Dwight Howard has plenty to smile about. He's the reigning back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year, one of the best athletes in the world and leader of one of the NBA's true championship contenders. Having fun, sporting a smile and enjoying life are extremely important to Dwight. But underneath his playful exterior lie a painful hunger and an excruciating void. Most people never see the pain or witness its expression, but it's there.
Back to the smile, the one Dwight has been wearing since he walked into Bryan Meyer Training in Orlando, Fla. “I think it’s great for people to smile and enjoy life,” says the 6’11”, 272-pound super-specimen. “Sometimes we take life for granted and walk around with a frown on our faces or mad at the world because we didn’t get something we wanted. A lot of people are doing things they don’t love, but they have to do it to survive. [I’m] playing basketball, something that people wish they could do. [It’s] something that I love. So I have fun with it.”
As Dwight challenges a female prep soccer star to a shoot-out on the gym’s turf area, Coach Meyer provides a quick synopsis of Dwight’s training persona. “A lot of people see him goofing around and having fun,” Meyer says. “I like to have fun, too, but you also have that switch that you can turn on. He can joke around, but as soon as it’s time to go back to work, he gets serious. He might be exhausted after a long day, but then that mindset of wanting a championship kicks in, and it’s time to go back to the gym to do more jumpers.”
The desire for a championship is what brings us back to the pain. Besides his family, the most important thing in Dwight’s world is that championship. “I will sacrifice whatever I need to sacrifice to win it,” he says. “I think about the times we lost big games. Last year, we lost during the Eastern Conference Finals, and the year before that we lost during the Finals. Every time I step into the weight room or on the court, I just envision losing. That motivates me.”
The pain revealed itself shortly after Dwight and the Magic lost to the Lakers in the 2009 Finals. “Bryan and I were in Atlanta, and we had just started back working out,” Dwight recalls. “Fifteen minutes into the workout, I was crying because it was hard, and I felt like I couldn’t finish. I just kept seeing the Lakers jumping up and down on my home court. As bad as I wanted to quit, that’s what kept me going.”
“You could see how much he wanted it that day in Atlanta,” Meyer recalls. “Yes, it’s the performance coach’s job to help motivate, but if you have an athlete that already has that, and you can add to that, it makes a great combination.”
Sprinkle in some of Dwight’s memories of those who told him he was too small and skinny to make it in the NBA, and you have an angry, energized, highly motivated beast.
A few years ago, Dwight seemed to be at the top of his game and one of the best athletes in all of pro sports—not exactly the most logical time to overhaul his approach to training. But the highflying big man knew it was time for a change. “I had been doing the same thing over and over, and I had [reached] a peak,” he recalls. “I wanted to do more and be more powerful.”
Leading up to the switch, Dwight’s workouts consisted of max-out sessions with old-school lifts, a recipe for a weightlifter’s build, not that of a basketball player. “I was used to just getting on the Bench and Leg Press and doing a whole bunch of weight,” Dwight explains. “[When you] see weightlifters, they’re all just big stiff guys. I was just like that. My upper body was strong, but very tight.”
Though Dwight’s efforts on the Bench Press were impressive—during our Jan./Feb. ’08 cover shoot, he obligingly benched 365 pounds—they did little to advance his basketball movement or ability.
With his emphasis on efficient and explosive movement, Bryan Meyer was the perfect man for the challenge of turning Dwight from a muscled-up bruiser to a fluid, explosive post player. “Rate of force production is the most important thing in sports,” Meyer says. “That’s strength times speed. In other words, how fast you can produce that strength. If you can’t produce a movement or strength quickly, then it doesn’t help you. You want to be able push or pull a weight as quickly as possible.”
Meyer’s program set out first to establish Dwight’s ability to control his bodyweight and improve movement with it. After Dwight proved his efficiency doing that, Meyer added resistance to the movements.
The workouts were exactly what Dwight needed, but the transition to movement-based training took its toll. “The first time we started working out, I felt like I was going to die,” Dwight says. “I’m not one to throw up, but I was almost at that point. The first couple days or even weeks, you’ll want to quit. You’ll start feeling stronger after a week or two. It’s fun, but you really have to be mentally strong to survive a week of workouts with Bryan.”
Dwight did more than survive—he flourished. “His ability to catch on and pick things up really stood out,” Meyer says. “That made my job a lot easier, because he was able to master the different footwork and movements quickly.”
After the fast start, Dwight experienced sustained success. “I saw a big difference in my strength levels from when I was doing the regular Bench Press,” he says. “Once I started working with [Bryan], I was able to do more on the Bench and Squat, and it was all because of the different exercises and workouts we do.”
After a summer of training with Meyer, Dwight returned to the Magic’s pre-season camp to tackle their annual 225-Pound Bench Test. His curtailing of heavy doses of Bench Presses might lead one to predict a poor showing for Dwight, but the beast added seven reps to his previous best, totaling a team high of 22.
Meyer’s focus on improving Dwight’s range of motion and different types of strength to aid his fast-twitch muscle make-up allowed Dwight to maximize the strength he already possessed. Dwight adds a quick summary: “He found a way for me to do exercises similar to the Bench Press, but also do other things to prevent my arms and upper body from getting stiff.”
Strength tests are great, but Dwight is most proud of his improved play on the court. “The training has helped with my strength, movement and [ability] to explode and get to the second jump faster than other guys,” he says. “In the fourth quarter, everybody’s tired, but I’m still able to use all the strength I’ve developed because of the workouts.”
