Home Sculpting an Athlete
The man behind the Oregon muscle
Oregon's state-of-the-art weight room offers an array of different exercise and conditioning options.
Gravitational load
Developing the first step out of the blocks
Tossing the medicine ball

University of Oregon junior basketball player Maarty Leunen said he was underweight at 6-feet-9 inches and 200 pounds when he arrived at school. As a result, during his freshman season he got beat up playing forward in the Pacific-10 Conference. He was out-rebounded, out-hustled and out-muscled by his bulkier opponents. After the season was over, Leunen knew he needed to put on some muscle if he was going to compete with the other big guys in the conference.

“I was skinny,” Leunen said. “To play the position, I had to gain some weight.”

Since his freshman playing days, Leunen has added nearly 20 pounds of muscle and become one of the best big men in the conference. After averaging 5.6 points and 4.3 rebounds as a freshman, Leunen has nearly doubled his production in his junior year, scoring 11.0 points per game and grabbing 8.6 rebounds, good for third place in the league.

What enabled Leunen’s transformation? It’s the man who’s been responsible for developing Oregon’s athletes for the past 19 years, strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe.

Radcliffe oversees the development of Oregon’s athletes, prepping raw recruits and transforming them into elite collegiate competitors.

“Coaching is an art. It’s a science and it’s an art,” Radcliffe said. “It’s like a painter. How do you use the brushes and colors to paint a picture? And it’s the same thing for coaching. How do you get the points you need to get across to these athletes? I need to be a good enough coach that even if I was in a wheelchair, I could still coach and get athletes to improve at the same level.”

Like an artist, Radcliffe has to look at everyone and imagine the final product. Sometimes it’s easy. When he’s asked to tone cross-country runners, he just has to make sure they don’t gain a lot of weight. But when he’s asked to add 80 pounds of muscle to convert a raw football recruit into a lineman, well, Radcliffe has his work cut out for him.

“There’s no magic number for each person,” Radcliffe said. “We assess everybody regardless of their sport or position, and from there we try to improve them so that they are a stronger, more physically capable person.”

For Leunen, it wasn’t a simple matter of needing to add weight.

“I was the never the most athletic person,” Leunen said. “But I gradually improved in areas of speed, quickness, flexibility and jumping.”

Radcliffe never told Leunen the type of body he was going to create with him; rather, he helped him set a routine that enabled Leunen not only to gain weight but showed him how to use that weight and not lose mobility.

“He sets a foundation for us to improve in all the areas so we can translate that to becoming a better basketball player, and therefore, a better team,” Leunen said.

Radcliffe starts recruits with the basics.

“When you come here to work out, you’re going to go through a certain routine that involves all sorts of athletic movements,” Radcliffe said. “We want improve their overall mobility. When they first come in here we want to improve their posture and their balance, their stability and their flexibility. Those four things combined contributes to being a more mobile athlete.”

Then it’s strength training.

“Once we establish that foundation, then their ability to get stronger, faster, is able to increase at a better rate,” Radcliffe said.

Not only does this type of progression help athletes’ overall athleticism, it keeps them healthy as well.

“We can get them really strong or really fast, and if they’re always injured, it doesn’t help us,” Radcliffe said. “If they get injured a lot, then that work-in-progress starts to go backwards.”

Many of Radcliffe’s exercises stem from a type of training called plyometrics. Radcliffe wrote two books about the subject and is cited in various medical journals for his approach to developing the human body. Because he had Oregon using plyometric techniques before they became popular, Oregon is considered one of the most innovative schools for athletic training.

“Almost everything is strength training in some type of way,” Radcliffe said. “The idea behind plyometrics is to add a little bit more speed to the strength training, and you do that with the use of gravity. You’re increasing the load of your body just like when you put more weights on the bar to squat. If I drop off this table, I’m also increasing my load almost as much, or more, for the amount of impact that’s on the ground.”

“So the whole idea is to use that (gravitational) load and work against it. Another way to look at plyometric training is as elastic and reactive training.”

He explained that while it’s effective for an athlete to lift heavy loads, it takes too long and isn’t helpful for fast-moving sports.

“How can we use that type of strength training in a more game-like situation where it also has to happen in a short amount of time?” Radcliffe said. “That’s where plyometrics fits in–being able to exhibit strength in a short period time.”

While he can usually tell who's going to excel, Radcliffe is always excited to witness athletes finally understand the applications for his training.

“You can have a good idea, but it’s fun to be surprised,” Radcliffe said. “They may not ever be the greatest athlete, then all of a sudden something clicks in there.”

For some, it can come quickly. Freshman sprinters Chad Barlow and Zach Ancell were at first confused by Radcliffe’s plyometric training and wondered how throwing a weighted ball might help them run faster. But as they became used to the routine, and finally started competing, they realized how effective it was.

“It’s a little more intense,” Andcell said. “I’m running faster times than I did at this point last year.”

Coming out of high school Barlow and Ancell were surprised at how much more technical and specific the training could be but soon realized it was helping them.

“Jim definitely knows what he’s talking about,” Barlow said. “I mean the guy’s been here forever, he must be doing something right.”

Leunen is proof that the training works. Every year he’s improved his production and been credited for being a better all-around player.

“I give a lot of credit to him for where my body is today and the way I play too,” Leunen said.