5 Training Secrets From an NFL Combine Coach

Ryan Capretta of Proactive Sports Performance prepares dozens of athletes for the NFL Combine every year. He shares 5 tips that can help any athlete improve.

Training for the NFL Combine

Photo courtesy of Ryan Capretta

Training Clay Matthews, Larry Fitzgerald, Colin Kaepernick and Dwight Freeney does not help you prepare young athletes for the NFL Scouting Combine. All of those accomplished NFL players have trained at my facility and experienced The Proactive Edge, but the techniques I use with some of the best athletes in the world are very different from what college athletes need when they are trying to prove their worth at the Combine.

The Combine is the NFL's version of the SAT. It's a series of specific tests designed to place a quantitative value on certain skills. My job: Prepare my athletes to ace the test, and leave scouts and GMs with no questions, so my players can let their play on the field do all the talking.

After prepping athletes for the Combine for the last decade and working with more than 20 prospective pros this year, here's what I've found helps any athlete raise their game, ace the Combine, and leave knowing that they might have just added a few extra zeros to their checking account. 

Secret #1: Find Your Weakness Immediately

College kids are not pro athletes—not yet, at least. Many of the athletes prepping for the Combine are only 30 or 40 days removed from a demanding collegiate season that started back in August (and their training goes even further back if you consider their off-season conditioning). They have been pushing their bodies to the limit for the past 15 months and playing at a very high level. And now you have just a few months to have them "peak" for a few tests.

That's why the best coaches systematically create programs that are customized for each individual. We start with full body evaluations that uncover various weaknesses and imbalances. From there, we develop a program for each athlete to get the most out of the short training cycle available to prep them for the biggest interview of their life. Over the years, we have learned from these players and have developed a highly calibrated system that delivers very specific loads with individual progressions.

Here's how we build a system to identify strengths and weaknesses:

  •  Video and time all drills or segments of these drills to develop baseline numbers.
  •  Map out every single workout, every single day, every single week.
  •  Monitor total training time. For instance, some days might include 3 to 4 sessions per day. So we must monitor how an athlete recovers and adjust accordingly.
  • Record all data from every workout. Since it's such a short cycle, every session should show improvement. If not, the athlete is overtraining or injured.

Secret #2: Bench Press Isn't Just Strength—It's Endurance

BOSU ball Push-Ups

Photo courtesy of Ryan Capretta

No one has ever won a football game based on the Bench Press. That said, strength is one of the factors that NFL scouts consider, which is why the Bench Press is still a big sell. The art of a bigger bench starts by understanding what will catch a scout's eyes—in a bad way. For instance, doing less than 10 reps at 225 pounds could raise a red flag, so we start by identifying the 10-rep test. If your athlete can't perform more then 10 reps, he needs to be tested at a lighter weight.

For instance, some of our skill guys tested at 185 pounds instead of 225. This is an endurance test that has a high range of possible reps, from no reps up into the 40-rep range. With such a short period of time, the cycles are shorter than a traditional off-season, meaning the approach is more aggressive and requires both work on the bench and auxiliary exercises that will make the athlete stronger.

With a traditional program, we like a lot of variety, but here we need to focus on the specific movement with the barbell, then limit other pressing exercises. We perform a lot of functional shoulder movements to activate and prepare an athlete's body for the bench. The other exercises we focus on are pulling movements to develop the athlete's back. A strong back means a stronger base of support for the bench. And when you're benching, the stronger your base of support, the more power and endurance you can ganerate. Translation: More strength and reps.

Here's a sample of how we approach the first month of Bench Press prep.

Build Endurance: We begin with "work capacity circuits." This develops overall upper body strength while developing an endurance base. They are fast-paced and typically very uncomfortable for the players.

Train with Moderate Frequency: We train upper body twice per week, but sometimes we add a third day depending on the individual.

Recovery is Essential: Plot your days with two days of rest between sessions instead of one day. For instance, we perform our upper-body days on Monday and Thursday with Saturday as the optional additional day.

