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Pain staking: An exclusive look at Drew Brees' offseason training

This story appears in the July 28, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Go ahead, Drew Brees, cut a corner. Cheat just a tiny bit. Make your life easier, right now. On this sultry Southern California morning, the Saints’ quarterback is in the parking lot behind a strip mall facing a brick wall, holding a lunge-position—right knee at a 45º angle, left knee hovering an inch above the pavement—arms extended and starting to tremble as he taps 21⁄2-pound medicine balls, one in each hand, on the wall.

Try it. The burn builds quickly in the upper right quadriceps. By lowering his left knee to the ground, Brees could make much of that pain go away. He doesn’t, of course, the pain being the point. He holds the pose for 30 seconds before rising, with a Novak Djokovic–like grunt, to take on the morning’s next torment.

The 35-year-old Brees, a former Charger who keeps a home in the San Diego area, doesn’t have to be here. It’s July 9, 15 days before the Saints report to training camp. He’s an eight-time Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl MVP and future first-ballot Hall of Famer who’s already in terrific shape. (He’s lean at 6 feet and 209 pounds but a little more buff than he’ll be by midseason.) He could be home, sipping coffee and reading the paper, or gliding around La Jolla Cove on his stand-up paddleboard. Instead, he has reported to Fitness Quest 10, a slightly cramped health club in north San Diego, for one of his thrice-weekly off-season sessions with Todd Durkin, whose relentless pep and intensity—“World class workout today, baby!”—don’t seem to make it hurt any less.

ONE-ARMED CATAPULT: Having his feet elevated creates an “unstable environment,” says Brees, forcing other muscle groups to work overtime. 
Do not try this one at home—experts only, please!

ONE-ARMED CATAPULT: Having his feet elevated creates an “unstable environment,” says Brees, forcing other muscle groups to work overtime. 
Do not try this one at home—experts only, please!

The discomfort, like Durkin’s workouts, is distinctive, especially different from anything Brees experienced before he turned pro. When he was starring at Purdue, the training focus was on Olympic lifts. “All bench, squats, cleans. That’s just what you did,” he recalls. “We’ve come a long way in our knowledge of training and functional fitness, and Todd’s been on the cutting edge of that.”

This morning Brees will spend two hours honing his “functional fitness”—that is, replicating the movements and isolating the muscle groups he most relies on as a quarterback. Rather than trying to bulk up, his focus is on flexibility, core stability and rotational strength. He is joined in this session by Eagles running back Darren -Sproles, Browns linebacker Tank Carder and New Orleans backup quarterback Ryan Griffin.

Brees will report to training camp in peak physical condition—almost as if he’s stockpiling fitness. “I’ll be in my best shape of the year,” he says. “Once we get into camp, then into the season, a lot more time is devoted to the classroom: studying opponents, film work, the mental side of the game.”

Sproles is first to arrive at the fitness center, followed by a feisty octogenarian named Ron, who complains that someone has taken his customary parking space, forcing him to walk an extra 50 yards. “I’m exhausted,” Ron deadpans. “I’m calling for a congressional investigation.”

Durkin, who has worked with scores of professional athletes, many of whose framed jerseys line the walls, has never seen the need to separate the pros from the “Janes and Joes”—his name for the rank-and-file clientele, the grandparents and housewives, ex-jocks and weekend warriors whom he cheerfully greets even while tending to his NFL clients.

Brees arrives 10 minutes before his 9 a.m. session and hops on a treadmill for a kind of warmup before the warmup. He’s cordial, reminiscing with a reporter about some of his former Boilermakers receivers. But it’s also clear that he’s sharpening his focus—getting his game face on—for the upcoming ordeal.

“Anytime we set foot in this place with Todd,” he says, “we have to have our mind right. I don’t do things in here at one speed, then do things on the field at another speed. It’s all the same. Obviously, when I’m doing weight exercises, there’s proper form. But once you have that down, you try to do it quickly, with intensity. Because that’s how it happens on the field.”

"You don't throw with your arm, you throw with your core," says Brees. "It's the focal point of the whole body."

Durkin’s “Dynamic Warmup” emphasizes “upper-body joint integrity.” It has the feel of a Pilates class. The idea is to work the small muscle groups around the joints in general, and Brees’s right shoulder in particular (figure 5). Nine years ago he suffered a severe dislocation of that joint, as well as a partially torn rotator cuff and a 360° tear of the labrum, after which he signed with the Saints as a free agent. A year after shoulder surgery he passed for a league-leading 4,418 yards as New Orleans reached the NFC title game.

