For NFL Stars and Celebrities, There’s No Off-Season

The New York Times by Courtney Rubin
May 13, 2015

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — On the windowless second floor of the Pink Taco restaurant and bar on Sunset Boulevard, behind an unmarked gray door, a dozen N.F.L. players were warming up for a two-hour workout, attempting to speedwalk with thick blue elastic bands binding their ankles together.

 
Marcedes Lewis, a Jacksonville Jaguars tight end, during a workout at the Unbreakable Performance Center, a gym in West Hollywood, California. Photo Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times.

Marcedes Lewis, a Jacksonville Jaguars tight end, during a workout at the Unbreakable Performance Center, a gym in West Hollywood, California.
Photo Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times.

 

The innocent-looking bands set the glutes, hips and groin aflame, though the athletes — among them Dashon Goldson of the Washington Redskins, Lane Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles and Kevin Ogletree,most recently of the New York Giants — were learning not to show it.

“Neutral face!” Jay Glazer yelled, miming wiping away a grimace with his hand. “Don’t ever let me see that I’m hurting you.” Later, Mr. Glazer, the Fox Sports N.F.L. senior writer, explained: “Football isn’t just a physical game. It’s playing a mental game, and you want the other guy to look over and go, ‘Man, that guy doesn’t look tired at all.’ ”

This is the Unbreakable Performance Center, a semisecret gym where, safe from indiscreet Instagrammers, N.F.L. players hoping for a winning edge are whipped into shape in the off-season using a mixture of zero tech (medicine balls) and futuristic equipment (a cryotherapy chamber) that makes the place look as if NASA set up shop in a garage.

The gym is also where Usher boxes, Sean Combs does speed drills, and plenty of finance guys (and some women), actors and media bosses swing Bulgarian bags — brown banana-shaped sandbags that weigh up to 84 pounds — in part because they want to sweat (and fist-bump) with elite athletes, not just train like them. The “Soho House of gyms” is the phrase everyone, members included, uses to describe the place, and yes, they expect a waiting list soon. The cost is $2,000 per month for unlimited personal training; classes are a more affordable $25 each.

“Usually, having to talk to people is the most annoying part of the gym,” said the actor Jerry Ferrara (best known as Turtle, the heftiest sidekick on HBO’s “Entourage”), who trained at Unbreakable to prepare for his role as the boxer Arturo Gatti in Mark Wahlberg’s forthcoming biopic. “But you’re meeting really interesting people, and everyone is here to work.”

Workouts at Unbreakable (one rejected name: Sunset Physique) are designed to push clients further and further, but without the amount of jumping and pounding that can destroy big guys’ (or anyone’s) knees and backs.

“We’re trying to build you up but make it as easy on your body as possible,” said Mr. Glazer, 45, one of the gym’s owners.

To tax the heart and muscles without overly taxing the joints, some members use the ReAct trainer, which Mr. Glazer learned about from his friend Michael Strahan, the co-host of ABC’s “Live With Kelly and Michael,” who played 15 seasons with the New York Giants. The machine acts a bit like a surfboard, allowing gymgoers to squat and work the core without heavy weights. On the east side of the gym, separated by a wall from one of the Pink Taco’s kitchens, are the Sproings: three treadmills that minimize knee injuries from running because they have the surface of a bouncy castle. (If that sounds almost fun, think again. The class is only 30 minutes because no one can last longer than that, and the instructor is affectionately referred to as “the teacher of death.”)

Jay Glazer, Unbreakable’s impresario, in front of a mural depicting some of the gym’s owners. Photo Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times.

Jay Glazer, Unbreakable’s impresario, in front of a mural depicting some of the gym’s owners.
Photo Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times.

Instead of the old 30-minute postworkout recovery ice bath, athletes — sweat carefully toweled off, and dressed in compression shorts, gloves and socks — endure two minutes in the giant silver bullet of a cryotherapy chamber. The temperature is minus 270 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than winter on Antarctica or on Mars. It is said to reduce inflammation and speed muscle recovery.

“You have this feeling of euphoric bliss when you get out because of the blood rush,” the manager Gabe Rangel said.

Workouts are tightly controlled, through classes or personal training only; there’s no coming in on your own to log a halfhearted routine while reading a magazine and checking Facebook. Sessions are done in the shadow of a not-so-subtle reminder of the gym’s pedigree: a 10-foot-high, 35-foot-long mural featuring some of the club’s owners, including the former N.F.L. All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher and the volleyball player Lindsey Berg, whose left triceps bears an ATH/PEK/LHR tattoo, airport codes of the three cities in which she competed in the Olympics. The U.F.C. Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell, who helps oversee Unbreakable’s mixed-martial-arts-style training, glowers from the mural’s center. Mr. Glazer’s mug is hidden — “intentionally,” he said — behind weight racks.

