Based on social media postings, running back Austin Ekeler looks awfully ready for the 2021 NFL season.
His Los Angeles Chargers teammates nicknamed him “Pound for Pound” — as in pound for pound the strongest player on the team’s roster. The principle behind the 5’8”, 200-pound pass-catching powerhouse’s weight room wonders is his allegiance to what he labels a “guerilla style” training regimen.
Other athletes have gone all in with teams of experts customizing innovative percentage-based formulaic workout programs, as well as incorporating high-tech fitness trackers to document each night’s sleep patterns and other health variables. Ekeler, meanwhile, sticks with his unorthodoxly old-school approach to working out: He lifts based on how he feels that day. “That tech stuff isn’t for me,” he says. “To me, it’s all over the place. I have an idea of what I’m trying to get done in the gym and how my body is going to react.”
That mind-body connection — as well as a ton of football talent — helped elevate Ekeler from an undrafted free agent in 2017 to becoming the Chargers No. 1 back in 2020 after signing a multi-year, $24.5 million contract following a breakthrough previous season.
Expectations for 2020 were set higher than his NFL Combine vertical leap (40.5 inches), until a freakish hamstring injury kept him out nearly half of last season, in which the Chargers finished 7-9.
“The hamstring injury was the longest I’ve ever had to sit out,” Ekeler says. “In my head, I was sad — and in a lot of pain. But at the same time, I had a pretty good run at making it through every season.”
Six months since the season ended, Ekeler says he’s now back to 100 percent — he shared the proof on social media. It’s also given him time to work on building his brand for broader audience. Having recently moved to Las Vegas, his foundation — Austin Ekeler Foundation — recently helped build a gym for a local high school. He’s developed other diverse ventures as well, including part ownership of the “Flying Aces,” a team in the FCF, a fan-controlled football league in which online participants get to call the plays, as well as an owner (and designer) of an online bottle lamp company.
And while technology has no place in his workouts, Ekeler has nearly 30,000 Twitch followers, where he’s a constant participant. “I wouldn’t say anything’s changed,” he says. “I’ve just had more access to resources. All the stuff that I’m involved with is my way of helping the people around me and my community.”
But football — and football training — remain his top commitments. Even with a busy extracurricular schedule, it’s impossible for Ekeler to ever skip a workout. That’s good news for optimistic Chargers fans heading into training camp with re-energized expectations as Ekeler’s return and 2020 Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert entering his second season make for a potentially explosive offense under new head coach Brandon Staley.
“Training is how I got to this point,” Ekeler says. “I’ve done this my entire life. It’s how I operate. I need to work out pretty much every day.”
Road To Recovery
As a 2017 undrafted free agent out of Western Colorado, Ekeler surprised everyone in 2019 by catching 92 passes for just under 1,000 yards and rushing for nearly 600 yards and 11 total touchdowns while sharing running back duties with Melvin Gordon.
His breakout season not only earned him a four-year deal worth $24.5 million, but the franchise also shipped Gordon to Denver in 2020, establishing Ekeler as the team’s full-time running back.
The bar was immediately set high, but by Week 4, the worst-possible scenario took place against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ekeler tore his left hamstring trying to jump back in an effort to evade a low tackle. “I immediately knew my hamstring wasn’t OK,” he says. “I almost passed out from the pain. It’s one of the most painful injuries I’ve ever had.”
He was placed on Injured Reserve, with a minimum eight-week recovery time expected. It kept him off the field, but no amount of pain could keep Ekeler out of the weight room. “I could still do upper body,” he says.
But the main focus from Day 1 was getting back on the field — first step was alleviating the intense pain. Early on, Ekeler says he would go through 30 to 45 minutes of E-stim machine work on his left leg to get blood flowing. Each week, his progression slowly increased — he slowly began walking, then was able to stretch to help gradually increase his range of motion. “The goal was never to stretch past the healing point of the pain level,” he says.
