Two days after leading the Green Bay Packers to an epic Super Bowl championship, A.J. Hawk lay on an operating room table as doctors inserted pins into his wrist to repair torn ligaments and stabilize the joint. This isn't how Super Bowl champions typically celebrate their victory, but A.J. is hardly typical.
A.J. didn't injure his wrist during his standout performance in the championship game. The ligaments were torn way back in October, when more than 300 pounds of opposing NFL lineman fell on top of him, mangling his wrist in the process. That's right, the heart and soul of the Packers' defense played most of the regular season, playoffs and Super Bowl with a severely damaged wrist—and no one had a clue. A lightweight cast was the only indication of injury as A.J. quietly battled every Sunday. Fans and the media were unaware that he had been hurt. To this day, A.J. shrugs off his manly display of toughness. "It's just part of the game," he says.
Although the injury and cast caused a handful of possible interceptions to slip through A.J.'s grasp, the high-energy backer covered the field sideline to sideline, racking up 111 tackles and three picks during the season. "Yeah, I had a little wrist injury last year," A.J. says with a chuckle. "I tore some things in there early in the year, but I knew I could play through it, because I was still able to run around. If you can't run, you can't play. I just got used to playing with it."
Wasting little time after his surgery, A.J. returned to his training home, D1 Sports Training in Columbus, Ohio, almost immediately after the pins were inserted. When he showed up with his wrist still sporting a post-op cast, Mike Durant, training director at D1, was shocked. "Even we didn't know A.J. was hurt during the season," he says. "Then the guy shows up right after having surgery and is ready to train. He didn't miss a single workout this offseason."
To work around the healing wrist, Durant and A.J. manufactured a special harness that strapped A.J.'s arm to different weight machines and other modes of resistance without placing any stress on the surgically repaired joint. The 250-pound linebacker spent his offseason strapped to iron, and he loved every minute of it.
"A.J. is the toughest and most old school guy I've met," Durant says. "The guy will play and train through any injury. You would have to cart him off the field to get him out of a game. When he was training in here right after his surgery, he never complained or said he couldn't do something. I had to look at his face to detect that he was in pain. That's how I knew when to shut something down."
A.J.'s humble, blue-collar approach to football and life has always been part of his identity. After lettering in varsity football as a freshman in high school, an impressive feat, A.J. received his letterman's jacket as a Christmas gift from his parents. Other members of the team wore their jackets as badges of honor. A.J.'s jacket got little mileage on his back. "I never wore it," he says. "It wasn't really my thing. I never felt right wearing it. It's like wearing my Super Bowl ring now, I don't want to look like I'm showing off."
Another way he's not showing off: A.J. still rolls around in the 1996 Ford Bronco that got him where he needed to go in college.
Like most individuals who consistently do things the right way, A.J. received life lessons and support from a strong family. Whether it was his father rebounding for him as he shot free throws at 2 a.m. (A.J. was a three-sport athlete) or his two older brothers guiding him through his first weightlifting sessions as a pre-teen, A.J. first learned the importance of hard work at home.
"I had two older brothers who were great athletes and taught me everything," he says. "I would see how hard they worked and how good they were, and I just wanted to be in their spot. They led by example and instilled the importance of that type of leadership in me. I still don't mess with those guys. They still scare me [laughs]."
His lesson in leading by example makes A.J. a cornerstone of the Green Bay Packers organization. "If I am doing the right things all the time, guys will see that and want to do the same," he says. "If you are always out there yelling, no one is going to pay attention to you when it matters. I make my comments mean something when I speak. Guys see right through you when you are trying to be something you aren't. I have a hard time respecting those types of leaders."
A.J. had plenty of time to polish his leadership skills at Centerville High School (near Dayton, Ohio) each summer. Arriving every morning at 4:45 a.m., he led his teammates through legendary workouts lasting until 11 a.m. Their day wasn't complete until A.J. and company had ground through three hours in the weight room, two hours on the track and an hour of 7-on-7. "Those workouts were brutal. It was awesome," A.J. recalls. "It was like training for a triathlon, but it's what made me who I am. I got through them and learned to enjoy them. Everything after that was cake."
Although A.J.'s current workouts are quite different from the ones he did at Centerville, the level of intensity hasn't dropped. Three weeks after having the pins removed from his wrist, A.J. put on a training display for STACK that showed his injury was a thing of the past. His muscular body was firing on all cylinders as he kicked, punched and exploded his way through an hour-long dynamic workout that challenged every aspect of his athleticism.
"I don't spend hours and hours in the weight room," he told us. "I like to keep moving and never sit down, so that I'm in there sweating with my heart rate up during my entire hour in the weight room. I am not a fan of wasting time by hanging out and chatting."
The non-stop workout A.J. performed was aimed at improving his full-body strength, increasing the dynamic flexibility and explosion of his hips and enhancing his first-step quickness. Durant says, "An NFL linebacker or any athlete who plays in space needs that first-step quickness, hip flexibility and explosion. He recently got the pins out, so we hit his upper body with more of an endurance exercise."
A.J. began with a martial arts session consisting of explosive punching and kicking drills. Durant challenged A.J. to imagine kicking or punching him and the protective pad through the wall; and at times, it looked like A.J. came close. Durant, who is a 225-pound, steel-limbed beast himself, was often sent several steps backward after receiving a blow.
"Whatever A.J. does, it's powerful," Durant says. "Whether it's running, lifting, punching or playing football, what separates him is power. Football is all about separation—if he's on a blitz, when he makes contact with a fullback, his initial contact is going create separation, which allows him to get by him. That is what he has, and that is what we are working on today."