“We will find your breaking point and move it and move it and move it so when you go back to training camp or your recording studio, you say: ‘Man, this isn’t tough. That was tough.’ ” Mr. Glazer said cheerfully. Despite the intensity of the workouts, there is little doom in the place. “He is the ultimate motivator,” Mr. Ferrara said of Mr. Glazer. “It’s not like the movie ‘Whiplash.’ ”

Unlike most other high-end gyms, this isn’t the place to go for pampering. There’s no spalike bathroom or juice bar, but in the “players’ lounge” — a corner with a couple of sofas and a TV perpetually tuned to a sporting event — there’s a closet full of bubble-gum-pink protein powder that members dump into their shaker bottles. (Elsewhere, there’s also a secret tunnel that leads to the Chateau Marmont, though that’s a holdover from the building’s storied past, which includes a stint as the Roxbury, a ’90s celebrity-magnet nightclub, and before that, a supper club where Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck and Charlie Chaplin hung out.)

The dominant vibe at Unbreakable is locker room. No one escapes a good-natured insult. (“Diddy walks in here and we just crush him, but he’s a pretty easy target,” Mr. Glazer said of Mr. Combs.) Challenges spring up constantly: the actor Armie Hammer sparred with the former N.F.L. linebacker Shawne Merriman (Mr. Hammer ended up with a shiner), and Mr. Combs raced Mr. Goldson (Mr. Combs won, but he had a significant head start).

Mr. Ferrara said the place was surprisingly unintimidating. “These football players aren’t looking at me like, ‘What the hell is this little man doing here?’ ” he said. One approached him recently to give him some pointers on jump squats.

Mr. Glazer, Unbreakable’s impresario, showman and lifeblood, never set out to train athletes, let alone open a gym. He was an M.M.A. enthusiast who won a gold medal at the World Championships of Submission Fighting in 2005, but looking like the victim of a fight was not compatible with his budding career in television, and in 2007, his boss insisted he stop. He was already hanging out with football players, so he offered to train them.

His first client was Jared Allen, then a Kansas City Chiefs defensive end, who, after M.M.A.-style training, went, Mr. Glazer said, from “a big stiff lineman with no hip mobility” and just seven and a half quarterback sacks to one who pulled off 15½ the next season, the best year of his career at the time. Mr. Allen gave some credit to his off-season training with Mr. Glazer, and word quickly spread.

N.F.L. players in a training session. Photo Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times.

N.F.L. players in a training session.
Photo Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times.

 

He trained N.F.L. athletes at various gyms around Los Angeles until last year, when he heard that the Pink Taco owner, Harry Morton, wanted to rent out the bar’s less popular second floor to a fitness studio. Mr. Glazer, who was struggling to follow instructions that he rest while recovering from back surgery, sprang into action, where he has remained.

During a 45-minute conversation, he also managed to take calls from the N.F.L. front office, handle the logistics of hosting a Passover Seder for 50 people, scold a wealth-management guy for being late for a workout and trade text messages with the New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who was coming to town and wanted to train.

“Perfect!!!” typed Mr. Glazer, who punctuates nearly every sentence (written or spoken) that way.

He greeted the Oakland Raiders’ Taiwan Jones, arriving with his pit bull Titus. The dog promptly spit up on the floor. “This place has become like the kennel club of L.A.,” Mr. Glazer muttered, eyeing the collection of dogs napping in the players’ lounge.

He called out, possibly for the benefit of a reporter: “Hey, we have a rule here. We don’t mind if you throw up or you bleed as long as you clean it up. The same goes for your dog.” (Mr. Jones did as he was told.)

Mr. Glazer then turned his attention to the Eagles’ Mr. Johnson, putting him through a pummeling drill drawn from Greco-Roman wrestling. Mr. Glazer is fond of reminding people that he’s “a 5-foot-7-inch Jew” (except when he says he’s 5-foot-7⅛), so his matchup with the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Mr. Johnson looked approximately like a dachshund taking on a Great Dane. But Mr. Glazer was relentless, and for Mr. Johnson to triumph, he had to get his hips lower than Mr. Glazer’s, no mean feat. In his first two days of training with Mr. Glazer, Mr. Johnson threw up nine times from his efforts to hold his own.

“I hadn’t ever done it before, and I was out of shape,” said Mr. Johnson, who arrived at Unbreakable after a conversation with his agent about changing his training in the off-season. He needed no convincing of the value of Unbreakable’s style of training.

“Most of the time when a lineman gets into trouble, it’s because you’re too high and you lose a lot of power,” Mr. Johnson said. “If I can stay low, I’m in a good position. If all you do is lift weights, you get strong like that, but you can’t utilize it.”

Mr. Johnson headed over to join the N.F.L. training class — motto: “There is no off-season” — and Mr. Glazer pointed out various players, reeling off statistics and success stories. He shook his head, recalling a conversation with an athlete with roughly two years left in his career who has so far been reluctant to commit to training six days a week.

Mr. Glazer said he asked him: “Thirty years from now, when your kids see your team photo, who do you want them to see? Do you want them to see just some guy playing in the N.F.L., or do you want them to see greatness?”