On the fifteenth week of this year’s NFL season, the Last Vegas Raiders welcomed back tight end Darren Waller after several months out with an injured hamstring. For those questioning his capability to be an effective weapon for quarterback Derek Carr, the Pro Bowl player made a powerful statement without saying a word: In the first 20 minutes of a game verse the Patriots, he sprinted right through the midfield defense to catch a 25-yard touchdown.
“I know I have the ability to make plays,” Waller told Men’s Journal. “I also know that a big part of that is my physical capability to out-maneuver and overpower the defense.” So, despite a demand from the Raiders fanbase to see one of their stars on the field, the athlete didn’t compromise when it came to his recovery.
Waller’s comeback wasn’t rushed and it surely didn’t come without hard work. He spent hours with trainer Dr. Zaki Afzal of Optimize Physical Therapy. The two have worked together on the athlete’s strength and mobility since Waller made the move to Vegas. First brought in to address strain on his foot, Waller has since leaned on Afzal for guidance on every facet of his physical well-being.
Inside Darren Waller’s Workouts
“Darren was already comfortable in the weight room, so we wanted to bring that power into his speed and mobility training,” says Afzal. “There are a lot of football players who don’t have great natural foot rotation, because they’re always wearing cleats and having their feet taped up every other second.” So the program the two do in the gym is designed with strength and multi-plane movement in mind. The results of that work has been seen in the tight end’s performances during the last few record-making seasons.
“I don’t put a lot of focus on stats, but having the most catches by a Raider ever is one that means something to me,” says Waller. The record was earned in 2020, when Carr relied on the tight end during a season where the team’s wide receivers were hit by a number of injuries and issues. The situation is one that Waller doesn’t expect to be repeated, with a few new WRs being added into the mix, but that doesn’t mean he’s resting on his laurels. “I don’t expect to get the same amount of touches, but I want to be productive whatever I need to do in a play.”
Given the wide span of responsibilities Waller has as a tight end, Afzal uses a number of modalities to get him game-day ready. Depending on how he’s feeling, the routine could include Keiser machines, plyo boxes, resistance bands, and kettlebells. “Darren needs to be able to block hard, cut fast, and move explosively,” says Afzal. “Because of that, I try to avoid unilateral training, I want to hit a number of muscles and improve the coordination between those muscles.”
Being a specialist in physical therapy and orthopedics, Afzal is also well-suited to help Waller through the unavoidable impacts the athlete will take on the field. “This is a full-contact sport,” he says. “The best we can do is adapt his training when we need to and do everything we can to make sure he’s as strong as possible when he’s playing.”
How Darren Waller Recovers
Pushing limits doesn’t end in the gym. Waller brings that same tenacity into his recovery. This is not about finding practices that make him comfortable, but rather finding ways to get back in the game faster. These days, the routine entails a weekly visit to IMR Float, a recovery center in Henderson, NV. There, he sits in a sauna at 150 degrees, being led through a meditation by one of the guides. Once he’s spent about five minutes sweating, he passes under a cold shower before plunging into a cold tub set around 50 degrees.
“Back when I was in Baltimore, John Harbaugh used to always say, ‘Get comfortable being uncomfortable,’ which has always stuck with me,” says Waller. “This sport takes [us] all over, into all kinds of conditions, so if you want to be prepared for the cold, you have to get used to the cold. If you want to be prepared for the heat, you have to be in the heat. So while saunas and ice baths are a mode of recovery, they’re also a practice in mental toughness for me. I want to know that I can push myself to the limit and not break, so I push myself to those limits whenever I can.”
Waller also gets regular massages after his morning workouts with Afzal where the PT will apply Icy Hot Pro to the areas that have taken the biggest beating. The maximum-strength version of the familiar pain-relieving product contains menthol and camphor. That post-workout treatment is crucial because he’ll need to be on the field for practice later that day, and can’t be slowed down by sore muscles. On top of those tools for physical recovery, the tight end also uses meditation to keep his head clear and focus intact.
The Workout That Helped Raiders Tight End Darren Waller Make His Big Comeback
Directions: This is a pared-down version of a routine that Waller did while training for his return to the field. One of the guiding principles behind the workout is its finisher, a hamstring curl. By ending with an isolation exercise that puts a high amount of stimulus on the problem area, it encourages tissue growth and recovery. The first two pairs of exercises are done in a superset. Do them back to back without rest. Give yourself 45 to 60 seconds rest between the movements that are not supersetted.
Warmup Skills Superset
1A. A Skip
Stand with feet hip-distance apart, looking forward with torso straight. At first, do this in place, then move forward: Drive your left knee up as you swing your right arm forward for counterbalance, then strike your foot back down into the ground forcefully. Immediately repeat on right side, swinging left arm. This is a dynamic drill, so really think about popping off the ground with each step. It mimics the knee drive required for running, and greases the joints and wakes up your muscles for single-leg push-off. 2 x 20 yards
1B. B Skip
This is done in the same cadence as the A skip, but builds on the mechanics and adds a kick. Once you drive the knee up, extend the leg out straight, then drive it back down as if you were clawing the ground with your foot. Again, be sure to pump your arms to aid in balance and momentum. 2 x 20 yards
2A. Band-Resisted Kettlebell Swing
Select one kettlebell at a moderately heavy weight and loop a resistance band around the handle, tying the other end of the resistance band around a bar or fixed anchor behind you. Bring the kettlebell out, away from the tied end until there’s only a small amount of slack. Stand about a foot behind the kettlebell with feet shoulder-width apart. Hinge at your hips and grab the handle, tipping it slightly so it’s resting on its edge. Engage your lats, then hike the kettlebell back through your legs. As it passes back through, forcefully extend through your hips and squeeze your glutes. The kettlebell will typically float at the top of the swing, but the band will add some resistance and pull it back down into the next rep. 3 x 5 reps
2B. Broad Jump
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and arms straight in front of you, parallel to ground. Swing your arms back behind your body, loading your glutes and hamstrings like a bow ready to launch an arrow. Explode out as you swing your arms forward, using momentum to improve your distance and balance. Try to leap as far forward as you can, landing softly on both feet. 3 x 3 reps
3. Band-Assisted Hamstring Curls
Secure one end of a resistance band to an anchor point above and directly behind you (think squat rack). Kneel on a pad with your feet anchored by a piece of equipment or have a training partner hold your ankles down. Lower yourself slowly using your legs and hamstrings to control the descent. There will be a point when your hamstrings are unable to handle the load, which is when you’ll utilize the resistance band to prevent any unnecessary stress. Engage your glutes and hamstrings to bring yourself back up to the starting position, using the resistance band for help as needed. The progression removes the band. 3 sets x 6-10 reps (depending on ability)
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