5 Secrets from an NFL Trainer
LaDainian Tomlinson. Drew Brees. Reggie Bush. Carson Palmer. Kellen Winslow, Jr. Besides being NFL Pro Bowlers, what do these five guys have in common?
Answer: They’re all trained by Todd Durkin, C.S.C.S., owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, and the head of the Under Armour Performance Training Council. He not only makes his living training elite athletes, but also by helping average guys achieve their ideal bodies. We sat down with Durkin to discuss his work with these top athletes, and to find out how you can apply the same techniques to your own body-sculpting efforts. From the eight components Durkin believes every workout should contain to the surprising drills he uses with top athletes, it’s your chance to learn the training secrets of a top NFL trainer.
MH: You work with a lot of talented athletes. What’s the key to taking someone who is already very gifted, and making them even better?
Durkin: The first step is discovering weaknesses and strengthening them. And this applies to everyone. The average guy will avoid certain exercises when that should be his focus. And I do the same thing [focus on exercises that people are the weakest in] with my athletes. For example, when I first started working with LaDainian in 2002, he had room for improvement on his balance. He since has become so much better. When I started working with Brees that same year, his core wasn’t as strong as it should be. So with an emphasis on joint integrity and core strength, he was able to really improve his game.
The next key is focusing on training movement. Many guys come to me and they are already strong. I want to try and make them faster, more explosive, and more flexible. You would be surprised that some of our workouts don’t involve a lot of traditional "weight" training. I like to emphasize speed, agility, quickness, acceleration, power, and metabolic conditioning along with my strength and flexibility work.
And this variety goes beyond punishing your muscles. I try to involve many sensory stimuli while training. I love to create exercises that challenge the mind as well as the body. For example, while doing 45-second slide board drills [where you skate side-to-side on a frictionless surface], I like to force my athletes to catch tennis balls coming at them while they’re sliding. Can you catch two balls coming at you at the same time? Can you catch playing cards that I am tossing up in the air while I am quizzing you on questions relating to your sport, your position, or other questions that challenge you to think while you are tired? By involving so many aspects you train your body, but you also train reaction time and hand-eye coordination, and all of these aspects combine to create a better athlete.
MH: What tactics do you use with the pros that can be applied to the average person's workout?
Durkin: For me, tempo is king. I love to keep the heart rate up during the workout, and because of this I encourage my athletes love to train with a heart-rate monitor so we can see their level of conditioning and have them hover right under lactate threshold. I’d recommend the same for any person because, regardless of fitness level, this leads to improvement. Beyond tempo and heart rate, there are three other rules of them to keep in mind:
1. Use high-intensity interval training.
2. You don’t need to train all day—the intense part of my clients’ sessions is approximately 45 minutes. Get in, do your work, and then recover.
3. Diversify your program—keep it challenging, mix it up, and train the body from the feet to the fingertips, left and right, front and back.
A great program should have at least eight components to it. They are:
1. The dynamic warmup: Calisthenics and bodyweight exercises that help warm your muscles and activate your central nervous system, for better performance.
2. Joint integrity: This focuses on exercises that strengthen the small muscles that surround your joints, improving your strength and reducing your risk for injury.
3. Strength training: Designed to improve strength and build muscle. (Try this part of the workout yourself with this all-new routine created specifically for Men’s Health.)
4. Power/plyometrics: These are explosive exercises that boost your ability to activate muscle fibers quickly, to help you jump higher, throw harder, and run faster.
5. Movement training: This involves training for speed, agility, and quickness, including hand-eye coordination and reaction-time drills.
6. Core conditioning: The emphasis here is on the muscles of your abs, lower back, and hips, in order to improve core strength and stability.
7. Flexibility/recovery/regeneration: Foam rolling and stretching are used to help improve mobility and speed recovery of muscles.
8. Metabolic conditioning: You might think of this as "cardio."
MH: Can you name one or two exercises that you believe everyone should be performing to maximize performance? What makes them so good?
Durkin: How about three?
1. Pullups. This exercise taxes your entire upper body, and performing them correctly—where you pull your chest up to the bar and retract your shoulder blades and contract the muscles in your upper back—leads to improvements in strength and appearance. And if you can’t do pullups, then use an implement like a TRX to assist you. I love the TRX and use it in every session with my athletes because it allows me to get creative with my programming and adjust to the level of my client (from beginner to advanced athlete).
2. Pushups are another great upper-body builder for your chest, shoulders, back, and arms. But mix it up by putting medicine balls under your hands, do them on the TRX, do them with different hand positions, wear a weighted vest, or try them inverted. The pushup is a great "basic" movement that can be modified for all levels. You have to love the basics; and you can do these movements whether you are in the gym, outside, traveling, or at home.
3. Lunges. I love lunges because they target the entire lower body. And when you are looking to get the most bang for your buck, focus on training the big muscles like the glutes and quads. Again, you can diversify the types of lunges that you do—straight, angled, reverse, side, cross-behind. Have fun with it, but they’ll surely work your entire lower body.
MH: What's the craziest thing you've seen any of your athletes do?
Durkin: I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of tremendous athletes, but here are just a few that come to mind:
LT (Ladainian Tomlinson) sprinting at 18.0 miles per hour for 20 seconds. I don’t know if a gazelle would look as smooth.
During the card flip game on the slide board (see question 1), Drew and LT both caught 18 out of 20 card flips with one hand. This is incredibly challenging and requires great focus.
Again on the slideboard, Drew caught 139 tennis ball catches in a row. Think about that: He is skating back and forth on a slideboard working his entire body as I toss two balls at him at the same time, and it took 140 attempts for him to drop a ball once. Amazing.
And I’ll throw in a strength example. My big guys—Kellen Winslow, Jr., Justin Peelle, Ben Leber, and baseball player Brian Anderson, flipped a 420-pound tire six times in less than 14 seconds. Speed, power, and explosiveness.
MH: What do you think is the biggest mistake most guys make in their approach to getting in better shape?
Durkin: To be honest, there are lots of mistakes I see. So I’ll offer you six that your readers should start correcting today.
1. Too much emphasis on big weights. There’s nothing wrong with challenging yourself with heavy weight, but also focus on taking 30 to 60 seconds of rest on some days between sets (this will force you to use lighter weights), interval your exercises, and work on your conditioning.
2. Not enough total-body training and conditioning. Men love to focus on their chest and biceps, but total-body training will improve the appearance of your entire body.
3. A lack of diversity: I want you to hit the iron, but also use tools like medicine balls, stability balls, the TRX, and the BOSU to ensure you’re working multiple muscle groups and diversifying your program.
4. Overtraining: Many injuries happen because of too little rest and too much emphasis on the same muscle groups.
5. Inconsistent nutrition: Nutrition and proper hydration fuels everything, and most of us can do a better job in this department.
6. Not enough sleep. You want a great tip? Here it is: No sleep means no growth. You need to be eating right, sleeping right, and training hard to keep the results improving. That’s a great formula to start you in the right direction.