Throughout his 12-year NFL playing career with the Chicago Bears, Mike Singletary used hill workouts to help him become an eight-time All-Pro and ten-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker.
Now, as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Singletary has insisted on bringing hill training into his team's offseason conditioning program twice a week to maximize the performance of his players heading into the upcoming season.
With the 49ers in the midst of their second phase of a 14-week offseason program, Singletary and head strength and conditioning coach Duane Carlisle have introduced "Pain," the name commonly referred to the rebuilt 45-foot high training hill at team headquarters.
"There's something about the hill," Singletary told reporters back in mid-March after the 49ers first minicamp and the hill was on full display for the first time. "It's beautiful to look at but what it's going to do for our guys is it's going to bring about something that you can't really get in the weight room, something that you really can't get on the track."
Joining Singletary in his use of hill workouts were fellow legendary football players like his teammate running back Walter Payton and former 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice. Both employed the unique method of training to develop powerful leg strength in which they used for running past and (in Payton's case) over opposing defensive players.
"That's a very generous deal compared to what Walter ran, it was a heck of a lot higher," Singletary said looking at the hill that resides adjacent to the 49ers practice fields and player parking lot.
"The hill that Jerry Rice and those guys ran, it was a lot higher than that. The hill that some of the guys and I ran on, it was closer to that size where you could do a lot more things. You had a lot more options in terms of things you could do on the hill. So that's why I'm excited about ours. There's a lot of versatility to it."
Originally, the hill was half of its current size and was used primarily for players to use for rehab assignments while unable to fully participate in practice. But with mounds of dirt being applied to its original shape following last season, Singletary estimates the hill to be 45-feet high with a 45-degree slope on one side and a 30-degree slope on the other side.
"All the guys that I know that worked out on a hill, they were a cut above some of the other competition around the league and they had a long playing careers," Singletary said. "So I'm excited about the hill and it just adds another dimension to our workout."
But it's not just Singletary and the coaching staff who have taken a liking to the new hill. All of the members of the 49ers roster agree that they've seen an immediate impact from the hill training.
"It feels like you're back working out in college," defensive end Justin Smith said. "Everybody seems to be in great shape because of it, so it's been good."
Beyond getting into better shape, Smith says the hill will do much more for his body than a typical cardio workout.
"While you're getting your cardio in, you're also strengthening your legs. Instead of just running, you're getting both at the same time," he said. "So this is definitely the hardest offseason program I've been through."
After establishing a base-level of stamina in the first stage of the offseason program, Carlisle and his staff have been introducing strength and power workouts with the hope of increasing the player's muscle mass.
"We're starting to introduce some power movements now in the weight room with the goal of increasing muscle size," he said.
There's also a shift in focus during the second phase of training which emphasizes position-specific conditioning and technique work. The outside work during that period encompasses two days of hill workouts and the other two focusing on positional drills.
"I definitely can see changes in my body from being here," defensive end Kentwan Balmer said. "I see the preparation that it takes to be successful. Seeing guys like Joe Staley and Justin Smith and how they're working – you see why they're so good on Sundays. So I'm trying to follow their routines and go where they go because I want their same success."
With the new addition to their offseason workout regiment, the 49ers have made a point of not letting the hill get the best of them.
"The hill is a beast! But for me and all my teammates, we're working out really tough," Balmer said emphatically. "We own the hill – the hill doesn't own us! That's our motto!"
Instead they are using the hill to get the best out of them.