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TEMPE, Ariz. – Brad Arnett was sitting outside the football fields at Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wisconsin, last fall, waiting for school to finish and rehearsing to start when a text message appeared.
It was JJ Watt.
That in itself was not a surprise. Arnett, a defensive line coach at Arrowhead, began coaching Watt as a 15-year-old, and even though the two had stopped working together in a full offseason, they still talked a lot, usually over text.
However, this text was different. It was long; Arnett joked that it was 16 pages long. In it, Watt said he pressured the Houston Texans’ training staff to let him get back to some of the exercises he preferred – the ones that made Watt feel like himself. It wasn’t a broadcast of complaints, Arnett recalled, just as much as it was a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year who wanted to revive what he once had. Watt needed Willing to help him do that.
Before they started training together this offseason, Arnett was blunt with the 32-year-old Watt: There are things in the weight room that Watt can no longer do. The risk was too great for the reward, especially after going through rehab for a back injury, a broken leg and a torn pectoral muscle for the past five years. But there were things they could change.
And Arnett assured Watt that they could get back to doing something they used to do – the kind of training and exercises that make Watt feel normal that make him tick, including elevators in the Olympics. style and back height.
“That’s the kind of thing we spent the entire offseason doing,” Arnett said, “was getting him back to many of the things we did when he won this year’s Defensive Player Awards.”
Watt walked into Arnett’s fitness center, NX Level Sports Performance, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Watt’s hometown, in early February to get to work.
“I did everything exactly the way the doctors want you to do because I obviously had the injuries,” Watt told ESPN in early September. “Everyone is super-conservative, so you have to protect this, you have to protect it, you can not do this, you can not lift it, you can not run too hard, you can not run not enough.
“Listen, I do not want to go in [this] season just on my toes, try not to get hurt, because even if I do not get hurt, I will not be the player I want to be. SW, [we decided] we’re going to train this offseason like we used to, we’re going to train like in the old days, and we’re going to train our ass – and I’m going to go in gangbusters that season. “
On Sunday, in his first game with his new team – the Arizona Cardinals – Watt played 46 defensive snaps and one offensive snap as a fullback on a Kyler Murray touchdown run. Watt had two tackles, one for a loss and a quarterback hit. What did not show up in the statistics was Watt’s ability to often get into the backfield against the Tennessee Titans. He was a constant presence against running back Derrick Henry, who finished with 58 yards on 17 carries. Watt also contributed to Chandler Jones’ career-high five sacks, some of which were undoubtedly caused by being the singles team, while Watt drew attention to the other side of the line.
The education seems to have paid off.
“You have to have someone in your corner to also push you when you yourself are a little scared,” Watt said. “… That’s why I trust Brad so much.”
Arnett, who was once a strength and fitness coach at the University of Minnesota and the University of Arizona, coached Watt when he earned two college scholarships to Central Michigan and Wisconsin. Arnett helped Watt become an American in 2010 and a draft first round in 2011 and to win three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. Watt was also a five-time first-team All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler in those years. He was looking for the same training that got him to the tops.
When Watt returned to Arnett’s gym, their first hug was a little awkward.
It was like the scene from the movie “Step Brothers,” Arnett said. They were still getting used to each other after a few years apart.
However, the hesitation did not last long. Watt and Arnett were quickly back in their routine. They began working five days a week with the Watts brothers, TJ and Derek, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who trained with him. The trio pushed each other daily, and JJ Watt and Arnett said they quarreled as brothers do, especially after rounds of golf. It was as if nothing had changed.
Arnett began converting Watt to some of the work they used to do together, such as muscle activation, which Watt had not done for a while. Watt’s training was shortened as Arnett began to focus on specific muscles or areas. Eventually, they went down to four days a week and trained between one hour and 45 minutes to 2½ hours, most of which were warm-up activation and cooling. Arnett estimated that Watt lifted for about an hour and 15 minutes a day.
They went from early February to Friday before training camp. Arnett structured Watt’s training differently than in previous years because this was the longest he had with Watt consistently in an offseason.
Arnett’s goal for Watt this offseason was centered on taking on more weight. Watt reported to the training camp last year at about 280 pounds with less than 10% body fat, Arnett said. That, he added, was too low.
“Dude, you’re not going to a photoshoot here,” Arnett remembered telling Watt. “You have to play a physical game here.”
Arnett wanted Watt to understand that he could feel just as good and move as well as he did in 2020 with more emphasis on him. Arnett also wanted to re-establish some of Watt’s strength “in the right ways”.
All of this, Arnett thought, would help lead to more mental confidence for Watt, who reported to the Cardinals’ training camp at around £ 296.
The six months Watt spent with Arnett was about more than just preparing his body. It helped get his mind right.
They went through the mental roadblock Watt had in terms of squatting. He hurt his back in 2016 on a Keizer air compression squat machine, so of course there was an internal resistance to squatting. At some point out of season, Watt used the machine with tape, but Arnett could see by Watt’s face that something was not right. They talked through it and replaced the band with chains. Different application. Same concept. Same result. Watt drives through squats.
“Every time you overcome a fear, you get stronger because of it,” Watt said. “I think that’s what it did for me, I’ve gotten stronger and I taught myself, ‘OK, you’re OK in that position, so now you can build on what you can keep going. to grow.’ And then after a while, it’s not in your head at all. “
Between his back injury, broken legs and torn pec over the last handful of years, Watt knew he had to work his way back.
“You need to be wiser on how to build on that,” he said. “And I think the only thing I did this year was that I was a little past all that, so I’ve been able to lift a lot heavier than I’ve done in the last couple of years, and I have been able to run harder and do some of the things.
“So it’s been very good and I’m feeling very good.”
Arnett described Watt in Libra in four words: “The guy is a freak.”
Although a large part of Watt’s gift is his genetics, Arnett pointed out, Watt also approaches his training unlike most.
“He understands the things that most people consider mundane, he does the constant, and it has served him extremely well,” Arnett said. “And he’s consistent, so he’s like ‘Rain Man.’ “
Arnett got Watt back to clean and snap, back on squats and variations of single-legged work. The result? Watt put numbers up in the vertical jump, wide jump, sprint work and some promises similar to what he made when he won Defender of the Year in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
Watt was usually within about 40 pounds of the weight he put on this year’s player of the year, Arnett said, all at the age of 32.
Getting older has given Watt not just more experience, but an important perspective on how to approach his training. Reaching the numbers from earlier in his career was not important this offseason. I have lifted myself wiser.
“The marginal gains you get are not worth the risks you take to get those gains,” Watt said. “So I’m fine with where we are.”
Arnett sent Watt comparisons to numbers he has tracked over the years or videos from years ago. It was not to compare and contrast how Watt felt after injuries and time took a toll on his body. It was to show him, “Dude, you’re there.”
“He’s 100 percent on where he needs to be,” Arnett said.
“You’re going to see him do things on the pitch from a reactionary point of view, move people, pursue angles, just things that he was always known for. I think you’ll see him do the things again that you have not seen him in three or four years. “