Merging metabolic and strength training, there aren’t many more intense experiences than the National Football League’s Combine Training sessions. RISING gets put through its paces by the league’s superstars…
It’s not every day you can confuse leafy West London with Miami. And yet, arriving at a sports complex nestled in the grounds of St Mary's University, RISING feels as though it’s wandered directly onto the set of HBO’s Ballers, such is the bevy of big-name NFL athletes assembled.
Amid a sea of megawatt smiles, expensive jewellery and oversized club jerseys draped across Herculean torsos, each player shakes hands with the atom-smashing might of Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious.
Today though, all domestic rivalries are put aside. To mark the release of Madden 18, this batch of superstars have come together to put RISING and a few other novices through the NFL Combine Training sessions: a gruelling near non-stop series of challenges to build overall strength, speed, power and more dynamic movement. It’s not just perfect for the pros; anyone can learn from this system and its focus on performance data, as I’m about to find out.
Self-Belief Is Everything Hoping to glean a few training tips, I meet with the highly rated Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu, who is stood alone inside a sports hall hitting a tennis ball against a wall. Having just overcome a second major ACL injury, it could very well be a metaphor for his own fitness work over the past year. ‘I hate training alone,’ he admits. ‘Fortunately I have a coach working with me during the physical physiotherapy sessions. He’ll uses the line “Hate me today, love me tomorrow”, because he really puts me through it. Although the struggle is mostly mental, there are so many hurdles to get over. It’s tough.’ Mathieu is nicknamed ‘The Honey Badger’ on account of his small stature and frenzied approach – one that is clearly paying off given his reported $60m, five year deal.
You need a positive mindset and to trust your own ability – believe me, I’ve been the smallest player on the field my entire life
Like most of us, RISING is more Honey Badger than Hulk, so what is the best approach if we want to punch above our own 5’10 frame? ‘You need a positive mindset and to trust your own ability. Believe me, I’ve been the smallest player on the field my entire life.’ At this point Mathieu pauses, looks at me squinting, sizing me up, then says: ‘So yeah, you’re going to find out what that’s like! Once you get confidence and know your strengths you'll be fine.’
Caught In A Trap That’s the pep talk done, now it’s time for action! As I make my way out to the athletics track, I see two mounted speed traps, each accurate to 1/00th of a second. I’m greeted by 24 year old New Orleans Saints newcomer Alex Jenkins, who speaks in a clipped British accent – but he’s not being sarcastic, it turns out he’s from Bath!
I soon find myself hunched in a ‘marks, get set’ position staring down 40m of sandy racetrack, and doing my best to ignore the pangs in my fingers. The British NFL newcomer, who recently got his first sack (the term for tackling a quarterback behind a scrimmage), pushes my back. ‘That’s right, sit into it – you’re more explosive that way. Toes up, cock your hands and boom!’ Speed – or at I least I hope – is my solace, my main asset. Quite whether my Sunday League speed merchant status will translate to positive numbers here, is another matter.
In the end, it’s about as good as I could have hoped for, clocking 5.5 seconds, or rather a 7 on the EA Sports game rating – average for NFL heroes, so that’s a win – hurrah! Acceleration-wise, however, I’m informed that I managed 1.84 for the 5m trap, giving me an EA Sports acceleration rating of 5.6. Pitiful. Trotting back to the line, Jenkins gives the thumbs up before telling me why it was such a shaky start: ‘You’ve got to keep your toes straight and the rest of the body will follow – start with your head down and let it gradually rise. Your head came up too early.’ For more on how to turn strength into speed, read RISING’s guide here.
Working out in the sand is best for footwork, because you have to pick them up and put them down quickly
Enter Sandman Next up: agility. Over in the University I’m running though a mazy line of training cones, pushing my leading hand down to the floor halfway through and sprinting back as fast as I can. Easier said than done, but I’m reminded of Mathieu’s advice: ‘Keep running in the cone drills, even when you think you’ve passed the line – you want to keep sprinting so you don’t lose even a tenth of a second. Footwork should also be as quick as possible, especially with that turn in the middle of the drill. Ladder runs are good practice for agility but I always find working out in the sand best for my feet, because you have to pick ‘em up and put ‘em down quickly. That’s how I keep light on my toes.’
As I cross the line in 8.78 seconds, half a second shy of the average and the equivalent of an EA Sports rating of 23, I realise I’ve clearly not been logging enough time in the sandpit. Hardly the confidence booster needed before hitting the weights. The science coach tells me where it went wrong: ‘It’s a mistake most make – when you had to touch the cone, you almost ran past it, which made it a struggle for you to bend down. Do enough of these and it’ll soon become muscle memory.’
