As someone who studying exercise science my first thought was the story from last summer about an Oregon High School football team. It's difficult to come up with a hypothesis because we simply don't have enough of the details..
Here is what we do know:
- 13 players were admitted to the hospital with rhabdomylysis.
- One player, Jim Poggi, completed 100 squats of 50% of his max (reported 240 lbs) in 17 mins.
- Following the squat set a sled push/pull was completed.
- This workout has been completed in the past by former players without the need for medical attention.
- The ill players were not from the same workout groups but from random groups.
- Former Hawk DJK took an hour to complete his sets.
Hmm, took an hour. That's where the light bulb went off for me.
Poggi completed his reps in 17 minutes. The math says that is one squat per 10 seconds, roughly. Typically, with a power movement like the squat you would hope to rest 3-5 minutes between sets. That is because you are using your ATP stores in your muscles and need to replenish ATP before attempting another set. So, if you were to complete say one set of 10 reps and rest 3 minutes it would take you roughly 35 minutes or more to complete 10 reps of 10 sets.
What does this mean? A world class sprinter who has done nothing but train for the 100 meter dash wouldn't suddenly run a 10K without previous training. They may complete the 10K but they would suffer severe soreness the following days. Why? Their muscles are trained for the sprint, an event won by those with a lot of fast twitch muscles and muscle energy storage. Sure both events require one to run, but they are not the same.
It's about specificity. Your muscles only adapt to how they are trained. You can't train for a marathon by ridding an exercise bike. In this case you can't train for completing 40 or 50 or even 60 squats in a row by completing sets of six or eight.
Muscle endurance and muscle strength are two different animals. Both are trained differently. Both have different energy systems, oxygen versus muscle ATP. The muscle is made up of fibers for each action. Slow twitch fibers are suited for endurance activity, fast twitch fibers for strength and power.
So, considering Iowa's athletes have been training to squat while at Iowa they more than likely have been training to complete low rep sets at higher than 50% of their 1 RM (I assume). Even during the season the micro cycle or maintenance phase would call for 40-60% of a 1 RM at only 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps (just as an example). But remember too, these players were at least three weeks post maintenance cycle.
A detail we do not know is if the players hospitalized all completed their 100 in as short amount a time as Poggi did. If not, then that rules out my theory. We do not know how the reps were counted. Were 10 completed then rest, or did the players complete as many to fatigue, like say 40, and then rest and try as many as they could again.
For me that would be the key. If they attempted to get to 100 as fast as possible and ignore a 10 X 10 with rest then the squat isn't a power movement but becomes one of endurance. And that I already discussed wasn't or isn't what football players anywhere train to do.
Keep in mind that athletes like Poggi are at Iowa because they posses, of many attributes, toughness and competitiveness. Maybe when presented the challenge of completing 100 reps of a movement Poggi wanted to compete against others (time) and push through pain and muscle fatigue.
Since Poggi knew his time I assume it was communicated to him. Did the players race to be king of the hill? Was there a reward for fastest time?
All of that exertion will lead to muscle fatigue and severe soreness but not directly to rhabdomylysis. It would be a place to start. Follow a muscle taxing workout with improper nutrition and dehydration and you have the building blocks for a serious problem.
Other factors we don't have information about:
- Athletes diet prior to and following exercise
- Supplement intake
- Alcohol or drug use
- Athletes rest (sleep)
- Many, many, more...
Did the athletes supplement with creatine and if so did they begin a "loading" cycle as is normal with the beginning of a phase?
With the timing was there a Friday or Saturday night party or some cocktails that may have led to dehydration? What about energy drinks?
I've been in a gym working with DI athletes that report their daily food log as three slices of pizza for breakfast. I've seen coaches shake their heads over some of the things these kids eat on a daily basis. You can do your best to educate athletes on proper nutrition and hydration but it doesn't always sink in. There is a reason the Army trains its soldiers how to properly hydrate.
Finally, during the press conference the Dr. made mention of a possible stomach virus that may have caused diarrhea which leads to dehydration. Was this a possible catalyst? Could it have been diarrhea due to a supplement and not a virus? I wonder if we will find out the true cause. In the end I assume dehydration and over exertion will be all we get in terms of information from Iowa.