While the strategies involved in winning a football game are exceedingly complex, the goal is not: Get the football to a piece of land guarded by the other team. The offense tries to advance the ball, and the defense tries to stop it. Simple. To keep things even, each team can have 11 men on the field at any given time. This is not news.
But here’s what is. Historically, each of these 11 men has had a specific skill set: Running backs run, receivers receive, guards guard, tackles tackle and so on. This has always made training for each position a fairly simple exercise — running backs worked on agility and building leg strength, receivers worked on speed and route running, linemen built massive legs and arms. Recently, however, things have started to evolve.
Set offensive and defensive formations have given way to hybrids, in which running backs line up as receivers, receivers line up as running backs and quarterbacks occasionally line up as both. The same has happened on defense, and as the positions have evolved, so has the training. Players in the NFL are now expected to be able to contribute to game play in a number of ways. This has caused a fairly large shift in the strategies employed in weight rooms and training facilities over the past 10 years, with players lifting and performing workouts that used to be designed for other positions. Case in point: Carolina Panthers stars Jon Beason and Jonathan Stewart.
Beason is a three-time NFL Pro Bowler who last year became the highest paid inside linebacker in NFL history. This accomplishment is all the more impressive considering he earned one of those Pro Bowl nods as an outside linebacker after volunteering to switch positions when his team lost a starter to injury.
Stewart was a standout running back at the University of Oregon and was drafted by the Panthers in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in just his second season, making him one of the top young running backs in the league. As the Panthers offense has changed with the addition of star quarterback Cam Newton, Stewart has watched his role with the team change. While his rushing stats have dropped slightly, his receptions have soared, going from just eight in the 2010 season to 47 in 2011. This new involvement in the passing game is reflected in the way that Stewart trains. “I’ve evolved over time,” Stewart says. “And so have my workouts.”
On the following pages, we’ll get into exactly what that evolution means for both men, but it involves training so hard that Stewart says, “The warm-ups felt like my old actual workouts.”
Photo by Kent Smith
Jon Beason: The Man They Call “Big Beast”
TEAM: Carolina Panthers
BIRTHDATE: January 14, 1985
Jon Beason is a workout savant. When talking to him about exercise and training, it’s impossible not to be in awe of the sheer volume of knowledge he has on the topic. But on the particular evening that M&P sat down to interview Beason, he was the one in awe, having spent the day visiting U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. “To see the overall preparation and discipline and how no small detail was left unturned was amazing,” he says. “When we make a mistake on the field, we might just lose a game, but when they make a mistake, it’s life or death. Watching how they trained and how they pushed themselves to the limit was so impressive. Their mentality is that you can do anything if your body says ‘go.’”
While Beason makes his living on the football field rather than the battlefield, he is familiar with the concept of pushing his body and poring over every detail. For starters, he follows a complex diet introduced to him by natural bodybuilding champion Michael Ferencsik that has him eating nine meals a day in order to ingest 345 grams of protein every 24 hours. The diet is based on a calculation involving Beason’s lean muscle mass, his bodyweight and his body-fat percentage. In order to consume the proper amount of protein, Beason’s diet in a given day consists of “six real meals, each with 6 ounces of either fish, chicken, turkey or pork, and also two shakes and a snack throughout the day. I also take Fast Fuel from RSP Nutrition before every workout and every game. It’s worked great for me.”
In order to achieve the proper protein consumption, Beason schedules an early wake-up call. “I wake up at 5 to eat my first meal,” he explains. “Then I’m on the field by 6 in the morning to work out. I’ll do field work for the first part of my training and then head inside for core work and weightlifting, which lasts until about 9:30 a.m.”
For those keeping track, by 9 a.m., Beason has already been up for four hours, worked out for three-and-a-half hours and had a meal. “I do it because my competition is probably not doing it, and I can stay ahead of them,” Beason says.
Another way he stays ahead is through his brutal training regimen. Occasionally, a leg workout will be so intense he’ll tweet a “#HeavySquats” to his Twitter followers when he’s done. “I sent that out the other day because we completed a 5-by-5 set of squats at 80 percent max weight with chains on,” he says. “We try to keep our legs as fresh as we can, and we hadn’t squatted like that in a while, but we use lots of chains and bands to keep from loading so much weight on our joints.”
A typical leg day for Beason includes lots of single-leg movements and some kettlebell work. He says that any given workout can contain Bulgarian squats, transverse lunges, reverse hyperextensions (monkey squats), single-leg raises, clean and jerks, and power cleans. This type of training improves explosiveness, which, for a linebacker like Beason, is essential. With the new generation of athletes he’s trying to stop on offense, he never knows whether he’s going to be covering a running back with incredible speed like the Saints’ Darren Sproles, a supremely athletic tight end like the Saints’ Jimmy Graham or even a running back lined up at receiver like the Dolphins’ Reggie Bush. Because facing each of those guys is a possibility on every play, he has to train to stop them all. Once again, versatility is key. “In my situation, I went from being a safety, to being a fullback, to eventually becoming a linebacker,” he says. “I have always just done what the team needed. Inside linebackers aren’t typically expected to be as versatile as outside linebackers, but I have the ability to do lots of things well.”
To capitalize on this ability, Beason trains with the linebackers and also with running backs, wide receivers and even defensive backs, who are typically the fastest guys on an NFL team. “I like to train with guys like Wes Welker and Jonathan Stewart, guys who are extremely explosive,” he says. “I try to keep up with them as much as I can. During practice, I’ll go over and perform drills with the defensive backs. Whether we’re doing sets of 40-yard dashes or 100-yard dashes, I’ll run my workout on their times to train with them. I have to be prepared. This is a league where matchups are everything.”
