The only way James Conner wouldn’t play this NFL season is if there wasn’t an NFL season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers running back arrived at training camp in perhaps the best shape of his four-year career and is already showing signs of returning to his Pro Bowl form of two seasons ago after injuries derailed his training last year.
You could see the changes physically as the 6’2’’, 235-pounder looks fully healed and incredibly shredded. That’s thanks in part to an insanely intense spring and summer workout program, including adding a new twist—a bodybuilding routine with the help of trainer and chef Arron Sain.
Conner also came in fully healthy, announcing in May that he is now four years cancer-free. He was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in late 2015 during his junior year at the University of Pittsburgh.
Because of coronavirus fears, there were questions whether Conner would be able or willing to risk his health on the football field. But after getting the green light, Conner says there was never any hesitation toward returning.
“My doctor assured me that my immune system is back strong again,” says Conner. “I’ve been taking the necessary precautions—wearing my masks, social distancing, all that. I haven’t really had to change anything, I’m just kind of following the same rules as everybody else.”
Along with Conner’s return, the Steelers also get back quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who also missed most of last season due to injury. With the team looking to rebound from a playoff-missing 8-8 season, Conner has separated himself from the rest of the running backs looking to take the No. 1 spot.
“My biggest competition is just with me and myself,” Conner says. “I’m out there with a whole bunch of great running backs. We’re out pushing each other, but at the end of the day, the competition always comes from within.”
FROM STEEL CITY LOCKDOWN TO SOUTH BEACH SESSIONS
Conner, like most Americans when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. back in March, was forced into lockdown and left without a gym to train. At his home in Pittsburgh, equipped with just a pair of 50-pound dumbbells and a 45-pound plate, Conner went to work, combining a mix of presses and rows and carries to keep his body tight, while even adding a conditioning round of running the steps of his townhouse.
“I also did a lot of body-weight stuff,” he says. “I just did what I could to make it work.”
In June, Conner made his way to South Beach, where he would begin a not-your-normal daily workout regimen, training as often as three times a day. He says this year’s training program was significantly more challenging than in years’ past.
“I try and dig a little deeper every year, work a little harder,” Conner says. “I thought I was working really hard last year as well, but each year you have to try and elevate your game and push harder, and keep getting better than I was yesterday.”
Breakfast at 8 a.m. was the usual morning ritual for Conner (oatmeal was his go-to, according to Sain), followed by a bit of meditation before hitting the field for his workout.
Prior to running back drills at the renowned Bommarito Performance, Conner saw to it to spend up to an hour going through mundane sets of prehab work, including light stretching, ankle and hip drills using resistance bands were part of the process. “I’d just warm up the knees and ankles, making sure we don’t have any non-football related injuries.”
The first of a near-daily weightroom session would follow, then Conner would head back for 2:30 lunch prepared by Sain. A bodybuilder himself, Sain has also worked as the personal chef for Rams All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
Keeping Conner’s weight around 230 to 235 pounds meant keeping his calories at nearly 4,000, sometimes higher, according to Sain. Meals included anything from chicken and chickpea pasta at lunches to Cajun-baked salmon and glazed honey mashed potatoes with asparagus at 8 p.m. dinners.
Conner says the constant fueling led to productivity in the weightroom.
“We just kept continuing to stack on good days and on top of good days,” Conner says. “And when we leave the weightroom, we definitely feel accomplished.”
SHOULDERING THE LOAD AND FEEDING THE BEAST
In just his second season, after replacing two-time All-Pro LeVeon Bell, Conner was selected to the Pro Bowl after rushing for nearly 1,000 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns. But a host of nagging injuries, including a shoulder injury suffered in Week 8 against the Dolphins, cut short last season.
With no surgery required and his shoulder back to normal, Conner felt a change in training was needed. With the help of Sain, Conner for the first time took up a bodybuilding style of training to add upper-body size.
“You know, all my stuff has been usually football related, but training like this is a little different,” Conner says. “But I still needed to endure, you know, the toll that football takes on you throughout the season.
For Conner’s final workout of the day, usually around 5:30, Sain had him perform a high-rep, moderate-weight routine. The reps, in the 15- to 25-rep range, would help build muscle strength and size. The high volume also worked his cardiovascular system, adding a taxing conditioning complement to his weight-training routine. “By doing this, we worked out for endurance and pushed the mind past the pain of so many reps,” Sain says. “For sure kept the heart rate up as well.
Conner is now enjoying the results as he keeps grinding toward the Steelers Sept. 14 opening day matchup against the New York Giants, barring any more coronavirus craziness from now till kickoff.
“You just feel the burn, man, and say it’s a great workout,” Conner says. “We just get after it and try to execute. When we leave the weight room, we definitely feel accomplished. I’ve seen a big difference between last year and this year, just by the work I’m putting in and who I’m putting in work with.”
James Conner’s Shoulder Workout
Arron Sain created this off-season shoulder routine to help add mass and strength to the Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl running back. With this high-rep focused training, Sain says he was able to keep Conner’s heart rate up, which will come in handy at the end of ballgames.
“James is really focused on being able to perform at an optimum level,” Sain says. “This is really going to give him an opportunity to be able to outlast other competitors in the fourth quarter.”
Dumbbell Lateral Raise superset with Dumbbell Overhead Press
Front Plate Raise superset with Upright Row
Rear Dumbbell Flye
Cable Face Pull
Machine Shoulder Press
Reverse Flye Machine