Training camps in the National Football League are designed to push players (and coaches for that matter) to the limits of their mental and physical capabilities. Teams want to find out which players have what it takes to survive the grind of a 16-game regular season schedule, and players have their sights set on earning six-, seven-, and even eight-figure salaries for the coming season. If you haven’t experienced an NFL training camp, it’s nearly impossible to put into words exactly how much of a grind those four to six weeks truly are.
A typical day consists of meetings, followed by practice, followed by treatments for any bumps and bruises, followed by meetings, followed by workouts and/or a second practice, followed by more meetings. In total, players typically spend 15-18 hours a day — with only a handful of days off mixed in — in the “office” (aka their team’s training facility) during training camp. As you can imagine, with that type of schedule it is extremely difficult for NFL players to stay in shape and take adequate care of their bodies.
First things first, it is necessary for us to point out that there is a significant difference from being “in shape” and being “in football shape.” Being “in shape” is what comes from spending hours in the weight room, swimming pool, or on the field doing strength training, cardio training, speed and agility work, and everything else in between. Being “in football shape” comes from (among other things) doing position-specific drills, putting the pads on and doing full-contact team drills, and lining up across from another player and doing one-on-one drills. While every player is required to show up to training camp “in shape” — they will quickly find themselves unemployed if they do not — very few (if any) players show up “in football shape.”
Through the years, NFL players have developed several routines that they use during training camp to not only get into shape, but also stay in shape. With that being said, here are five tricks that nearly every player in the league uses to get into shape during training camp. And who knows? These may be a good fit for your busy lifestyle as well.
1. Diet and hydration
With the physical grind involved, this may be the single most important trick that NFL players use to get in shape and stay in shape during training camp. Fortunately for them, teams employ some of the top nutritionists in the world to ensure that every player on their roster gets the exact nutrition they need to perform at the highest level possible.
One common theme you will see in all NFL players’ diets during training camp is massive amounts of lean, muscle-building proteins such as chicken, eggs, and fish. Beyond that, most players will consume more complex carbohydrates (green vegetables, whole grains, starchy vegetables, and beans) than they typically would during the season or during the offseason.
Lastly, all players will consume a protein shake or recovery drink of some sort immediately following every practice and workout, and a hydration drink of some sort (Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison uses an amino acid formulation) during practices and workouts. The notion that NFL players can eat anything they want during training camp is now a thing of the past.
2. Active recovery
Sufficient recovery for NFL players requires more than just protein shakes. In fact, most players will spend as much time engaging in active recovery activities and drills as they will working out in the weight room during training camp. Active recovery includes things such as taking a yoga or Pilates class (if they can find the time), doing a swimming pool workout, using the cold tub and hot tub to do a hot/cold contrast, breaking out the foam roller, or something as simple as riding a stationary bike. Other common forms of recovery among NFL players are deep tissue massages, acupuncture, and chiropractic work.
It is fairly common knowledge that getting enough sleep is one of the most important aspects of living a healthy life. This especially rings true for NFL players during training camp. On top of being physically pushed to the max, they are also spending hours every day studying film and learning their team’s offensive, defensive, and special teams schemes. With limited amounts of free time, you will often find players sleeping any time they have the chance.
On a side note, franchises are starting to also take notice of the importance of their players getting enough sleep. When Gary Kubiak took over as the head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2015, he pushed the start time for training camp practices back to 9:30 am to ensure his team was getting enough sleep every night. Given that the Broncos went on to win Super Bowl 50, it should come as no surprise that several additional teams have adopted a similar approach in 2016.
4. Core and flexibility emphasis
Before and after every practice and workout during training camp (and throughout the regular season), you will find players doing extensive core and flexibility work. Before they get started on the practice field or working out in the weight room, all NFL players (at the guidance of their team’s strength and conditioning staff) will go through a dynamic warm-up routine.
Immediately following practice and workouts, players will engage in more “static” types of flexibility work to help cool down and prevent future injuries. When it comes to core work during training camp, NFL players look for a balance of exercises that will combine to help them increase and maintain their core strength, while also helping with injury prevention. Common movements include planks (both side and front), “Superman” holds and similar variations, back hyperextensions, and various medicine ball and cable resistance exercises.
5. Short and sweet trips to the weight room
NFL players simply do not have enough time in the day to spend several hours in the weight room during training camp like they do during the offseason. Even if they did, their bodies wouldn’t be able to handle the combination of practice and extensive weight room sessions without breaking down. As a result, most players will complete a workout and be in and out of the weight room in about 45 minutes. During this time, they will often focus on major lifts such squats or box squats, hang cleans or power cleans, and bench press variations, and then fill in their workouts with complementary exercises such as pull-ups, shoulder stability movements, and core work.