Now going off of that, it would be too extreme, and physiologically impossible for a 160 lb wide receiver freshman to do in an hour.

    What the source forgot to be more specific about was the workout itself. The actual workout is, you take your bodyweight, so if I weigh 185, you put it on the bar. you then have 1 hour to do 100 reps of that weight. So the source probably weighed 240 lbs. Coach doyle is too smart and professional to make the whole team squat 240 pounds 100 times in an hour.

    There was another very similar workout that I did in 2004 at Iowa, take your bodyweight, put it on the bar, once you unrack it, you dont put it back. you then MAX out without taking the bar off your back. This one hurt.

    I am just saying, get the facts in line

    Thank you submitting what happened during the incident. If you check the date of the post, last week, non on this information was made public. But 13 players getting rhabdo might be a problem.


  18. kkickd60

    By the way “Johnnie”, on a full roster at any D1 major University, there are atleast 120 to 140 players on team. Now, every D1 school is allowed 85 scholarship players, so the rest are walk-ons, get your facts right.

    It is easy for everyone to take stabs at the coaches who dont know or who have never experienced a D1 football setting during the off-season. good quote on the “Go Fuck Yourself” workouts. Looking back, not one workout that my coaches threw at me was a “Go Fuck Yourself” workout. Like many have stated before, and coming from the ones who have experienced it first hand,,,,,after having a break, and coming off a bad season, its gut check time. Its competition time. Maybe this workout is too much for you. If you knew something about Rhabdo, you would know that there are many factors that lead to such a thing. I can guarantee that this was a planned event, with qualified supervision, and implemented with the utmost professionalism,,,nothing less.

    here is a link: make sure you copy/past the whole thing.

    A third of the way down you will see where coach ferentz touches on the subject.

    I think one you should include your real name if you are going to be an internet tough guy. So we can see if you played footbal. Or at least not use in work/MIL computer in VA.

    In college I could not remember how many walk ons we had; I know my NFL teams had 53.

    Did you even read the article? Make sure you re-read the article It it is too much call and I will read it you. I have a lot more first hand knowledge on the subject. So reserve your tough guy bullshit for someone who is impressed that you walked on a Iowa.


  19. Pingback: Friday 2.4.11 « Crossfit South Bend blog

  20. Pingback: Daily WOD | Red Hot Beauty Tips

  21. kkickd60

    You are right, sorry John, really. That was an impulsive thing to do and it was wrong. I did not read the whole article. My friends had been giving me crap about what had happened with the Iowa Football team and the workouts, they showed me just a section of the article and I acted on that section.

    Very sorry for the negative post,

    Just so you know, I did not walk on at Iowa, I was recruited and offered a full scholarship. I started the 2004, 2005, and 2006 seasons, and finished as the fourth highest scorer in school history. I have tried out many times for the pros, which is still in progress. It is a tough world, the NFL, to get into.

    Again, very humbled by this, sorry about the stupid things that I said.

  22. Pingback: Yael’s Variety Hour — Yael Writes

  23. Pingback: Back To The Top Of The Benchmarks!

  24. mickey quintero

    just want say love your website its very tight news.

  25. This was a nice and insightful article.

    Although I am not really interested in American Football, I have read a lot of (mis)information about the rhabdo scandal in Iowa browsing various strength and conditioning sites.

    Squatting bodyweight for 100 reps is tough, but should be doable for a college-level athlete. Not to mention that a lot of squatting that one sees from football players in gyms and in YouTube clips is not done to proper depth. I have always wondered at the usefulness of tests like this one and the infamous “225 lbs. for max reps” for football or any sport, but I guess there is some point to them if coaches are still using them.

    Again, good points.

  26. Pingback: 01.27.11 « CFFB Digest

  27. Pingback: Friday 8.19.11 « Crossfit South Bend blog

  28. Pingback: Training on the Road – Wes Kimball | CrossFit Austin | Group Fitness Classes, Personal Training, Olympic Lifting, BootCamp

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *