Jan 29, 2015
Old Cat, New Tricks

To prepare for his 21st NFL season, Carolina Panthers quarterback Vinny Testaverde added speed and agility training to his workout regimen. Here, his personal trainer explains both how and why.

By Kory Angelin

Kory Angelin, ATC, CPT, is the President of Fast-Edge Sports Performance, a personal training company based in Hauppauge, N.Y., whose clients include high school, college, and professional athletes. He is the author of Inspiration*Perspiration*Motivation, and the primary strength consultant for MyTeamZone.com, a soon-to-be-launched Web site for competitive athletes at all levels. He can be reached at: [email protected]

In October, when the Carolina Panthers needed a quarterback who could join the team in the middle of the season and contribute immediately, many people were surprised that they signed 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde. But having spent this past summer as Vinny’s personal trainer, I wasn’t surprised at all. I knew he was in incredible shape and physically prepared for another season in the NFL.

“He’s a guy who takes extremely good care of himself,” Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney told the Associated Press after the signing. “He played in two preseason games [for the New England Patriots] and still showed the ability to compete in this league.”

Certainly, Vinny today is not the same player who won the Heisman Trophy and was selected first in the 1987 NFL Draft. But the older, wiser Vinny has kept himself on the pro football radar screen by adapting his training to incorporate new trends that optimize his physical skills.

EXPLOSIVE SPEED

From the very start of our work together, Vinny was most interested in speed and agility development. I train teams at several Long Island high schools, including one near where he lives, and he was in the gym one day while I led a speed and agility workout for the school’s basketball team. The players were running with harnesses, using ankle bands, and performing core stability work, and Vinny asked me afterward about what he’d seen. He said he was intrigued and thought he could really benefit from this type of work–particularly at this stage of his career.

Training for functional speed in football is a lot different from training a sprinter, for whom straight-ahead speed is the top priority. To help Vinny develop the type of speed needed to play quarterback–particularly first-step quickness and agility–I decided to focus first on building explosiveness.

To do this, we relied heavily on resistance training. I think one of the most important recent trends in strength training is a new awareness that advanced resistance work can produce dramatic gains in speed, power, agility, and endurance. In the old days, athletes would pump iron and then run “suicides” after practice in the hope of getting faster. We now know that resistance training is a far more effective and efficient path to real explosiveness and speed gains, and strength coaches are learning that some of the most meaningful speed development happens outside the weightroom.

I’ve used parachutes, vertical jumpers, and other resistance devices, but one of my favorite resistance methods is running with a breakaway harness. Harness exercises provide two crucial benefits: First, the athlete must overcome resistance while running, which helps recruit the key muscle groups for speed development. Second, when the resistance is suddenly removed, the athlete has to adapt their stride and proceed into an all-out, unencumbered sprint.

With Vinny, I would stay behind him and provide resistance by pulling on the harness. I never signaled before letting the harness break, so the instant loss of resistance provided a “shock” to his body that he had to adapt to–which helped him develop reactive quickness and agility as he transitioned into a sprint. After a few repetitions, he definitely felt a difference in the way his muscles were forced to work in response to the resistance stimulus.

We also focused on single-leg training as part of the explosive speed building regimen. I’m a big believer in the benefits of single-leg work, because it makes individual muscles work harder and doesn’t allow one side to compensate for weakness in the other. This is especially important for athletes like Vinny who have previously suffered a serious injury to one leg–he tore his left Achilles tendon while playing for the Jets in 1999, and told me he’s felt some instability and lack of explosiveness on that side ever since.

In a traditional squat, each leg bears 50 percent of the load. Instead, I had Vinny perform single-leg squats, and eventually jump squats, so each leg could develop power on its own. I also isolated one side at a time when having him perform jumping exercises using an agility ladder, stability exercises with a balance disk or BOSU ball, and front and lateral jumps over agility hurdles.

RUNNING RIGHT

In addition to explosiveness, running technique is another essential ingredient of speed and quickness. Quarterbacks, even those in their 40s, must be prepared to escape a collapsing pocket or take off downfield to pick up valuable yards.

Teaching football players form running is nothing new. But what drives me crazy is how often players seem to just go through the motions when performing running form exercises–they get the heart rate up, but they don’t train the fast-twitch muscle fibers that are essential for good running technique. With Vinny, I made form running more effective by focusing on doing a maximum number of reps over a fixed distance, using exercises such as power skips, butt kicks, cariocas, and side shuffles.

During our form running drills, I told Vinny not to think about getting from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time. Instead, the goal was to perform the movements as many times as possible with correct form before reaching point B, which meant doing them at maximum speed. To help maintain proper technique, I would give him verbal cues reminding him to look straight ahead and to remain on the balls of his feet during the drills.

STRONG TO THE CORE

For many competitive athletes, and certainly quarterbacks, core strength provides the foundation for every type of movement during a game. For this reason, I made core work one of our top priorities.