Brees, a longtime Pilates practitioner, breezes through the exercises, his form flawless, his flexibility downright yogi-like. “He’s really meticulous about doing the movement perfectly,” says Carder. “I’m trying to model that, because obviously he’s been in the league a long time.”

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THE REBOUNDER GAME: The ball’s nodules create irregular bounces, sharpening reaction time and hand-eye coordination for Brees and Sproles.

THE REBOUNDER GAME: The ball’s nodules create irregular bounces, sharpening reaction time and hand-eye coordination for Brees and Sproles.

​Durkin has divided the main body of the workout into four quarters, each with its own exhortation: Believe! Be Passionate! Be Focused! Be Great! The first quarter brings Brees to an apparatus called the TRX Suspension Trainer, a pair of resistance cords with foot cradles (figure 1). His feet in those stirrups, Brees knocks out several sets of 15 pushups. Though they’re much more difficult than normal pushups, he makes them look absurdly easy. For the next set he inverts himself into a pike position. At this point it’s as if he’s just showing off.

What makes the TRX so challenging, Brees says after the session, “is that you’re creating an unstable environment.” Between holding a plank position, then doing pushups, then folding into a pike, “you’re recruiting every muscle in your body. A full workout on the TRX can absolutely destroy you.”

For the second quarter Durkin leads the quartet into the parking lot to the aforementioned lunging wall. Pressing on through the back of the strip mall, Brees & Co. climb a flight of stairs, then set up outside another Fitness Quest 10, this one above Consuelo’s Taco Shop. The players attach elastic bands to the railing for overhead extensions, pressdowns and a move known as the Travolta (figure 6).

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A quarterback at William & Mary, Durkin aspired to reach the NFL. In 2000 he did—as a massage therapist for the Chargers. That same year, he started his training business. San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson signed on as a client in ’03 and soon brought Brees along. “The thing I remember most,” says Durkin, “is how weak Drew’s core was. During a set of Bosu side-ups, Brees’s core just gave out. And I remember thinking, ‘I can make this guy better.’ ”

Eleven years later Brees could star in an info-mercial on the benefits of a powerful core. His greatest strength-—a blinding release, among the quickest in the league, as well as the zip and accuracy of his passes—have been sharpened by the work he’s done with Durkin. “You don’t throw with your arm, you throw with your core,” says Brees. “It’s the focal point of the whole body.”

Highlight of the third quarter: The guys generate waves with a set of ropes that are each the approximate length and thickness of Voldemort’s pet snake, Nagini. Based on the rate and volume of Brees’s grunts, it’s harder than it looks.

Next up, the TRX Rip Trainer. Holding a three-foot-long pole tethered to a resistance cord, the athletes perform a series of rotational exercises that give the impression they are bludgeoning an invisible adversary (figure 2). It looks like fun!

THE TRAVOLTA: This isolates the back of the shoulder while featuring a rotational movement specific to quarterback play. Cue up the Saturday Night Fever sound track.

THE TRAVOLTA: This isolates the back of the shoulder while featuring a rotational movement specific to quarterback play. Cue up the Saturday Night Fever sound track.

But it’s serious fun. The pace is torrid; these guys need every breath they can get, so there’s not much laughter, though Brees tried to derail Sproles midway through the second quarter by rocking out to “Teach Me How to Dougie.” Sproles almost cracked up but regained control and finished the set.

A Saint for the last three seasons, Sproles was traded in March to the Eagles. To prepare for Chip Kelly’s hyperspeed attack, he took fewer breaks than his peers, forgoing rest for sprints on the curved treadmill.

They finish with a contest Durkin has dubbed, clunkily, the Rebounder Game, played not with a basketball but with what appears to be a very large Everlasting Gobstopper smuggled out of the Wonka chocolate factory (figure 3). It’s similar to handball, but the rules on getting in an opponent’s way are hard to discern. Most disputes are resolved by Durkin’s declaring, “Do-over.”

The Gobstopper’s irregular bounces hone reaction time and hand-eye coordination. So it’s more than just a game, which is important to Brees. “There’s no wasted movement, no wasted exercise,” he says. “Everything has a purpose.”

The challenge of sustaining his superb level of play for three to five more years or longer—he’s joked with Durkin about playing until he’s 45—is not Brees’s only incentive for staying crazy fit. When the treadmill wasn’t occupied by Sproles, it was being used by a tall, blonde woman also doing speed work. Two things you noticed right away about Brittany Brees, Drew’s wife and the mother of their three sons: She’s very fast, and very pregnant. Their fourth child, a girl, is due in August.

*This story has been amended to disclose that Brees is an investor in TRX, which was not reported in the original story.