Heading into last off-season, Dwight and Meyer targeted the goal of increasing Dwight’s strength in the post, perhaps the only (slight) weakness in his game. “The big [goal] this year was to stabilize and strengthen my lower body in the post,” Dwight says. “A lot of guys will try to push me or get good position on me, so that’s an important thing to work on.”
This was accomplished by increasing Dwight’s lower-body strength and “putting better brakes on him,” according to Meyer. “In other words, the more efficiently I can get Dwight to stop and load, the more he’s going to improve his movements and be stronger on the blocks.”
When the season began, the results were dramatic. “I can stand my ground better than I’ve ever been able to,” Dwight says. “Guys are not pushing me in the post or under the basket to get rebounds, and I’ve really learned how to use my legs. A couple years ago, I was just using my upper body to move guys out of the way and to post up. I was getting a lot of fouls and different things called on me. Now I learned how to use my legs to get position, and it has made a big difference in my game.”
A looser upper body and stronger lower body are fueling Dwight’s tremendously successful ’10-’11 campaign. He’s currently averaging four points per game more than his career average, and his defensive play—blocks and rebounds—are at the same levels that led the league the past few seasons, an accomplishment for which he’s most proud.
When we first sat down with Dwight, he told us about his goal to be the best to ever play the game. Since then, he’s made noticeable progress. “I think I’m on my way to being one of the best that ever played,” he says. “As far as the weight room and basketball court go, I think I’m getting to the point where I’m rising to my peak.”
The Magic may be rising to their peak as well. After a mid-season blockbuster deal, the team seems to be hitting their stride, following the lead of their ever-improving big man. If all goes well, Dwight may soon have his biggest reason to smile.
Dwight and B Meyer Go to Work
Just before the season begins, Dwight enters Stage Four of Meyer’s training progression, which incorporates everything the two worked on throughout the summer. These workouts prescribe push-pull circuits consisting of a strength exercise followed by a speed exercise then a power exercise, with little rest between (watch video of Dwight Howard's Strength, Speed, Power Pull Circuit). The circuits are as demanding as possible to replicate the level of intensity Dwight must sustain on the court (watch video of Dwight Howard's Strength, Speed, Power Push Circuit).
“This is the last stage at the end of the summer, and his rate of force production should be great when he gets to that power,” Meyer says. “We’re trying to recruit all of those fibers and the strength that we worked on over the summer and then end with that power. That’s what sports are all about.”
Training the Beast
Perform each group of exercises in quick succession, with minimal rest. Recover for one minute and repeat the circuit. All Keiser exercises can be performed with a standard cable machine or with band resistance attached to a stable object. A slideboard can be replicated with towels on a gym floor.
For all exercises, maintain tall posture, keeping your back flat and core tight.
1a) Kneeling Single-Arm Press (Strength)
Sets/Reps: 4x10 each arm
Meyer: This is basically a Bench Press, but you’re kneeling. We have removed the lower extremities to make this more of a spine and core stabilization exercise.
1b) Howard Crossover Push-Up (Speed)
Advanced: Add weight vest
Sets/Duration: 4x10 seconds or until movement slows
Meyer: [The exercise is] named after Dwight because it’s one of his favorites. This works on thoracic (mid-spine) mobility and stability as well as shoulder, core and hip stability.
1c) Single-Arm Standing Power Press With Jab Step (Power)
Sets/Reps: 4x5 each arm
Meyer: This is a great functional exercise for power. It’s very similar to the actual movements [Dwight] makes on the court, whether he’s accelerating, changing direction or throwing a chest pass.
2a) Kneeling X Factor Low-to-High Pull (Strength)
Meyer: By stabilizing through his shoulders, back and hips, this helps Dwight when he’s banging underneath the hoop and has to hold his ground near the blocks.
2b) Single-Arm, Single-Leg Squat Row Runner (Speed)
Sets/Reps: 4x10 each arm
Meyer: The single-leg aspect helps with stabilization, and Dwight has to load his back muscles, hamstrings and glutes to avoid being pulled forward. This is also great for his lat and grip strength.
2c) Single-Arm Power Transverse Row (Power)
Sets/Reps: 4x5-10 each arm or until power diminishes
Coaching Point: Keep feet at shoulder width throughout exercise
Meyer: This is a very explosive movement, and the twisting, transverse action is very much like the motion that occurs on the court.
Explosive Keiser Rotational Chop
Sets/Reps: 4x15-25 each side or until form diminishes
Meyer: This is great for spine and core stability and hip rotation. It has really helped Dwight get his glutes to work more with some of his movements. This is identical to the drop step he needs to make on the court.
Slideboard Matrix Push-Up
Sets/Duration: 1x25-30 seconds or until back arches or rounds
Coaching Point: Don’t slide hand to point that causes low back pain
Meyer: We often use this as a finisher because it’s fun. We use higher reps to make it a mental finisher by pushing Dwight past the point he thinks he can go. This is great for the core, spine and shoulder stability.
Plank to Mountain Climbers
Sets/Duration: 1x30 seconds each exercise or until fatigued
Coaching Point: Minimize low back movement
Meyer: We are teaching Dwight how to get flexion and extension through his hips without arching or rounding his back. This translates into Dwight being able to prevent movement through his core when performing lower body movements on the court.