You never know who you’re going to run into at Exos, the world’s most elite training operation.
One May morning, two young quarterbacks hoping to start on a major college team are throwing passes on a turf field outside a glassed-in conference room. Down a hallway, several NFL free agents are polishing off their breakfast—carefully arranged plates of organic, locally sourced protein, fruits, and vegetables. In a 10,000-square-foot gym, Olympic runners and Arizona Coyotes are doing drills on exotic machines like the Keiser functional trainer, which uses pneumatic air instead of weights for resistance, and the Woodway Curve, a $6,000 treadmill that—because it’s human, not electric-powered—burns 30% more calories. There’s even a professional Indian ping-pong player working on whatever professional ping-pong players need to work on. And because Exos is the “primary human performance contractor” for the U.S. Special Operations Command, the previous week a team of elite commandos had been in the house the same time as a group of tattooed UFC fighters, and, according to Exos VP Trent Wilfinger, had a jolly old time talking shit with them in the 55° outdoor recovery pool.
Such are the scenes you’ll find any time here at Exos headquarters in the desert outside Phoenix—well, except in January, when the place is packed to the rafters with prospective NFL rookies who’ve come for the company’s famous draft combine preparation. This year, a record 80 Exos-trained players were selected in the NFL Draft—that’s 32% of all the players picked. Half of the first-round selections were Exos clients, including picks seven through 14.
Beyond football, Exos is also the official training partner of the German and Turkish national soccer teams; the Chinese Olympic team; Major League Soccer’s L.A. Galaxy, Portland Timbers, and Sporting Kansas City; the UFC; and many other professional baseball, basketball, and hockey teams that use Exos coaches and methods but prefer not to advertise that they’ve outsourced these things.
On the “corporate fitness” side, known as Exos Works, clients include the Mayo Clinic, Adidas, Intel, and more than 150 other companies. At one of them, Franklin Square Capital Partners, for example, employees eat meals made by Exos-trained cooks from a menu of Exos-approved foods (custom-tailored for and pre-ordered by each worker in advance, from an app), then work out with Exos trainers in an Exos-designed gym. In 2015, the training operation was on track to bring in $140 million in revenue.
It’s all wildly impressive—especially for a company most of us have never heard of. But that’s changing. Exos has been making a concerted effort to extend its influence beyond the shadowy corridors of power and into the fitness masses, doing things like offering personalized training and nutrition programs for the average guy online (and via the Exos Movement app), and even programming the workouts on your gym’s humble treadmills.
It all begs the question: Just what in the hell is Exos, anyway? And what do its armies of “performance specialists” (Exos lingo for trainers), nutritionists, chefs, and researchers know that you don’t?
How a training powerhouse came to be
To some extent, former Washington State University linebacker and Exos founder Mark Verstegen may have been lucky. But he was definitely smart. After graduation, Verstegen stayed on at the school as a strength and conditioning coach, then got his Master’s in exercise science at the University of Idaho, and landed at Georgia Tech as assistant director of player development. There he met a shortstop named Nomar Garciaparra, who was so taken with Verstegen’s training methods that he kept seeking him out even after both went on to bigger things. Garciaparra, of course, became a star for the Boston Red Sox; Verstegen left in ’95 to create the International Performance Institute at the Nick Bollettieri Sports Academy in Florida.
Bollettieri’s school had recently been swallowed up by IMG, whose affiliated sports agency then began to send its elite athletes—especially prospective NFL Draft picks and MLB players—to train with Verstegen and his team. By then he was preaching a program based around core strength and a newfangled concept of “holistic fitness,” meaning he focused as much on mental strength, nutrition, recovery, and injury prevention as he did on proper form in strength training.
In 1999 Verstegen decamped to Phoenix to open Athletes’ Performance, the world’s first one-stop shop for personalized fitness and nutrition, where he could seamlessly integrate the many subject areas that elite athletes were pursuing on their own—off-season physical training, position-specific drills, psychology, nutrition, physical therapy—and offer everything they truly needed to become stronger, faster, fitter, and less injury-prone. “I wanted to bring the smartest minds from nutrition, movement, recovery, and mindset together under one roof,” he says, “to create a space where athletes could come to upgrade their performance.”
And it would be all his.
Clearly, Verstegen was ahead of his time. He realized that athletes and agents were willing to pay a premium for what agent Michael Perrett, co-founder of Element Sports Group, calls a “turn-key” product. It was a radical concept at the time, Perrett says—a young player would arrive at Athletes’ Performance, and suddenly a team of people would be asking him questions he’d never been asked before: “Where’s your nutrition?” “What do we need to work on for you?” “Are you gaining weight or dropping?” Says Perrett, “It was a laser-like focus on my client’s needs.”
Even before Verstegen arrived in Arizona, his work with famous athletes like Garciaparra, Mia Hamm, and Curt Schilling—as well as his hypermanic, energetic personality—had made him a star of the elite fitness realm. But his global profile exploded when then-German National team soccer coach Jürgen Klinsmann hired him in 2006 to overhaul his squad’s training for the World Cup, which would be played on that country’s home soil. Klinsmann lived in Newport Beach, where AP had opened a small branch, and had become impressed with Verstegen’s individualized methods and early-adopter obsession with studying performance-related data. His trust in Verstegen paid off: Under his command, the 2006 German squad rebounded from years of underwhelming play to finish a near-miraculous third in the Cup.
In 2004, Verstegen created CORE Performance, a program that took the work he was doing for professional athletes and adapted it for regular guys. In essence, the CORE program is a tune-up for your body’s “suspension system”: the torso, hips, shoulders, and back—all the muscles that control your flexibility, balance, and stability. So, rather than maxing out on the bench, Verstegen has you doing physioball exercises, cable work, rope stretches, and bodyweight moves like hip crossovers, lunges with twists, and plyometrics. The accompanying book, CORE Performance, was a runaway best seller.
The corporate business exploded, too, and in 2012, AP and CORE became Exos, a name Verstegen says is meant to evoke the exosphere (the outermost region of Earth’s atmosphere), exoskeletons (which provide support and protection), and—this being sports, after all—X’s and O’s.
“Today, when an athlete comes to Exos, the place just blows him away,” says JP Major, head strength coach for the Arizona Coyotes. “Everything is taken care of: food, strength plan. The guy running the strength program talks to the dietitian and the chef. There are mindset components. As an athlete, you feel so taken care of.”
When I track down Verstegen, now 46, by phone in Germany to ask about the principles on which Exos was built, he tells me that the “Exos philosophy” dictates equal attention to all four of the company’s “pillars”—movement, mindset, nutrition, and recovery. He says that all four pillars are constantly evolving, but the last two are more important than ever.
Exos currently has about 50 registered dietitians, each of whom is assigned to a client to analyze diet and blood work to uncover trouble spots, allergies, and unhealthy habits. The kitchen staff keeps a binder listing each athlete’s daily caloric needs, when those calories should be consumed, and in what forms. Some clients are on high-protein diets, some high-carb. Each is also prescribed a regimen of Exos’ supplements (including a.m. and p.m. multivitamins, omega-3s, and a probiotic), and an individually tailored recovery shake blended with blueberries and vanilla-flavored whey protein, to which is added both creatine and at least 2.2g of the branched-chain amino acid leucine (the most important component of protein, says Laura Kunces, Ph.D., R.D., the director of research for the supplement line).
When it comes to athlete performance, Exos leaves no stone unturned. Teams that come in to train have something called “Tinkle Tuesdays,” when players’ urine samples are analyzed for hydration levels, according to nutrition and research VP Amanda Carlson-Phillips. As microbiome tests become more available, they may add stool samples to the program in the future. She says: “I can’t wait for Fecal Fridays.”
How Exos believes you (and your favorite NFL player) should train
Exos teaches everything, Verstegen says—strength training, endurance training, HIIT, you name it—with an emphasis on correct technique and proper form. It also pushes high-level sport-specific training—since a tight end’s needs are obviously different from a sprinter’s—but the fundamentals are basically the same.
Every client starts out with a “functional movement screen,” as Joel Sanders explains one evening as he takes me out onto the turf to show me the ropes.
First is the assessment. Sanders has a small chart that lists seven simple exercises—the squat, hurdle step, pushup, legs raise, etc.—that have been chosen to test the body’s key movements, and identify weaknesses and asymmetries that could lead to injury. “It allows you to introduce your body to me in 15 minutes or less,” he says.
For each exercise I do, he rates me from 1 to 3. My score, a 16 out of 21, is “a B, teetering on B+,” he says. Anything under 14 and clients get sent to the onsite physical therapists to check for injuries they’re not aware of (or are hiding). If the problem’s minor, the PTs will assign them a series of exercises to address the problem; if it’s more serious, they’re probably going to be seeing an Exos-approved sports doctor.
