When Dwight Howard got traded to the Lakers this past summer, the best center in basketball found an opportunity for a fresh start. Howard's divorce from the Orlando Magic was public and messy, leaving him with something to prove. Amid the Lakers' coaching change, distractions and unrealized expectations, Howard has been been quietly working to re-establish himself while rehabbing from off-season back surgery.
To regain his elite basketball body after the surgery, Howard immediately sought the help of his longtime personal trainer, Bryan Meyer. Howard initially started training with Meyer only during the off-season, but as their relationship grew and deepened, the two began working together more often. "I think it’s gotten easier the more I’ve been around him, because I understand how he works mentally and physically," says Meyer. In a typical year, Howard takes three to six weeks off after the season before starting to train with Meyer. But this year was different.
Howard was beat up after back surgery and couldn't jump right into the weight room, so Meyer came out to L.A. after the trade and asked if Howard wanted him full time (Meyer's facility, B Meyer Training, is based in Orlando). "[Howard] said, 'uh, yeah, that’s why you’re out here right now,'" says Meyer.
"Bryan Meyer has been great for me," says Howard. "This summer was very tough."
That's an understatement. For six months, Howard couldn't train at all. He lived in a hotel, keeping himself occupied with video games and Legos. "I couldn’t do anything, no running, no jumping, no lifting," he says, "and I was a little bit nervous about getting back into it."
It was a delicate process to rehab Howard on a new team, and Meyer knew he had to work closely with the Lakers' medical staff and trainers to figure out the best way to get his client back to 100 percent. "I understand that he works for the Lakers, and they’ve been great to allow me to go in there and talk with the staff and almost be a part of the team," says Meyer. "But yet I’m not, and I understand that."
Still, Meyer's role in Howard's recovery has been substantial. He heads to the Lakers' practice facility in the morning and the arena before a game to check on things. And he still splits his time between both coasts. "I go back to Orlando once a month to check up on my team," he says. "So it’s been stressful, but I think it’s been good stress."
It's easy to forget now, but there was suspicion that Howard would miss extended action in the 2012-'13 NBA season. And even though the team hasn't performed up to standards yet, Howard has been on the court for every single game. "I guess we were ahead of schedule, but I tried to look at it like there is no schedule," says Meyer.
Howard worked all off-season to regain his basketball body.
The biggest physical challenge was limiting Howard's flexion and trying to keep his spine as straight as possible during workouts. "A lot of it was sticking very strict to what the doctor suggests, and then gradually pushing the envelope with the suggestions of the physical therapist," says Meyer. "I actually trained him in front of the physical therapists, probably four or five times." These "check-in" periods were key for Howard's recovery.
Once he could train with Meyer, Howard started making gains. In the beginning, total-body workouts followed 15 to 30 minutes of post-rehab activation exercises. "It was everything from lower-back strength exercises to hip range of motion stuff, to core stuff," says Meyer. "That was a staple. We had an array of 8 to 10 exercises and stretches that we did, and we would progress those."
Those activation exercises, designed to get Howard's muscles to fire properly, were important for keeping his patterns in proper alignment. Eventually, the big center would perform an upper-lower split after the activation exercises. "And during the lower-body days, we did movement," says Meyer. "We did footwork, we did deceleration stuff, we did some bodyweight stuff, some with the basketball, some without the basketball, and then we went into his strength for his lower body."
As they progressed to lower-body strength movements, Meyer watched for bad movement patterns. If they emerged, he stopped the workout, but didn't tell Howard. You try telling a seven-footer with something to prove that he needs to stop training. "I had to like trick him," says Meyer, "so I would do something else, and I’d have him go shoot free throws and say, 'this is part of the workout.'"
The rehab has helped Howard play every game this season. While he has been on the court, averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds per game, it's obvious that he hasn't quite reached his potential with his new club. "Right now, I'm not happy with where he’s at," says Meyer. "We did a great job of getting him to recover from a very severe injury, and that’s great; but we’re still not there," says Meyer. "Everybody can get better, and I think it has to be a team effort."
Howard knows that he's in better shape than he was before, and he knows a lot of that has to do with the work he's done with Meyer. "I got my weight back up, and actually my body fat went down. It’s the lowest that it’s ever been," he says. "[Meyer] has done an excellent job. He took me from the moment where I couldn’t do a Push-Up to now, where I’m doing back to Pull-Ups, Push-Ups, Bench Press. I can do all that stuff with ease. So it’s because of him."
Howard still has a lot to prove, but with the help of Meyer and the rest of Team Howard, he still has a chance to achieve it all. Meyer is making sure of it. "I didn’t care if he was ready to play opening night," he says. "Our goal was to get him better as a person and then as an athlete, and then as a basketball player.
So far, so good.