Functional Martial Arts Training
Durant: This improves dynamic flexibility of the entire body. Rarely on the field will A.J. perform a single-joint movement. He has to explode with his full body all at once. This also forces him to be on one foot and generate power from that position, which is extremely functional. It turns into prehab for his ankles, knees and hips.
A.J.: Working with my hands is huge for me as a linebacker. I have to be able to get someone off of me when he comes out to block me. He's usually going to be 6'5", 335 pounds coming at me. You can't be banging on those guys with your head all day. They're so big and long, they can just grab you, so you have to get away from them. I'll use my hands to chop them down and get them away from me and keep them away from my body.
How to do it:
Perform each of the following drills as explosively as possible for specified duration. Master movement first, then work for speed.
Sets/Duration/Rest: 2-4x15-30 seconds each drill, with 30 seconds rest
Ankle Band Shuffle With Punch
- Assume athletic stance with resistance bands around ankles
- Explosively shuffle two strides right, deliver powerful two-handed punch to partner's pad in front
- Explosively shuffle two strides left, deliver powerful punch to pad
- Continue back and forth for specified duration
Benefits: Hip and glute strength // Upper-body power
Straight Left, Straight Right, Kick
- Deliver straight left punch, straight right punch, then front kick into partner's pad in front
- Repeat combination explosively while alternating legs for specified duration
Benefits: Dynamic hip and hamstring flexibility // Upperbody power
Straight Left, Straight Right, Duck and Tackle
- Deliver straight left and straight right into partner's pad in front then duck underneath his hook
- Immediately take two explosive steps toward partner and perform wrap and run-through to simulate tackle
- Repeat combination explosively for specified duration
Benefit: Full-body tackling power
- Assume athletic position facing partner
- As partner quickly chops hands toward you from different angles, use forearms and hands to block each movement for specified duration
Benefit: Hand quickness
Shuffle and Side Kick
- Assume athletic stance with one partner a few yards to right and another partner a few yards to left
- Perform two explosive shuffles right and deliver powerful side kick to partner's pad with right leg
- Shuffle to left and deliver powerful side kick to partner's pad with left leg
- Continue shuffling back and forth and kicking for specified duration
Benefits: Lateral movement // Lower-body power // Hip flexibility
The PowerMax 360 is a platform with two independent handles that move 360 degrees. It applies constant resistance in every direction, meaning that there is no inertia or negative recoil.
Durant: If you explode forward with a cable attachment and then stop, the weight is going to pull you back. With this, A.J. can explode forward and stop. The harder he pushes, the harder the resistance. Then there is resistance coming back in the opposite direction. This was very handy when his wrist was in a cast because we were able to strap his arm to the handle above where his injury was.
A.J.: This is the toughest part of the workout. You go as hard as you can for 30 seconds, it's a full body workout and it really gets your heart rate going. It's the closest thing you can do to get the feeling of a seven- or eight-play drive when you're tired on the field, and that's the point I want to get to.
How to do it:
- Perform the following exercises on a PowerMax 360 resistance machine or (if one is not available) use resistance bands or have partner provide manual resistance
- Rest 60 seconds between exercises.
Single-Leg, Single-Arm Punch and Row
- Assume athletic single-leg stance and raise opposite knee
- Using hand on side of balancing leg, explosively punch and row against resistance for specified duration
Sets/Duration: 1x30 seconds each arm
Benefits: Hip, knee, ankle stability // Core and upper-body strength and endurance
Split Stance Punch and Front Kick
- Assume split stance and hold both handles in front
- Explosively punch and row 5 times with each arm in alternating fashion
- Perform explosive kick with back leg to partner's pad in front
- Continue for specified reps; repeat with opposite leg
Sets/Duration: 1x30 seconds (about 5 kicks each leg)
Benefits: Upper-body strength and endurance // Lowerbody power // Hamstring flexibility
Chest/Posterior Delt Fly
- Assume athletic stance and hold handles in front
- Explosively perform Rear Delt Fly by bringing arms out to the side and back
- Explosively perform Chest Fly by bringing arms together in front
- Repeat continuously keeping arms as straight as possible
Sets/Duration: 1x30 seconds
Benefits: Chest, back and shoulder strength and endurance
Kettlebell Strength Circuit
Durant: This is a slower exercise combo that develops strength in his lower body. It is performed with lighter weight since he hit his legs harder earlier in the week.
How to do it:
Circuit the following exercises three times resting 60 seconds between circuits
1. Kettlebell Bulgarian Squat
- Assume split stance with toe of rear foot on bench behind you
- Hold kettlebell in hand opposite front leg
- Lower hips until front thigh is parallel to ground
- Drive up to start position and repeat for specified reps
- Repeat set on opposite leg
Sets/Reps: 3x10 each leg
Benefits: Glute, hamstring and quad strength // Hip flexibility
2. Kettlebell Single-Leg RDL
- Balance on one leg holding kettlebells at sides
- With balancing leg slightly bent and back flat, bend forward at waist until kettlebells are just above floor
- Return to start; repeat for specified reps
- Perform set on opposite side
Sets/Reps: 3x10 each leg
Benefits: Glute, hamstring and hip strength and stability
3. Kettlebell Partial Swing
- Assume athletic quarter-squat stance holding kettlebell between legs
- Keeping arms straight, drive through heels and explode upward with hips to bring kettlebell up to chin level in front
- Return to start position with control and repeat rhythmically
Benefit: Hip explosion
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock