“Thor’s long-lost brother”.
Christian McCaffrey’s teammates often resort to the fantastical to describe the All-Pro running back.
For good reason: the NFL has rarely seen a player simultaneously sustain such a Herculean work load and such phenomenal production.
The Panthers’ current offense can sometimes resemble that of a pee-wee football team—give it to the best player, even when the defense knows you’re going to give it to the best player, and then hope for the best.
But in pee-wee, that player is usually a kid who’s greatest skill was hitting puberty early. McCaffrey, meanwhile, is undersized among NFL running backs.
Yet thanks to the inordinate amount of speed and power packed into his 5-11 frame, no one can seem to stop him.
As we’ve detailed in previous articles on McCaffrey’s training, his program revolves around increasing “mass-specific force,” or the amount of force he can produce at a specific body weight. For McCaffrey, that specific body weight is about 209 pounds.
His No. 1 strength exercise for doing so?
The Trap Bar Deadlift.
“There are some things about the development of the rear chain and how that translates to speed that we really like the Deadlift,” says Brian Kula, owner of Kula Sports Performance and McCaffrey’s personal trainer. “For me, it’s replaced the Squat. Squat was the king, obviously, in the 80s and 90s to a lot of people. But if we ever have a day where we’re short on time or short on energy, we’re gonna Deadlift and get out of there.”
For those unfamiliar with a Trap Bar Deadlift, here’s Chris Kreider of the NHL’s New York Rangers executing the move:
Why use a trap or “hex” bar as opposed to a traditional barbell?
The trap bar puts the athlete in a more biomechanically advantageous position than a straight bar, allowing for faster bar speeds at identical loads as well as greater maximum loads. It’s also far easier on the spine.
“We just feel like it prevents any type of back injuries and allows (Christian) to get into really good positions that he’s going to hit on the field. It also allows us to pull really heavy weight, which is what we’re after. We’re not necessarily after perfect deadlift form with a straight bar like we’re going to be in a powerlifting competition,” says Kula.
“I want him pulling enough weight so we get the proper testosterone response from that. His personal best was 550-plus for a set of 3 towards the end of the offseason. But it’s all hex bar.”
A pillar of McCaffrey’s program is also the idea of minimal effective dose—what’s the smallest amount of volume he can take on while still achieving the desired adaptations?
Excess reps are the enemy, as it means unnecessary wear-and-tear on McCaffrey’s body.
“I always tell him we don’t just do things to burn calories,” Kula says.
McCaffrey’s strength training generally focuses on heavy weights, low reps and maximum rest.
Since he’s more interested in increasing power at his current body weight rather than adding more muscle mass to his already-yoked frame, he largely avoids veering into hypertrophy work (which would be in the 6-12 reps per set range). This also helps him avoid high amounts of muscle damage, keeping him consistently fresh.
A major principal of Kula’s program is also to closely monitor McCaffrey’s time under tension (the amount of time he’s actively performing an exercise) to ensure it’s as efficient as possible.
“We try to make sure we’re in the max power phase of repetitions, so we’re never using more than three reps—especially during the season. It might be as little as one or two reps. We’re also concerned with time under tension,” says Kula.
“If we take a Deadlift, we’re going to drop the weight from the top. So we just concentrically lift, and then we drop it (instead of performing) the eccentric.”
In other words, McCaffrey deadlifts the weight from the floor to the top position of the exercise, but instead of worrying about lowering it back down to the floor with control, he simply drops the bar. This significantly cuts down on the time under tension and muscle damage created by the exercise.
Kula also prefers to keep things simple when it comes to equipment, forgoing bands or chains in favor of executing the basic Deadlift movement as well as possible.
“I’m a no-frills guy. I stay away from chains and bands and stuff like that. I’m very much into a simple approach of run fast, lift heavy things, and rest often. That’s my M.O.,” says Kula.
“We talk a lot about having a tight core. Tight core so they’re not in anterior pelvic tilt. Tight core, big chest, neutral head. We don’t want them looking up or looking down. We just want it neutral spine…Then we talk a lot about pushing through the heels—pushing the heels through the ground. I don’t necessarily want them (thinking about) hinging at the hips to pick the weight up off the ground. I want them driving and pushing through the ground to get the weight up.”
McCaffrey will often pair the Deadlift with a plyometric movement to take advantage of the post-activation potentiation effect, a phenomenon where many athletes will jump higher or farther immediately following a heavy lower-body strength movement due to increased motor unit activation.
Many pro athletes get complacent when they reach the big time, but McCaffrey’s managed to get stronger and faster in each of his three NFL seasons. Unsurprisingly, his production has also increased every year.
“I think a lot of fluff goes on with pro athletes—‘They’re already here, so all we have to do is keep them healthy.’ That kind of approach, in my mind, isn’t what’s best for an athlete. I don’t care what level you’re at,” says Kula. “We get after it, and because of that, the ligaments and tendons and his muscles are being developed continually even though he’s a third-year NFL guy.”
Photo Credit: William Howard/Getty Images