By Jeff Beckham, WIRED
In just four years in the NFL, Houston Texans defensive end J. J. Watt has become professional football’s most physically dominant force. He’s the first player ever to twice record 20 or more quarterback sacks in a single season. Today, Watt is a 6′5″, 289-pound tower of power, but trainer Brad Arnett remembers the skinny high school sophomore who first walked into his Waukesha, Wisconsin, gym 10 years ago. Arnett applied exercise science and old-school techniques to transform Watt into Andrew Luck’s worst nightmare.
To build a sturdy foundation so Watt can throw off blockers, Arnett relies on exercises from the weight lifter’s handbook, like dead lifts and snatch pulls. Arnett likes that they come with a built-in safety mechanism: If Watt is out of the ideal position, Arnett yells “Drop it!” and the bar crashes safely to the floor.
Look for new entries in the Super Bowl 100 series, presented by Gatorade and Microsoft Surface, at SI.com/SB100 and Wired.com/SB100
Chapter 1, Oct. 7 TRAINING
Chapter 2, Oct. 28 EQUIPMENT
Chapter 3, Nov. 18 STADIUMS
Chapter 4, Dec. 9 CONCUSSIONS
Chapter 5, Dec. 16 MEDIA
Chapter 6, Dec. 30 VR
Chapter 7, Jan. 6 NFL IN SOCIETY
Chapter 8, Jan. 13 TRACKING
Chapter 9, Jan. 20 STRATEGY
Chapter 10, Jan. 27 SB 100
Watt has broken up 37 passes in his career, earning the nickname J. J. Swat. He developed his quick hands as a hockey player growing up. To keep them fresh he often heads over to a machine that throws passes, stands just in front of it, and grabs balls with one hand as they’re fired at 40 miles per hour.
Watt’s swim move, a longtime favorite of pass-rushers, sends offensive linemen stumbling. Because Watt’s shoulders take a beating, Arnett uses dumbbells, weighted push-ups, and kettlebells to keep the player’s enormous shoulders strong. The fat grip on a kettlebell allows Watt to squeeze it more, which helps keep the shoulder stabilized.
Sometimes the key to making a tackle lies in quick lateral movement, and Watt is remarkably nimble for his size. To develop this skill, Arnett uses shuffle drills, making sure Watt keeps his knees bent and drives his feet through the ground. “We don’t do it till he gets it right,” Arnett says. “We do it till he never gets it wrong.”
A football play lasts just seconds, so the man with the quickest first step grabs the advantage. To build explosiveness, Arnett and Watt head to the sandbox for plyometrics—box jumps, hurdle hops, and long jumps—with a focus on keeping Watt’s feet aligned beneath his hips. The result? Enough power to jump onto a 5-foot-high box from a standing start.