Given Ryan Flaherty’s reputation as one of the most tech-savvy trainers at the highest level of professional sports—a soft-spoken metrics whiz who once pocketed $2,000 off Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel for correctly predicting the quarterback’s 40-yard dash time down to a tenth of a second—I expected to see a much cooler gym setup from him.
After all, when the owner of Prolific Athletes, based in Carlsbad, CA, isn’t training the NCAA’s top football prospects for the NFL combine—the league’s yearly predraft data fest measuring all things strength, speed, jumping, and agility—Flaherty is drawing up quant-based workout programs for tennis superstar Serena Williams, Bayern Munich midfielder Mario Götze (who scored the deciding goal for Germany in the 2014 World Cup final), USA Rugby speedster Carlin Isles, and countless Major League Baseball players and USA Track & Field Olympic athletes. This is the guy who once told a reporter that, when he watches athletes play, he “sees in numbers” only, as if he looks past their flesh and directly into their biological machinery.
So when I arrive at Flaherty’s latest ultra-exclusive six-week NFL combine camp one chilly January morning in San Juan Capistrano, CA, I’m surprised to discover no million-dollar bio-monitors with electrodes sprouting off athletes in gleaming, full-body supersuits, no glowing screens flashing columns of numbers that pour down ad infinitum. Nor is there any space-age machinery scattered about, processing heart rates, speed, acceleration, intensity, or power figures.
Frankly, I’m not certain I even see a Fitbit.
It’s just your standard gym where guys are lifting free weights and running sprints while listening to music. And had those guys not been top NCAA prospects, like quarterbacks Jared Goff of the University of California and North Dakota State’s standout Carson Wentz (who “took the NFL combine by storm” and may be “the biggest star” of this year’s NFL draft, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King would later write), I would’ve thought I’d taken a wrong turn and ended up at some high school’s early-ball conditioning session.
But no, I’m in the right place. And as I learn, Flaherty is even more obsessed with quantitative analysis than I’d previously thought. He just doesn’t need sci-fi equipment to gather his data, and his workout philosophy and training process are so disarmingly simple and effective, it’s hard to believe.
Over several years of refining his approach to helping star athletes build power, explosiveness, and speed, he has developed a proprietary formula that yields a single crucial metric that informs everything he does.
He calls it the “Force Number.”
(Trainer Ryan Flaherty watches linebacker Reggie Northrup from Florida State.)
With that one piece of data, he says, he can predict with 99% accuracy “any athlete’s 40-yard dash, vertical leap, even a 10K run time.” What’s more, improving an athlete’s number is not only possible, it’s also largely accomplished with the help of a single hardcore power lift. (More on that later.)
So if you’re an aspiring professional athlete looking to take your body to the next level—and, say, sprint like DeSean Jackson, jump like Julio Jones, or explode off the line like J.J. Watt—you pay Flaherty upward of $20,000 for one of 12 spots at his camp to learn your figure and improve it.
Yes, it sounds pretty cool, like some crazy stuff straight out of Star Wars. But unlike that metaphysical force, Flaherty’s number actually exists. Believe me, I know.
I’m here because he’s going to tell me mine.
(Flaherty and Nick Vigil, linebacker from Utah State.)
The Secret to Running Like the Wind
I meet Flaherty and his clients on a high school football field with a backdrop of low, dusty hills. As his colleagues lay out a set of neon cones in a grid, a handful of agents—all middle-aged white guys in polo shirts—stalk the sidelines and take hushed phone calls. Flaherty, 33, is tall, with an athlete’s sure-footed presence. He’s also talkative, with colorful opinions on fitness springing rapid-fire from his mouth.
And if you spend time with him, you’ll discover he has a knack for explaining just about anything, no matter how complicated, using a single number. For example, when Utah State linebacker Nick Vigil, at 6’2″, 230 pounds, sprints by, Flaherty first pokes fun at him—“Nick, you have the steps of a circus midget, dude”—before singling out the number 11. Flaherty ambles over to the starting line and turns and paces out 11 yards, repositioning a bright orange cone. “When I’m watching [the 40-yard dash at] the combine, the only thing I’m watching is this 11-yard line,” Flaherty says. “Based on where your step is at that line, I know your time.”
