Prior to the 2004 NFL season, Brian Urlacher's agent contacted nationally renowned speed and strength specialist Chip Smith about improving the linebacker's endurance. After deliberation about training outside his Atlanta complex, Smith went to work developing a high-altitude training program. Not only did Smith have to consider the side effects of training thousands of feet above sea level, but he had to develop a program that would ensure Urlacher's stamina lasted for the entire game. The program had to also maintain Brian's off-season strength gains and meet his caloric and protein dietary needs. It took less than two weeks for the Chicago Bear to see results from this revolutionary program.
Typically, Urlacher comes to Competitive Edge Sports in Atlanta for off-season training, but this year he wanted something different. Normally, I wouldn't agree to train someone outside our Atlanta complex for that long. But, because I have been training Urlacher for five years, he is one of the very few clients for whom I'd do this.
Why Does Brian Urlacher Train at High Altitude?
Air in higher altitudes has less oxygen. When there isn't much oxygen in the air, hypoxia, which is oxygen deprivation in muscle tissue, occurs. This causes muscles to fatigue quicker.
The effects are only temporary, because the body produces erythropoietin (EPO). EPO causes the body to produce additional red blood cells, which carry oxygen-rich blood to muscles for additional energy. When Urlacher returns to sea level, his extra red blood cells can transport more oxygen than normal, which delays muscle fatigue. This is exactly what he wants in the fourth quarter—longer, harder play and faster recovery.
The Design Challenge
Urlacher wanted me to design a program to help improve his fourth quarter endurance. I've always trained Urlacher position-specific by having him work on scraping and filling, pursuit drills, first step explosion, pass drops, change of direction and any other drills to benefit his position at Mike Linebacker.
The first challenge in designing the kind of program Urlacher wanted was figuring out why he was tiring so much in the third and fourth quarters. To start, I had Urlacher send me game cuts from four games. I broke each film into different segments by charting each play, starting with the first series. That included the quarter, down and distance, Urlacher's position on the field and the actual play (blitzed the A gap from the right side, for example). Then I broke down each game into four quarters. Each quarter represented actual game movements from the four games Urlacher played. I included 25 seconds between each play, T.V. timeouts and halftime.
What stuck out the most from the cuts was how much he ran on each play. I circled and put a stopwatch on the end of each play. Urlacher ran to the ball every play. No matter if it was a run or pass, he was in the circle within three seconds of every play. The amount of his sprinting was substantial.
After watching game cuts for days, I designed a game-and movement-specific program, as well as one that was aerobic for duration and anaerobic for short explosive bursts. The resistance Urlacher faced on each play, the effects and weight of his football equipment, and Urlacher's nutritional needs were also considerations. He had to take in enough calories to maintain his lean muscle mass.
To address resistance in his training, I implemented a quick release handle, which gave Urlacher resistance without impeding his movement. When he blitzed or played the run, he faced resistance equivalent to taking on a center or guard; this endured for about four or five steps. Once he moved up field three yards, I released the resistance, at which point he turned and sprinted 15 yards. Friends at X-Vest developed custom shoulder pads we loaded up with eight extra pounds—two times normal shoulder pad weight. This helped acclimatize Urlacher to the weight of his pads and summer heat of two-a-days.
Urlacher wore a polar heart rate monitor during training. So—according to his age, height, weight and heart rate—I could adjust intensity. The monitor also gave me additional information such as total training time, average heart rate, total calories burned, heart rate zone and percentage of calories burned from fat, which perfectly equaled what he lost in fat.
Urlacher started with one quarter of 24 plays. The first series consisted of nine plays with 25 seconds rest between each. The total time for Series 1 was 11 minutes and Urlacher's heart rate was 162 beats per minute. After a four-minute rest, Urlacher started Series 2, which also consisted of nine plays that lasted 11 minutes. Urlacher's heart rate was 163 beats per minute. Following a two-minute rest, he started Series 3. This was six plays and lasted 7:30; Urlacher's heart was beating 166 times a minute.
The first quarter was 29 minutes and 30 seconds; the total training time was one hour and 50 minutes. Urlacher's average heart rate was 143 beats per minute; he was in his target zone for one hour and 11 minutes; and he burned 2,200 calories with 50 percent of them from fat.
*Note: Urlacher started (as always) with a ballistic warm-up that included 15-20 movements to warm-up the core and quick foot ladders. For the first two weeks, extra position-specific work was added to the game situations and two-minute drill, which incorporated resistance 40s. Urlacher ran 10 40-yard dashes in less than seven seconds with 10 seconds of recovery. Hands down, this was the hardest drill Urlacher sweat through during his training. At the end of each workout, I stretched Urlacher out for 15 minutes.
