“The most important factor when training athletes—like David Johnson, running back for the Arizona Cardinals—is you don’t want to hurt them,” says Nike Master Trainer, Joe Holder.
They’re not dainty, by any means (just watch Johnson crush a 500-lb squat). But they’re different from us.
“They’re thoroughbreds,” Holder explains.
In the off-season, football players need to build a proper base, striving to enhance their performance with every workout. And during the playing season, the focus is on making sure they don’t get hurt and preventing performance decrement.
“So you have a mix of both performance and health exercises placed properly within a workout,” Holder explains.
This will prime athletes to be better in their sport, not just better in the weight room. Everything that’s done in the gym has to translate onto the field.
So we got Johnson in the gym at Nike’s New York Headquarters during his off-season, gearing up for organized team activities, and put him through a solid session focused on the skills he needs as a sprint athlete.
“As a running back—and football players in general—plays last under 15 seconds with a decent amount of time in between,” Holder says. “This means they need to have a quality aerobic base so they can recover quickly and tap into their explosive potential. Multi-plane movement and strength, especially through joint angles, and the ability to withstand different forces being applied to the body is a must.”
Watch our senior editor, Brittany Smith, go head-to-head with Johnson in the ultimate strength, speed, and agility running back workout. Try it yourself with the how-to below.
Self myofascial release: Use a vibrating foam roller on a low-level setting to get deeper into the muscles and fascia and prime your body.
PART I: Reactive Series
1. Partner Mirror Drills
How to do it: One partner will be the bait—or, the “rabbit”—who’ll shuffle side to side. The other partner will be the “dog,” mirroring the moves of the rabbit. The rabbit will move quickly and randomly, trying to shake the dog. After 15-20 seconds, switch roles. Do one round.
2. Lacrosse Ball Drop
How to do it: Football players often respond to silent counts, or have to react to an external stimulus. With this drill, Partner A will hold a lacrosse ball. Partner B will stand behind a series of mini cones, about 10 feet away from Partner A, and come into an athletic stance, ready to pounce. Partner A will randomly drop the lacrosse ball, and Partner B will snap into action, sprinting around the cone, attempting to catch the ball before it bounces twice. This works on acceleration and linear speed. Switch roles between reps; complete 5 times each.
3. Hurdle Hole Series
How to do it: Set up mini hurdles every few feet as linemen on the line of scrimmage. Each space represents a “gap”: Running backs have specific gaps they typically have to hit during a play. Sometimes that gap changes, depending on what happens in the play, so this drill mimics that lateral shuffle to explode. Partner A will come into an athletic stance and shuffle as quickly as possible side to side, while Partner B will stand behind them. On Partner B’s command, Partner A will explode and run through the gap he’s in front of. Switch roles between reps; complete 5 rounds each.
4. Watt Bike Conditioning
How to do it: Partner A will hop on a Wattbike or Airdyne bike; the air and magnetic resistance will give you a great deal of feedback regarding your power output. Sprint on the bike for 10 seconds, giving your maximum effort, then jog on a treadmill for 60-90 seconds to recover while Partner B works on the bike. Switch on and off, completing 3 rounds.
“I wanted David to hit relatively the same power level on each rep on the bike,” Holder says. “If he was unable to do so, or didn’t get within a specific window in terms of power output, this would give me insight into his conditioning. I would change his program to ensure he’s able to have proper power output—not just on first rep, but every rep.”
Phase II: Strength Series
“We worked David’s posterior chain and hinge pattern,” Holder says. “He needs to be able to sprint, so we just worked on some things that’ll hopefully cross over onto the field. Strength is typically just structural insurance: If David is strong, it’ll help him reach maximal contractions a bit quicker while also making sure he doesn’t get hurt.”
1. Barbell Hip Thrust
How to do it: Sit on the floor in front of a bench. Prop your shoulders on the ledge of the bench as your partner helps lower a loaded barbell (with a pad positioned over your hips for comfort) onto your hip crease. Grasp your hands, palms down, around the barbell, and plant your feet into the ground about shoulder-width apart. Drive through your heels as you explosively extend through your hips, creating a straight line from knees to chest. Squeeze your glutes at the top, then slowly lower back to the floor. Perform 3 sets of 8–12 reps.
The focus here is maximum contraction at the top of the movement. “I want to make sure David is not just pushing a lot of weight, but able to move it quickly.”
2. Hex-Bar (Trap-Bar) Deadlift
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart inside the hex bar. Hinge your hips back and bend your knees until your hands can grip the handles. Your lower back should be flat. Inhale, brace your abs, and maintain a proud chest as you drive your heels into the floor and lift the weight up. You want to push your knees apart and retract your neck (kinda like you’re making a double chin). At the top of the movement, lock out your hips and squeeze your glutes. Don’t shrug your shoulders or lean back. Keep your back flat as you hinge your hips back and lower the bar. Perform 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
“David lifted on command, because the theme of the workout was testing his ability to hold contractions and turn tension on and off, making sure he could respond accordingly and move properly,” Holder says. “Hex bars typically allow for faster bar speed, slightly heavier weight, and take pressure off your lower back, so we elected to use this instead of a straight bar.”
You can also substitute hex-bar deadlifts with landmine squats if you don’t have access to a hex/trap bar, or have a bad back.
3. Landmine “Bus Driver”
How to do it: Begin in a standing position with a barbell in a “landmine” attachment or held sturdy between two corners of a room (you can also pile sand bags and wedge the bar in between). Place your hands toward the top of the bar. “Drive the bus” by performing a controlled rotation, starting on one side of your body. If it’s your right side, keep your arms straight and engage your abs as you lower the bar toward your right hip. Pivot off the opposite foot to take torque off your knee and return to start. Pause, then return the bar to the top position. Stay tall and don’t bend into the exercise; you want your abs to control the motion. Perform 3 sets of 10 reps each side.
“This core drill works on rotation, but also dynamic stability through the core—a great attribute since it not only connects the upper and lower body, but also has to absorb and transfer force correctly so you don’t waste any energy,” Holder says. “We also did this on command, focusing on the explosive concentric portion, while stopping at the top, then controlling the bar down.”
Foam roll again and work through total-body stretches.
“This is all just nervous system regeneration through breathing and light stretching, so David—or any athlete—can begin recovering and sending proper signals to the body to begin the regenerative process,” Holder says.