And that’s why having a star like Beason on the team is so important to the Carolina Panthers. In a league of hybrid offensive players, he can match up with all of them.
Jon Beason’s Weekly Breakdown
Morning: fieldwork and footwork
Evening: light run
Morning: linear speed day with a track workout and core training
lower-body lifting, including squats, single-leg squats, box jumps
Evening: beach run
Jon Beason’s Tips for Squatting With Chains and Bands
1. Beginners are often less stable when they start squatting, so make sure you can maintain proper stability and have perfect form with a regular squat before you start using chains or bands.
2. If you’re going to use bands, use them properly and work on accelerating up or down in controlled movements.
3. Don’t bounce in any part of the movement. Pause while in complete control at the top and bottom of each squat.
Photo by Kent Smith
Jonathan Stewart: Speed Meets Power
TEAM: Carolina Panthers
POSITION: Running Back
BIRTHDATE: March 21, 1987
Topping 100 yards in a single football game is considered an outstanding achievement. Likewise, scoring more than one touchdown is highly celebrated. Jonathan Stewart once rushed for 422 yards and nine touchdowns in a high school game. Yes, just one game. He then went on to lead the NCAA in rushing yards with 1,772 in his junior year at Oregon in 2007. To say he entered the NFL as a born runner would be an understatement. Stewart can flat-out burn, but he isn’t the type to rest on his natural ability. “I modeled my running style after Walter Payton and Barry Sanders,” he says. “I read about them, and I read Payton’s biography. I learned about the dedication to working out that you need to be great. I also used to go on the Internet to find workouts that other running backs did. Training is the key to success.” In particular, he studied the leg routines of the greats. “Barry Sanders had freaky squat numbers and had such powerful legs,” he says. “I knew he got that from time in the gym. That’s why I’m putting in my time.”
For the last two offseasons, Stewart has trained with Pete Bommarito (bommaritoperformance.com) in Miami. “Each offseason, you look at what you can improve on, and you go from there,” Stewart says. “I have added catching balls out of the backfield to my repertoire, so now I train to improve in that area.” This includes working on running routes, hand position, cutting on a dime, getting his feet under his body and learning to stabilize his body to make a catch. These skills require a strong core to work off of. “We do so much more core work than in the past to improve my versatility,” he says. “We do planks, weighted planks, dumbbells and even Pilates. I laughed at Pilates because you’re stronger in so many ways than the person instructing you, but they have such a strong core; they can do all these positions I can’t do.”
At Oregon, under strength coach Jim Radcliffe, Stewart says he was used to doing lots of plyometrics, lots of Olympic lifts and lots of repetitions. He says his current Panthers strength coach, Joe Kenn, has a similar philosophy, but he focuses on explosive workouts. He wants his players to train for the powerful bursts that will be required of them on game day. “Joe works with us on being explosive and having stability at the same time,” he says. “We do a lot of slow negatives followed by an explosive burst. With bench presses, we’ll count to three as we slowly lower the weight and then explode back up.” In addition to the explosive training, Stewart does a solid mix of compound movements and muscle-specific movements. “We’ll do triceps exercises to failure, lots of shrugs, lots of back exercises,” he says. “It’s good to do that stuff so your body gets used to being strong in a lot of different ways.”
For Stewart, in particular, that means maintaining the strength he needs to be a formidable running back while also improving his breakaway speed and precision running to catch balls out of the backfield. His workout incorporates some high-level sprint intervals to help achieve that goal, but all the conditioning is preceded with active warm-ups. He does sets of light running, stretching and hip rotations to prepare for the main set, which could be a killer. “We’re usually a little tired just from warming up,” Stewart says, jokingly. “But then the real workout starts. We’ll do 10 200-yard sprints, going one way down the football field and back under 30 seconds on one-minute rest. Our focus will be on holding perfect running form no matter how tired we are.”
As for lifting with legs, the weight training is a little less intense because Stewart doesn’t want to break his legs down too much as he prepares for a season. “We train very strategically with legs,” he explains. “The idea is to get stronger without risking any injuries. You can get a more taxing workout with your legs than with your upper body, which is good. It teaches me to be able to run with fatigue, which is what happens at the end of games.”
After a career high in receptions in the 2011 season, Stewart is likely to be called on to line up as a receiver even more frequently this coming year. “I’ve evolved over the course of time,” he says. “This year, I’m trying to get comfortable with different sets and formations in the backfield so that our offensive coordinator can get me the ball. I’m working on maintaining speed and control out of those sets.”
One drill that Stewart mentions to help him keep his balance while improvising at full speed involves, of all things, a Hula-Hoop. “This drill is tough,” he says. “We run routes at top speed as Hula-Hoops are thrown from the ground, and we have to run figure eights around them while keeping our control. It teaches us to be able to bend our bodies and work our arms while tracing a tight edge for a receiver pattern. It’s all part of the evolution.”
If the training evolution pays off, he’ll not only be running figure eights around Hula-Hoops, but he’ll also be running them around opposing defenses.
Jonathan Stewart’s Weekly Offseason Breakdown
Stewart lifts every day. He runs in the morning and lifts weights in the afternoon, alternating upper-body workout days with lower-body workout days.
speed day with resistance bands
full-speed running with route work
recover with a pool workout
position-specific agility drills
heavy conditioning day