The Training Secrets of the NFL's Oldest Linebacker

The Steelers' James Harrison works out way, way harder than you.

by Greg Presto
Dec 9 2016, 6:00pm

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

James Harrison is 38. He's older than every other player in the NFL except Tom Brady. But while Tom is terrific and everything, Harrison is an absolute beast in the weight room—as his half-million Instagram followers can attest.

In streams of short videos, the Steelers linebacker leg presses more than 1,000 pounds, bench presses with a wiggling "tsunami" bar that looks like it should tear his arms off, does pretty amazing impressions of bodybuilding legend Ronnie Coleman, and plays a variation of volleyball using a 16-pound medicine ball.

Unless you're also a freakish linebacker, you probably shouldn't try most of this stuff at home. But there is actually stuff regular people can use from his training regimen. We asked two awesome coaches—Alex Viada, a USA Triathlon coach and owner of the training facility Complete Human Performance in Durham, North Carolina, and Michelle Adams-Arent, a former pro bodybuilder and coach at Rutgers' Center for Health and Human Performance—to tell us what he's doing right that regular lifters can steal from the Steeler.

He Doesn't Obsess Over Big Numbers.
At first glance, it might look like Harrison is not just doing insane exercises, but throwing around enormous weight totals. He's not.

"I'm looking at one of these squats, and he's doing 315 on there," Viada says. And while 315 pounds may seem like a lot to you or me, it's not if you're an NFL linebacker. "You'll see some linebackers and linemen squatting 700 or 800 pounds. So this is well below what [Harrison] can do physically."

There's a lot to be learned from that: "You can get strong, fast, muscular, and everything else you're after by using moderate weight," Viada says.

Using lighter weights also means that for certain moves, the weight can be moved faster, which can help develop power, Adams-Arent says. Strength is how much weight you can lift; power measures how fast you can lift that weight. And while muscle mass can fall by as much as 1 percent per year as you age, many experts estimate that power falls at an exponential rate. And even if you don't need to blow through an offensive lineman to get to a tackle, you need power: When you slip on ice and need to recover quickly, your muscular power determines how fast you can do so.

"When you're training for power, you do end up using a lighter load, and you move very quickly," Adams-Arent says. The usual recommendation for power work is 30 percent of your one-rep max, the amount you could lift for one rep. To get that 30 percent weight, pick a weight you could lift at a normal pace for 20 or more repetitions. Then do a few sets of 3 to 5 reps, trying to move the weight forcefully while still controlling the movement.

He's Always in Control. 
By using moderate weights you can truly control, you can target the muscles you're actually after. That's why Viada likes Harrison's use of the barbell floor press and the incline barbell one-and-one-quarter bench press.

"Unlike the bench press, [with the floor press] you can't just heave the weight off your chest. You can't bounce it," he says. Returning the bar to your chest on the floor requires a slower, more deliberate effort, Viada says, which can result in cleaner movement. "One of the biggest reasons people have problems with the bench press is they bounce, tear up their shoulders, and cheat. The floor press takes all of that out of the equation."

The one-and-one-quarter bench press, where a full repetition is followed by a shorter quarter rep, is similar to a leg training method Adams-Arent used as a pro bodybuilder. The added partial rep increases the time your muscles are under tension, which can help with strength and size. And Viada likes the move because it forces the lifter to think: Remembering to do the full rep, then the partial, then full, puts more focus on the action, which should lead to more control. But as with the traditional bench, Adams-Arent warns: Don't bounce it, or you're sabotaging your results.

He Works in Single-Arm Movements. 
While even novice lifters practice one-sided lifts with their lower body—lunges, stepups, and other moves that load one leg at a time—upper body work tends to be done two-sided, Viada says.

"People always do dumbbell presses with the arms together. They do barbell bench," he says. But Harrison performs a lot of single-arm movements above the waist, which mimics how strength needs to be used on the football field—and in other, regular-people situations. "There's a lot of rotation, there's core stability, and he's leveraging one side of the body's strength while bracing with the other.

