I think I’m going to puke a little. That’s not a good thing.
I’m trying to keep up with Cliff Avril. At 5-foot-8 and about 180 pounds in my off-season writing weight (yes, writers have off-seasons too; we don’t really have an in-season), you’d think I’d have a slight advantage over the 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end when it comes to conditioning. After all, he’s carrying the equivalent of an extra small human on his body compared to me.
But as we take turns throwing punches at a heavy bag for 30 seconds, followed by a muscle-aching free-weight circuit, the reality I know all too well dawns on me yet again: This is why he plays on Sundays and I sit at a desk for a living.
Say the words “speed and conditioning” and you might envision wind sprints, gassers, suicides or other running drills. The last thing you’d probably imagine would be heavy Bench Presses, Rows, boxing and battling ropes. But that’s exactly what’s on the menu for today’s workout.
When you make a living running around and through 300-pound moving walls of muscle, you can’t train like everyone else. You need a body that is fast and powerful, which is why Cliff Avril’s off-season conditioning workouts represent a smarter type of training, which—when combined with the hard work you’d expect from a man his size—breaks the mold of some of the old-school cardio-based approaches.
“I like to play fast, explosive,” Avril says. “The workouts are different than what I’m used to, but the pace is intense and explosive, just like the game.”
On this day in Southern California, Avril’s analysis is on the same page as the workout’s creator.
“When it comes to developing more head-turning, stopwatch-singeing speed, you’ve got two options,” says Ryan Capretta, owner of Proactive Sports Performance and creator of The Proactive Edge, as well as one of Avril’s off-season strength coaches. “One is to increase your stride rate [the number of steps you take in a given period of time]. The other is to increase your stride length [the amount of ground you cover with each step]. The former involves neural conditioning and a whole lot of quick-feet drills. The latter takes less finesse—build up your raw strength, and you automatically build speed.”
While real football conditioning occurs in drills and by playing the game, one goal in the weight room during the off-season is to build cardio strength, endurance and the type of stamina that enables a high level of play-making game after game during a grueling NFL season. That is exactly what happened when Avril helped lead the Seahawks defense to a dominating victory against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
To understand the potential impact of this training approach, one only needs to go back to the second quarter of the Super Bowl, when Avril made his mark. With the game still in the balance and the Broncos making their first sustained drive, Peyton Manning dropped back to pass. He looked deep to running back Knowshon Moreno. But before the All-Pro QB could follow through, Avril charged through the line and hit him. Manning’s pass hung in the air, was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and the rout was on.
Back in the gym in Westlake Village, the seeds of future Super Bowl-defining moments are being fertilized with a special blend of weight-based exercises designed to promote speed and explosiveness.
“I’m not used to this pace in the weight room, which is a good thing,” adds Avril. “[It’s] one thing to move, [it’s] another to do it when you’re tired.”
The reps seem to fly almost as fast as Avril’s release off the line of scrimmage. One exercise after the other. Short rest periods. Heavy weights. And a pattern of movements that challenges all the muscles in his body, but more importantly, builds the motor that made Avril one of the NFL’s most consistent defensive ends over the past four years.
Unlock the Secret: Build Your Speed and Conditioning in the Gym
“The more force you are able to put into the ground, the farther you have the potential to travel each and every time your foot makes contact,” says Capretta. That’s why his off-season workouts are designed with training variables that bring out the best attributes in any player.
But Capretta also considers the athlete’s body. “I don’t do much heavy squatting anymore, but my legs are as strong as they’ve ever been,” says Avril.
Here’s how you can train your body off the filed to build conditioning like an NFL athlete.
Use compound movements for the majority of your training.
Bicep Curls and Leg Extensions will not build the kind of muscle that will get you moving the way Power Cleans, Squats and Deadlifts will. Involve more joints in movements and you’ll build more full-body strength. Such movements are also good for athletes because of the coordination they require.
Maximize time under tension.
To generate big muscle gains, you need to spend time under the bar. Use controlled movements and a challenging weight and vary your total volume. During this workout, Avril performs some sets in which he takes four seconds during the “eccentric” (lowering) portion of an exercise.
Get your butt in gear.
The glutes are the biggest muscles of the lower body, and because of their key role in hip extension, they’re critical for locomotion. Variations of Deadlifts, Hip Thrusts, Squats and Swings will develop this muscle group and propel you forward.
Cliff Avril’s Off-Season Conditioning Workout
So what does Avril’s workout look like? Try the following circuit, created by Ryan Capretta, and see if you’re ready to build NFL-caliber speed and conditioning.
(Note: This is just one portion of Avril’s workout; it does not include non-gym equipment like heavy bags and boxing. For more workouts like this, visit The Proactive Edge.)
Perform the following routine as a circuit, resting as little as possible between sets. Once it’s complete, rest two minutes and repeat. Aim for 6-10 reps per set, and take 2 to 3 seconds to lower the weight on each exercise.