Christian McCaffrey wanted this.
He wanted to be so multi-dimensional, so well-conditioned, so astonishingly productive that he’d never have to leave the field.
McCaffrey has been on the field for 96.1% of the Carolina Panthers’ offensive snaps this season—far and away the most of any NFL running back.
In other terms, for every 24 snaps McCaffrey plays, he spends just one on the sideline. For context, Ezekiel Elliott, who has the fourth-highest snap percentage among NFL running backs, gets a breather about every fifth play.
“Christian’s M.O. is he wants to be in the game, he wants to have an impact, he wants to be involved. That was the plan all along,” says Brian Kula, owner of Kula Sports Performance and McCaffrey’s personal trainer.
McCaffrey’s on pace for 1,680 rushing yards, 784 receiving yards and 22 total touchdowns, giving him a real shot to break Chris Johnson’s NFL record for the most yards from scrimmage in a single season. He’s a legit MVP candidate in a league where 11 of the last 12 have been awarded to quarterbacks.
McCaffrey’s explosiveness is uranium grade. His endurance, infinite. He’s John Wick in shoulder pads, often making world-class defenders look like action film fodder.
We previously covered how a less-is-more philosophy under Kula’s guidance had McCaffrey feeling faster and fitter than ever this offseason.
But in a season where he’s on pace to total over 400 touches—a feat only one active NFL running back, Le’Veon Bell, has accomplished—we wanted to know what McCaffrey’s currently doing to keep himself at peak performance throughout the 16-game meat grinder.
It starts with his weight.
McCaffrey is a smaller running back, and his potential as an NFL workhorse was once doubted because of it. Instead of mindlessly packing on pounds to appease traditionalists, the 5-foot-11 McCaffrey set out to identify the weight where he truly felt most capable. Turns out, it’s about 209 pounds.
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“We kind of settled on a weight in the offseason of where he wanted to be, and for that decision, it was, ‘How fast do I feel? Can I sustain 25 carries a game for 16 games?’” says Kula.
“For all those questions about him being able to run between the tackles and being a three-down back for them, I think he’s answered all of those questions, with speed and power being the answer at 209 pounds.”
The No. 1 goal for McCaffrey during the season is to stay healthy. The No. 2 goal, as it was all offseason, is to get him as fast and powerful as possible at those 209 pounds.
Following a Sunday game, the first day or two are dedicated to recovery and regeneration. Kula estimates McCaffrey spends at least two hours a day during the season on recovery modalities like pool workouts, massages, physical therapy, cryotherapy, sauna, contrast baths, chiropractor sessions, etc.
On Tuesday or Wednesday, McCaffrey will lift.
Provided he’s healthy, the weights will be heavy, the intent will be high, and the number of reps in a set will rarely exceed three.
The idea is to promote continued improvements in “mass-specific force” (the amount of force McCaffrey can produce at a specific body weight) while keeping muscle damage to an absolute minimum.
“We try to make sure we’re in the max power phase of repetitions. So we’re never using more than three reps (on core lifts)—especially during the season, it might be as little as one or two reps. We’re also concerned with time under tension. For example, if we take a Deadlift, we’re going to drop the weight from the top. So we just lift concentrically, and then we drop the eccentric. So his total time under tension for the Deadlift might be 15 seconds. We’ve very conscious and very aware of time under tension. He could be in the weight room for an hour and we’ve only been under tension for a total of four minutes. That keeps him fresh and ready and not broken down,” says Kula.
“As soon as we get into 6-8 repetitions, you’re talking about hypertrophy growth of the muscle because your’e breaking it down. And that’s when you see potentially weight gain, potentially muscle soreness, things like that…If we’re doing bodyweight exercises, it’ll creep up a bit. But I think during the season, we’re going to limit everything under 5 (reps per set). So even for some of the eccentric loading of the hamstrings, we do some Nordic-type movements, those will go up to five. But again, we just don’t want any soreness—during the game, especially. So maximum of five.”
