Does Tom Brady's Focus on Muscle Pliability Actually Work?
STACK interviewed Dr. Seedman for this article, which originally appeared on stack.com on 5/24/16.
At 37 years old, Tom Brady is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL. Some of you may balk at this statement, but facts are facts—the guy can flat out play.
Much of Brady's success can be attributed to his health. For most of his career, he has stayed relatively injury-free, and he's actually shown improved speed and quickness compared his early years, when he was abysmally slow.
How is this possible? Besides his insanely focused nutrition regimen, Brady credits his work with Alex Guerrero.
Guerrero is not a traditional strength and conditioning coach. According to the Boston Globe, he is a trained masseuse who was schooled in Chinese medicine. Brady considers him his "body coach." When Guerrero was asked by the The New York Times if his methodologies are contrary to traditional strength and conditioning methods, he responded, "most of the time."
Brady and Guerrero co-own TB12 Sports Therapy Center. According to their website and several interviews, the training methodology is centered on improving muscle pliability.
What is Muscle Pliability?
"Pliable muscles are softer, longer and more resilient: they help insulate the body against injury and accelerate post-injury recovery," explains TB12's website.
Brady told the Times, "If there's so much pressure, just constant tugging on your tendons and ligaments, you're going to get hurt. Like with a kid, when they fall, they don't get hurt. Their muscles are soft. When you get older, you lose that."
As a strength and conditioning coach, I was curious about this terminology. Over the years, I've talked with hundreds of experts, and I'd never heard the phrase "muscle pliability" mentioned by any of them. It's not taught in the textbooks, and an internet search turned up only a few results, most of them related to Brady.
To get to the bottom of this concept, I consulted Dr. John Rusin and Dr. Joel Seedman, two of the best in the business when it comes to strength training and exercise physiology.
Both experts agreed that muscle pliability is an ambiguous term and could mean many different things. They also agreed that it's likely an umbrella term for several qualities, including flexibility, mobility, neural tone and length-tension relationship.
Flexibility refers to a muscle's ability to lengthen. A more flexible muscle is able to lengthen further than a tight muscle. That said, there's an optimal level of flexibility. It wouldn't be ideal if Brady had the flexibility of a gymnast since he needs stability to withstand tackles and to move explosively.
Mobility is often confused with flexibility, but it refers to functional movement. A mobile athlete can move his or her joints in the required ranges of motion for their sport and training. Improving mobility requires a focus on flexibility, muscle activation, core strength and eliminating strength imbalances.
We aren't talking about muscle tone in the aesthetic sense, but rather the activity of a muscle group. If there's high neural tone, then there's more tension in a muscle and it becomes shorter. Reducing neural tone allows a muscle to relax.
"Decreasing neural tone of tissues should carry over to functional activities, increase usable ranges of motion, open up active ranges of motion and allow an athlete to not get bound down with chronic aches and pains," explains Rusin.
Your muscles have an optimal length, and failing to train to achieve this length prevents them from producing strength in the optimal range of motion for your skills.
"There's an optimal length that a muscle needs to be firing at, and you can make the muscle too long or too short," says Seedman. "If you have too much shortening of the muscle, it won't produce enough force. If it's too lengthened, you will lose force."
This is improved through eccentric training, where you control the lowering portion of a rep for several seconds. Many strength programs fail to account for this portion of the rep, resulting in overly short muscles that can only produce strength in limited ranges of motion.
Individually, these are all important aspects of a traditional strength and conditioning program and should always be factored in. It appears that Brady and Guerrero have lumped them together into one term—pliability. Maybe it's just how Guerrero does things, or maybe they created a training philosophy and needed a catch-all marketing phrase.
Is Training Muscle Pliability a Viable Training Method?
We couldn't find a single study on the performance or health benefits of muscle pliability. However, each of the above inferred qualities of muscle pliability is valid, and improving them should enhance sports performance and health.
Improving flexibility and mobility are no-brainers. It would be irresponsible not to focus on these essential qualities in your training. Your muscles and joints should be able to move through the range of motions required for your sport. If they cannot, you run the risk of limiting your ability to perform basic sports skills, which can lead to technique issues, impaired performance and possibly an injury.
Brady seems go to extra lengths to improve these qualities, but we suspect he's not far from the mainstream.
Where Brady seems to go against the grain is how he approaches strength training. He doesn't lift heavy weight out of fear of creating short and overactive muscles. From a traditionalist's standpoint, this philosophy might cause a brief fit of rage.
"Putting your body through a response where it has to get stronger—there's nothing bad about that," says Rusin.
However, Brady might have had a poor experience with a strength and conditioning program that led him to embrace Guerrero's unique philosophy.
"I understand where he's coming from, because the type of strength training that's performed in a lot of strength and conditioning settings causes the muscles to get overly tight," says Seedman. "Some pro guys come to me and show me their form and it's pretty bad. That would definitely cause a muscle to get tight, get spastic and lose its mobility, flexibility, pliability qualities—whatever you want to call it."
"Unfortunately, so few people do proper training that they don't have a grasp of what proper training actually does for the muscle," Seedman adds.
So what do Brady's workouts look like? They are a bit of a mystery. Besides a brief description of a resistance band routine he did on vacation and a photo of him doing a Lunge with a sandbag on his back, his training methods are a secret. However, a large component of Brady's muscle pliability training seems to include Guerrero's unique massage techniques. After an apparent serious ankle injury suffered in practice, Brady was immediately tended to by Guerrero and he didn't miss a game.
However, Brady is a pretty big guy at 225 pounds. He can't just perform mobility drills and get massages and expect to stay strong enough for football. He most likely performs explosive movements with moderate resistance and an emphasis on range of motion rather than heavy barbell exercises, which he believes put too much stress on the body.
Brady told GQ: "So to me, it's about having all of my muscles function at 100 percent. Getting them all to expand and contract, always getting great muscle function to create that system in your body that can do it for a long period of time."
It's hard to argue with the results of Brady's training methods. He is playing at an elite level well beyond the expected longevity of a quarterback; and except for his 2008 ACL tear, he hasn't suffered a serious injury—and the ACL tear was caused by contact, not wear and tear. And Brady has expressed his desire to play well into his 40s given how good his body feels.
There are many different philosophies on training, and trainers don't have to agree on every point. Some prefer powerlifting, some prefer corrective exercises—and then there's muscle pliability.
Apparently it works for Brady, and he's given glowing reviews of Guerrero's methodologies.
"I have a tremendous belief in Alex and what he has accomplished with me. In the 10 or 11 years we've been working together, he has never been wrong.'' —Brady told WEEI, via the Boston Globe.
"I just know that I'm sitting here at age 37 and I feel perfect at the end of 16 games. My arm doesn't hurt, my legs don't hurt. My teammates, they're hurting." —Brady told The New York Times.
We hope Brady releases more info on his muscle pliability training, because it sounds intriguing. The traditionalist in me is naturally skeptical, but he and Guerrero might just be onto something. Hopefully time will tell.