If a football player wants to run a blazing 40—clocking in at 4.5 seconds or less—Flaherty says, his seventh step needs to land at or past that 11-yard line. Period.
(Jared Goff, quarterback from the University of California.)
Step counts, Flaherty has learned through thousands of hours of research, are an incredibly reliable indicator of race results. When you adjust for height, he says, the athlete who takes the fewest steps during any race will win because longer strides indicate an athlete is generating more force per step than his competitors. Over the course of a race, that extra distance per stride compounds. In a 100-meter sprint it could mean the difference of a step or two at the finish line; in a marathon, with about 20,000 strides taken, that extra three inches per step puts a runner a full mile ahead of his previous pace—exactly what Flaherty observed in 2014 after training pro distance runner Meb Keflezighi, who won the Boston Marathon just two weeks shy of his 39th birthday.
No matter what, he tells the group, the goal should be hitting that seventh step at the 11-yard cone. Vigil steps up to the line for another go.
(Nick Vannett (running), tight end from Ohio State.)
“These guys are focusing so much on the start, they’re tensing up, which shortens the steps,” Flaherty tells me. “If they relax and focus on long, powerful strides, they’ll start running faster.”
Sure enough, the times start falling immediately, even though the athletes aren’t trying as hard. Many clock their fastest times of the day. “Form has almost zero to do with speed,” Flaherty says. “Speed has everything to do with how much force you create. The two main factors in speed are stride frequency and stride length, and both are products of how much force your body creates with the ground. So if I can improve the amount of force an athlete creates on every step, in turn I’m going to greatly affect his or her speed.”
And the surefire way to create more ground force, he says, is to attack one power lift really, really hard.
(Ejiro Ederaine, linebacker from Fresno State.)
The Most Badass Lift in the Gym
Flaherty’s long journey to becoming an elite trainer began when he was a young athlete growing up in Los Angeles, which is where he discovered that speed is something that can be taught.
As a boy he was strong, coordinated, athletic. There was only one problem: He was glacially slow. But when, at age 10, he started working with a track and field coach who improved his form and stride, he quickly found himself the fastest kid on every team he played for. “Even at that age it was obvious that speed is a skill,” he says. “Most people think it’s just something you’re born with, but it’s actually something you can learn, something you can train. I was the product of that.”
Flaherty attended Utah State University on a football scholarship, playing wide receiver. His athletic career ended there, derailed by chronic ACL injuries. He moved to San Diego, where he earned an undergraduate kinesiology degree with a master’s in biomechanics from San Diego State University. He started training and observing local track athletes and became obsessed with the question of what makes one athlete faster than another.
“I noticed that very few of the trainers I’d worked with collected much data,” he says. “A lot of them were just applying philosophy. But when I asked, ‘What are the results you’re getting; what are the average improvements?’ they didn’t know. It was, ‘We’re getting a few tenths off the 40-yard dash, some improvement on the vertical, and the bench press is going up.’ I realized that if I wanted to separate myself, to have accountability for the programming I was doing, I was going to keep data on every athlete.”
In those years Flaherty spent untold hours accumulating data on elite sprinters, using high-tech video-analysis software and a sophisticated and obscenely expensive piece of equipment called a “force-plate treadmill” (essentially a treadmill that also measures ground forces). “At first I thought that running was all biomechanical,” he says, “but it wasn’t until I started looking into all this data from every race that I realized it always came back to peak ground force—I can take someone and make him the most perfect biomechanical sprinter in the world, but if he doesn’t have a very good strength-to-weight ratio he’s not going to go anywhere.”
That ratio is the basis for his Force Number. Flaherty originally discovered this during a 2005 study of sprinters running on a force-plate treadmill. To explain, he shows me a series of slides on his computer illustrating the study data: The athletes, marked A through H, are ranked first by peak ground force generated, then by body weight, then again by the relationship between the two. (Mathematically speaking, that’s the Force Number: your peak ground force divided by your weight.)
(UCLA offensive lineman Jake Brendel.)
