Escaping the “that’s just for girls” mentality, Pilates has become popular among professional football players looking for an edge. The Washington Redskins and the Pittsburgh Steelers have both incorporated Pilates into their training regimens. Like yoga, Pilates can improve flexibility, balance and strength.
Also like yoga, Pilates emphasizes elongating the muscles and creating space between the joints, while simultaneously building stability. Increased range of motion can help prevent injury and promote career longevity. Especially for those in highly mobile positions, like wide receivers, Pilates can facilitate more efficient movement on the field.
Leading by example, the following NFL receivers are using Pilates to their advantage, some as a complement to their weight training, and some as their primary method of strength training.
Back in 2007, performance coach Tom Shaw recruited Pilates instructor Sarah Picot to work with his NFL Draft hopefuls, including 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver Calvin Johnson. He wanted to supplement all of the hard work they’d been doing on the field with something that might relieve muscle tension and tightness.
“[Picot] knew more about flexibility than we did, and we learned the more flexible you are, the faster you’re going to be,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated at the time.
Johnson was among the players who were very receptive to Pilates. He worked with Picot primarily on core strength, muscle efficiency and balance, and hip and hamstring flexibility.
“People look at Pilates as sort of a girls’ exercise,” Picot told SI, “You can ask one of those men I worked with . . . how much we kicked their butts. They were shaking, they were sweating, they were uncomfortable. And then afterwards they felt calm, relaxed, loose.”
Back when Nate Burleson was with the Detroit Lions, he got hooked on Pilates as a way to counteract all the tightness he was experiencing from lifting weights. From his very first session, he felt a “tremendous” difference in the way his body was feeling.
“Lifting just makes you tight,” Burleson told CBS Detroit. He also said that Pilates had not only made his muscles more flexible, it also benefited his ligaments and tendons with more “give.”
“What most guys are doing now, they’re using it as a preventative measure, so it’s almost like ‘prehab’ in a sense,” Burleson continued. “Most guys, especially if you’ve been in the league for a while, your off day is a subtle work day. You’re doing some type of work to keep your body as loose and limber as possible.”
Coming off his NFL rookie season, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks posted a photo to his Instagram of himself suspended upside down on a Pilates reformer machine.
Cooks was enthusiastic about his Pilates workout, captioning the post “Great session today! Working on all aspects of the body!” Rest assured, he’ll be back for more.
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Michael Campanaro & Chris Givens
Two former wide receiver teammates at Wake Forest University, Chris Givens (now with the St. Louis Rams) and Michael Campanaro (with the Baltimore Ravens) recently had an early morning Pilates session together.
With his rookie season behind him, Campanaro is making sure to include Pilates in his off-season workouts. He recently told Brian Bower of the Russell Street Report that his receivers coach has been giving him helpful advice “on getting the hamstrings right,” to get him into “incredible running shape.” As long as your hamstrings are tight, your movement will be restricted, but relaxed hamstrings promote full-range of running motion, as well as postural alignment.
In an interview with Pilates Style, Bennett, a tight end, noted that the demands of his position take a toll on his joints and his lower back. After his first session, Bennett was hooked, and now he does Pilates up to five times a week. He said, “I can lift 500 pounds, but in a Pilates session, there’s always some different type of motion that’s hard for me to do. That’s what is so great about it.”
Bennett believes his Pilates work has improved his ability to change directions on the field, largely due to increased flexibility in his hip flexors. He said, “To counteract the joint compression caused by weightlifting, I go straight from weights to Pilates as often as possible. [It] helps me work on rebalancing and activating my muscles . . . supporting muscles that hold up the bigger ones.”
For Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, Pilates is an integral part of his training routine. Brown’s regimen is designed to enhance core strength and develop explosive power in his hips and glutes. He is focused on improving his flexibility with dynamic stretches. “It’s not like weight training . . . it’s all about control and body position, which receivers like myself need the most,” Brown told STACK last year.
“What Pilates does best is it creates muscle balance, so it works on strength and length at the same time,” said Brown’s instructor Christine Ruby. “Ideally, to keep him from getting injured, we need to make sure the muscles on one side of his body match in length and strength the muscles on the other side of the body.”
Ruby has Brown perform functional movements that work multiple muscle groups. Since Brown’s style of running “uses the hip flexors a lot,” his hip flexors are a main area of focus.
In addition to his upper legs and torso, Ruby also works with Brown on strength and alignment in his calves, ankles and feet, all of which usually receive little attention in a traditional gym setting.
Brown said that this whole-body approach, including the feet, has helped him become more “elusive.” In other words, the exercises have benefited his overall balance control, and “knowing how to get my feet where [I want] to go.”
Read more about Brown’s Pilates workouts: