Strength Tips from the NFL’s Top Trainer
Wisdom from the strength and conditioning coach who trains the NFL’s best
The NFL season is upon us and there’s something—or rather someone—that many of the top players have in common: Brett Bartholomew.
Bartholomew, who is the director of performance at the Los Angeles-based gym Unbreakable and the owner of the start-up Bartholomew Strength, has served as the strength and conditioning coach to the league’s best, including 2016 Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. I recently caught up with Bartholomew, whose lessons on strength, speed, and power can be applied to just about any sport or fitness routine. “The principles I use with my NFL guys apply to all athletes,” says Bartholomew. “Strength is strength.”
Fundamentals, Not Fluff
There are all sorts of trendy fitness programs out there but all the scientific evidence points to something called progressive overload. Regardless of what muscle or capability you are trying to build, you need to apply a stressor and then allow for recovery. Over time, as your body adapts, you progressively increase the stress by adding more intensity (weight or speed) and duration (repetitions or time). Gradually increase the stress and then rest. It’s simple, but it works.
Another principle to always keep in mind is SAID, or specific adaptations to imposed demands. This simply means that if you want to grow a certain system or capability, you need to train that system with specificity. This demands consistency and patience. Popularized “workout of the day” programs don’t work, unless your goal is simply to lose some weight.
More Reps or More Weight?
For the vast majority of people, it doesn’t really matter. Whether it’s 12 reps with a lighter load or five reps with a heavier load, so long as you train to fatigue, you’ll get a nice adaptation. But for elite performance, strength is dictated in the one-to-five repetition range. Heavier loads are crucial for training the neuromuscular system to produce maximal force.
Strength Training for Endurance Athletes
Many endurance athletes tend to favor high-repetition, low-weight training. But again, if you want to generate more power [think: cycling or climbing] or the ability to withstand repetitive force [think: running], I think you’re better off training with heavy loads in the three-to-five repetition range.
This doesn’t mean you should hit the gym for the first time ever and load up the weight. Far from it. Give it a few weeks with lighter weight so your body can adapt to the movement patterns and then increase the load. And remember: Strength does not mean mass. It means strength. A lot of endurance and adventure athletes get worried about gaining mass so they stay away from the gym. This is a myth that needs to die, especially because strength is synonymous with injury prevention.
I know this makes me sound like a meathead, but if I could recommend only one movement, it would be the squat. No other exercise increases strength, speed, and power like squatting. In addition to athletic performance, squatting helps with hip mobility and it’s a movement we use repeatedly throughout the day.
If you are new to squatting, I advise starting with something called a goblet squat. It puts your body in a great position and minimizes injury risk. Just about anyone who is healthy should be able to goblet squat. Once you’ve mastered the goblet squat, then I’d progress to either a double kettlebell front squat or a barbell squat.
Train with Intention
The quality of any training session is directly correlated with the intention behind each movement. You should be completely focused on each and every rep. Research shows that your mind cues your body and helps with force production. For example, when doing a push-up, think “push the ground away” during each repetition.
For me, food is fuel. It’s as simple as that. People spend way too much time over-analyzing this. Follow these simple rules instead: Avoid processed stuff; carbohydrate intake should mirror training stress; and aim to eat well 80 to 90 percent of the time. Trying to be perfect always lends itself to rigidity that is neither sustainable nor healthy.
Rest is a weapon. What was once seen as a weakness is now a strength. There are all kinds of ways to recover, what I call regenerative strategies. They range from listening to calm music, to massage, to aroma therapy—anything that helps you relax and transition from the stress of a workout to a more restful state. But all of that stuff pales in comparison to sleep. Just like you eat to support your training you need to sleep to support your training, too. I’d aim for eight hours a night.
Although, I do warn against letting the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. I’m seeing more and more people overdoing recovery. Remember: You’ve got to have something to recover from. It’s like the little kid playing baseball who sits on the bench for 90 percent of the game and whose mom brings him Gatorade and a hot dog. Earn your recovery.
Unfortunately, there’s just so much crap out there these days. I’m really trying to get other coaches and athletes to embrace what I call “conscious coaching” or “conscious training.” Don’t just go with the flow. Use your head. Whether you are considering a new exercise, program, or nutrition strategy, look for evidence that something actually works. I’m not against innovation—it’s just that there’s far more quackery than science out there.