It should be noted that the highest Force Number doesn’t come from the athlete with the highest peak ground force, but the athlete with the highest peak ground force relative to his body weight. It’s an important distinction, and one he notes when showing me the next slide, which compares each athlete’s Force Number with his 100-meter sprint time. The correlation is, to be sure, perfect. The sprinter with the highest force number has the fastest time, the next-highest force number aligns with the next-fastest time, and so on, all the way down the line. He has since tested his force theory on more than 6,500 athletes and consistently found, with 99% accuracy, that the larger the Force Number, the stronger the athlete is, the faster he can run, and the higher he can jump.
But once Flaherty had discovered his metric, he found that it was difficult to calculate on a larger scale, given the methods he was using at the time. A force-plate treadmill is large, unwieldy, and wildly expensive. You can’t exactly check it on a plane or buy it in bulk. So he went looking for a universally available lift as a substitute for determining peak ground force. “I took the data I had from the force-plate treadmill and started correlating it with various exercises,” he says. “It wasn’t correlating to the squat, it wasn’t correlating to the front squat, it wasn’t correlating to the power clean or the leg press either.”
The answer, ultimately, was the hex-bar deadlift.
(Photo credit: James Michelfelder.)
Also known as the “trap-bar” deadlift, it gets its name from the hexagonal-shaped bar the lifter steps into, effectively allowing him to center himself over the weights (see above). Unlike a traditional straight-bar deadlift, a lift using the uniquely shaped hex-bar takes pressure off the lifter’s spine, lower back, and hamstrings. Also, because of the more balanced range of motion, out of every lift in the gym, it’s the one on which your body can lift the most weight. (Yes, even more than a squat.) Because the hex bar is so efficient, every rep utilizes 90% of skeletal muscle.
What’s more, these are the same muscles you rely on to run, jump high, and explode upward, fighting gravity.
When he ran the numbers, Flaherty found that the Force Number calculated from a one-rep max for the hex-bar deadlift yielded the exact same correlation as the ratio derived from force-plate treadmill numbers. He also discovered that the bigger your hex-bar deadlift, the bigger your Force Number. In other words: Congrats! You’re a better athlete. (For the record, Jamaican sprinter and reigning world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, holds the highest Force Number ever recorded: 3.9.)
In 2014, Flaherty used the hex-bar deadlift to skyrocket Manziel’s combine numbers. Manziel arrived at Flaherty’s camp with a maximum hex lift of 530 pounds, a vertical leap of 27.5 inches, and a 5.09-second 40-yard dash. Weighing 201 pounds, his Force Number was 2.39. After two months of Flaherty’s deadlift program, Manziel had packed on eight pounds of muscle—and could lift 680 pounds for a Force Number of 3.2. Official combine stats recorded Manziel with a 31.5-inch vertical leap and a 4.68-second 40-yard dash, an improvement of about 0.4 second.
At the high school in California, hex bars are everywhere, scattered about like weapons in an armory. Later that afternoon I watch first as NFL hopeful Jake Brendel, a 6’4″, 300-pound offensive lineman sporting a UCLA T-shirt and red Viking beard, steps into the center of one that’s stacked with so many weights, there’s no room for collars. He grips the handles, bends his knees, straightens his back, raises his chin. The bar elevates and then crashes down, over and over again, like a monstrous piston. I do the math in my mind: five 45-pounders on each side plus the bar itself over five reps means he’s lifted over a ton.
When the 23-year-old drops it for the last time and meanders his way to a box for a round of single-leg jumps, I ask him if he knew how much weight he was moving.
“No idea,” Brendel says, without breaking stride. “I just do what the man says.”
(Florida State linebacker Reggie Northrup.)
Thanks to the Formula, My Force Awakens
Finally it’s time for my own Flaherty-run training session. I enter the weight room, where a portable speaker pumps Lil Wayne as compact halfbacks, wiry receivers, and massive nose tackles rotate between sets of heavy bench presses and pullups. At 5’10” and 185 pounds, I feel like a man shrunk in an industrial dryer. But I get to work, kneading myself on a foam roller in advance of my deadlift session. This is my first workout of the day—meanwhile, Flaherty’s clients, following speed drills and a long round of various skill work run by a corps of position experts, are on their third.
Flaherty puts me through a few low-weight test runs of the hex-bar and settles on four sets of four reps at 365 pounds, around 90% of what he calculates is my training max of 405 pounds.
