At the NFL Academy, motivational phrases emblazoned across the walls provide the backdrop for a state-of-the-art gym space.
“It’s not meant to be easy,” is the start of Russell Wilson’s contribution to the montage. “It’s all about hard work”.
Just after 10am, after a trip through London from south to north to reach Barnet and Southgate College, it is time to find out just how true that really is for athletes in one of the toughest leagues in the world.
With the help of slot receiver Braxton Berrios, the New York Jets have sent over a sample workout session which their players would be put through during the season.
Just a week later, they will be using the same equipment at my disposal as they go through a similar session in the run-up to their clash with the Atlanta Falcons at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London this Sunday.
“The workout I sent you guys was just two or three things that I do,” explains Berrios, who is arriving at the Jets’ Florham Park facility before the crack of dawn ready for 7:30am meetings.
“A lot of it is determined by whether it’s in-season or off-season. In-season, it’s not all about trying to build strength but really maintaining it, through a full season, when your body is getting beat up and you’re going through 18 weeks of games.
“The mindset changes a bit during the season, then the off-season is when you get your own time to really hone in on getting bigger, faster, stronger, more explosive.
“In-season, it’s very hard to become more explosive, just with the whole season wearing your body down. You just want to maintain what you spent the last six months building in the off-season.”
With NFL Academy Strength and Conditioning coach Shawn Howard
This is about activating and mobilising body parts that are used in football, and particularly for a wide receiver. Working on ankle flexion, hip mobility – making sure they’re mobile. That’s extremely common in football.
Wide receivers do a lot of reps in jumping and sprinting to strengthen those body parts – we need to make sure we are bulletproofing them.
Plyo – Pogo hopes 3 x 10
Wide Receivers are seen as the sprinters of the team – they have to hit high velocities at a moment’s notice and exercises like this help mobilise the key areas to enable that.
1A – Back Squats 3 x 6
1B – Box Jumps 3 x 3
These exercises are about lower body strength and power. Football players are power athletes – they need to make sure they’re strong and able to relay high amounts of force very quickly, while possessing the quickness to evade an opponent and power to absorb a collision.
2A – Bench Press 3 x 6
2B – Single Arm Row 3 x 8
Bench press is one of the key tests in the NFL combine – it’s an essential strength skill for all players from the Academy to the Jets. Teams like the Jets use exercises like these to produce well-rounded athletes – so you’re not just chest or back dominated.
3A – Single Leg Step Ups 3 x 8
3B – V Sit Ups 3 x 10
The majority of a football player’s game is spent on a single leg, so making sure you’re as strong on each leg as possible is vital, as well as addressing any dominant leg imbalance. This also reduces risk of injury. The sit-ups are a core exercise. Everything stems from the core – running, jumping, landing – all key for football and wide receivers in particular. A strong core provides the building block to do everything else.
Finisher – “21s” 7 Bottom, 7 Top, 7 Full
The bicep curls help with carrying the ball – having a strong grip in protecting the football. This last exercise is also a bit of fun – and that’s needed in all workouts from the Academy up to the Jets!
Still sweaty and gasping for water from the workout, Barrios hops onto a Zoom call to discuss what he has just put us through.
In reality, this session is just a fraction of the work that goes into his everyday life as an NFL athlete, and the elements being worked on are things he has nailed down.
Height – 5 ft 8 5/8in (1.74m)
Weight – 184lbs (83kg)
40-yard dash – 4.44seconds
20-yard shuttle – 4.18s
Three-cone drill – 6.72s
Vertical jump – 36in (0.91m)
Broad jump – 9ft2in (2.79m)
Bench Press (100kg) – 11 reps
Just shy of 5ft9inches, Barrios is one of the shorter players in the league but also one of the quickest.
Yet just as important as that explosiveness is durability and being able to absorb contact in a sport which sees him line up alongside giants.
Team-mate Mekhi Becton, for instance, stands just below 6ft8inches and weighs 165kg (26stone).
Since heading from Miami University into the NFL three years ago, Berrios has made big changes to his lifestyle in order to compete at the highest level.
“At the end of the day, even being at a big time college school, it’s very competitive but you get to the NFL and have the best of the best from every college in the country,” he says.
“The number one thing that I tell everyone is nutrition. My diet, the way I eat, completely changed within my first year of being in the NFL.