Next is the warmup, which Exos calls “movement prep”—some mini-band walks followed by “the world’s greatest stretch,” a multicomponent, yoga-inspired stretch that requires a fair bit of coordination to keep from falling on your face. Sanders points out flaws—an arched back, a bent leg—and tells me that if I only do one stretch before a workout it should be this one, as it works all the major muscles in your back, butt, hips, legs, and core.
Now we’re on to the main workout. Of course, my experience here is a little unusual, Sanders points out: One-on-one training isn’t standard practice at Exos. Here, whether you’re an NFL quarterback or a magazine writer, it’s all about group workouts. People work harder in groups, he says. But since it’s just me, he gives me a sampling of the sort of exercises I’d do in a group.
First he gives me some cable work on the pneumatic Keiser machine to check my “power output”—after all, a star athlete’s going to be more interested in power and performance than size or definition. Next, it’s single-leg Romanian deadlifts, because they work strength, balance, and flexibility all at once—the kind of combination Verstegen always looks for in exercises.
Then it’s on to the Woodway Curve manual treadmill. Every movement session includes portions that focus on speed, power, and strength, and Sanders likes to use the curved treadmill to work power. The best way, he says, is to sprint for .07 miles, then walk for .03. Basically, every tenth of a mile you start your sprint. “It’s awkward,” he warns, but excellent at picking up flaws in a runner’s form.
Finally, the workout ends with 30 minutes of ESD—short for energy systems development, Exos’ term for cardio (apparently, every element of Exos needs a proprietary name). At Exos, ESD doesn’t mean lolling on a bike; it means pushing your heart and lungs—hard. Group ESD often includes a fun activity like “ultimate ball” (similar to ultimate frisbee, but with a Nerf ball) or soccer, because it tricks people into running hard at the end of a punishing workout when what they really want to do is go have a beer.
That’s the easy out, though. ESD can be much worse—like if you’re put on the VersaClimber. “This is the No.1 fat-burning tool, period,” Sanders says. “I call it the ‘unicorn of conditioning’ because you don’t find it many places. It’s so freaking hard that it just gathers dust.”
The VersaClimber works the upper and lower bodies simultaneously, adding “energy cost” because you’re standing, not sitting, and “blowing up your legs while setting your lungs on fire” without the load of a sled push (another Exos favorite, by the way). Whenever a client calls to say he’s too busy for a workout, Sanders asks if he can spare four minutes for the VersaClimber. “That’s all I’ll need,” he’ll say.
That’s all he asks from me, as well—four of the longest and most exhausting minutes of my life, doing Tabata—20-second bursts of sprint-climbing with 10-second breaks in between. “Fuck this machine,” I say, panting, after just two rounds. Sanders laughs. “You’re swearing at me already? We have two minutes left!”
When it’s over, I collapse onto the floor, literally gasping for air. I’ve climbed 361 feet. “Five hundred is considered good,” he says. “But it’s your first rodeo—there’s no way to prepare yourself for that.”
How to work out with Exos without going broke
Many people at Exos now work at desks, figuring out how to spread an ever-growing bounty of expertise and data to a wider variety of people, including those who could never afford an Exos consultation personally. “We’re not just an elite athlete company anymore,” says Kevin Elsey, who leads the Performance Innovation Team.
When I visited Exos this May, they were in the final stages of rolling out Speedo FIT, a water-workout training program that includes 60-plus short online instructional videos, and a line of tools and gear made by Speedo. They’ve also launched Exos Presents, a four-hour online course ($125) that teaches trainers (and athletes) how to better understand data for maximizing recovery.
For weekend warriors who can’t make it to one of their dozen-plus locations (Phoenix, L.A., San Diego, Frisco, TX, Norwell, MA, and Gulf Breeze, FL, to name a few), there are loads of individual training and nutrition programs (for $90/year) available at coreperformance.com. You can download the accompanying Exos Movement app to stream exercise techniques, get plugged into an eating plan, and track your goals, whether it’s as broad as “performance conditioning” or as specific as “decrease pain/tightness.”
Exos has spent 16 years training pros and soldiers, says Underwood. “Now, our goal is to upgrade lives,” he says, “with no qualification for what kind of lives.”