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Why You Shouldn’t Try to Train Like a Professional Athlete

They may make it look easy, but it’s definitely something you don’t want to try at home

Ted Rath has spent the better part of a decade helping optimize the on-field performance of NFL players who have had millions of dollars worth of investment poured into their training and nutrition programs over the course of their lives.

Not surprisingly then, when Rath introduces himself as the Vice President of Player Performance for the Philadelphia Eagles, he’s often besieged by questions from young athletes, the parents of those athletes and even people who have never exercised before. All of these inquisitive minds are looking for the same thing — a few pointers on how to get in better shape. Quite often, too, the questions Rath receives will identify a specific player he has trained, and center around how the workouts of those players can be approximated by everyday people (or at least athletes with less training under their belts). 

Rath was gracious enough to explain to me why these are among his least favorite questions to answer, but also among his favorite opportunities to educate people as to why they should never try to emulate their sports heroes by attempting to mimic their workouts.

A lot of people will search the internet and look for workouts of guys like Ndamukong Suh because they want to train like an elite athlete. What are the dangers involved when everyday guys try to replicate these workouts on their own?

I get those questions so often when someone asks me for the training program of Calvin Johnson. They want the workout that made him a Hall of Famer. They want to know what Miles Sanders does in the gym, or what Jalen Hurts does. If I told you, it would actually be more dangerous, because if someone tries to replicate their workouts, there are several issues.

Number one, you have to understand the pure, natural athletic talent and ability, the kinesthetic awareness, the timing, the physical prowess, the amount of lean body mass, the musculature, the joint health and all of the other attributes and advantages these trained athletes have. Long story short, these athletes have spent their entire lives to get to the point where they can train safely at their present levels. 

If I said this guy who has one year of training history should go out and do the exact same thing as Ndamukong Suh, who’s been training for 20 years — multiple decades of his life — to get to the point where he’s at right now, he is missing those two decades of neuromuscular efficiency training, of patterning training and of the ability to simply properly time an exercise. Something with the complexity of an Olympic clean, or a power clean, is so far beyond just bringing the weight up. It’s a highly technical lift, and there are so many things that can go wrong and injuries that can occur if you get the slightest thing wrong with it. Elite-level athletes have spent their entire lives becoming proficient at not only that lift, but all of the athletic movements we ask them to do.

And professional athletes have advantages well beyond just the years of training, right?

Our athletes are very blessed. A lot of them make good money, and with that comes all of these other resources. They have the best quality food you can imagine. They have the best chefs. They have the best physical therapists. They have people in strength-and-conditioning rooms. They have sports scientists. They have a team of people who work for the team, and others who work for them independently. They have 20 people at times who are all around to maximize them. You can imagine the amount of man hours and the power that goes into maximizing that athlete and making them prepared just to complete one day of training, let alone a year-long football season. 

When you look at it like that, it’s so incomprehensible to compare the training of a professional athlete with someone who has never been in that training atmosphere. It would be like me trying to go invest my money like Warren Buffett. I don’t have the same resources as Warren Buffett. So for me to think that I’m going to get the same outcome would be foolish. 

It would be the same thing if I tried to race against Mario Andretti, and I hop into a Formula 1 race car that I’ve never sat in. How am I gonna drive that thing? I’m probably gonna fucking crash that thing. I think it’s the same concept of being realistic in understanding your natural abilities and where you are right now.

For someone who was a high school athlete or a college athlete, that’s someone I would probably expect to be a little more capable based on their training history or their experience, so we could progress that athlete a little bit faster than someone who has never trained a day in their lives.

How does your advice change when you’re considering people who have consistently trained at least a little bit as opposed to people who have never worked out a day in their lives?

Even some of our own athletes start training at a much earlier age than others, and that’s something we have to take into consideration. If I’m in that specific situation, I’m going to look at two things. Number one is a general initial assessment, which has to be brutally honest. You have to look at yourself critically and look at the numbers. I would look at body composition and total weight; we don’t utilize BMI because our athletes are at an elite level so their weights can skew those numbers. Body composition is one of the best things you can start with. Then you can utilize the eye test.

If I’m a person who has never stepped foot into a fitness facility and I’ve never worked out, and I say I want to have a beach body, look at the model for what you want to become, and then look at yourself in the mirror and be honest. Do you look like that? If you don’t, why do you think you should be doing the exact same exercises that your success model is doing right now? Be humble enough to accept it, and figure out where you should start. 

You have to start with a base level of conditioning. If your body fat is 35 percent, and you want to get that down and have a six-pack — which is usually something someone has when their body fat is at 10 percent or less, or sometimes a little higher based on age and a lot of other considerations — you have to be willing to take a step back and understand that you need to start at a slower pace.

For someone who has never done anything, I’d recommend bodyweight exercises. I’d recommend getting your body fat down, getting your weight into a healthy range and doing cardiovascular work to establish a base level of conditioning and fitness that will allow you to start to exercise with weights and outside resistance. 

If you’re an athlete who has been lifting consistently, and it’s just your weight that has ballooned a little bit, my advice would be similar, but also different. I’d advise you to continue to lift because you can accommodate it, your joints are healthy, and your range of motion has been established. You need to also work on your base level of conditioning, because as your body fat comes down, you’re going to be adequately able to progress your lifts and some of your other exercises. 

So those are two very different worlds. One has to be extremely rudimentary, safe, slow and progressive. The other, the person who has been doing some kind of consistent training, they have more experience, and you feel better about giving them exercises that they can continue to improve upon and do while they’re getting their baseline of conditioning back.