J.J. Watt loves working out. A lot. Like if breaking down and building up muscle were not something humans had already discovered, Watt might lock himself in a dark room and never emerge for all of eternity. Fortunately, working out does exist, and Watt is perhaps its finest example.
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The Houston Texans Pro Bowl defensive lineman has a build similar to the front of a fire truck. It looks like if you tried to punch him, you’d break every bone in your hand. In person, he is strangely square. His arms are enormous extensions of his chest, and his neck spans more distance than the head that sits atop it. His strength is on full display in the gym, where he flips 1,000-pound tires, jumps 61 inches onto a box and eats raw eggs like you or I consume granola bars. He can’t even escape to his cabin in Wisconsin without bringing his teammates along and forcing them to work out with him. Sometimes you just want to look Watt in the eye and say “chill, man.” But you can’t, because he would eat you.
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This off-season, for the first time in a long time, Watt couldn’t work out. For most of the 2015 NFL season, the man was broken. His left hand was in a cast. Five of his core muscles were either partially or completely torn. He had a herniated disc in his back. He had a torn groin. Yet he somehow played through it all, refusing to miss a game, wrangling quarterbacks to the ground 17 1/2 times and winning his third Defensive Player of the Year Award. But when his season ended, several surgeries loomed and a long rehab process awaited him. When he got out of the hospital and went back home, Watt had to do something he hated with every fiber of his being. He had to do nothing.
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“They wouldn’t let me work out for five weeks after my surgery,” he said. “It was some of the most frustrating days of my life because you feel helpless.”
The longer he sat out, the more his mental state began to weaken. Doubt started to flood his synapses, to the point where Watt, one of the most dominant defensive lineman the NFL has ever seen, began to question whether he could ever exist as he once did.
“As an athlete, you pride yourself on being able to do any activity at any time,” Watt said. “But my body wouldn’t let me. So you’re sitting there like, ‘Am I going to get back there? Am I going to be able to be what I used to be?’”
As Watt toiled away from the gym, his trainer, Brad Arnett, owner of the NX Level Gym in Waukesha, Wisconsin, who had worked with Watt since Watt was in high school, designed a plan to build Watt back up, both mentally and physically, knowing that he was going to have to start from scratch.
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“It was basically reprogramming everything,” Arnett said. “Getting everything to fire and work together again. You’ve got to crawl before you can walk and you’ve got to walk before you can run. So it was going back through and getting everything to kick back in again and start to work. Then there was the mental component, getting him to trust it.”
Watt was finally cleared to start physical activity again, but things were slow in the early going. Arnett admits that the man with the ever-chipper, smiling face of Reebok commercials and episodes of “Hard Knocks” had some pretty awful days.
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“It was hard. There were days of frustrations, and he was in some dark spots,” Arnett said.
J.J. Watt hits a Squat with the help of his trainer, Brad Arnett
Fortunately, when you have a relationship with your trainer that goes back as far as Watt’s does with Arnett, and you’ve been working on the same core principles of your body since you were 15, slipping back into your routine isn’t as tricky as it might sound. And that’s perhaps the most interesting thing about Watt. For all the eye-popping feats of strength he posts to his Instagram, and even though he looks like he could lift the heaviest running back in the NFL and toss him 20 yards, NFL Blitz style, Watt swears his workouts are more or less the same as when he was a high schooler in Wisconsin.
“There are a couple things here and there that have changed, but the core principles of my workouts, I haven’t changed,” Watt said. “Why would we change something that’s been so successful? Since I’ve been doing the same things since I was 15, we’re always reaching new heights and we’re always trying to reach something new.”
Watt wasn’t hitting 61-inch Box Jumps in high school. If he were, he might have been locked up as some kind of fearful mutant. But he was Box Jumping, just 40 inches or so less than he is today.
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“You come in and watch him do a workout, he’ll be doing the same thing that high school kids are doing,” Arnett said. “But he’ll have 400 pounds on the bar. He’ll do a 61-inch Box Jump. The principles are the same, it’s just what he does with it that makes him who he is. “
Functional workouts that hit multiple muscle groups are his favorite. One circuit that he prefers—a mixture of Tire Flips, Box Jumps, Prowler Pushes and Shuttle Runs—works his core, legs, lateral agility and explosiveness, a sort of a one-stop-shop of things a defensive lineman needs in order to feast on the opposing quarterbacks. These things have allowed Watt to amass 74.5 sacks in five seasons, require a double-team on almost every snap and catch three offensive touchdowns to boot.
Watt’s off-season from hell isn’t over yet. The Texans’ training camp kicks off this week, and Watt will be sidelined for all of it, having recently undergone another surgery for that pesky and painful herniated disc in his back. Texans team doctors expect to him to be ready by the season opener, but for now Watt is left, once again, unable to work out, with nothing to do but sit and think.
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And yet, what makes Watt great, or sort of insane (your choice), is his ability to turn his setbacks into challenges—like a daily workout scribbled on the whiteboard in the Texans gym that he needs to complete
“It created a new mountain for me to climb,” Watt said of his initial rehab. “It created new goals for me. So when I did get back to working out and I did get back in the gym, I had a mindset that was hungrier than ever. I was more excited than ever to work out.”
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