NFL Strength Coach Buddy Morris Shared the Workout Secrets Elite Athletes Have in Common

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Buddy Morris has been a strength and conditioning coach in college and pro football for more than four decades. He’s worked with scores of All-Pros and Hall of Famers over his stints at the University of Pittsburgh, the University at Buffalo, and with the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals, where’s he’s been since 2014. And he’s not just working with world-class athletes: At 65, the dude is still absolutely jacked. In short, Morris is a legend. But don’t tell him that.

“I’m not a god. I’m not a legend. I’m none of that stuff,” he says. “I’m just a basic guy who tries to do my job better than everybody else and tries to have the proper attitude when I do anything.”

That consistency and attitude is exactly what proves that Morris is a legend, though, and it’s why he’s still on top of his game—in March, he was named NFL Strength Coach of the Year. Morris credits the work ethic that’s kept him thriving in the gym and at the office for all these years to his mother.

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“[She] had to raise five boys by herself on public assistance and a bank teller’s salary,” he says. “I told my mother, ‘Mom, I just signed an extra two year extension to my contract.’ She goes, ‘Congratulations. Remember your mother retired at 84 from being a bank teller.’ So my mother never lets me forget how hard you have to work to be successful.”

You’re still looking jacked at 65. How do you do it? What’s your training like now?

I still go to the gym every day during the season. I call myself what I call a “stress trainer” because as the stress of the season [increases], I just increase the stress in the weight room. And that’s how I cope with the length of the season and the ups and downs of the NFL.

At the age of 65, obviously, I can’t handle the volume of work that I used to be able to. Eight years ago I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, so I have lost supination on my left wrist. My arms don’t go above my head anymore. So most of the time it’s all machine work. You can say what you want about the Smith machine. You get to be 50-60 years of age, the Smith machine is a valuable tool. I throw some dumbbell work in there, but I still train every day. The difference is, I only give myself an hour in the gym and that’s it, because I don’t recover like I used to.

I always tell people, if you don’t want to get injured, don’t ever be an athlete. At some point in time, you’re going to get injured. It’s wear and tear. It’s a cumulative trauma over time. The way the NFL is set up nowadays, I don’t get a lot of time with my guys. The longest period of time I get with my athletes is during the season is when they’re most beat up. The more advanced an athlete becomes—the greater the output—the greater the cost of those outputs. So do I want my push to be on the field, or in the weight room? So in season, we’re sub-maximal. I’ve tried to change my training to more sub-maximal work. And it’s benefited me greatly, so that when I want to go maximally, there’s a price you have to pay for everything you do. But if I just back up and stay consistent and stay sort of sub-maximal and slow my movements down, I’m able to accomplish more in my training. At my age, people say you can’t get stronger as you get older. That’s a misnomer. You can get stronger as you get older. Am I going to be what I was when I was in my twenties? No. But at least at my age, I’m still handling more weight than most people 65 years of age.

So I don’t go heavy like I used to. But I’m also that guy that’s “do as I say, don’t as I do.” And I battle myself on that daily. You can get carried away being around young guys. So a couple weeks ago, I said, “F it, I’m doing dumbbell incline.” So I grabbed 80-pound dumbbells—remember, I’m 65—I got eight reps. But then my shoulders talked to me for the next three weeks. So, you know, do as I say, not as I do.

OK, so what do you do–or what do you say to do—to stay healthy and the gym in the long-term? What should our readers do?

The key for me is consistency and understanding how my body responds to the load that I impose upon it, and being smarter with those loads. I grew up in a time where it was go heavy or go home. There was no foam rollers. There was no warming up. Your warm up was—you just got under the bar. But I’ve learned over the years the value to do the value of properly warming up. I think the warm up is more important in the actual workout, to be honest with you, because it sets a precedent for what’s about to happen.

I understand there’s a difference between perceptual readiness and physiological readiness. I’ve learned to rely more on physiological readiness instead of what I perceive as my readiness. I’ll define readiness as the maximum amount of stress you can handle for that one given day. And that’s always going to fluctuate. One way I can tell is my grip. The nervous system is most sensitive in the ears, hands or feet. If I take out a 45-pound plate, and it feels like 100 pounds, I know I’m going to go lighter for the day. If I take up a 45-pound plane, put it on and it feels pretty good, I’ll push it a little bit. But I understand when I push, I can only push maybe once every four weeks.