By Week 6, Ekeler, a self-described “quick healer,” began performing single-leg Bosu ball squats, indicating to him at least that an early return was possible — until he tried running. “There was no chance that I could run,” he admits. “I was going to need every bit of those eight weeks. Lucky there was bye week, in there.”
Ekeler finally returned in Week 12, pain-free, but when it came to football speed, he says he was nowhere near 100%. Despite missing nearly seven full games, he finished the season with 530 yards rushing and 54 receptions.
“I was feeling no pain, but I was definitely feeling slower, with no explosiveness after not running for eight weeks,” Ekeler says. “But it’s the NFL, you have to perform. So I was back on the field for that.”
Ekeler Knows Squat
Today, with training camp scheduled to begin on Aug. 1, Ekeler says he’s at full speed — was evidenced by his first big test in the weight room — squats. His first time inside the weight rack, Ekeler stacked four plates on each side for what he called a solid triple.
“I was able to run at full speed, but I hadn’t squatted in a while,” Ekeler says. “I put some weight on the bar and it didn’t bother my hamstring at all. So, I was like, let’s try 405 for a few reps. I got three. That was pretty solid. Now I’m up to 13 reps.”
In Ekeler’s workout regimen, squats — heavy squats — are the foundation for the power and speed needed for football training. Although the weights keep increasing, Ekeler stays on the safe side by rarely if ever maxing out. He instead opting for three sets of three, usually at around 455 pounds.
But when he’s feeling especially strong, Ekeler may toss a fifth plate and bang out a triple. “I feel like one rep is not really giving me that much,” he says. “To me, three reps is better for my body — I don’t have to put as much weight on the bar, which saves my knees a little bit.”
Also a legday fixture for the running back are lunges. Since none of his workouts are ever repeated, Ekeler will always alternate variations, going from forward walking lunges on the turf to rear-elevated lunges.
Adding a power element to his training, Ekeler will oftentimes pair lunges with either a jumping movement or sprint out of a running back stance. “It goes from a power movement to straight-up explosive,” he says. “I love that type of progress because it’s exactly what football is like — you need to be strong and also be able to move explosively.”
‘Guerilla’ Mentality In a ‘Dragon’s Lair’
Having recently moved to Las Vegas, Ekeler does his training at the newly opened Dragon’s Lair Gym, owned by seven-time Olympia 212 winner Flex Lewis. While he says the atmosphere rocks, the bodybuilding-type workouts that go on aren’t always suitable for his football goals.
“Dragon’s Lair is sick,” he says. “Because it’s a bodybuilding gym, it’s got a great atmosphere and a whole lot of really fit people. Seeing so many people who are bigger than me is extra motivation. But they work out way too long for me. They’ll work out for two hours doing biceps [laughs].”
For football performance Ekeler sticks with an array of full-body workouts. Some exercises, namely squats, remain a staple in his development. But when it comes to creating NFL-level explosiveness, Ekeler says it’s all about the power clean.
“Both hang cleans and power cleans are so much more beneficial for football players because it works like, 90% of my muscle mass — legs, back shoulders, biceps, grip,” he says. “It’s just a very explosive movement.”
In his words, the more you can clean — taking the bar from the ground, slinging than catching it — the faster and more explosive you’ll become, especially when you’re blowing by — or through — 250-pound linebackers.
His advice for athletes: Get your form right. “I see people do clean that the gym and the form is usually terrible,” he says. “Get your mechanics right.”
Ekeler says building better form starts with adding accessory moves, like low pulls, high pulls, even front squats to elevate your cleans. Use low weight at first, he says. “If you work on those things, um, there’s the progressions individually of the cleans while you’re doing cleans too,” he says. “It’s going to help you build the actual fundamentals of the clean and help you clean more.”
As a pro, Ekeler says he doesn’t need as much weight to get the most out of power cleans. Instead, four to six reps at 225 pounds is sufficient for running back explosion and all-pro conditioning. ”When I’m done, I’m exhausted,” he says. “I might have to take a break between the reps — 15-20 seconds just to regroup. But it’s a big powerful explosive movement. If you can do that, you’re a pretty explosive human being.”