Winning his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in four years was no easy task for J.J. Watt, especially since his play was hampered by a number of injuries throughout the year. Once the season ended, Watt underwent surgery on his groin early January. But even with several weeks of prescribed rest forcing him out of the weight room following his groin surgery, the Texans’ defensive end didn’t slack off.
“[Taking time off] made me re-think almost everything about my life,” Watt says. “You just sit there for five weeks not training and that’s all I’ve known my whole life is training.”
When Watt finally did return to the gym after his first off-season surgery, his trainer, Brad Arnett, didn’t introduce anything novel or special to cater to his newly repaired body. They jumped right back in with the basics. Given that Watt is currently recovering from a second surgery on his back, it’s almost guaranteed that he’ll start with the basics again.
“A lot of this offseason is getting my conditioning level back up to where it was before surgery,” Watt said. “Building power, building strength. I’ve gotten back up to 58 1/2 inches on the box jump. Still recovering from the surgery, obviously.”
“The exercises and things that we’re doing is exactly the same as what we did before....it’s just we’ve been in those phases longer,” says Brad Arnett, owner of NX Level gym in Waukesha, Wisc., who has trained Watt since he was 15 years old. “The core work—the combination of low ab work and glute work—now, the groin stability, pelvic floor stability, and that ties into all of the things he had repaired.”
Arnett says that Watt does core work every single day (when he’s not injured, of course), even during the season. Glute extensions, planks and side planks with leg raises, lateral leg walks with bands around the ankles, bird-dog and dead-bug exercises all make that list.
Watt uses the core work as a physical and mental warm-up. “I want to make sure that everything is totally turned on and locked in so when he picks up a bar, he feels stable, he feels engaged, he feels ready to go. Always, even during the season,” Arnett says.
When it comes to the main set of the workout, Arnett’s go-to circuits often featuring these four moves: Sled pushes, tires, agility work and, of course, box jumps. And he reinforces that none of this is too hard or too technical for the average gym-goer to do.
“He’s not necessarily doing anything different than what you’ve seen before,” says Arnett. “You and I will do a 24-inch box jump, and he’ll do a 61-inch box jump. So the principles are the same, it’s just the level of intensity that he does it at, that’s what makes him who he is.”
But if there’s one move Arnett would have Watt do every single day, aside from his core work, what would it be? A deep one-legged squat. “It’s full-body, killing two birds with one stone,” says Arnett.
Working with Watt for so many years now brings a unique challenge to Arnett: How do you find the limits of one of the best players in the NFL? Well, to no one’s surprise, Watt has always finished Arnett’s workouts, no matter the difficulty. (Though, Watt almost lost his lunch one time.)
“[Watt] doesn’t necessarily need to get any stronger,” Arnett says. “I can just maintain that [Watt’s fitness] and do other things to elicit some strength and cardio, and use that in place of constantly grinding him from a movement standpoint. I’ll start out with the tire work and the sled work and things like this, in place of general conditioning.”
Even as Watt has moved up from high school to college and now the NFL, becoming one of the best defensive players in history, Arnett is there to remind him where he came from.
“When he signed his contract, I told him every day, go to work like you’re still underpaid, and he does that,” Arnett says. “I just know him as the kid that he was when he was 15, and he comes back and he does his thing and it’s just kind of the way we all treat him.”
Watt's circuit workout breakdown
Sled pushes: Start by pushing the sled at a walk or light jog, then turn around and pull the sled at a walk or light jog, and close it out by sprinting as fast as you can while pushing the sled
Tires: Start by getting into a deep squat and exploding up while flipping the tire for up to ten reps, then move grab a partner and push the tire back and forth between the two of you.
Agility work: Sprints, backpedals, over-unders and bear crawls over 10 meters.
Box jumps: Jump up on the box and land squarely on both feet, jump up and land on the other side on one leg, jump up and jump right off.