All J.J. Watt could do was walk.
For two months last fall, the Houston Texans All-Pro defensive end became the world’s greatest walker. Watt would walk 12 miles a day around Waukesha County, Wisconsin, feeling frustrated his training could consist of nothing more than this basic form of human locomotion.
Watt was just following doctor’s orders—after undergoing season-ending back surgery in September 2016, he was banned from any activity more strenuous than walking until December. The surgery was just the latest in a rapid-fire succession of injuries he’d endured over the last year, which included a broken hand, a herniated disc, a staph infection and five torn core muscles.
Following the surgery, Watt had 10 months to heal and rebuild himself before he’d be back in training camp with the Texans. But how do you rebuild the NFL’s equivalent of Godzilla? And how do you prevent him from suffering such a cruel string of injuries again?
After Watt had fully rehabbed his back (about mid-January), he and Brad Arnett—the owner of NX Level Sports Performance in Waukesha and Watt’s trainer for the last 13 years—devised a plan. They would take many of the same principles that made Watt such a monstrous force in the past and make a few key changes. The goal—to return Watt to his previous level of dominance while also better protecting his body against the brutal chaos of the NFL.
Perhaps their most important change was placing a larger emphasis on core strength and stability. Watt’s program had included plenty of core training in the past, but this would be something different. Arnett knew that an exceptionally strong core wouldn’t only help Watt perform at an elite level, but it would also help his body hold up in the trenches. This wasn’t about getting a six-pack—this was about making sure the muscles around Watt’s lower back and midsection were capable of keeping him in efficient, powerful positions as his body crashed against 330-pound behemoths.
Arnett didn’t utilize any high-tech gadgets to help Watt build a bulletproof core. He simply took the same exercises he and Watt had been doing for years—Plank variations, Cable or Band Chops and Lifts, Pallof Hold variations—and slowly made them more challenging as Watt’s core adapted. Take a Bird Dog, for example. After beginning with the basic variation, Arnett slowly integrated more difficult elements into the exercise. “Now, let’s put a band underneath that extended foot and hook it onto the thumb in front to create long extension tension. Now, let’s pick up the foot of the leg that’s staying on the ground and add (additional) stability factors to it,” Arnett says. “You’ve got a lot of forces criss-crossing across the upper back, the low abs are engaged, you’ve got some hip stability involved. It (was about) starting very simplistic and then building off that.”
At times—say while Watt was performing a Pallof Hold—Arnett would push or pull on his knees and hips to ensure the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was capable of maintaining proper position despite chaotic forces. Training Watt to be able to breathe and naturally during these exercises was also a major focus. “(It was about) getting him to fixate on a normal breathing pattern, maintain a neutral spine and not give up position,” Arnett says. “Some people think core training is standing on a BOSU ball or unstable surface and if you can stand there and not fall off, you’re training your core. Well, core training is actually the resistance of movement. (We trained) to keep him engaged and not give up hip or knee or foot position while also breathing normally.” Watt recently said that some of his workouts this off-season contained as many as 14 different core-centric exercises.
Additionally, the big lifts that been such a staple for Watt in the past—the Power Cleans, the Hang Cleans, the Barbell Back Squats, the 1,000-pound Tire Flips—were axed. They were simply too risky given Watt’s recent back issues. Belt Squats—a Squat variation that makes use of a machine which places the load underneath the athlete opposed to on top of their spine—became a fixture. Zercher Squats—which take the barbell off your back and place it in the crooks of your elbows—were another bedrock. Zercher Squats were phenomenal for Watt, since they reduced stress on his spine while also recruiting more core and upper back musculature than a traditional Barbell Back Squat. “There were ways we could load him with quite a bit of weight in different variations without the direct load sitting on top of his (spine),” Arnett says. “We had to come up with different variations to get that activation.”
Many of Watt’s plyometric and movement-based drills remained the same as they’d been in the past, but those too were smartly progressed. The monstrous Box Jumps that used to blow up social media were scrapped, as Arnett feared the effects of Watt absorbing impacts with his knees bent too deeply. “It was more essentially—listen, we’re not going to worry about the height. We’re purely going to worry about extension and getting your hips to come through,” Arnett says.
While nixing herculean Back Squats and towering Box Jumps in favor of more spine-friendly exercises and additional core work might not make for more likes on Instagram, the changes worked wonders for Watt. It wasn’t an overnight process, but he feels better than he has in years. The improved core strength and stability, in particular, have left Watt feeling revitalized.
“The biggest difference—and he still talks about it today—is how much more intact his body feels. He just feels more in touch with what’s happening in his core while everything else is moving. He just feels a little more in control. It was never a situation where he was like, ‘God, I feel weak. I’m not as strong,’” Arnett says. “He feels more in touch with his body and his body control and everything that goes into it.”
Watt’s offseason routine includes plenty of timed sprints and agility drills, and Arnett reports his times were better this year than they were three years ago (which was well before his string of injuries).
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has stated he believes Watt could be better than ever in 2017, a daunting possibility when you consider just how unstoppable he’s been in the past. But Arnett doesn’t doubt it for a second. “I have no doubt that he can do exactly what he did before,” Arnett says. “And, based off where he’s at and how he’s feeling more connected and in control of (his body), he could be even better.”
Photo Credit: Scott Halleran/Getty Images, Bob Levey/Getty Images