The NFL combine is a punishing standardized test of raw speed, strength, and skills, in which an eye-popping performance means the difference between an early-round contract and a spot on someone’s practice squad. So it only makes sense that when top prospects want to boost their scores, they go to the specialist: Nick Winkelman, the country’s foremost combine guru and director of movement on the Performance Innovation Team at the human performance training company EXOS, which has whipped into shape seven No. 1 picks since 2001, including Andrew Luck and Matthew Stafford. We tracked him down to share with us his secrets on speed, explosiveness, and keeping yourself healthy.
How do you actually train someone to run faster?
I’ll give you the secret sauce for anyone wanting to improve their 40: Train like you’re going 50 yards. I guarantee that eight out of every 10 guys will stop driving when they get near the 40-yard line. So twice a week—one day working zero to 20 yards, one day zero to 50 yards—run four repetitions after a proper warmup as hard as you can. Empty the tank on all four repetitions. You’ll drop your 40 by a few tenths [of a second] in six weeks. You also need to have a level of conditioning and tolerance that allows you to complete enough faster reps whereby your actual speed improves. That’s the secret. Most conventional speed training is slogged by a bunch of drills that really don’t do shit.
What can regular fitness guys learn from combine training specifically?
The combine prep shows that if you want to improve your speed, then stop spending most of your time doing three sets of 10. Or if you want to get strong, then also stop spending all your time doing three sets of 10! For those who want to try a combine-type program, remember: Recovery is the key to every great program, so massage, stretch, use compression, and get in the cold plunge afterward. Add a little bit of endurance training to my drills, and you’ll smash an adventure race or even your pickup games or just a hike with your kids.
So agility drills on top of weights and endurance? What would you recommend for regular guys wanting to up their game?
If you’re doing anything beyond linear running that requires speed and cutting—whether it’s flag football or a Tough Mudder—I recommend the six-cone drill: Set two rows of three cones five yards apart, where you can shuffle diagonally. Each of those increases in metabolic demand as they get longer and longer. Because the limiting factor in sports—and what often causes the most noncontact injuries—relates to multidirectional speed, we spend a lot of time on it. The six-cone drill involves frequent change of direction both laterally and diagonally, which further requires an ability to drop the hips.
Why are the hips so important?
You can’t change direction unless you lower your center of mass—that is, drop your hips. Agility is all about getting low enough, fast enough. This drill is crucial to helping the body develop that rotational power and strength needed for an effective crossover. This drill does more than you can imagine.