The lift feels as balanced and natural as it feels hard and satisfying; more than anything, I immediately feel the burn in my forearms and glutes. After a quick break, Flaherty cycles me through five reps per leg of single-leg seated box jumps. The rest between sets is way longer than I’d imagined it would be—four to five minutes—but Flaherty says it’s necessary for recovery when you’re working with weights this heavy.
He tells me that a good target range for the average guy is a Force Number of anywhere from 1.8 to 2.4, which is “a great place to be in terms of bone density, muscle mass, and overall relative strength, to allow them to do any activity and be at their peak.” So I’m pleased when Flaherty calculates my Force Number at 2.2, which he says is pretty good.
Now that I know my number and I’ve finished my hex-bar session, Flaherty leads me to the other main component of his workout: the fine-tuning. He puts me through a series of single- and double-leg jumps, then shows me some data on a laptop, pointing to a place where my figures plateau. Something’s out of whack, he says. So he stands me on the edge of a box and instructs me to balance on one leg, lowering for three seconds and raising for two, 15 reps per side, as he watches my range of motion.
“Your knees go valgus,” he finally says, apparently referring to the inward rotation that gives me a brief knock-kneed stance on my descent. “That’s why your numbers level off. We’ll fix this.”
Like most trainers, Flaherty is a stickler for form, and he calls these microscopic movement dysfunctions “power leaks.” I have more than a single power leak, including one that stems from an underdeveloped vastus medialis obliques, otherwise known as the teardrop-shaped part of the quadriceps that sits inside the knee.
To ultimately improve my hex-bar deadlift, he says, I need to “plug those leaks” and restore balance and efficiency of movement with a series of smaller exercises.
(According to Flaherty, the popular canon of complex bilateral movements, like squats and Olympic lifts, actually mask those little deficiencies, so it’s important to look for them.) So I do a series of stepping exercises using a theraband with many slow, controlled reps and hip exercises in which I lie on my side and rotate my legs forward and back, working the hip muscle at the joint. These controlled, unilateral exercises look to the naked eye like simple rehab work, but Flaherty assures me I’ll soon hate them as much as everyone else in the gym. He’s not wrong. During the slow stepping exercises, my whole body burns and trembles as I try to balance. Though I detest squatting in general, I find myself curiously fantasizing about being under the weight of a bar instead of hovering all jelly-legged.
In a back room afterward, I catch up with Flaherty again as the athletes around us inhale cubic yards of food and lounge on couches watching SportsCenter. I still can’t get over how elementary the whole thing seems. Flaherty, with a scientist’s cool confidence, assures me it seems simple only because it’s so effective.
“I can work 90% of skeletal muscle with just one exercise,” he says. “That negates a lot of other exercises you incorporate for diversity. I can add 15 pounds of muscle to your quads, your glutes, your hamstrings through single-leg body-weight exercises and make you stronger in all those other lifts. So if I can do that, do you even need to do snatches?”
And I’m not the only one who appreciates the simplicity. “For athletes, it’s really easy because they have a number,” Flaherty says. “Like, ‘My strength-to-weight ratio needs to be 3.2 for me to run a 4.5-second 40 for the rest of my life.’ Marcus Mariota does the hex-bar deadlift programming one day a week to maintain his number. But he’s also doing the Tennessee Titans weight-room program, which is nothing like mine, but it all works perfectly.
“There’s a unifying aspect to this,” he continues. “Whether you’re a football player looking to run a fast 40 or just an everyday athlete looking to be more efficient in distance runs or get through your workouts easier. When your Force Number improves, almost any athletic endeavor improves, and at the same rate.”
Only once over the course of two days do I see Flaherty bristle.
It happens early in the trip, when I casually drop the phrase “celebrity trainer.” He doesn’t like the term. His programming is based on research, he says, insisting that people should listen to him only because of what he’s saying, not because of whom he trains. But then my brain ping-pongs from Russell Wilson to Serena Williams, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston.
There are a lot of championships and playoff appearances among that group. Like Flaherty says: The data never lies.
Nail the hex-bar deadlift with these three tips from Men’s Fitness Training Director Sean Hyson.
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