That's exactly what we do everywhere but in the weight room: We're shooting a basketball, throwing a ball," or performing other actions that require strength from one arm at a time, using the rest of the body to brace against.

Viada suggests stealing two such one-arm moves from Harrison: The single-arm incline dumbbell press with isometric hold at the top, where one weight stays elevated while the other gets pressed, and the kettlebell waiter press, where Harrison holds the bottom of the kettlebell and presses straight up.

With this move, "he's got to engage his obliques to keep himself upright and symmetrical. And he can't have one side take over more than the other. He's really got to focus on staying stable and making the movement as clean as possible," Viada says.

Adams-Arent provides one caveat for this move: "Doing that repetitively without the proper range of motion in the shoulder can lead to lower back issues," she says. A lack of shoulder mobility, which many desk-bound Americans suffer from, could cause you to hyperextend your lumbar spine as you press. If you try this move and feel any lower back impingement, stop.

He Adds Variety to His Core Training.
This video might leave you scratching your head: He doesn't look like he's doing anything! But
the band is tight, and he's got to use a key core function to keep his body straight: Anti-rotation.

"When people think about core and ab training, everything they do is dynamic—rotation, flexion [as with sit-ups], and everything else," Viada says. But the core also has to work in static functions—to bridge, which you practice when doing planks, but also by resisting rotation from external forces. "You think about someone that wants to do a Tough Mudder, and they're running and jumping all over the place, and they're falling and twisting. Having your core be able to resist external movement is so important for body control."

Try adding an anti-rotation movement like this band move to your core training routine. If you don't have a partner (or a band), the pallof press is an anti-rotation core move you can do solo with a cable stack.

He Has Fun.
"One thing I'll say, the guy likes to train, so that's fantastic," Michelle Adams-Arent says. It's corny to suggest taking the "work" out of "workout," but there's some scientific benefit to feeling that your exercise routine is fun: In a Cornell University study from 2014, adults who thought they'd taken an "exercise walk" snacked more after finishing than those who were sent on an identical "scenic walk." 

Even if you're not trying to lose weight, there's something to having fun when you're moving: When it comes to work, you can't wait to finish. When it comes to play, you don't usually want to stop. Check out Harrison's medicine ball volleyball game, "Danneyball." 

"It's just a bunch of different medicine ball tosses—overhead, rotational, whatever—done on a volleyball court, so it seems like something different," she says. Those are movements Harrison and his teammates are likely already training, but they've turned it into a game. "When you've got people who are training for years and years, doing the same thing over and over, it's hard to get them to give 100 percent." 

Making it fun can help bring that out for them—and you, too. As long as you're proficient in movements like this, Adams-Arent says, you could play a game like this with smaller, lighter balls on a tennis or volleyball court. If you're not, try to think of other ways to turn parts of your workout into a game—it might help you stick to your full program or get in the gym more often.

He Knows Why He Does It.
Maybe the best thing about Harrison's training, our experts say, is that the movements, weights, and pace all seem to be designed to help him be better at his job—running like a madman towards quarterbacks. Even his addition of resistance bands to squats, Viada says, helps makes sure he explodes all the way through the finish of a movement.

"I look at a lot of these athlete Instagrams and think they're a joke, because everything is trying to show off and say, 'look, I can do a horrible form squat with 800 pounds for partial reps,'" he says. With Harrison, "this isn't designed to look impressive. The stuff he's doing I enjoy because it shows an out-of-the box approach to strength training with the design of making him a better athlete."

That compelling "why" should guide your training, too, Adams-Arent says.

"The question you've got to ask yourself is why. What are my goals?" she says. As with any other athlete's Instagram or other workout, if you're planning to emulate some of these moves, "you shouldn't just do it to do it. You should always know why you're doing something."

Viada agrees: "If someone wants to do [this stuff], they should also learn why they're doing it. Try to realize the fundamental principles behind what he does, think about their own why, and then they can use a lot of this stuff themselves."

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