Fight The Power Now to the bench press – apparently the NFL record stands at a terrifying 50 reps of 100kg, I’m told. I’ll be scoring two points per rep on a 60kg weight, and as spotters go, I’m in good hands – specifically those of Baltimore Ravens’ 154kg defensive tackle Brandon Williams. Rather than wallowing in my previous disappointment I decide to follow Mathieu’s advice and attack this test with a positive mindset. Fortunately, Williams is making that absurdly easy – he’s the flesh and blood equivalent of a one-million-followers ‘Motivational Mondays’ Instagram account, and he’s just fired up a rap playlist on his iPhone.
My bench press is entirely powered by the adrenaline pumping through my body and the NFL star’s screams of encouragement
Williams’ shouts and smiles spur me on, despite my arms feeling heavy after just four reps. ‘Come on baby, yeah, yeah!’, the colossus bellows, his music getting louder, my face getting visibly redder with each rep. At this point my bench press is entirely powered by the adrenaline pumping through my body and the NFL star’s screams of encouragement. The effort feels like it’s going to burst a blood vessel in my head, but I push on through to a sweat-fuelled 10th, then 11th rep. My shoulders shaking, I go for number 12. Job done!
Williams, who claims he pushes 100kg in his sleep (probably while dreaming of 400kg weights), says there’s still certainly room for improvement in my bench press: ‘The only thing you needed to do was push your belly out more, and find a rhythm. The more tired you got the less you tucked your elbows in – don’t sacrifice form or you’ll pick up an injury.’
Industrial Strength With that in mind I move on to the leg press machine, where I really do hope not to pick up an injury. Since slipping a disc a few years ago, I’ve largely avoided compression-based exercises. Williams is no stranger to injury troubles himself, and lifts up his shirt to show me a big scar on his back: ‘I had a major operation for some pinched nerves, and it got infected, it went inflamed and I had to go under the knife again. The only way to get over it is stretching, stretching, stretching.’
Getting into the squat position, the coach reassures me that it’s on a low setting, but when I push upwards it feels as though I’m jumping into bags of solid concrete. So, I do what any plucky wannabe wide receiver would do, I get to work, finding a rhythm and letting my leg power take the weight off my shoulders. The ache slowly rises from the bottom of my calves to my shoulders. I feel like I’m lugging a fridge up a set of stairs with every thrust, but I imagine myself charging into those big American Football tackling machines, locking shoulders and giving Hell.
Then suddenly, it’s done. Completed. In the bag. Feeling lighter than Michael Owen’s fanmail box at BT Towers, I’m awarded a score of 1,500, which is a long way off the 3,000-3,500 that NFL players average on a far bigger weight, but certainly not a bad effort. ‘You need to spread your feet slightly so when you come down you’re spreading the pressure, says the coach afterwards, ‘and your breathing needs to be more controlled, and in time with the lifting.’
A Vicious Cycle Having had a mixed bag of results, each task more energy-draining than the last, I decide I’ll go all-out for my final challenge: a Watt Bike test. Mirroring the VO2 Max test – sans oxygen masks – and used by everyone from NFL teams to Premier League teams, it’s a flat-out bike ride typically lasting between six and 12 minutes. Luckily for me it’s only six here. Miami Dolphins’ wide receiver Kenny Stills walks over as I’m being clipped in and tells me to forget distance, because it's all about leg work: ‘Keep going whatever the cost – bring down your resistance down to a three or four, keeping those legs whirring and never drop below that initial rate.’
So, I do as the man says and drop it to a lower setting, keeping my pedal strokes going at a serious cadence. Wheezing, heart pounding, legs now jelly, the final minute seems to go on forever – but I keep it up. After collapsing onto a nearby mat, I get some air back and ask the sports scientists how I fared: 48.6 ml/kg per minute, translating to a 64 EA rating. It’s pretty good going I’m told, capping off a physically sapping Combine Exercise session. ‘You didn’t have it on as difficult a setting as the other guys but steadily as they decreased around the 600-watt mark, you caught up and seemed to get stronger in the last two minutes. Next time I’d raise your seat a little higher, as it was slightly low. For the bike sessions when you really need every sinew it’s better to have your legs naturally more stretched than compressed.’
The bad news: I won’t be making the NFL draft anytime soon. The good news: I think I deserve an Uber home!
WHAT NEXT? Even if you can’t throw a pigskin, Tyrann Mathieu says there’s another ball you can do great things with: ‘I always use the medicine ball. One great workout with it is throwing a medicine ball at the floor, or pushing it up fast while lying on the floor, as it translates power into speed, which is exactly what you want as an NFL player.’
The NFL players joined the NFL Combine Training Session to mark the launch of EA SPORTS Madden NFL 18 – available on Xbox One and PS4 from 25 August 2017 and Madden Mobile NOW. Kenny Stills and Alex Jenkins will be turning out for the Miami Dolphins against the New Orleans Saints on 1 October 2017 at Wembley as part of the 2017 London Games, shown live as part of the BBC’s season-long NFL coverage.