Some of the most effective exercises we used trained core stabilization, strength, and balance simultaneously. One good example, which I call chopping wood, involved a balance disk and a medicine ball. Vinny would stand on the disk and hold the medicine ball to one side in front of him at shoulder height, and make a chopping motion across his body until the ball reached his waistline on the other side. As his core strength improved, I manipulated both the number of reps and the speed of the movement to increase the challenge. I also had him perform core twisting on a balance disk using elastic tubes for resistance.

Another staple of our core work was a series of exercises I call two-minute abs. Vinny would start in a seated position on the ground with his feet in the air, and rotate through three different exercises: Russian twists, toe touches, and either crunches or bicycles. The goal was to complete a full two minutes without his feet touching the ground. At first, he couldn’t quite make it. Within a couple of sessions, he was still feeling a core burn, but could keep his feet up the whole time. And by the end of our training, I had to rename the exercise three-minute abs to keep it challenging.

That’s one of my favorite aspects of core training–if athletes haven’t focused on it much in the past, they receive almost instant positive feedback once they get serious about their core. Football players often spend a lot of time working their abs exclusively and think that’s the same as core work, but once they feel the muscle activation from true core exercises, they quickly understand the difference.

ACCOUNTING FOR AGE

As you read this article, you may be wondering: Can you really put a 43-year-old (who in fact turned 44 in November) through so many demanding exercises? The answer is a definite yes–Vinny wouldn’t still be in pro football otherwise. But that doesn’t mean I forgot about his age when preparing his workouts.

One major consideration was building in time to allow his body a chance to adapt to the unfamiliar exercises I put him through. Since he wasn’t experienced in speed and agility training, this was especially important. Perhaps a 20-year-old could jump right into single-leg squats, for instance, but with an older athlete like Vinny, I let him get comfortable with traditional two-legged squatting exercises before isolating each side.

In addition, I tailored my speed and agility program around his existing workout schedule, which has always focused on traditional strength training. Vinny’s personal workout regimen is legendary in NFL circles, and he keeps extensive workout records, so I looked at what he was doing and made sure not to overwork individual muscle groups on any given day. For example, if he was doing a lot of ab work on his own one day, I would avoid heavy core work during our session and instead focus on leg strength or agility.

Vinny made adjustments to his own workouts as well. I provided him with an overview of each week’s plan in advance (for a sample of a typical five-day workout schedule, see “A Week’s Work” below) so he could adjust his strength workouts accordingly. Since he was highly motivated to improve his speed and agility, he was more than willing to alter his normal workout schedule so that he was always physically prepared for our sessions.

Finally, as in any athlete-coach relationship, communication between Vinny and myself was key. We always discussed how he was feeling before, during, and after workouts to make sure I wasn’t pushing him too hard. By keeping the lines of communication open, I was able to put him through some very vigorous exercise cycles without putting him at risk for an injury, which at this point in his career would have been an extremely serious setback.

A SPECIAL ATHLETE

So what ultimately made my training sessions with Vinny successful? I believe it was his willingness to continually step outside the box and challenge himself in new ways. From the very beginning, he was excited to learn about the benefits of speed and agility training and eager to hear my explanations of how each drill would help make him faster, more powerful, and more explosive.

This season, Vinny is the second-oldest player in the NFL (behind 47-year-old place kicker Morten Andersen). After having worked with him this summer, it’s clear to me why he has lasted so long. Even in the twilight of his career, he is always looking for ways to improve himself by not only working harder, but also smarter. By introducing him to speed and agility training, I’m proud to say I assisted in that effort, and I hope it has helped prolong his pro football career. Vinny is proof that it’s never too late to gain an edge.

Sidebar: A WEEK’S WORK

Below is a sample week from Vinny Testaverde’s summer training.

Monday Form running (high knees/butt kicks/power skips/side shuffles/cariocas) performed explosively as a warmup

Vertical jumpers, 3×20

Sling shots (10 sec. sprint x3, lat shuffles x10 each side)

Single-leg jumps on an agility ladder (forward and lateral) x3

Agility ladder, x2 for each movement

Reaction ball work and two-minute abs

Tuesday Form running

Harness running sprints x6

Balance disk: squats, chopping wood w/med ball, catapults w/med ball, Thera-Band twists 3×15

Power push-ups, stability push-ups w/balance disk 2×10

Balance disk: throwing a football 10 yards into a net x30

Plank push-ups, plank holds, side planks (3 sets of 20×10 sec. hold)

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday Form running

Vertical jumpers, 3×20

Sling shots (10 sec. sprint x3, lat shuffles x10 each side)

Breakaway harness sprints up a 60-percent grade hill x6

Single-leg jumps over a line (forward, back, lateral) 5×10 sec.

Reaction ball work

Cone agility drills (box, Illinois agility test, zig-zag) x6

Plank push-ups, plank holds, side planks (3 sets of 20×10 sec. hold)

Friday Form running

Vertical jumpers, 3×20

Bungee sprints (forward, backpedal, side shuffles) x5 each direction

Balance disk: chopping wood w/med ball, catapults w/med ball, core twists w/med ball x30 each

Thera-Tube core twists x30 each direction

Plank push-ups, plank holds, side planks (3 sets of 20×10 sec. hold)

Bungee quarterback patterns x10


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