Packers paying their dues

Thirty or more years ago preparing for the grind of the NFL season was often done in training camp. Players in that era worked construction, sold cars, or were bartenders during the off-season to earn extra money. Work came before working out.

Those days are long gone. With six- and seven-figure salaries, and guaranteed bonuses at stake, an edge that many players pursue to prepare for the league's 17-week marathon is the voluntary off-season workout program.

Green Bay's program began in late March and concludes in early July. It is established in accordance with rules set by the National Football League and NFL Players Association. Players are allowed to use the team's facilities up to four hours a day, and teams are allowed to work with players up to two of those four hours. In recent off-seasons, the Packers also have a nutritionist visit the team's facilities once a week to answer questions and counsel players with their off-season diets.

If a player participates in at least four workouts a week, he is paid $100 per day. The cash is good for a free agent trying to get by financially and make the team. It also might help increase his chances of making the roster. However, the strength and conditioning is the program's biggest asset, preparing many for a season that can last more than six months.

While genes and a little luck help, players like Brett Favre and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila have rarely missed a game in their careers because of their off-season workout programs.

"What we try to do is maximize their potential," said strength and conditioning coach Barry Rubin. "It's nothing magical. The thing we're trying to do is make them maximize their strength, their power, their quickness, their speed, their speed endurance, and their flexibility. We try to maximize that through our program. There is a combination of a lot of things that you have to do. It's not lifting weights and that's it."

About 30 players remained in Green Bay at the start of the program this off-season. That number swelled to about 50 after the NFL Draft. Those who participate in Green Bay focus mainly on building a "base" for the season ahead through a combination of strength and cardio training. Monday and Wedesday workouts emphasize lateral movements, following by lower body weight workouts. Tuesday and Thursday sessions are for straight ahead movements followed by upper body weight workouts. Every Friday is yoga and Pilates day at Packer headquarters. A local instructor conducts a session that helps players with their flexibility.

Rubin has the full support of coach and general manager Mike Sherman for the off-season program. Younger players are encouraged to participate and make use of the team's state-of-the-art facilities. "What I try to do is, if you've been in the league three years or less or if you're new, we want you in Green Bay working with our strength and conditioning coaches," Sherman said. "The older guys workout at their own facility."

Rubin, along with his assistants, Mark Lovat and Vince Workman, will travel to the off-season homes of some veteran players for a few days periodically to double-check their programs. Some veterans are very disciplined with their off-season workout habits and are not on Rubin's off-season itinerary.

Some veterans will stop in Green Bay to participate for a week or two, then return to their off-season home.

Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is a prime example of a player who has benefitted from the off-season workout program. The defensive end has been a regular in the program since he was drafted by Green Bay in 2000. Gbaja-Biamila weighed in at around 240 pounds as a rookie, but has stuck with the program and now weighs between 255 and 260. Along the way he has developed into one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL and has only missed one game in the last three seasons due to an injury.

Other younger players like defensive linemen James Lee and Donnell Washington have used the workouts to lose weight and get better prepared physically for the upcoming season.

"We put it on James Lee to lose weight. He's down to 325, working hard every single day," said defensive coordinator Jim Bates. "Donnell (Washington) is down to 320 and is fit as a bull. There conditioning has improved over the last five weeks. … Those are good signs."

Nutritionist offers tips
A key to a leaner and stronger body is a proper diet. All the effort and sweat a player puts into his off-season program can be eroded by a poor diet. For the last four off-seasons, Laura Mirhashemi has visited the team's facilities once a week to help players who have lost a grip on their weight.

Mirhashemi has a Bachelors degree in nutritional science and an associate degree culinary arts from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She will guide players with everything on what to eat when eating out, proper supplements, and which aisles to avoid at Piggly Wiggly.

"I explain what parts of the grocery store to stay away from," Mirhashemi said. "Basically I tell them, ‘When you're going through the grocery store, fill up on fruits and vegetables and lean meat, so you have that food in your house and that's what you're eating.'"

While it is easy for players to maintain their weight during the season because of the schedule and practices, some players struggle to consume fewer calories from February to June. Mirhashemi steps in by advising those players with a menu plan and its components, including healthier snacks to munch on before or after workouts. Her goal is to get the players "back on track" with their weight issue before training camp begins.

Supplements are part of a healthy diet of whole foods. Rubin has a comprehensive supplement package designed for pro athletes. It includes enzymes, essential fatty acids, multiple vitamins, and more.

Green Bay's off-season workout program helps players who are hungry to succeed in the NFL by paying the price in the weight room and at the dinner table.

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