Kula calls the Deadlift, which McCaffrey performs with a trap or “hex” bar, the most indispensable exercise in their strength training program. Toward the end of the offseason, McCaffrey was using over 550 pounds for a set of three reps. The Deadlift is often paired with a plyometric movement to take advantage of the post-activation potentiation effect, a phenomenon where many athletes jump higher or farther immediately following a heavy strength movement due to increased motor unit recruitment.
Such methods have helped McCaffrey significantly improve on the 37.5-inch Vertical Jump and 10-foot-1 Broad Jump he posted at the 2017 NFL Combine. Kula says watching him throw down a nasty windmill dunk this offseason was a moment of validation.
“He was always able to dunk a basketball, but not like that,” says Kula.
“To me, that’s just another component of force output. We apply a lot of force to the ground, and when you (increase that), you’re going to jump higher if your body weight stays the same.”
Once or twice a week during the season, McCaffrey will perform a series of sprint drills. The goal is to keep his mechanics sharp and to expose his body to the unique forces present during sprinting without creating unnecessary fatigue.
“It’s for muscle memory, mechanics, and again, hitting that nervous system so that it’s not fatigued but still firing and not getting any rust on it from week to week,” says Kula.
“We have a set of sprint drills we work through that really do enhance speed without having to put a ton of volume on his legs during the week.”
Enhancing speed is a big reason why McCaffrey chose Kula as his personal trainer. Their relationship dates back to McCaffrey’s time at Valor Christian High School (Highlands Ranch, Colorado), where Kula serves as the head track and field coach. McCaffrey was on Kula’s 4x200m relay team that set the Colorado state record.
Much of their speed training is focused on the acceleration phase, as that’s where Kula says football players play “98% of the game.” But this offseason, they integrated more intentional top speed work and made McCaffrey’s transition from acceleration into top speed more efficient.
The results have been undeniable. McCaffrey hit 21.95 mph on a touchdown run earlier this season—more than a full mile per hour faster than his top speed in 2018.
The day immediately prior to a game, McCaffrey will execute a handful of explosive movements—such as various med ball throws—to prime his nervous system for the following day. The exact volume will ebb and flow with his health.
All in all, McCaffrey spends about 2-3 hours a week training during the season, all of which is high-quality work designed for a specific purpose.
“Christian’s mantra is you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, but you’re not staying the same. When you’re going in to do a workout, it’s going to be done at a high level. Obviously we’re going to be smart with the sets, reps, the intensity, the volume—but the goal is to improve performance every time we work out,” says Kula. “I always tell him we don’t just do things to burn calories…he’s trying to maintain or even gain some fast-twitch response during the season.”
Coming up through high school and college, McCaffrey was a gym rat. He never felt like he could do enough, which often led him to train to exhaustion. He’s now come to appreciate a more cerebral approach. The 5-6 hours a week he spent training this past offseason were fewer than in previous years, and the amount of time he rested inside of each workout was greater. Yet he’d never felt better.
“Why I train (this) way is because I’ve tried everything. I feel like when I do (this), that’s when I feel the best. That’s when I can feel growth,” McCaffrey told STACK of his routine in April. “A lot of time I have a bad habit of overtraining and wanting to do more. In my position, I’ve kind of had to sacrifice the easy thing—which might be hard to most people—but (sacrifice) working really hard all the time and always training and not resting.”
Kula believes the stripped-down program has been key to McCaffrey’s sensational play and his continued durability.
“In regards to training, getting away from some of the ‘functional’ training and just getting to the meat-and-potatoes of lifting heavy, running fast, being consistent and having a consistent training regimen has made him very durable. I think a lot of fluff goes on, especially with pro athletes. (People think), ‘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,” 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.”
Kula’s also quick to point out that McCaffrey is simply wired differently than most people when it comes to his toughness and discipline.
He recalls speaking with McCaffrey when the Panthers were in London ahead of their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While many guys soaked up the night life, McCaffrey reported seeing little outside the interior of his hotel room, as he was eager to stick to his routine as much as possible.
“(Performance) is a passion of his. It’s not that he doesn’t have fun,” says Kula. “He certainly looks at it as, ‘I can perform at the highest level if I take care of myself to the nth degree.’ And we’re all seeing it. The goal is to try to be the best. I think that right now, he’s positioned himself to be in that conversation.”
Photo Credit: Brian Kula