Dwight Freeney's NFL Off-Season Training

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A defensive end's pass rushing responsibility is to get to the quarterback as quickly as possible. Sounds easy, right? Now insert an athletic 320-pound tackle and a nimble 220-pound running back to help block. The destructive path to that quick release and fleet-footed quarterback is severely hindered unless you're Dwight Freeney. Freeney's strength and perseverance have turned him into one of the league's most consistent quarterback assassins.

Over the past eight seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, defensive end Dwight Freeney has been a quarterback's worst nightmare. A four time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl XLI champ, Freeney was the AFC's Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. He is the Colts' all-time sacks leader with 70.5—a stat that puts him in an elite pass-rushing club. Considering that at 6'1" and 268 pounds, Freeney is regarded as undersized for a D-end, his achievements are even more impressive.

When Freeney came out of high school in Connecticut, college recruiters knew he could be an impact player, but as a linebacker or a tight end—not a prolific pass rusher. Yet with his unwavering passion, Freeney forged his reputation by putting signal-callers on their backs. "I started getting letters my junior year from schools," he says. "Then when I went on a visit they would say, 'We don't want you to play defensive end; we want you to play linebacker.' Or, 'You're not as tall as we thought you were going to be, and we don't want you anymore.' I used all that as motivation.

"It's about how hard you play and making plays on the field," he continues. "At some point, somebody's going to have to recognize it—and if they don't, just keep on doing it."

Fortunately, a few schools recognized Freeney's potential as a destructive end, so he had options with his college choice. He decided on Syracuse University, where he proceeded to wreak havoc on opposing Big East backfields. "Syracuse was a perfect fit for me," Freeney says. "It was close enough to home, where I could go home, [but] far enough away, too. When I was choosing a school, it was important [to me that] they had a great history. The legends that have gone there—like Jim Brown, Floyd Little, Larry Csonka, Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison—that was big for me."

It's safe to assume that Freeney is also considered an Orange legend. During his senior season, he set a school record with 17.5 sacks, ending his career with 34-second all-time in 'Cuse history. He also set an NCAA single-season record for forced fumbles [8] and fumble recoveries [3]. A consensus All-American, he was a finalist for the Lombardi [best lineman], Bednarik [top defensive player] and Nagurski [outstanding defensive player] Awards. Combined, Freeney's stats and accolades silenced the critics and convinced the Colts to draft him 11th overall in the 2002 NFL Draft, making his dream a reality.

"I definitely dreamt of being a professional athlete while I looked up to Lawrence Taylor," he says. "I loved how he was relentless playing the game from sideline to sideline."

Although he may not be on LT's level quite yet, Freeney has NFL offensive coordinators plotting to frustrate his constant QB harassment. With superhuman strength and a deadly arsenal of moves, he will continue to be an unwelcome visitor in opponents' backfields. "My favorite thing to do on the field is hitting the quarterback," Freeney says. "It doesn't matter [how I get to the quarterback]—I could cartwheel or backflip, I could get thrown into him—there's no bad move. I'll get to him using speed, power or spinning, just as long as I'm hitting him. That's the best thing in the world."

To maintain his toughness, this ferocious sack master hits the weights hard during the off-season, part of which he spends with his former strength and conditioning coach at Syracuse, William Hicks. The two have spent 10 years together, sculpting Freeney into the player he is today. "[Hicks has] trained a lot of guys that have played in the [NFL], and he understands what I need," Freeney says. "No matter what we're doing, he keeps it fresh and interesting. We're not doing the same stuff all the time, and he knows how to push me."

According to Hicks, the two have mutual respect for each other's talents. "Dwight's not going to do the same thing every day and get in a rut," Hicks says. "He wants me to challenge him in such a way that the workout pushes him past where he went the [time] before."

From 2002 to 2005, grit and determination helped Freeney notch four consecutive double-digit sack seasons. But he was sub-par in '06, with 5.5 sacks; and in 2007, he was sidelined with a foot injury, lacing up for only nine games. Looking to regain his dominance, Freeney took his aggression out during the off-season, coming back with 10.5 sacks in 2008.

Hicks stresses that football-specific training is a focus of every workout, and it played a key role in helping Freeney recover from his injury so that he is better than ever. "You really want to make sure that you work the energy system that's going to be played in the game," Hicks says. "Football is more of an anaerobic sport than an aerobic sport, so we set up the rest time to mimic the game. As far as doing reps, everything Dwight does is in an explosive manner. Sports are played with power, not necessarily strength."

Freeney adds, "I want to build as much muscle and as much endurance as I can to get my body as fine-tuned as possible. During the season, you're not going to be able to have those opportunities to really continue that, and your muscles are going to break down. It's a long year, so you want to build up as much as possible and get your body in the best shape to endure the long season."

Monday workouts focus on the muscles that help Freeney push and punch [chest, shoulders and triceps]—essential to helping him gain the explosive strength needed to get by bigger tackles. "To best utilize what his talents are, we have to train explosively. If we train slow, like a bodybuilder, we won't utilize what he brings to the table," Hicks says. "Today we were working on his primary movers in his upper body, which deliver his punch and push against opponents. We're also focusing on his main source of power, his core. We're big believers in training from the belly button out."

When an athlete and a coach are dedicated to and believe in the same philosophy as much as Freeney and Hicks do, special things happen. "Our workouts are so explosive and core-heavy, [which] really benefit me on the field, because it's one exercise right after another with minimal rest—and that's what I need," Freeney says. "My body responds very well to this, and I can get in shape pretty fast with this type of workout. We like to do more explosive work, because it gets me ready faster."

Core Warm-Up

Toe Touches

Hicks: You're working your core strength, but at the same time putting the hamstring in a pre-stretched position.

• Lie with back on ground, legs straight up
• Keeping arms straight, crunch up until fingertips touch toes
• Lower with control; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x20, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Keep legs as straight as possible and toes flexed // Legs should form 90-degree angle to ground // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

Single-Leg Toe Touches

Hicks: This has the same benefits as the Toe Touches, but has more hip flexor work.

• Lie with back on ground, legs in scissor position
• Keeping arms straight, crunch up until fingertips touch toes of elevated foot
• Lower with control; repeat for specified reps
• Perform set with opposite leg raised

Sets/Reps: 1x20 each leg, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Keep raised leg 90 degrees from ground, and opposite leg 45 degrees from ground // Keep core tight and maintain good posture throughout exercise // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

Single-Leg Reach Through

Hicks: He's going to get a little more flexibility with this exercise, since he has to reach his hands toward the leg that's on the ground.

• Lie with back on ground, legs in scissor position
• Keeping arms straight, crunch up and forward toward foot of lower leg
• Lower with control; repeat for specified reps
• Perform set with opposite leg raised

Sets/Reps: 1x20 each leg, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Keep one leg 90 degrees from ground, and opposite leg 45 degrees from ground // Keep core tight and maintain good posture throughout exercise // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

Full Sit-Up

Hicks: This works the hip flexors, quads, low back and abs.

• Assume situp position with feet flat on ground
• Without rocking, perform sit-up
• Lower slowly until shoulder blades reach floor
• Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x10, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Place hands on ears and keep elbows back and feet flat on floor // Pull body up through belly button // Keep core tight and maintain good posture throughout exercise // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

V Crunch

Hicks: [Spreading his legs] really helps with flexibility in his adductors and abductors.

• Lie with back on ground and legs spread apart, pointing toward ceiling
• Keeping arms straight, crunch up and forward between legs
• Lower with control; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x20, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Spread legs as far as possible, but remain comfortable // Avoid letting legs drop too far forward // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

Outside Thigh Reach

Hicks: This gives him more shoulder flexion, because he brings his shoulders forward, then reaches.

• Lie with back on ground, legs straight up toward ceiling
• Keeping arms straight, crunch up and forward while reaching arms outside of thighs
• Lower with control; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x20, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Reach arms as far as possible outside of thighs // Keep core tight and maintain good posture throughout exercise // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

Butterfly Sit-Up

Hicks: This helps tremendously [by increasing] hip and lower abs strength.

• Assume sit-up position with knees wide and soles of feet touching each other
• Without rocking, perform sit-up
• Lower slowly until shoulder blades reach floor
• Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x10, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Keep core tight and maintain good posture throughout exercise // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

Spread Eagle Stability Hold

Hicks: This works stability in the low back and hips.

• Sitting on butt, assume spread eagle position with heels just off ground
• Hold position for specified duration

Sets/Reps: 1x10 seconds, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Keep lower back in straight line // Keep core tight and maintain good posture throughout exercise // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid moving arms and body to maintain balance

Overhead Reach Stability Hold

Hicks: This works shoulder stabilization and flexibility.

• Sitting on butt, bring knees to chest and extend arms straight overhead
• Hold position for specified duration

Sets/Reps: 1x10 seconds, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Make sure biceps are by ears and thumbs are locked overhead // Keep core tight and maintain good posture throughout // Keep back flat and head in neutral position

Strength

Alternate Dumbbell Bench Sequence

Hicks: When he's at the top, it's mainly chest and tricep; at the bottom, it's chest and shoulders.

• Lie with back on bench, holding dumbbells so palms face each other
• Keeping left arm straight, lower right dumbbell to chest level, then drive it back to start position
• Keeping right arm straight, lower left dumbbell to chest, then drive back to start position
• Repeat for specified reps
• Lower both dumbbells within an inch from chest and perform same alternating sequence while holding opposite dumbbell at low position
• Immediately perform standard presses with both dumbbells for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x6+6+6; 1x5+5+5; 1x4+4+4; 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Go through full range of motion // Hold dumbbell you aren't using at midline of chest // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

Dumbbell Incline

Hicks: This hits a different part of the chest, which will lead us into hitting his shoulders.

• Assume position on incline bench with dumbbells at shoulders
• Without arching back, drive dumbbells toward ceiling until arms are fully extended
• Lower dumbbells with control to start position; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x10, 1x8, 1x6, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Go through full range of motion // Use weight that makes movement difficult, not impossible // Keep movement within framework of body // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

Plyo Push-Up Series

Hicks: The reason we do three different movements—the Clap, then the Chest Slap or the Side-to-Side—is to give you some stability in the shoulder joint and to get you in an unnatural position. It's basically plyometrics for the upper body.

Plyo Push-Up With Clap

• Assume push-up position, then lower body until chest almost touches ground
• Explosively drive body up by fully extending arms
• Clap hands together in front of chest
• Land with hands shoulderwidth apart; immediately perform next rep
• Perform continuously for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x8, 35-45 sec. rest

Plyo Push-Up With Chest Slap

• Assume push-up position, then lower body until chest almost touches ground
• Explosively drive body up by fully extending arms
• Slap both hands to chest
• Land with hands shoulder-width apart; immediately perform next rep
• Perform continuously for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x8, 35-45 sec. rest

Plyo Push-Up Side-to-Side With Clap

• Assume push-up position, then lower body until chest almost touches ground
• Explosively drive body up and left by fully extending arms
• Clap hands together in front of chest
• Land left of starting position with hands shoulder-width apart
• Immediately perform next rep up and back to right
• Perform continuously for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x8 [4 each way], 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Keep core tight and maintain good posture // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Push up off ground as explosively as possible

Dumbbell Clean and Press

Hicks: It's a total body movement, and we do it on the shoulder day because of the press aspect. It's a great exercise, because to be able to perform it, your whole body has to fire properly.

• Assume athletic stance holding dumbbells at sides
• Explosively extend hips, knees and ankles while simultaneously shrugging
• Drive elbows toward ceiling, bringing dumbbells to shoulder level
• Catch dumbbells at shoulders in athletic stance
• Explosively extend hips, knees and ankles while driving dumbbells overhead
• Finish in athletic stance with arms fully extended overhead
• Return to start position with control; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 3x6, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Land with feet flat on ground // Keep hips underneath body throughout exercise // Maintain balance throughout exercise

Machine Hang Shrugs
(For overall power output through the triple extension)

• In athletic stance, grasp handles of shrug machine [or barbell if machine is unavailable]
• Explosively extend hips, knees and ankles
• Return to start position; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 3x20-25, 35-45 sec. rest
Coaching points: Avoid bringing neck down instead of shoulders up // Avoid rolling shoulders forward // Maintain balance throughout // Bring shoulders to ears

Dumbbell Shoulder Circuit

Hicks: We're just trying to train all three heads of the deltoid—basically building some strength around the shoulder joint to keep him healthy. It's more of an injury prevention circuit than a power output movement.

