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June 26, 2020 10 min read

Pretty much all sports require some level of functional strength, general athleticism, and explosive power, but football especially goes above and beyond in showing what the human body is capable of. 

Even if you’re not much of a fan, there are few things that can measure up to the energy in a packed football stadium—both on the field and in the stands.

While power can mean plenty of things, in physics power is the amount of energy transferred or converted per unit of time. Looking at players in the NFL, we can really see what that can mean when applied to the human body. 

Not only hulking towers of muscle and grit, but footballers are also beasts when it comes to expending that energy over a short time frame. And in the upper echelons of football-dom, there are even fewer who’ve reached the level of JJ Watt.

Being named the NFL defensive player of the year 3 times in his first 5 seasons and the first player ever to record over 20 sacks in two separate seasons, Watt is a force to be reckoned with. Not only that, but the man also holds the Houston Texan’s franchise record for both the number of sacks and also, forced fumbles. And the cherry on top: Watt was the 2017 Sports Illustrated, Sportsmen of the Year.

But even if you’re not a defensive end and you’re not vying for the title of defensive player of the year—heck, even if you’re not a football player—there’s still plenty of lessons to learn from the way that Watt and his long-time personal trainer, Brad Arnett, can teach you and me about approaching fitness.

What Makes JJ Watt, JJ Watt?

Standing at 6’5’’ and nearly 290 (lean) pounds, Watt’s a mountain of a man. He’s been playing a variety of sports all his life, along with his three brothers—hailing from the small-town Waukesha, Wisconsin.

While physically he’s almost an entirely different person than he was in high school, he still depends on the same coach—Arnett—to guide his workouts during the season and offseason. Looking at the way he trains, it’s clear that Watt has a zest for training—there are probably few things he’d like to be doing more. And that kind of dedication to his craft becomes apparent when it’s game time.

And a craft it is.

Along with his trainer, Watt has made his body into a powerhouse that can’t be stopped. To get a good grasp of how well conditioned Watt is, keep this in mind: Weighing almost 300 pounds, his box jump record is 61 inches or 5’1’’. That’s just two inches shorter than the world record.

For a man that size to explode with that much energy in such a short time frame is nuts, but he’s the got training and diet plan to back it up. Keeping this in mind, it becomes obvious that Watt isn’t just strong, but he’s functionally strong as well—in a very explosive way.

Yet he still doesn’t forget his roots. When he signed his contract, his coach reminded him that he still has to work just as hard as if he were still being underpaid. This humility not only shines through in Watt’s interactions with fans but also the way in which he keeps his nose to the grindstone on such a consistent basis.

Along with an insane diet that we’ll get into later, Watt’s success as an athlete can be attributed to a variety of principles that he keeps in mind when he’s working out.

J.J. Watts.

Watt it Means to Train Like JJ

Watt’s days start very early, think anywhere from 5 to 6 in the morning. While the workout itself generally changes depending on what the focus is, Watt spends a lot of time warming up and loosening up. This lasts from 30 to 40 minutes and is done without shoes in order to promote ankle stability and balance.

This warmup session places a huge emphasis on the core. Watt’s does this every single training session in order for everything to be engaged and stable when he picks up a bar. It’s a combination of glute and low ab work, along with a focus on the groin and pelvic floor stability. The exercises which this warmup consists of, include:

  •         Planks
  •         Glute extensions
  •         Side planks with leg raises
  •         Lateral leg walks with bands
  •         Bird-dogs
  •         Dead-bugs

If Watt’s meant to stop a 300+ pound offensive lineman, then he needs a tremendous amount of work done around his core. Add to this the fact that Watt is a special defensive end since he plays every down and acts as both a pass-rusher and run-stopper. So not only does he have to defend against that 300+ pound lineman, but he also has to have plenty of speed and explosive energy to get him where he needs to be.

This can be seen in the prior example we gave—his box jump of 61 inches. But he doesn’t just practice his vertical jumps, but also his long jumps. The man is essentially some mix between bear and kangaroo. Imagine that coming out of the woods to get you.

