Bearing Down

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You’re 6 feet 5 inches tall, 255 pounds, and you run a 4.5 40-yard dash. You lay out 300-pound linemen and flatten free safeties for a living. You were even a star basketball player in high school. But when it comes to throwing a baseball 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate in front of 40,000 screaming fans at Wrigley Field, all that athleticism goes out the window — if you’re Greg Olsen, the Chicago Bears tight end, you’re only thinking about one thing: Don’t bounce it.

“When I threw out the first pitch this summer, it was my second time doing it,” Olsen says. “Baseball isn’t really my element, so each time I made sure I aimed high and threw it hard.” Two first pitches at Wrigley. No bounces. Thus begins the career of a future Chicago sports legend. For Olsen, the second time around was just as cool as the first. “It’s such a great day,” he says. “They bring you on the field for batting practice before the game, and they give you a box, so you can bring lots of family. Then in the seventh inning, you do all the interviews and get on the radio. The Chicago fans are great.”

For someone who grew up in northern New Jersey, where the closest of families and tightest of friends can be bitterly divided by separate sports allegiances between the Mets and the Yankees or the Giants and the Jets, Olsen is familiar with the concept of crosstown rivalries. But what he’s found in Chicago is a different animal all together.

“During baseball season, people here are either Cubs fans or White Sox fans,” he says. “That’s just how this city is. In the fall, though, everything changes. When the baseball season ends, the rivalry is over, and whether you’re a Cubs or Sox fan, everyone becomes a Bears fan. That’s why all our games are sold out. People care a lot about whether we win or lose.”

Olsen’s road to the Wrigley rubber started at Wayne Hills High School, where he played football for his father, head coach Chris Olsen. During his senior year, USA Today named him a first-team All-American, which prompted nearly every top football program in the country to recruit him. After initial interest in Notre Dame, he chose the University of Miami and became a starter in his sophomore season.

“After my second year in college, I did pretty well, and I got some feedback from coaches and scouts that I had a good shot of making it to the pros,” Olsen says, recalling when he first thought he could achieve his dream of playing in the NFL. “Still, the whole process is tough.”

Part of that process involves training for months on end so that you can put up impressive numbers in the strength-and-conditioning drills at the NFL Scouting Combine. “My training for the combine in 2007 was very drill heavy,” he says. “We worked out specifically to improve in the events we’d be measured in.”

Those events include a 225-pound bench press for max reps, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle run and the 40-yard dash. NFL teams evaluate each athlete’s results in an attempt to measure their overall athletic ability against similar players at their position.

While Olsen put up strong numbers throughout the combine, the event that got him noticed was the 40-yard dash, in which he scorched the track with a jaw-dropping time of 4.51 seconds. The second-best time run by a tight end at the combine was 4.71, making Olsen the fastest tight end available in the NFL Draft by far. Olsen’s size, speed and strength impressed the Chicago Bears so much that they selected him several months later as their first-round pick, which was the 31st pick overall.

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“[Up to that point], my training was geared toward the combine,” he says. “But after that, all my workout routines have been geared toward getting better on Sundays. In Chicago, we focus heavily on explosive training. We do lots of plyometrics, and we work on developing our fast-twitch muscle fibers so we can explode off the line. The idea sometimes isn’t to put up really heavy weight but to put the weight up faster.”

Olsen’s strength and resistance training includes using chains and bands with squats, bench presses and other full-body movements to increase explosiveness. However, he admits that squats just aren’t his thing.

“The days of me putting tons of weight on my back and lifting it slowly are over,” he says. “I’m a tall, lean guy, so squats just aren’t my cup of tea. But I like the dynamic training. Plyometric jumps and single-leg stuff, like single- leg lunges, I can handle.”

He also incorporates a weighted vest into his training to help him work on his “pop” off the line. “We do lots of weighted vest jumps to help us generate that power off the ground,” he says. “I don’t worry so much about how heavy the vest is. I focus more on generating power from the top of my body to the bottom. When you train with a vest and then take it off, you can really feel the difference in your explosion.”

Explosiveness is so important because over the years, the tight-end position has evolved. What used to be a position for linemen with a little speed is now a place for receivers with a little size. Nearly every NFL team covets a tight end of Olsen’s caliber, but he’s quick to give credit where it’s due.

“Growing up, tight end wasn’t really on my mind at all,” he says. “I didn’t even start playing the position until high school. Guys like Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez changed the position before me.”

And then there are the guys on the other side of the ball, the ones he has to face during the season. “My first year, I remember lining up against Michael Strahan and legends like that and I’m thinking, I’m just a rookie going against grown men that have been playing this game for a long time,” Olsen says. “I knew I had to put in the work to compete consistently week in and week out.”

Fair enough. But with his grueling weight routine and a rigorous work ethic to match it, some day a rookie defensive lineman is going to line up opposite Olsen and think, I’m just a rookie going against a legend like Greg Olsen. Those fans at Wrigley and at Soldier Field can’t wait.

Gridiron Gains

This is a sample training week from Greg Olsen's offseason program, as designed by Pete Bommarito, MS, CSCS, of Bommarito Performance Systems.

Notes:

1 The JM press is a hybrid of a close-grip bench and triceps extension. Lying on a flat bench, Olsen holds a barbell over his upper pecs, arms straight. From there, he bends his elbows to about 90 degrees to lower the bar toward his head, then shifts his elbows down a few inches (toward his lower body) and presses the bar back up to the start position.
2 This exercise is similar to a traditional back extension, except instead of Olsen's lower body being fixed and upper body moving, his upper body is fixed as he lifts his legs up and out behind him to a point at which his body is straight from head to toe.
3 For this, Olsen uses a plastic platform with cloth sleeves over his shoes. He slides from one side of the platform to the other, almost like he's in-line skating.
4 This is a rotational power exercise at shoulder level; it has similarities to a military press but involves throwing a medicine ball.
5 Olsen pulls a power sled 20 yards toward himself using a rope. 6 Olsen drags a power sled by holding a rope attached to it overhead, pulling the rope by extending his arms, which works the triceps.