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The 7 Principles of NFL Athleticism

by Ryan Burgess
Baseball may still be America’s pastime, but professional football is America’s passion.

Every Sunday the attention of an entire nation is locked on the NFL and the jaw-dropping athleticism of its players.  Sunday can be an excuse for people to sit around eating like pigs and drinking like fish.  While those around you slowly shift back towards mediocrity over the next few months, take the tips and advice on these pages to heart, and the guys hoisting the Lombardi trophy won’t be the only champions come this winter.

Winning Principles

Having spent the early stages of my training career working primarily with football players, I’ve gained valuable insight into what makes these athletes tick and how they’re able to accomplish what we see every Sunday. From perennial Pro-Bowlers and MVP’s to practice squad players and journeymen, I’ve had the opportunity to train professional football players from across the spectrum.

Whether you’re competing in another sport or just trying to challenge for alpha-male status at the local watering hole, adhering to the following principles will without a doubt give you a leg up on the competition.

Principle I: ACTION

I put this first because it’s that important. Forget sports for just a second; successful people get where they do because they ACT.

Grinders win, period. I don’t care how perfect your program is, how ambitious your goals are, who your parents are, where you grew up, or any other reason why you feel you “deserve” to be successful — if you don’t take action, you will not have the type of success you hope for.

Whether your goals are physique related or strength related, you have to take consistent, daily action.  Action is what that will bring you closer to your goal, even if it’s just one inch at a time.

How many people do you hear say that starting January 1st, they’re going to finally watch their diet, hit the gym, and drop 20 pounds of fat? And how many of them are actually successful? They procrastinate for weeks, even months before starting something that would improve the quality of their life immeasurably, and when the time finally comes they don’t succeed anyway.

Make the decision to take action right now. Not later today, not tomorrow, not January 1st, 2011- NOW!

Principle II: PLAN

Abiding by Principle I isn’t the green light to run around with reckless abandon. Vision without action is a daydream, but action without vision is a nightmare.

Successful high level athletes live by a plan, and this extends far beyond what’s put in place by their team. They create their goals, both short term and long term, and then plan out how they’re going to get there in finite detail.

The first step we take in preparing the off-season training for our athletes is discussing their big goals related to the upcoming season. Once they’ve been established, we then break everything down into monthly, weekly, and daily markers so we can continually monitor progress.

Put the same thought behind your own training. Many guys are great with keeping a training log, but all they end up doing is writing down what they’ve done after the fact.

Try doing what the pros do in your own training:

• Create a three, six, or even a twelve month training calendar, write down all training-relevant dates over that span, and build your program out from there.

• Continue to keep your training log, but set it up like a road map, and then take notes on how things are progressing.

• Create progress markers: bodyweight, body fat percentage, or goal weight on a certain lift so you know you’re on track.

Yes, it takes time and effort, but greatness always does.

How many guys do you see at the gym who look exactly the same, month after month, year after year? And if you were to ask each one of them to show you their training logs, complete with short and long-term goals and progress markers, how many do you think could reach into their bags and produce one?


When you break down the game of football, athletes at different positions are basically playing entirely different sports.

The demands placed on offensive and defensive linemen over the course of a game and season differ greatly from those playing at the skill positions. It’s imperative in their quest for success that we address these specific demands in training. This does NOT mean that we’re trying to recreate “football movements” with everything we do in the gym; what it does mean, though, is that everything we do in training has its purpose.

The training program never rises above the goal. As much as we focus on strength, speed, and power during various times of the year, everything has to translate to improving their performance as a football player.

I feel like this is an area where the average trainee typically slips up because it’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff. Too many times I see guys following a program inconsistent with their goals and they get frustrated when they fall short of reaching it.

If you want to get faster, lift and sprint. If you want to get stronger, then start moving some serious weight. If you want to improve your pickup basketball game, then work on improving your athleticism and your hoop skills.

Always make sure that whatever you’re doing in terms of training is congruent and specific to your goals. Approach it any other way and you’ll get frustrated with your lack of progress and burnout.

Just because the latest research said you should be doing this or that doesn’t mean you have to be doing this or that. Know your body and know your goals, and then seek out the assistance of your training partners or coaches to help you stay on track.

Principle IV: MAX EFFORT

No matter what you’re training for, it’s imperative you incorporate some sort of maximum effort work into your weekly protocol.

Just as a rising tide will lift all boats, making gains in your maximal strength will help other areas of your game and training improve. With our athletes, this typically means we’ll incorporate a maximum-effort upper body lift and a maximum-effort lower body lift in the weekly plan, with everything circling back to the individual nature of the athlete.

We’ll rotate lifts frequently (board presses, floor presses, Swiss bar presses, single arm presses for upper body; conventional deads, trap-bar deads, rack pulls, squat, and lunge variations for lower body), but again, the selected lift and the rep range depend largely on the athlete’s position, current physical status, training goals, and a host of other factors.

This one is a no-brainer for strength athletes, but physique conscious individuals take note. Some of the most successful bodybuilders of all time would constantly push the envelope when it came to moving weight in the gym.

Max effort is also your mindset. Although it’s a somewhat tired cliché, effort truly is the trump card. There’s a reason why you see guys who were “all-everything” in college wash out and guys who went to a college you never heard of emerge as superstars.

While the average person gets to see the glitz and glamour, there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes for every victory. We’ve been blessed with having numerous Pro Bowlers, MVP’s, and Super Bowl champions train at our facility, and more often than not they’re back here less than 2 weeks after hoisting the hardware, preparing for the next season.

Many people get bogged down by the X’s and O’s of training that they forget the most important thing: A program is only as good as the effort you put into it. Commit to the grind. Willingly understand that to achieve something you’ve never had, you must work harder, longer, and smarter than ever before.


Although Albert Haynesworth may disagree with me, conditioning is crucial. When I say conditioning, I’m not talking about marathon cardio sessions or long-slow-anything — I’m talking about your capacity to do work. I don’t care how strong, fast, or powerful you are, if you aren’t in condition to display your skills, what good are you?

When it comes to training for sports, you don’t want to be “all show and no go.” Sled work, prowler challenges, metabolic circuits, movement training, tempo runs, and keeping your training sessions at an upbeat pace are all challenging yet mentally engaging ways to improve your work capacity.

Integrating conditioning work into your program not only helps prepare you for the demands of your sport: it’s one of the key components in achieving the chiseled physique that many athletes possess. Change it up frequently, make it competitive, keep it in line with your goals, have fun, and you’ll be shocked at how much positive carry-over it has to both your physical fitness and overall health.

This doesn’t have to be a drain on your time either. Tack it on to the back end of your lower-intensity lifting sessions, and then add in one to two more stand alone conditioning sessions per week and you’ll be set.

For the average lifter, a sprint here, a metabolic circuit after lifting there, and one or two dates with the prowler per week is all you need to kick all show and no go syndrome.

Principle VI: BALANCE

I don’t mean balance in the “let’s do some back flips on a wobble board” sense. I’m talking about work/rest/life balance.

Let’s get one thing straight though: balance is not the absence of stress. It’s the ability to handle the demands of your life and schedule in a professional manner while constantly moving towards your goals.

Despite what you read in the blogosphere, the majority of successful NFL athletes aren’t going to be in the club at 4 in the morning every weekend. They train brutally hard, put an equal amount of time and energy into recovery, and then know how to unwind occasionally. This kind of balance comes down to one word: focus.

How many times does something going on in your life pop into your head and interfere with a training session? How many times do you find yourself tuning out at home, distracted by something from work or training? Ideal balance comes from being able to focus on the task at hand while keeping the long-term goal in mind.

When you’re training, TRAIN! When you’re resting, REST! When you’re working, WORK! And then when it’s time to give yourself a break, do so without compromising all the other effort you have put forth.

For example, if you’re in school or have a demanding work schedule you may like to go out on the weekend and have a few pops, but if training is important to you, you probably realize that getting smashed is not taking you closer to your goals. In the interest of balance (and achieving what you really want), you need to find a way to blow off some steam without sabotaging yourself.

I know this is often a tough one for the average guy, because on top of training you have work or school demands that can easily interfere. You just have to prioritize. Evaluate what is most important to you and cut away the distractions so you can devote your energy to where it’s most needed.


If you don’t have your mind right, you’re not going to reach your potential. Sure, you may have a victory here or there, but as far as transcendent success? Not going to happen.

As Henry Ford said, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Whether your goal is hitting a milestone in the gym, reaching a new level of leanness, or dominating in your next competition, your attitude is going to be the deciding factor.

You need to make the decision that failure is not an option and then fully commit to a course of action that will take you in the direction of your goal. Unwavering commitment is the only way you’re going to get there. Life is inevitably going to interfere, yet even if it’s for a fraction of a second, you have the choice on how to react to what gets thrown your way.

An upbringing in war-torn Liberia didn’t stop San Francisco 49ers running back Jehuu Caulcrick from pursuing his dream to perform on the world’s biggest gridiron. Maybe there’s a lesson in there for you when your boss asks you to work late and you’re considering skipping tomorrow’s 6 AM leg workout.

Always remember that what happens to you doesn’t mean anything, but how you respond to it means everything.

Wrapping Up

Whether you consider yourself a competitive athlete or not doesn’t matter. Everyone who steps foot in a gym can benefit from applying these principles to their training. When you embark on any physical quest, it’s going to take more than just having the right program or the right attitude to see it through.

It’s the combination of the nuts and bolts of training as well as the “And Then Some” mindset that help many of the NFL’s elite emerge victorious, week in and week out. No matter your background, training goals, or profession, if you adhere to these 7 Principles, success isn’t a possibility: it’s a certainty, with the only variable being time.

Ryan Burgess, CSCS, is the Director of Football Development at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, California, where he oversees a team of 4 strength coaches that annually train hundreds of youth, high school, collegiate, and dozens of NFL football players as they prepare for their upcoming seasons.  In 2010 alone, FQ10 athletes are represented on over 20 college rosters and more than 10 teams in the NFL.  In addition to having a passion for strength and conditioning, Coach Burgess was a walk-on offensive lineman at Colorado State University while earning his degree in Health & Exercise Science. For more on Coach Burgess visit

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