Now that you’re putting emphasis on the warmup, what are you doing in that warmup?

In the old days you just I could go into a gym and just throw the weight on a bar and just start banging it out. You can’t do that now. Here’s how I describe the human body: All of us are like a tire. Some of us are Pirelli high performance tires. Some of us are bargain basement tires. But the one common factor, one common denominator we all have in common: You all have a tread. The life of your tread is depending upon the inflation of my tires. Do I balance my tires? Do I rotate my tires? Do I align my car? Am I a hard, fast accelerator? I’m a hard, fast braker? what’s the external environment I drive it in? Your mechanic tells you that it’s your responsibility to do those things. But still, over the course of time, that tread is going to wear out. Just like all these athletes, your performance over time is going to decrease. The greater the exposure to the sport, the more likelihood of injury occurring.

So I’ll get on the bike, do something to get blood flowing. I do some tissue prep with a foam roller or lacrosse ball. I’ll do some mini-band work. And then there’s always the pre warm up sets before I get to my target load, which I always take my time doing. My movements are more slow and controlled. The intent is greater. I don’t want to say the focus is greater, as I’ve always been focused in my training. But the intent of what I’m trying to accomplish with the warmup is greater.

You’ve worked with a lot of special players—from Dan Marino to Russ Grimm to Curtis Martin to now guys like J.J. Watt. What’s something you’ve learned from these special guys that you’ve incorporated into your training with all your athletes?

I always tell people I’m an average strength coach. I’m just fortunate to work with elite athletes. You look at those guys and they have tremendous, tremendous focus and perseverance. They have tunnel vision. It’s just not one day, one week. It’s 365 days a year. They understand that success is leased, and the rent is due every day. So they look at every day as a way to get better. And I’ve adopted that in my own profession. They inspire me to train. Those guys have really taught me the value of perseverance and, just overall, just be the best. And it’s a short period of time where you’re going to be the best. So give it everything you got.

But also, dealing with elite athletes—especially highly motivated elite athletes—one of your jobs is to protect them from them. So it’s part of my job to protect Carson Palmer from Carson Palmer. J.J. Watt from J.J. Watt. Curtis Martin from Curtis Martin. Zach Ertz from Zach Ertz. Chandler Jones from Chandler Jones. Because they just go and go and go. They don’t understand. There’s days I’ve got to take it easy, and there’s there’s days to push. There’s a time and place for everything. That’s been the hardest thing that I teach these guys, these elite guys, because there’s a period of time when you kind of back it down a little bit. And it takes them a while to gain that trust. But once they get once they gain trust in you, they’ll do anything for you. And I went through that this year when I first started working on J.J. Watt and Zach Ertz. You know, once they see the benefit that I don’t have to go balls to the wall every day, because when the time comes that I do, I feel better. And I’m actually stronger than what I thought I would be.

jj watt running

Peter Yang

A big part of your job is helping guys stay healthy, not just make them huge and fast. What’s a recovery strategy our guys can incorporate that you use or recommend to your players?

The thing that I preach the most to our guys—it’s not sexy. It’s not going to be on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter or Facebook. It’s not expensive. You don’t have to pay for it. I always warn the rookies, everybody and their mother is going to be trying to contact you to sell you the latest, greatest recovery methods, strength programs, speed work. It all comes down to three simple things: sleep, nutrition and hydration. It’s not that hard, but those things aren’t sexy. People don’t want to hear that.

I get 9 hours of sleep a night. I hydrate before I even put anything in my system. I drink at least 20 ounces of water in the morning. And I pay attention, most of the time, to what I eat. Nothing secret about that. Those three things are the essentials of life. They never lose their effectiveness.

You’re paying attention, most of the time, to what you eat—so what are you eating?

Most of my diet is fasting. I fast at least 16 hours a day, and I could probably live on chicken and rice for the rest of my life and it wouldn’t bother me. I’m not a foodie. I don’t take pictures of my food. I don’t go to restaurants that have orgasmic climaxes about the food. My wife would always tell you my husband eats just for some substance to survive, that’s it. That’s honestly the truth. I could live on protein drinks all day. I could live on chicken and rice all day. And it doesn’t bother me.

It’s just smart decisions. That’s all it is. We shop in the outer rows at a supermarket. Do I want a Twinkie or do I want an apple? It’s almost always the apple. But every once while I go through a Twinkie, and I’ll tell you what, some of the best leg workouts I’ve ever had is a night before I eat Five Guys.

You could live off protein drinks? Is yours just a no-nonsense powder-in-water? Or do you have a special recipe that you stick by?

I’m the powder, water, and fresh fruit guy. Nine times out of ten, it’s peanut butter with strawberries or blueberries or banana. And I’m good to go. I’m a happy camper. I try to get two good ones in per day.

With all the crazy athletes you’ve trained over the years, there must be some stories you’ve got of impressive feats in the weight room. Can you share one that sticks out in your mind?

I’ve been doing this for 42 years, since 1980. And like every physical preparation coach, we’ve all had the opportunity to work with that great athlete. My first year at Pitt, we were 11-1. In the first three years, I think we had 10 first-round draft choices. Four of them are in the Hall of Fame right now. So the hardest thing I did, honestly, was open the door and turn the lights on. My job was just not to screw them up.

I always tell this one story. I went back to Pitt, I think it was in 1997. I’m sitting in a weight room. And I don’t like to eat lunch in my office. So we had these wooden plyometric boxes, and I like to be on the floor. So I was eating my lunch on the floor and I saw Curtis Martin walk in, just in street clothes and Timberlands. And I’m eating on probably a 36 inch box, and there are boxes on either side that were a lot taller, lot higher—over 40 inches. And I turn to say something to somebody, and I went to turn back to say hello to Curtis Martin. And he was on top of the box. I didn’t hear him take off. I didn’t hear him land. And I looked at him and said, “How’d you do that?” He said, “I just jumped. That’s how gifted he was.” But he also was a great worker and has become a very, very, very close person in my life.

There’s plenty about being an NFL player that doesn’t translate to being a regular guy. But what does? What’s something our readers should take from the way you train your NFL players?

It’s built into our program: Every four weeks is a deload [Ed. note: A deload is a recovery week where overall training volume is drastically reduced, often by half]. It’s the same for your readers: Every three or four weeks, deload. The older I get, that’s every two weeks.

The second thing: You’re going to the gym for a reason. It’s not to socialize. It’s not to get on your phone. It drives me nuts when I’m at the gym and somebody’s sitting on a machine looking at their phone. I want to use that machine, and then they get offended if you tell them to move or if you ask them to work in.

Go the gym with a purpose. Don’t go to socialize. If you want to socialize, call me at home. But I’m here for a goal. I’m here to accomplish something. That’s why I think I’ve still been able to do what I do for my age at a relatively high level.

What’s one thing our readers should add to their regimens to stay healthy and in the gym over the decades like you have?

If there’s one thing I wish I would have done back in the day, and I totally neglected it, it’s mobility work. Maintain the mobility and health of the joints. Because if you don’t, everything else just falls apart. I’m not talking flexibility. I’m talking mobility. The ability to move and maintain sensation of a joint and allow it to operate and function as it was designed to do.

The one thing I always stress to my athletes, I stress it to my staff, is as an athlete, as a human being, you’ve still got to be able to move. Once you lose that ability, you’re in a world of hurt. So every day I would do some type of mobility work for my shoulders, my ankles, my knees and my hips. Just maintain the mobility of the human body.

Also: If it’s not trained, it’s not maintained. If you’ve been away from the gym for a while, you better ease back into it. Because you’re going to have a decreased load capacity of the tendons. And that can lead to potential injury and problems. So if you’re taking time off, which is why I never take time off, you need to understand that to reboot the system, it’s going to take time. We have to reintroduce things that are very easy level, because every nerve, every muscle, every bone, every tendon and every ligament, every fascial line has its own timeframe for adaptation and recovery.

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