So while a significant portion of his main workout does deal with free weights, there’s just as much functional training and conditioning that goes on in order to keep him in tip-top shape. A circuit like this for Watt usually looks like:

Tire flips: While Watt uses a 1000lb tractor tire, you might want to opt for a lighter one unless you already know what you’re doing. This exercise is great for your core and posterior chain. The proper form has you beginning in a deep squat position close to the tire while it’s lying on the ground. From there, grab onto it (the treads make a good grip), and explode upwards, as if you’re doing a deadlift.

Make sure to use your hips as a hinge, and drive through the legs. The movement peaks when you successfully lift the tire high enough and fast enough for it to tip over forwards. Repeat for the desired amount of reps. Just remember to keep your back in a neutral position to avoid any injuries. 

Sled pushes: It’s a good idea to begin by pushing the sled at a slower pace—either at a walk or a light jog, with your desired load. Afterward, turn around and pull the sled at the same pace. Try finishing the sled workout with an explosive sprint while pushing it. Make sure you’re properly warmed up and have enough room to utilize the equipment properly.

Box Jumps: Box jumps are a fantastic way to strengthen your lower-body muscles, such as your glutes, quads, calves, and hamstrings. Furthermore, they’re extremely versatile. If you’re looking to train like Watt for explosive power, then grab a higher box. If you’re looking for endurance and footwork, a lower box with a higher number of jumps will do just fine.

Begin by facing a box with your feet shoulder-width apart, and bend into a quarter squat. Swing your arms back, and then swing forward while jumping off the ground. Try to land lightly on top of the box, with your feet flat and knees slightly bent. If your knees are more than slightly bent and you’re just getting into box jumps, then it might be a good idea to lower the height, so you don’t bang your shins on the edge.

Agility work: The Watt agility circuit is broken down into sprints, backpedals, bear crawls over 10 meters, and over-unders. If you want to ramp up the difficulty and really push your endurance, try to do these in a superset, where you don’t take any time to pause between sets. Paired with regular strength training, some agility work will do wonders when it comes to you not only avoiding injuries but also in expending your energy quickly and in a controlled manner. 

Watt in the Iron Temple

And of course, there’s the free weights and all the traditional lifts. Some of the numbers given by Watt’s trainer include:

  •         Power cleans at 380 to 400 pounds
  •         Back squats at 700 pounds
  •         Bench press at 400 to 500 pounds

And these aren’t Watt’s maxes either—rather, it’s just the way these lifts are programmed into his general training. While Watts could definitely go heavier, the focus is on the reps and on variation.

Variation introduces a wider range of motion which is extra beneficial for someone in a contact sport like football where injuries are rampant. It’s well complemented by the functional workouts we looked at above, and it helps to train all of the muscles that we normally don’t think about, but are super crucial when working at the level that Watt is on. 

The lower-than-max-weight and higher rep count is beneficial when it comes to muscular endurance. Not only does Watt have to have that explosive energy come out in a moment’s notice, but he also has to do it over, and over, and over again throughout a match.

Finally, this is all polished off with at least 15 minutes of cool-down, where he stretches and makes sure that his recovery is quicker. For someone who regularly has two of these 90 minute+ training sessions a day, the cool-down and recovery are essential for a well-functioning physique. 

A Routine Fit for Watt

Watt usually splits his workout sessions into upper and lower body days. What’s more, he’ll try to have days specifically for training endurance and other days for training strength. So, one leg day might have him doing lighter loads over more reps to get his muscular endurance up, while his next leg day will have him increase the loads and do a fewer number of reps and sets. 

Below is a snapshot of a workout routine fit for The Milk Man himself:

J.J. Watts.

Upper Body Workouts

Weighted Shoulder Roll: 10 reps x 2 sets

A great mobility exercise to start off the workout, the shoulder roll (holding kettlebells or dumbbells) is a great way to warm up your shoulders, scapula, and upper back.

Incline Bench Press: 6 reps x 2 sets

The classic bench press with a twist. Putting yourself up on an incline will better emphasize the upper pecs in your workout.

Dumbbell Floor Press: 8 reps x 8 sets

The more primitive version of the regular press on a bench, the floor press forces you to feel the movement in your chest and triceps. Furthermore, it better develops the core and your shoulder stability. Using dumbbells instead of barbells supplements this benefit and strengthens your weaker side.