The next consideration for Urlacher's summer workout program was his weight work. I wanted to increase his aerobic endurance as well as his muscle endurance while maintaining the strength gains he made during his off-season workouts in Chicago.
Strong and big are understated ways to describe Urlacher. He is 6 feet 4 inches, 260 pounds. and has power cleaned more than 400 pounds training in Atlanta. He has some of the most explosive hips I have ever trained. Translation: a 4.49-second 40, 38-inch vertical and athleticism unmatched by anyone with his body weight.
So, to keep the main goal of his weight program in sight, which was to increase muscle endurance, I had to figure out at what intensity he could train without overdoing it. To keep it simple, I broke Urlacher's workouts into a push-pull regiment and constantly changed the reps, sets and exercises. I kept Urlacher's rest time at 25 seconds (huddle time) between each set and one minute between each exercise. This type of high-volume training helped achieve muscle endurance and fat burning, which is what Urlacher wanted.
The last challenge to contend with was Urlacher's diet. I wanted to ensure that training at high altitude didn't result in loss of lean muscle, so I based Urlacher's dietary needs on a couple of factors. First were his caloric needs, and second his protein needs. I figured out Urlacher's basal metabolic rate (BMR), or in other words, what it took to maintain his cell maintenance, reproduction and repair at sedentary state. I based this assumption on how much Urlacher consumes to maintain his current body weight of 256 pounds, which is 15 calories per pound of body weight. Based on that, Urlacher's weight multiplied by 15 calories resulted in a BMR of 3,840 calories.
* Note: Urlacher added another 2,000 calories per day due to his activity level. This increased his daily intake to about 5,800 calories per day.
Urlacher also needed to get enough protein to offset the effects of high-volume training and explosive running. So, I based his protein needs on one gram of protein per pound of body weight, which meant he needed 256 grams per day. Requiring that much protein intake can cause a problem. A body can only assimilate 30 grams per meal; so, I had to figure out how Urlacher could get all 256 protein grams. I used EAS Myoplex ready-to-drink protein shakes. They have 42 grams of protein and only two grams of sugar. About every three hours, Urlacher drank a shake or ate a meal.
After the second week of training, Urlacher went back to Chicago and retested in the Bodypod to ensure proper calculations for his diet and training program. At this time, Urlacher weighed in at 255.3 pounds and lost 1.7 percent of body fat or four pounds of fat; he started at 256 pounds and 6.9 percent body fat. That wasn't even the most exciting result; Urlacher increased his lung capacity by 2 percent in only two weeks. This validated the results I anticipated from this new type of training. And, most importantly, Urlacher was pleased.
* Note: I am not a registered dietitian, nor am I qualified to give nutritional advice. However, after 25 years of training elite athletes, I believe I have some insight into dietary needs of my athletes.
It was really great telling one of the doctors who works with our clients about the success of my new training program in Tahoe. Without getting too technical, here's why and how these results were achieved in such a short time. Slow-twitch muscle fibers contract slowly, but they can sustain contractions for long periods of time without fatiguing; they get most energy from burning fat. Pure fast-twitch fibers contract rapidly, but they fatigue quickly. Their energy comes mostly from burning glycogen. Urlacher definitely has more fast-twitch fibers than slow-twitch.
However, as with the slow-twitch fiber, fast-twitch fibers can also burn fat. So high-volume training can help change pure fast-twitch fibers into fast-twitch oxidative fibers that burn fat at a faster rate. With the combination of explosive running and weight work, Urlacher's body literally became a fat burning machine.
I want to extend a special thanks to all the great people in Truckee, Calif., for all their support and kindness during our month-long stay. An extra special thank you goes to the Truckee High School coaches, Head Coach Bob Shaffer and the rest of his staff who cut and lined the high school field each week for us. Thanks and God bless! See you next summer!
June 26, 2004
Body weight: 256 pounds
Bodypod measurement for body composition: 6.9%
July 10, 2004 Two weeks into training, Urlacher went back to Chicago for testing.
