ESPN takes naked pictures of NFL players each year for their now-legendary Body Issue.
Even if you’ve never seen them, you’ve probably noticed that NFL players are in tremendous shape.
In fact, one of the most common requests I get from my personal training clients is that they want to look like an NFL player.
So what I want to do with this article is two-fold.
First, I want to show you the practical differences between how NFL players train and how a really dedicated guy at the gym trains.
Second, I want to illustrate a fundamental principle of exercise philosophy, which is the why behind why you train.
For almost everyone, the goal with exercise and good nutrition is either getting healthy or looking better naked.
We might train to be strong, to be lean, to gain weight, to lose weight, or to just be healthy.
That is our why.
NFL players do not train to look a certain way.
The why for an NFL player is to be the absolute f*cking best at what they do.
In terms of physical ability, you cannot get higher than the National Football League.
NFL players will give absolutely everything in order to get 1% better. That is their singular focus. Nothing else.
Their attractive physique is merely a pleasant side-effect of their training and we appreciate it because of millennia of evolutionary psychology.
But neither is it their starting point, nor does it factor into their planning, mindset, or execution of their training a single iota.
How they look is a function of their job.
This is why your average gym-goer does not and cannot train like an NFL player: because their starting points are so dramatically different.
This is why it doesn’t make sense for someone to try and train like an NFL player if you aren’t going to be one.
In fact, I would recommend that most people do not train like NFL players.
So all the differences you’re going to see in the training regimen, nutrition, recovery, and mental health training…
It all stems from the why of an NFL player. Everything is about function.
Before an NFL player even starts training, they will undergo a series of tests--including DNA tests--to gather a baseline of their health and to target nutrition to their specific needs.
The DNA test includes gut microbe tests and allergy testing. You don’t want to give dairy to a 205-pound $30 million running back if he’s lactose intolerant.
From there, their training will be dictated by the position that they’re going to play. Remember, everything is about function.
For the sake of this article, let’s look at a cornerback.
Their position requires them to be able to outrun wide receivers, who are some of the fastest humans on earth.
So the training for a cornerback will focus on three things:
To do that, they will need to minimize weight from fat while also maximizing strength.
This will allow them to accelerate quickly and change direction while also being able to tackle hard.
Those are the functions that they need to execute at the highest possible level.
All their training, recovery, and nutrition will fall in line with that goal.
For an NFL player to increase muscle and decrease fat while also training every single day, they’re going to eat a ton of highly targeted calories, mostly from whole foods.
Here’s what a macronutrient profile would look like.
They’ll get their protein from supplementation and lean meats. The meats will usually be chicken and fish.
They’ll shoot to get 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For a 200-pound cornerback (the average CB weight in the NFL) they’ll eat 300 grams of protein.
For carbs, NFL players are going to focus on getting them from veggies and low glycemic index starches like quinoa.
This prevents their bodies from storing the glucose from the carbs as fat and also gives them lots of energy for their training.
For fat sources, NFL players are going to focus on nuts, olive oil, and fish.
NFL players will also use targeted supplementation to help with their digestion and ensure they get maximum nutrient absorption.
Many NFL players also take a pre- and probiotic supplement (this is the one I recommend) to keep their gut bacteria healthy for better immunity, mental health, and mental clarity.
Like I’ve mentioned before, everything is about the function of the athlete and helping them perform at the absolute peak of human ability.
With that in mind, the first thing that NFL athletes do is spend time warming up their bodies.
This includes stretching, foam rolling, fascia work, and also mobility.
Being able to make your body move the way you need it to is crucial.
So they’ll spend time working their hamstring, hip flexors, calves, quads, and shoulders.
From there, the athletes will move into dynamic warm-up. This can include some banded resistance work, high knees, carioca, shuffling, and some sprints.
While the point of stretching is to increase range of motion, dynamic warm-up is more to get blood flowing and increase the temperature of the muscle groups.
A big part of the training for a speed-focused position like the cornerback will be with increasing speed and agility.
They need to be able to accelerate quickly and then instantly change direction as needed.
This can include lots and lots of banded sprint training work, hurdles, board jumps, side jumps, the ladder, and more.
The athlete will practice the first few steps of the movement over and over again to master their body position, weight distribution, balance, and acceleration.
All of these movements need to be second nature to the athlete so that they become second nature. A cornerback can’t track their receiver while also trying to make sure they’re using correct form for their sprint. It has to be instinct.
In these types of exercises, it isn’t the specific exercise that is important, it is hitting as many perfect repetitions as possible.
The athletes will focus on executing the movements as precisely as possible.
Of course, the NFL requires that players not only be fast but also strong.
So athletes will work on building up their core strengths with compound lifts like the deadlift, squat, bench press, overhead press, and the row.
This is one area where an NFL athlete’s training will resemble your average gym goer. They’ll gradually work up to heavier and heavier weight.
To build explosiveness, the players will also try to increase their fast twitch muscle. To do this, they’ll sometimes use something like complex training.
An example of this might be a heavy set of squats, followed by box jumps or sled pushes. This structure of training (heavy lift + plyometrics) allows the body to build more fast twitch muscles and explosiveness.
Another big piece of player’s strength work will focus on their core.
Your core muscles connect your lower body with your upper body.
So having a super-strong core is crucial for creating torque, rotating with power, and changing direction.
For the athletes, they’ll do medicine ball throws and slams, planks, McGill bird dog, Around the Worlds, and others.
Now, most of us mere mortals can take a day off or go light on our recovery day.
But not NFL athletes.
Because the players will be performing this type of training every single day, their recovery is on another level.
It goes without saying that they’ll also eat to refuel and give their bodies the nutrition to heal.
They may also use some supplements to help with that. Turmeric has become a very popular tool for recovery and reducing inflammation.
This is the turmeric supplement I recommend because it has a much higher bioavailability than others on the market.
Usually, after the workout, the players will get a combination of cryotherapy, compression bags, and massage.
Cryotherapy helps to reduce inflammation and speed up healing, similar to icing a sore muscle.
Compression bags are very interesting. They are basically whole-leg sleeves that contract, hold, and squeeze your legs.
This is designed to bring blood and fluids in and out of your legs faster to speed up healing.
Massage is another way that the players can increase circulation in their limbs and speed up healing.
Finally, sleep is another major component of NFL players’ schedule.
We often think of NFL players as party animals. Perhaps some of them are.
But the ones that are serious about their performance and their training make sure they get a solid 8 hours of sleep every single night after they train.
During sleep, your body produces many beneficial hormones, human growth hormone to be exact, that help your body grow, heal, and get stronger.
One final note I want to make about NFL player training--and this is crucial. They discipline themselves into a routine. They make their training a habit.
This is perhaps the biggest difference between an NFL player and your typical gym goer.
NFL players eat the same things each day at the same time. They train the same way each week at the same time. They recover in the same way every single day.
This routine is literal power.
Habit is perhaps the greatest tool that we have over our health. Successful dieters eat the same meals every day. Successful gym goers get in the habit of going to the gym at the same time every day and do the same structured routine each week.
Without a schedule, a plan, or a routine, it is very hard to get results.
So I’d like to encourage you: instead of trying to train like an NFL player, try to develop their mindset.
They train to with a why and they train with a routine.
Your why will help you maintain your routine.
You don’t need a team of nutritionists, physical therapists, or sports psychologists.
If you put your mind to it, you can find a system and develop a plan that works for you. That will deliver the kind of results that you’ve been dreaming about.
Then all you have to do is stick to it.