Hunt Greatness: J.J. Watt on training, smoothies and first signature shoe
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J.J. Watt hates vegetables. Detests them, really. But as the massive NFL star knows that to reach a “truly great” level he needs to make the right decisions—whether in the training room or the dining room—he works to embrace vegetables with a 14-ingredient smoothie that contains only veggies. No fruit. No sugar. “It’s gross,” Watt tells SI.com. “I get it down so I get my vegetables.”
For Watt, intense training has turned into a way of life. And that’s why when Reebok created its first signature product for Watt, they created the J.J. Watt signature trainer, and not a cleat.
Watt and Reebok worked for over a year to create the sneaker, themed on the phrase “hunt greatness,” which, for Watt, means not aimlessly chasing a goal, but actively hunting that goal with a daily commitment to success. He adheres to his dedicated training regiment no matter the day, the city or the circumstance.
A Watt-Reebok teaser video celebrates that hunting, giving viewers a glimpse into the world of Watt's inside training.
“We wanted to create something every athlete out there can wear, whether a professional athlete, a mom who drops kids off at school or a dad who runs in the park,” Watt says. “I love [training]. It can help make an athlete better. As a football player I can only spend so much time on the football field, so the time I spend training I wear my training shoes much more than I wear my cleats. This is important to me.”
Watt says he is particular about shoes and everything involved in performance, so the process of working with Reebok to create his signature was an exercise in design for the Texans defensive juggernaut. While Reebok isn’t releasing all the details until the summer launch, Watt says he wanted a sneaker that “felt like you weren’t wearing a shoe when working out, but felt extremely stable and secure while extremely light and agile.”
Watt’s training is anything but one-dimension as he constantly shifts from rubber platforms to turf to box jumps, and he needs footwear that allows him to feel secure the entire time. “I can’t be changing shoes three or four times,” he says. “I needed something that was able to perform in every single category. The people at Reebok did an incredible job. Sure, there was frustration along the way, but if I put my name on it I want it to be great.”
Watt breaks his workouts—all designed by Brad Arnett at NX Level in Wisconsin, who he has worked with for over a decade—into three-week phases, further partitioned into single weeks and day-by-day. At the height of off-season training, where he can make the biggest strides, Watt works out six days a week with two-a-days on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He gets Sunday off.
“Early on, it is getting the body back to a level it can handle,” Watt says about the progression. “Flexibility and core stability and reintroducing muscles to working. Then you build and build and get back into tip-top shape, and then training camp you work to maintain and slightly build.”
Every workout contains a mix, with everything from field agility to plyo box jumps to squat rack and bench press. The mix, though, Watt suggests would be valuable even it he wasn't in the NFL. “I would like to say I would do everything the same,” he says. “I’m sure I wouldn’t be doing a power clean in a local gym, but now that I have the knowledge and understand the benefits, I feel like I would be able to put together a pretty good workout if I was not in the NFL.” But he knows it would be hard not to hit the gym and focus on abs, biceps and triceps. On arm days, Watt admits he rolls the sleeves up or strips off the shirt entirely, a “general man concept all us meatheads do in the mirror.”
While Watt knows his NFL goals keep him focused, even that focus has changed over the course of his five-year career. Early on he’d dread Fridays, the “finisher day” in his workout, when his trainer tests his mental and physical toughness with a more intense version of Watt's already intense workouts. “Now they are my favorite,” he says. “I know he is going to try to challenge me and try to put me under the table, but I look over and laugh and say ‘that’s all you got?’ My favorite is when he challenges me and I beat those challenges.”
But even with the big lifts building the big muscles and the intense movements creating on-field agility, Watt says the key to it all falls on the little muscles, the stretching and the deceleration moves.
With deceleration, for example, Watt will start with a cable stack and “I’ll pull the handle out and let it pull me and I have to stop it myself,” he says. “It puts my body in stress.” He does it with single legs, with different directions, and then later he will apply it to the field with 10-yard stops on a single leg. Every change of movement on the NFL field requires deceleration. “In order to change direction or accelerate [in a game],” he says, “if you don’t focus on deceleration you are putting yourself behind the eight ball.”
Then there’s the rolling out—the strategy of using hard-foam rollers to work muscle groups, a part of Watt’s stretching route. “Rolling out and stretching are such a massive key to being an athlete,” he says. “If you don’t allow muscles flexibility, you are putting them at risk for injury and not even reaching full potential before a workout.” And while boring—Watt says “very boring”—the stretching and rolling can prove one of the most overlooked portions of a key training regiment. Well, that and proper sleep and nutrition.
All of those aspects culminate into Watt's mental game. “The mental part of the game is massive,” he says. “Eating the right breakfast or in the middle of a workout when you don’t think you can get an extra rep or after you have to recover your body to eat properly or go to bed at the right time, there is always an easy route and always the hard route. Our brain is conditioned to take the easy route, to eat tasty rather than healthy. To want to put the bar down. When you do all the right things, make all the right decisions you get to be truly great. When I step on the field on game day, I know I’ve put the work in and am prepared and I’m not nervous.”
He’s prepared to the point that Fridays finishing days haven’t defeated him, that his training has him prepared for every on-field movement and that his body feels right through proper sleep and nutrition. Especially all those vegetables.
Tim Newcomb covers sports aesthetics—from stadiums to sneakers—and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.