“You have to find any and every edge that you can, so my big one was my nutrition. I completely changed the way I ate, and that has really carried me through.”
As we speak, Berrios is preparing for a hefty breakfast of almonds, toast, potatoes and fruit.
During his morning meeting, he will drink a shake and head out onto the practice field.
When he returns, the team cafeteria will feed him a carb-loaded meal composing mainly of either brown rice, pasta or bread accompanied with “a lot of vegetables and a lot of protein”.
“That’s going to be continued into dinner, the same style – a lot of carbs, vegetables and protein.”
It does, however, have its perks.
“In season, it’s as much as I need, as much as I want, honestly,” he says when asked about his diet.
“Like I said, your body is getting broken down so you have to rebuild it up and that is continually a process, day in, day out.”
Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
In the week of a game, Berrios explains that routine is key, and the only way to maintain the high standards required and tick all the boxes.
Ultimately, the gym work – whilst crucial – is just one component alongside film study, recovery and getting onto the practice field.
“It really comes down to your routine,” he reiterates. “A lot of the young guys come into the league, you realise there’s no more school, you don’t have to go to class. This is all you do, this is your job.
“You just have to get into a very methodical routine. This time I do this, this time I do that, so that things don’t get away from you.
“All the little intricacies, skills that you need that allow you to do what you do on a Sunday, they always need to be worked on.
“Whether it’s in practice, in the training room, in the weight room or anywhere else – you need to have a routine you really, really stick to.”
Even after the brutal nature of an NFL game, players waste no time getting back in the gym and taking part in sessions like this one.
“The day after a game we’re back in the gym,” he says.
“We’re trying to work through all the soreness, all the little ailments, bruises, bumps. We’re trying to get that lactic acid out so the recovery starts a little bit sooner.”
Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
When they do get a chance to rest, in the bye week, that time is crucial.
“During bye week, what you learn in this league is it’s a great time to take care of yourself physically and mentally, emotionally.
“It’s a long season, over a four month season not including training camp, pre-season and all of that.
“You have to have that balance to do things that will help you in the weeks to come, but also get away from it for a few days, resting and relaxing, get a bit of a break.”
Having felt the burn from just one sample session, separated from all the other activities an NFL player must endure, it is easy to see why a brief mid-season break is needed.
In an empty gym, usually packed with ambitious athletes chasing their dreams of one day making it to the NFL, it is also easy to see how competition could be helpful.
As we take part in the session, our trainer, NFL Academy Strength and Conditioning Coach Shawn Howard, explains how the kids he coaches spur each other on to break their records and push themselves to the max.
In the NFL, that competition is no different amongst team-mates often fighting for spots on the 53-man roster or simply desperate to be the best.
“Of course, there’s always competition, in this building and in this league in general, no matter what it is,” he says.
“Especially coming into the pre-season, everyone is hungry, everyone feels like they’re in the best shape of their life.
“At the end of the day, everyone wants to play great so there’s a lot of competition.”
The Jets have seen first-hand the intensity of competition in the NFL so far this season, but arrive in London fresh off the back of their first win.
They edged the Tennessee Titans in overtime last week to move to 1-3 for the season and triumph for the first time with new quarterback Zach Wilson in the driving seat.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Wilson, 22, was the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and is surrounded by a youthful supporting cast including Berrios.
The trip to London, especially off the back of a big win, comes at a perfect time and is being viewed as a big opportunity to bond as a team.
“I’m very excited to be playing in London,” Berrios says. “And I think it’s a great opportunity for us.
“I think it’s really cool to go somewhere, be almost isolated together, in a sense, away from America and bond over it.
“I’ve never been to London, and I know the majority of this team haven’t either, so it’s a really cool experience for us.”
Physically, the game also brings about new demands and challenges not normally faced on the US schedule.
“It’s going to be a huge adjustment,” he admits. “Everything does change.
“We just had a flight to Denver which is only two hours behind, but now London is five or six hours ahead. Everything has to change because of that.
“It’s a lot about hydration because of that long plane ride, then your sleep schedule is just as important to your recovery as getting treatment when you’re trying to reset your body.”
Watch Atlanta Falcons vs. New York Jets at the NFL London Games live from Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this Sunday, 10th October on Sky Sports NFL and NFL Game Pass from 1:30PM, highlights on BBC One and BBC iPlayer.