Hard and Heavy is Not the Answer: Split your days into speed work and eccentric work. On Mondays we work the speed of the bar while developing endurance. Then on Thursday we work the eccentric (or lowering) phase, which gives us the fastest overall strength gains for each athlete. As the Combine gets closer, we remove the eccentric phase to prepare the athlete for the specific load of 225 pounds.

Secret #3: Train Your Athletes to Become More Athletic

Footwork training for the Combine

Footwork matters. But the first goal of Combine prep is to improve overall athleticism. Photo courtesy of Ryan Capretta

Everyone wants to get faster at the Combine. That's where the money is. But sometimes it's best to look at what makes someone faster, rather than just practicing the drills (which is also very important).

We first try to improve a person's overall athleticism, then we key in on the drills themselves. We start with a video analysis to look at how a player moves mechanically—everything from how he bends to the way he transfers his weight, among other mechanical elements.

Then we focus on maximizing a player's physical development. Developing explosive power needs to be done in a relevant setting that transfers to the specific tests. Some common mistakes we see include:

Lower-body disconnect: Learning how to position your body so you are engaging your glutes and not just your quads.

Power Shortage: Maintaining a flat back while performing explosive exercises. Once you begin to round your back, you lose power production.

Flexibility Focus: In general, most collegiate athletes who begin this process have extremely tight hip flexors, which limits their power production. We have various flexibility routines to address this issue.

Push Harder, Not Longer: Football plays occur in 3- to 6-second intervals. This approach must carry over to training. Workouts need to be physically and mentally intense, therefore limited in duration. If you have an athlete working his tail off, don't have him training 3 hours straight.

Secret #4: The Fast 40 is Really the Fast 5 (or 10) 

Training the 40-Yard Dash start for the Combine

Training the 40-Yard Dash start. Photo courtesy of Ryan Capretta

The 40-Yard Dash is the drill everyone talks about, even though football coaches disagree about its importance. (Some coaches say the test is pointless, because a football player will never run that far in a straight line, while others say it's the best way to measure what kind of speed the athlete has. Personally, I believe the 40 is important for all skill players, but nothing is more important than game film. But I digress.)

Because coaches, scouts and front office personnel look at this drill so closely, we want to maximize our athletes' chances of running a fast time. And the main thing we try to teach them is that you make your money at the start. The first 5 steps make all of the difference. If you have a good, technical, explosive start, that's the first step to running your fastest 40.

In your three-point stance, your hips should be higher than your shoulders with bent knees and a forward lean. Your opposite hand should be tucked by your hip, and you want to "shoot" one hand forward and one hand back. Take off like an airplane, not a helicopter (don't pop straight up). Step on the balls of your feet and don't heel strike. Maintain a forward lean, initiated from your ankles, not your waist.

Secret #5: Arrive at the Combine Feeling Fresh

Monitoring workout performance

Monitor workout performance data regularly. Photo courtesy of Ryan Capretta

The most underrated aspect of the Combine is how the athlete feels when it's time to perform. The process starts with hard work and preparation on the front end so the athlete can taper and not play make-up near the end of the cycle.

When our athletes are two weeks out from the Combine, we begin adjusting the schedule to create a true peak for the athletes. This is very individualized, as some guys need more time to recover and feel fresh, while others like to push their load closer to competition.

Here are some elements that we follow for keeping our athletes fresh:

  • Lower Volume: As the player gets closer to testing, adjust the leg day to low volume and more flexibility.
  • Joint-Friendly: We use the Cybex Arc Trainer to work intensity and tap into explosive power without killing the joints.
  • Body Work: Massage and foam rolling are key elements to ensure proper muscle length during this time.
  • Preparation: We have a mock combine to put the athlete in the mindset of being in Indianapolis and testing in the same order they will at the Combine.
  • Active Recovery: On off days, be sure to have some activity. Sitting on a couch all day will only stiffen the muscles and not help the next day.


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