• We've all seen them before—videos of James Harrison squatting an unimaginable amount of weight, Odell Beckham Jr. showing off his hand-eye coordination with a tennis ball drill, Duke Riley flying through his footwork. But there’s more to posting these workout videos than just showing off an athlete’s skills.
By Jonathan Jones
September 15, 2017

Houston Texans strength coach Craig Fitzgerald keeps close tabs on his players’ workouts in the offseason. Because of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, his time with the players is restricted, so he trusts that the players’ trainers will keep them in shape in the spring and summer.

He sees the videos on Instagram or Twitter just like the rest of us. The guys are in Miami or Arizona or Houston—it’s always a warm-weather city on a lovely day—where maybe they’re pushing a truck, doing a ladder drill on a beach or sprinting with some sort of resistance.

When they come back to the team facility, Fitzgerald can’t help himself during the first few drills.

“Man, I saw you run faster than that on the videos!” he’ll shout to his players.

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Denise Austin, famed fitness instructor, would shake her head if you thought workout videos are not a new phenomenon. Strength coaches and trainers have been sharing videos for years going back to the days of VHS tapes. What is new is how much of these workouts the public gets to see.

Workout videos posted by professional athletes on social media are more popular than ever before for a few reasons. The CBA has given football players less time in the team facilities and more time on their own. Improvements in technology have given each of us a video camera in our pocket rather than a camcorder on our shoulder. Scientific research has shown us what kinds of workout drills are more effective, and these drills are often unconventional—making them more entertaining for the average fan to watch.

Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t show up for voluntary workouts this summer, but the day before he reported for mandatory camp, he dropped a one-minute video on Instagram replete with clips of him catching, running and shifting in a gym and in the sand.

Beckham’s trainer, Jamal Liggin, understand the value of a workout video. Together with Beckham, the two went viral with a tennis ball drill that launched him more into the public eye. He won’t say he invented the drill, but as he said, before the viral video “I didn’t see anybody throwing tennis balls.”

Steelers linebacker James Harrison has amassed nearly one million followers on Instagram by sharing his insane workouts. He plays volleyball with a medicine ball. He pushes 1,800 pounds of weights on a sled. He once threw a weighted ball and chain so hard against a wall that it literally broke.

Which one of these videos is most dear to him?

“None of that stuff is fun,” Harrison says after a training camp practice. “It’s not like it’s my favorite.”

One of the earliest iterations of a workout video was of Bears running back Walter Payton running up a steep 50-yard hill in Arlington Heights, Ill. “What I try to do is I try to kill myself. I work myself out to the extent where when I’m through I can’t walk,” Payton once told an interviewer about his workouts.

But no hill, and no workout video, was more popular than when Jerry Rice took NFL Films to his favorite running spot in 1995. The greatest receiver in league history was introduced to the 2½ mile hill as a rookie, and he eventually recorded a personal record under 16 minutes. Atop the hill, the late president of NFL Film Steve Sabol asked Rice how often he runs the hill.

“Every day,” Rice replied.

Back in 1998, Fitzgerald, then a strength coach at Division-III Catholic University, went to a conference and saw a presentation by then-Boise State strength coach Joe Kenn, who now heads the Carolina Panthers’ training program. Back then, Fitzgerald says, workout regimens weren’t openly shared between teams outside of conferences, so this was eye-opening for the trainer. Kenn had his players jog to the Boise River where large rocks had been painted with their respective weights. The players would lift, clean and/or jerk the rock, some weighing 80 pounds and others 200 pounds. Linemen were deadlifting as rafters drifted by.

“What an authentic thing,” Fitzgerald recalls thinking. “Nobody else can do that in the country because they don’t have that rock situation like the Boise River. I thought that was pretty badass.”

In 2012, Fitzgerald was working under Bill O’Brien at Penn State during some of the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. O’Brien turned to Fitzgerald to help bring positive press for the remaining Nittany Lions, so Fitzgerald and the athletic department’s media team created “Zero Dark Thirty” winter workout videos to promote the players and their hard work.

Fitzgerald followed O’Brien to the Texans in 2014, where he’s let STACK media see some of their off-season workouts. This summer the Texans spent their training camp at The Greenbrier in White Sulpher Springs, W. Va., and Fitzgerald was looking for something different.

“292 yards,” a Texans staffer tells Fitzgerald during this interview, referring to the length of a gravel hill the receivers will later run. “You can tell them 400 if you want.”

Without question, Harrison is the king of athlete workout videos. Each time he posts a clip it can be turned into a story (editor’s note: guilty), and some of his gym exploits make the rounds on SportsCenter. His workouts, typically done in full gray sweats, are more akin to strongman competitions than a regular NFL weight-training program.

“It’s been a few years now, and it was just from people messaging, and Facebook at the time, and then Instagram had started up and they just wanted to see what I did for workouts,” Harrison says. “I started putting on, not even a whole workout but just the exercise I was doing for that day. And it just built from there.”

Today, the athlete workout video is ubiquitous thanks in part to technological developments. With video cameras in every phone, and with the quality improving with each edition of the iPhone, filming (always shoot while holding your phone horizontally!) has never been better.

Also, advancements in social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have made it easier to upload videos. Before the summer of 2013, Instagram was just a photo-sharing service. The app introduced its video-sharing service in June of that year, but uploads could only be 15 seconds or less. Three years later, Instagram went from 15-seconds to 60 seconds. Today you can get several minutes of video in a single post. Snapchat and Twitter have made similar advances over the years.

Now the world gets to see instantly what Brian Orakpo and his friends in Austin, Texas, have been doing for years. Orakpo trusts what his trainer, Tim Crowder, plans for him each summer, and each Thursday he and his friends do an outside-the-box workout. In July, Orakpo was filmed pushing former NFL safety Michael Huff’s Ford truck in the Texas heat for “Thursday Grind Day.”

“I use that type of day for straight explosion and muscle endurance,” Orakpo said. “It’s kind of off the wall, completely different from your normal weight room. That whole day was focused on being outside in the heat, pushing big trucks with other peers. Just explosion, muscle endurance where when you’re tired and drained, you still have that endurance to go out there and get off the ball and you still have that explosion on the field. That’s where that came from.”

Trainers are an important element in this rise of the athlete workout video, not just because of the workouts they’re putting the athlete through, but because they’re a major reason why athletes post the videos in the first place. Every NFL player interviewed for this story mentioned his respective trainer by name, and most tag his trainer in the videos to help them get more clients.

“I’m not a lazy trainer. When I’m done training I’m probably sweating just as hard as my client,” Liggin says. “I love seeing guys do the tennis ball drill so I’m like please do it because it’s going to help your client. But if you’re going to do it, do it right. Me and Odell make it a game, and he’s trying to mess me up. He’s trying to make me work just as hard as him. I’m trying to make the client better, and the client doesn’t get better with lazy throws.”

In none of these videos will you see millionaire pro athlete pushing a hooptie. Falcons rookie linebacker Duke Riley pulled a Cadillac Escalade with rope back in July and posted the video to Instagram.

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Straight work!!! @coltcolletti_ #DifferentBreed

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“When people get on this NFL level they think it’s more about taking care of their body, and it is. But they lose track of the hard work that got them to the NFL,” Riley said. “So my thing was, this whole offseason was not to lose that, not to lose that hard stuff that got me to LSU and here. I always go back home and work out with my high school and do the things that got me to where I’m at.”

But, you weren’t exactly pulling a brand new Escalade as a junior in high school.

“Oh no, definitely not,” Riley laughs. “I had to be pulling that for the video.”

Nearly every player interviewed for this piece talked about posting these videos, first and foremost, to engage and motivate fans. Seeing the athlete work in the offseason may encourage a fan to hit the gym. But here’s the question that follows: How necessary is all of this? What’s the point of Oakland running back Marshawn Lynch running in boots on a beach or Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart doing the ladder drill in Santa Monica if not to simply impress visually? It’s no secret that these videos are at least in part about looking good.

“The sand never lies,” Stewart says. “You know where your feet are, and if you’re not getting your legs up then you’re going to fall.”

Fair point. Then what about all the hand motions and arm movements? Does one really need to pump their arms outrageously on these videos? What is gained from that, other than to help create an illusion that you’re moving at a superhuman rate?

“Oh it’s far from extra,” Riley says. “That’s the ‘out of that break’ moves and making sure you keep this moving. It helps you when you’re backpedaling. See ball, get ball. It even over-exaggerates almost, but in reality it’ll make your break 10 times faster.”

The workouts, and how they’re filmed, will continue to evolve—from the hill with a film crew, to Boise River with a camcorder to the beach with a drone. And guys can pump their arms and catch tennis balls a push a literal ton of weights, but the basics will remain.

“I’ve always been a big believer in functional movement and sticking to the foundation,” Liggin said. “In college we ran bleachers, pulled sleds and lifted weights. That is never going to change.

“Of course I incorporate new workouts and take guys to the beach, but nothing’s going to overpower lifting weights and running fast.”

But this is also 2017, and if you believe the news, millennials like to be liked. There’s some ego stroking involved when you’re pushing a $60,000 vehicle or running on a remote beach as the sun sets behind you, and you only post the videos in which you look good.

“Sometimes you might trip over a cone here or there, but you still finish the drill,” Stewart says. “But those don’t make it to Instagram.”

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