Christian McCaffrey is a workhorse who moves like a racehorse.
The Carolina Panthers running back totaled 326 touches last season, third-most in the NFL, galloping his way to 1,965 yards from scrimmage and second-team All-Pro honors. He clocked a 4.48 40-Yard Dash at the NFL Combine and is known as one of the fastest backs in the league. But in his mind, he needs more speed.
“I look at a running back as a sprinter. And running is actually in the title of my job, my occupation. My job is to run, and it’s to do it fast,” McCaffrey told STACK. “Everything I do is really pertinent to track. All of my speed work is with a track coach. All of my lifting is with a track coach. Those are the fastest people in the world. And at my position, being fast does not hurt. It’s a very big track-based program.”
That track coach is Brian Kula, owner of Kula Sports Performance. 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 Valor’s 4x200m relay team that set the Colorado state record. The two stayed in touch as McCaffrey went on to star at Stanford. After McCaffrey’s rookie NFL season, he came to Kula looking to enhance his speed.
“When he came back last year, (he) really wanted to improve his speed,” Kula says. “He was coming off an injury so we weren’t able to do everything we would’ve liked to, but he made some really good progress.”
After a strong season where McCaffrey says he felt “great” from Week 1 to Week 17, the two have taken many of the principles they applied last year a step further this offseason. McCaffrey’s giddy with the results, claiming he “absolutely” feels faster now than when he entered the league.
“I feel the best I’ve felt in my whole life in terms of being in good physical condition, speed, strength, all that,” McCaffrey says. “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, I can feel myself getting faster, I can feel myself getting stronger.”
For McCaffrey, the shift in training philosophy has involved a true appreciation for the concept of less is more. He came up a gym rat who trained for hours on end, determined not to allow anyone to work longer or harder than himself. The approach was certainly superior to no training, but the problem with that non-stop “grind” mentality is it makes it exceedingly difficult to effectively train your most explosive muscle fibers. What’s supposed to be speed training veers into conditioning work, and what’s supposed to be power training ends up being more muscle hypertrophy or muscle endurance-focused.
“Rest for me is training. 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,” McCaffrey says.
His program includes 3-4 intense days a week, with a couple of those days containing both a track session and a lifting session. Inside each workout, the amount of rest between reps is significantly longer than McCaffrey was previously accustomed to, while the total volume of reps lower. This allows his heart rate to recover, his ATP-PC system to replenish, and his force output to remain at maximal levels.
“I always tell him we don’t just do things to burn calories,” Kula says. “The intensity we work at is very high, but our volume is quite low probably compared to a Division I college football program. There’s several reasons for that. One of them is science—the system we’re trying to develop falls within (a certain) sets/reps and volume. When you’re after that system, the type 2b muscle fibers, then you’re going to require a lot of recovery or you’re just going to have overuse and you’re not going to get full benefit…It takes five minutes for your ATP system to fully replenish. We’re going to make sure that even though it makes the session quite a bit longer, we get proper recovery and (then) full output when we go to do the movement.”
Kula offers an example of taking four-to-five minutes of recovery between each set of a high-output Deadlift plyometric movement.
As far as program staples, the Deadlift is a big one. “We do some variations of the Squat, but there are some things about the development of the rear chain and how that translates to speed that we really like the Deadlift,” Kula says. The goal is not so much to add more muscle mass to McCaffrey’s already-ripped 205-pound frame, nor is it to increase his one-rep maxes. The ultimate objective is to enhance what Kula calls his “mass-specific force.”
“At his ideal playing weight, how much force can we produce to get that body to move as fast as it can possibly go?” Kula asks. “I mean, he’ll lift a lot of weight. (Right before) I sent him to OTAs, we had 600-plus pounds on the bar for a Box Squat. But we’re keeping him at a mechanical advantage by using a box. We’re doing very low-repetition stuff.”
“We’ve taken at some level a little bit of risk to say this is how we think we can recruit the most fast-twitch (while) keeping his bodyweight the same and deliver the best possible athlete. At the end of the day, that’s our goal. No one on Sunday afternoons is asking how much you Squat. They’re asking how many touchdowns you scored.” Since football isn’t played in a lane, the program also includes plenty of multi-directional work that adheres to the same principles.
McCaffrey typically saves any conditioning work for Fridays, which is the end of his training week. While he’d run endless gassers or 110s for his conditioning in the past, such drills are no longer a part of his routine. Instead, he’ll simulate a two-minute drill by running routes up and down the full field. “On my Friday, when my nervous system is pretty shot after the week (and) I’ve had three, four legit days of training, I’ll do a max-out ladder of different routes with walk back rest. I’ll march all the way down the field, every 10 yards, every 10, 15, 20 yards depending on the route, and I’ll do that a couple times, and that’ll be the most conditioning I do,” McCaffrey says. “It’s obviously important to have a little speed endurance in football, but I’ve learned when I really condition myself hard, I feel myself kinda getting slower. And I’ll probably rub a lot of trainers wrong saying that. But I started doing (this) last year, and I can honestly say there were very few times I felt tired during a game.”
As dialed in as C-Mac’s training is, it would all be for naught if he didn’t maximize his recovery. Sleep is a top priority, and a chiropractor, soft tissue specialist or masseuse works on him just about every single day. You’d also be hard-pressed to find an athlete more meticulous about his nutrition. He frequently has his blood tested to ensure his diet is optimized for elite recovery and energy, and he’s gotten his pre and post-workout fueling down to a science. Ascent’s line of supplements, such as their Native Fuel Whey, play a critical role. “Being able to put the right stuff in my body is huge,” McCaffrey says.
It could all add up to a legendary 2019 season for the Panthers’ explosive playmaker. In 2018, he fell just 133 receiving yards short of becoming only the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. “We’ve seen crazy results. He’s extremely fit, strong right now, speed is great, change of direction, he’s healthy,” Kula says. “We want to make him as explosive of an athlete as we can.”
Photo Credit: Panthers.com/Brandon Todd