Fat-bar Pull-up: 10 reps x 3 sets

Along with the benefits of a classic pull-up—your back, triceps, and core—using a fat-bar will engage your forearms since it’ll be much harder to grip. But we doubt Watt has many issues with his giant hands.

Chest-supported T-bar Rows: 12 reps x 3 sets

The focus here is your back—this includes your lats, teres major, traps, and erector spinae. Furthermore, your biceps, abs, glutes, and hamstrings will also be engaged.

Straight-arm Lat Pulldown: 10 reps x 3 sets

As its name suggests, the straight-arm pulldown is one where the elbows are kept locked the entire time. This way, the lats are emphasized more than in a regular lat pulldown since there’s a greater range of motion.

TRX Arm Curl: 12 reps x 3 sets

A twist on the traditional bicep curl, using a suspension cable forces your stabilizers, namely your core, to engage to a higher degree. The adjustable bands are easily modifiable to different experience levels, and they’re sure to give you a good compound workout.

Band External Rotation: 10 reps x 3 sets

A great way to start finishing off the workout and hit your delts while improving your range of mobility all at the same time.

Tempo Run: 40 yds at 75% max speed x 8 times

A tempo run is a pace that’s about 25 to 30 seconds slower than your fastest 5k pace. It allows your body to clear out as much lactate as it produces, allowing you to keep a steady pace for longer.

Lower Body Workouts

Safety Bar Box Squats: 3 reps x 6 sets

The usage of the safety bar forces more weight forward on the body, thereby placing more tension on the entire back, glutes, and hamstrings. Sitting down on a box in between the phases of the squat, you’re forced to develop explosive “upwards” strength rather than rely on the elastic bounce-effect at the bottom of a squat.

Safety Bar Chaos Reverse Lunges: 6-8/leg x 3 sets

The reverse lunge places less stress on the knees since they cannot extend beyond the toes. With kettlebells attached to the bar (the “chaos” part), more of your stabilizers will be engaged throughout the movement.

Partner-assisted Dynamic Kettlebell Swings: 10-12 x 4 sets

A great exercise for hip motion and emphasizing the legs, you can also have a partner push the weight toward you in order to add some tension and also train those stabilizers. 

Litvinov Prowler Sprints: 20 yards x 6

This is a two-part exercise. You begin by holding onto a kettlebell and jumping five times. As soon as that’s done, go into 20-yard sled push as fast as you can. Not only will your legs be burning after this exercise, but it’ll also be a great way to condition your body. Watt rests 40 seconds in between sets which is the NFL play clock length, in order to copy the environment of a real NFL game. 

A 15-minute cool-down is part of all of his workouts. And remember—he does a workout twice a day, so double everything for a day. Happy training!

Fuelling JJ Watt

Just like there are two workout sessions in a day, there are also two of every meal. But that’s not necessarily a good thing at that point since it turns into a massive chore. There’s nothing specific about Watt’s diet, except that he (obviously) eats very clean. That means no junk food, white carbs, refined sugars, or hydrogenated oils. But it does contain things like:

  •         Oatmeal
  •         Eggs
  •         Fruit
  •         Peanut Butter
  •         Chicken Breast
  •         Vegetables
  •         Sweet Potatoes
  •         Lamb
  •         Steak
  •         Whole Wheat Pasta

He’s said in the past that whenever he’s not training, he’s eating. But not only does he eat, but he also drinks plenty of protein shakes throughout the day to keep him going. Want to take a guess on how many calories he eats daily?

It’s 9000 calories that it takes to keep him going through his rigorous training regimen. That two-of-every-meal plan is starting to make sense.

For a year, Watt tracked every calorie he consumed in order to get a better idea of how much he was eating, and how much his body needed. These days, he doesn’t really count calories but rather focuses on portion sizes. Furthermore, he weighs himself every day to make sure that he’s on track. 

But as with anyone, rest is just as important. When he was working through his injuries and had to stay out of the gym for two months due to doctors’ orders, he spent his time walking as much as he could and eating. What does that mean in the context of Watt?

He walked 12 miles every day, usually parking 6 miles out from restaurants, and then walking there and back. For anyone else, 12 miles a day would be pretty intense, but whether or not you’re Watt, it’s always important to rest up and not over-train.