Body weight: 255.6 pounds
Bodypod measurement : 5.2%
Total body composition loss in two weeks = 1.7%
Fat weight loss: 4.25 pounds
Increased lung capacity: 2%
July 26, 2004
One month of training
Body weight: 255.3 pounds
Bodypod measurement: 4.9%
Total body composition loss: 2.0%
Total fat loss: 5.10 pounds
Heart Rate Recovery
Exercising heart rate: 173 beats per minute (bpm)
Three-minute recovery: 118 bpmWeek four
Exercising heart rate: 172 bpm
Three-minute recovery: 80 bpm
June 29, 2004
Pre-testing muscular endurance
First workout 315 pounds max reps for bench press: 8 repsJuly 22, 2004
Four weeks of training
Last workout 315 pounds max reps for bench press: 12 reps
Chest, Back and Biceps*
Bench Press (superset)
4 X Max-Max+2-Max+2-Max+2
Seated Row 4 X 8-8-8-8
Incline Press (superset)
4 X 8-8-8-8
One-Arm Row 4 X 8-8-8-8
3 X AMCD
Lat Pulldown 3 X 12-12-12
Straight Bar Curl (superset)
5 X 10-8-6-6-6
Seated DB Curls 3 X 8-8-8
3 X 30-30-30
Knee-Ups 3 X 30-30-30
Triceps, Shoulders and Legs*
5 X 10-8-6-6-6
Shrugs 4 X 8-8-8-8
Leg Extension (superset)
3 X 12-12-12
Squats 4 X 6-6-6-6
Seated Military Press (superset)
4 X 10-10-10-10
Front Raises 4 X 8-8-8-8
Upright Row (superset)
4 X 8-8-8-8
Side Lateral 4 X 8-8-8-8
Triceps Extension (superset)
4 X 10-8-6-4
Close Grip Bench Press 4 X 10-8-6-4
Rollovers (Push-ups and Sit-ups)
3 X AMCD
Rollovers (Push-ups and Sit-ups)
3 X AMCD
*Note: Rest 25 seconds between sets and one minute between each exercise. To superset exercises, complete a set of one exercise, rest 25 seconds, and immediately perform a set of a second exercise. For example, complete eight reps of incline press, rest and then complete eight reps of one-arm row.
Lie down on a bench on your back. Grip a barbell slightly wider than shoulder width. Lower the bar to your chest. The bar should touch slightly below the end of your pectorals at the base of your sternum. At this point, if you have taken the proper grip width, your hands should be directly above your elbows. Then drive the bar, straight up, off of your chest until your arms are fully extended.
Use a seated row machine or mid-pulley with a seated row attachment. With your arms straight out, place your hands at about shoulder width with your palms facing each other or pointed toward the ground depending on design of the machine or attachment. Sitting straight up, keep your core and lower back tight and your shoulder blades slightly pinched together. Pull your arms back, driving your elbows back passed your body. Then, control the weight back to the starting position.
Lie down on an incline bench on your back. Grip a barbell slightly wider than shoulder width. Lower the bar to your chest. The bar should touch your chest near the bottom half of your pectoral. At this point, if you have taken the proper grip width, your hands should be directly above your elbows. Then drive the bar, straight up, off of your chest until your arms are fully extended.
Start by placing your left foot on the ground and your right knee on a bench. Then, lean forward until your back is parallel to the ground and place your right hand on the bench with your arm straight and elbow locked. With your left hand hold a dumbbell with your palm facing your body. Your arm should be hanging straight down from the shoulder. Then, pull up leading with the elbow and keep your arm tight to your body. Bring your elbow back as far as possible. The motion is similar to that of starting a lawn mower. Be sure to keep your shoulder blades slightly pinched. Then, lower the weight back down to the starting position. Use the opposite side of the body to perform the lift with the right arm.
Use a set of dip bars and start with your arms near your sides locked at the elbow and shoulder. Lower yourself down, keeping your shoulders directly above your hands and your elbows pointed back. Go down until your shoulders are only a few inches above your hands. Lean slightly forward to put more focus on your pectorals. Then, push yourself back up to the starting position.
Seated with a slight backwards lean, take a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip on a straight bar attached to an upper pulley. Make sure your palms are facing away from your body. Keeping your shoulder blades slightly pinched and core tight, pull down on the bar until the bar passes your chin. Be sure to lead with the elbows and use your back to pull down on the bar. Make sure not to overly-lean back as this will work a different muscle group of your back. Then control the weight back up to the starting position.
Straight Bar Curl
Stand with a barbell at thigh-level and take a slightly wider than hip width grip. Your palms should be facing away from your body. With your arms slightly forward so the barbell is away from your thighs, curl the bar up to your chest. Be sure to only move your arm from the elbow down and to lock the upper-arm in place. Then, lower the bar back down to the starting position.