Dumbbell Lateral Raises
For the medial delt

• Assume athletic stance with dumbbells at sides
• Without rocking or changing body position, raise dumbbells to side until arms are parallel to ground
• Lower dumbbells with control; repeat for specified reps
• Perform in circuit with Front and Rear Delt Raises

Sets/Reps: 2x8; perform as circuit
Coaching points: Keep elbows slightly higher than wrists // Avoid turning movement into fly // Keep core tight and maintain good posture throughout // Keep back flat and head in neutral position

Dumbbell Front Raises
For the anterior delt

• Assume athletic stance with dumbbells at sides
• Without rocking or changing position, raise dumbbells in front until arms are parallel to ground
• Lower dumbbells with control; repeat for specified reps
• Perform in circuit with Lateral and Rear Delt Raises

Sets/Reps: 2x8; perform as circuit
Coaching points: Keep elbows slightly higher than wrists // Keep core tight and maintain good posture throughout // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

Dumbbell Rear Delt Raises With Punch
For the posterior delt

• Assume athletic stance and bend forward until chest is almost parallel to ground
• Without rocking or changing position, bring dumbbells out to sides until parallel to ground
• Keeping arms out to sides, perform punch by pushing each dumbbell away from body
• Lower dumbbells with control; repeat for specified reps
• Perform in circuit with Lateral and Front Raises

Sets/Reps: 2x8; perform as circuit
Coaching points: Keep elbows slightly higher than wrists // Keep core tight and maintain good posture throughout // Keep back flat and head in neutral position // Avoid using body for momentum

Tricep Circuit
Hicks: Basically, what we're trying to do is work the long, middle and inner head of the tricep. We like to do the Tricep Circuit to pre-fatigue his triceps before we do an athletic-related tricep movement using a med ball.

Tricep Pushdown
• In athletic stance facing cable machine, hold pushdown attachment in front of sternum
• Keeping elbows tight to ribs, drive handle down until arms are fully extended
• Return arms to start position with control; repeat for specified reps
• Perform circuit with Underhand and Overhead Extensions

Sets/Reps: 3x8-10; perform as part of circuit
Coaching Points: Perform with overhand grip slightly narrower than shoulder width // Keep elbows pinned tightly to sides during movement // Keep head up and back flat // Avoid using body for momentum

Underhand Tricep Extension
• In athletic stance a few feet from cable machine, hold lat pulldown bar with underhand grip
• Keeping elbows in front of body, drive bar straight down and away from body until arms are fully extended
• Return arms to start position with control; repeat for specified reps
• Perform circuit with Pushdowns and Overhead Extensions

Sets/Reps: 3x8-10; perform as part of circuit
Coaching Points: Keep head up and back flat // Avoid using body for momentum // Keep abs tight, shoulders back and chest up throughout exercise // Avoid letting elbows flare out

Overhead Tricep Extension
• In split stance with back to cable machine, hold rope attachment overhead
• Keeping forward body lean, fully extend arms
• Return arms to start position with control; repeat for specified reps
• Perform circuit with Pushdowns and Underhand Extensions

Sets/Reps: 3x8-10; perform as part of circuit
Coaching Points: Perform with control // Keep head up and back flat // Avoid using body for momentum // Avoid letting elbows splay out to sides

Single-Arm Physioball Push-Up
• Assume push-up position with one hand on small physioball or large med ball
• Perform push-ups for specified reps; repeat set with opposite hand on ball

Sets/Reps: 2x8 each arm with 35-45 seconds rest
Coaching Points: Keep back flat and hips in line with body // Keep hand flat on ball and on ground // Maintain balance throughout exercise

Watch an exclusive video of Dwight Freeney discussing his approach to off-season training.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock