Being an offensive lineman in football means you do all the dirty work without any of the glory. You never touch the ball unless something’s gone terribly wrong, and you spend most of your working days head-to-head in the trenches with some of the heaviest, meanest, toughest players in the NFL.
But that doesn’t bother New York Giants lineman Justin Pugh.
Since being drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, the Syracuse alumnus has been one of the key parts of the Giants offensive line, playing at guard and tackle while protecting franchise quarterback Eli Manning.
“The most important thing coming out of the offseason is my strength training,” says Pugh. “I have to make sure that I’m as strong and explosive as I can be coming into camp. You can’t lift as much during the season and don’t want to get beaten up. You’re trying to maintain weight, and that’s where the offseason strength training comes into play."
To block for running backs and shield quarterbacks from vicious linebackers, offensive linemen need a rare combination of bearish brute strength, extraordinary explosive power, and the balance and athleticism of a dancer. Pugh uses a range of different exercises and techniques in his training to help build his strength and explosive power, including squats, planks, deadlifts, sled pulls, sled pushes, and stepups.
“Training is a full-time job, especially in offseason,” says Pugh. “You have seasons that are 20 games [preseason and regular season] and then potentially the playoffs—there’s never really any downtime. I am literally in the gym and training for a minimum of 2-4 hours per day all year.”
Pugh has also incorportaed mixed martial arts training and yoga to his routine: "I think that MMA boxing and pummeling really helps with leverage and handwork," says Pugh. "Yoga has been incredibly helpful to me mainly in flexibility and balance."
So whether you're an aspiring NFLer or just want to become strong like one, you can try this adaptation of Pugh's workout, crafted exclusively for Men's Fitness, that helps him build strength and explosive power so he can bowl over opposing defenders on the gridiron.
Warm-up: Band Walks
What to do: Using an elastic band around your ankles or knees, side shuffle 10 yards in one direction, and then side shuffle back to your starting position. That’s one rep—Pugh does five reps to warm up before his workout.
How to do it: Wrap an elastic band around your ankles or your knees, whichever you are working on. If doing your ankles, bend your knees slightly at shoulder-width apart, keep your head and chest up. Take a step with your right foot, then continue with your left. Go through until you reach 10 yards, then walk backwards with the same rhythm.
Why Pugh does it: The warm-up exercise can help prevent injuries—key for football players at any position. The movement will improve stability in your hips and your knees, plus engage muscles around your pelvis and glutes.
What to do: Do this plank exercise for 3 minutes. Hold for 30 seconds in each of the three positions until the 3 minutes are up.
How to do it: Lie on your right side with your right forearm supporting your body. Keep your legs straight, with your left leg on top of your right leg, your left hand on your hip. Keep your body in a straight line, then roll over into a front plank position. Put your weight down on your forearms and keep your back and legs in a straight line. Roll into a side plank with your other arm, placing your left forearm down, with your right leg on top of your left leg.
Why Pugh does it: This exercise helps with core strength and stability, and increases strength in your shoulders, abs, obliques, and lower back muscles, all key areas for offensive linemen.
What to do: Pugh does 4 sets of 5 reps, with 2 warm-up sets. Use a weight that is comfortable for you, increase the weight if needed.
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and rest the barbell on the top of your traps. Grip the barbell and stand up to remove it from the rack. Keeping your back straight and your head up, push your hips back and down until your hips are just below your knees, then raise them back up into starting position. Make sure to keep your knees from collapsing.
Why Pugh does it: Squats hit muscles all over your body, but they're especially good for developing lower-body strength, including your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and core.
Single-Leg Dumbbell Stepups
What to do: Pugh does 3 sets of 8 reps for each leg. Use a dumbbell weight that’s comfortable for you. If you find the weight becoming easier, increase during a later set.
How to do it: Stand in front of a bench/box while holding a dumbbell in each of your hands, with your palms facing the sides of your legs. Step with your right foot onto the bench/box and use your heel to push up and stand on the bench. Step back down softly into starting position and repeat for 8 reps. Switch legs and do the same movements for the other leg.
Why Pugh does it: This exercise helps build strength in your legs and lower body and it increases single-leg balance, stamina, and ankle flexibility. Your calves, thighs, glutes, and hamstrings will all get work with this movement—and the stronger they become, the less likely you’ll suffer tightness or injuries.
Dumbbell High Pull
What to do: Pugh does 4 sets of 4 reps. Use a weight that’s comfortable for you and increase in later sets if needed.
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding dumbbells in your hands in front of your body. Have your palms facing your legs and have the weights just above your knee. Push your hips back and bend your knees down and lower the weights to ankle-height. In a continuous explosive movement, stand up and straighten your knees, pulling the dumbbells up to shoulder height.
Why Pugh does it: This exercise hits a number of areas, including your traps, core, shoulders, hips, hamstrings, glutes, and quads. Pugh says that he uses the exercise for “explosive movement to engage” his hips, a crucial area for linemen due to the constant bending, twisting, and pushing that occurs on the offensive line.
What to do: Pugh does 3 sets of 10 reps. Use a weight that’s comfortable for you.
How to do it: Using a shoulder-width grip, hold the barbell at hip level, stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keep your shoulders back and knees slightly bent, move your hips and lower the barbell and keeping your head straight. Feel a stretch in your hamstrings and then return to starting position. Repeat for number of reps.
Why Pugh does it: The exercise helps work your hamstrings and glutes and it’s easier on the knees than some other lifts. It helps increase flexibility in your hips and hamstrings while adding strength to those areas as well. Offensive linemen need strong hamstrings and flexible lower body muscles to move and block for smaller players and to help decrease the risk of injuries.
Weighted Sled Pushes and Sled Pulls
What to do: Pugh does 2 sets of 4 reps for the sled push, 2 sets of 4 reps for the sled pull. Pugh uses a distance of 10-15 yards. A movement of a push/pull to one end is 1 rep. Repeat for the amount of reps for each set. Use a weight that’s comfortable and increase the weights on the sled if it becomes too easy.
How to do it:
Sled Push: Set up markers with a cone/towel/object for the distance you want to push/pull and load the sled with a comfortable weight. Grip the top handles of the sled and bend over, getting in an athletic stance, and push the sled in a sprint over the set distance.
Sled Pull: Using a cord/harness or a hand grip on the sled, lean back and pull the weight over the set distance. Keep your body angle the same during the pull and the repeat for the number of reps.
Why Pugh does it: The sled training offers a number of benefits for football players, including help with building leg strength, hamstring strength, and core strength. It hits your glutes, calves, and increases endurance. Strengthening your lower body and hamstrings can help prevent injuries for offensive linemen.