Seated DB Curls
Sit at the end of a bench and take a dumbbell of equal weight in each hand. Start with your arms straight down and your palms facing away from your body. Keeping your upper-arms in place, bend at the elbows, and curl the dumbbells up toward your shoulders. Then, lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position
Lie on the ground on your back. Slightly bend your knees and place your feet fiat on the ground near your butt. Place your hands behind your head. Using only your abs, lift your shoulders and upper-back completely off the ground. Then lower yourself back down.
Use a vertical knee raise machine or hang from a pull-up bar. Then, lift your knees up toward your chest. If hanging from a pull-up bar, do not let yourself swing. Be sure to use your abs to lift up your knees. Then, lower your knees back down to the starting position.
Stand with a barbell at thigh-level. With your arms straight down, grip the bar at hip-width with your palms facing toward your body. Slightly bend your knees and push your hips back. Keep your low back and abs tight and lean forward so your chest and shoulders are directly over the bar. Make sure your feet are fiat on the ground. Then, explode up extending at the ankle, hip and knee as if you were jumping. Now, keeping your arms straight at first, pull on the bar with a shrug of the shoulders. Next, begin to bend your arms and continue to pull on the bar similar to an upright row. Lastly, drop your hips and catch the bar across your shoulders and chest in a 1/4 squat position. Make sure to drive your elbows forward so they point away from your body to help keep the bar on your chest and shoulders. Finally, drive up from the 1/4 squat position until you are standing straight up.
Stand with a barbell at thigh-level. Grip the bar at hip-width with your palms facing toward your body. Keeping your arms straight and elbows locked, lift up on the bar by shrugging your shoulders up toward your ears. Keep your abs and lower-back tight and your shoulder blades slightly pinched together. Then, lower the bar back down to the starting position.
Use a leg extension machine, seated with your legs bent at a 90-degree angle. Straighten your legs until fully extended with your toes pointed slightly out. Then lower your legs back to the starting position.
Start with a barbell in a squat rack. Position yourself underneath the bar so the bar sits on your traps slightly below the base of your neck. Set your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Point your toes slightly out, but not overly exaggerated. Place your hands on the bar wide enough to easily control and balance the weight. Make sure to look straight ahead during the entire lift. Take the bar off the rack and start to squat down, always making sure to control the weight. Keep your core and lower-back tight. Push your hips back as you lower the weight. Make sure your knees do not move past the front of your toes as you descend. Lower the weight until the top of your thighs are parallel with the ground. Then, drive the weight up to the starting position, pushing through your heels.
Seated Military Press
Sit on a military bench with a barbell at chest level. Take a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, with your palms facing away from your body. Keeping your core tight, push the bar straight up, over your head, until your arms are fully extended. Then lower the bar back down to your chest.
Stand with your arms straight down and a dumbbell of equal weight in each hand. With your palms facing your body and keeping your arms perfectly straight, raise your hands out in front of your body. Keep your shoulder blades slightly pinched together and do not raise your arms past 90 degrees. Then lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
Stand with a barbell or curl bar at thigh-level. Place your hands on the bar 6-8 inches apart with your palms facing toward your body. Pull the bar up toward your chin, leading with your elbows. Keep the bar as close to your body as possible. Then lower the bar back to the starting position.
Stand with your arms straight down and a dumbbell of equal weight in each hand. With your palms facing each other and keeping your arms perfectly straight, raise your hands out to the sides of your body. Keep your shoulder blades slightly pinched together and do not raise your arms past 90 degrees. Then lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
Lie down on a bench on your back. With your arms fully extended at a 90-degree angle to your body, grip a barbell or curl bar with your hands no more than 6-8 inches apart. Keeping your arms locked at the shoulder, lower the bar toward your head, bending only at the elbow. Keep your elbows in tight and pointed down toward your toes. The bar should be lowered until it nearly touches your head in between the eyes and the top of your forehead. Then, using only your triceps, drive the bar back to the starting position, again only moving your arms at the elbow and locked at the shoulder.
Close Grip Bench Press
Lie down on a bench on your back. Place your hands on the bar 8-12 inches apart so your hands are inside the width of your shoulders. Lower the bar to your chest. The bar should touch slightly below the end of your pectorals at the base of your sternum. Keep your arms in tight in order to isolate your triceps during the lift. Then drive the bar, straight up, off of your chest until your arms are fully extended.
Close Grip Bench Press
Seated DB Curls
Seated Military Press
Straight Bar Curl