NFL Trainer Tom Zheng Shares His Tips for Helping You Find Your Fitness Edge

In a sport as contact heavy as football, Tom Zheng has the task of making sure each player on the San Francisco 49ers is operating at their individual optimal from a biomechanical standpoint with a focus on decreasing the rate of non-contact, soft-tissue injuries.

In his third season as the 49ers’ functional performance therapist, Tom Zheng says the most rewarding aspects of the job is observing and overseeing the physiological improvements of a player from Week One until the close of the season due in part to the reconditioning programs he and the functional performance staff tailor to each player.

While most of us aren’t world-class athletes, some of the same principles of training, knowing when to push through or scale back, along with proper recovery still apply. The holiday season is sure to do a number on the waistlines of many, which will lead to an onslaught of traffic at your local gyms as we all attempt to stay loyal to our New Year’s resolutions.

Tom Zheng shared his tips on how to get started on your fitness journey, how to get the best out of your training, and how to stay consistent.

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Begin moving

The primary difference between somebody who works a nine-to-five versus someone who’s an athlete for their profession is just the amount of movement and load you put on the body. If you’re sitting for eight-plus hours a day, you’re stuck in a sedentary position. So, what happens is your muscle fibers get really used to it because they’re in that position for hours, but they also start shortening and restricting a lot of movement in the joints that a person normally should be able to do.

Your body is supposed to be able to hinge and rotate. You’re also supposed to be able to load the joints. When joints lack a range of motion, now you open yourself up to strains. If the hinge doesn’t work, now you’re pulling on those muscle fibers a little harder than they should.

The best thing I can say is break up the sedentary lifestyle. Move around the entire day if you can and do different types of motions, not just walking. You always want to do lateral movements, rotational movements. I’m a big fan of stretching periodically throughout the day, switching your sitting position. Let’s say instead of just a chair, sit on an exercise ball where you can rotate your pelvis up and down. That will prepare you a lot more than just warming up prior to going into a lift and run.

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Start slow and chip away

You don’t want to just jump into a new workout routine because you want it to last. It’s like going into a diet. You jump into a diet, you do this drastic change to what you’re intaking and you’ll lose a good amount of weight at first, but then it will slowly taper. If you go back to your regular diet, you’re going to have that weight gain again. It’s the same thing with any new workout regimen — you want to start slow and start building your base. You want to get a good amount of sleep and make sure your body feels good. So maybe don’t jump right into the weights. Get a little bit of movement in there. Maybe, some stretching, some yoga, or crawls; something that requires you to use your whole body but doesn’t put a lot of load on it so you don’t have any setbacks.

You want to start chipping away at what the sedentary lifestyle has done to your body so that when you’re ready to go into weightlifting, running, even that Zumba class you’ve been wanting to join, to burn the fat, you’re going to have a smoother journey, it’s going to last, and you’ll be less likely to go, “You know what? I’ve done this for two weeks. I feel super sore and fatigued. Let me take five days off.” That five days will turn into a week, then two weeks and then you don’t really go back into it. Start slow and go from there.

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Proper sleep and fuel are critical

You want to build a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is sleep because that’s where a lot of the repair for your body happens, both muscular and in your brain as well. During deep sleep, that’s the only time your brain produces new neurons in your hypothalamus and that helps with short- and long-term memory. Sleep is really the only time your muscles are getting repaired by your body. Without proper sleep, you can work out as much as you want but that’s going to lead to fatigue, it will impact your appetite negatively and impact your rest negatively. Yes, sleep is paramount.

Think of nutrition as the second level of that pyramid. If you’re not properly fueling your body, you’re not going to get the mass growth or the adaptation in the muscle fibers that you want because you only get what you put in. It’s like taking your BMW to the gas station and putting the lowest-quality gas in there. It will run but it’s not going to run optimally, and in the long haul, it’s going to end up effecting the car negatively.

Since the pandemic, it’s common to have had your sleep impacted negatively because of working from home and having your entire schedule thrown off. You’re indoors more and junk food is more accessible. The biggest benefit of being at home, though, is your time and space is your own. You can do things on the side that you wouldn’t be able to do normally in an office. You can do some corrective things, you can stretch, roll out, yoga and things like that throughout the day that require a little bit of demand and some movement won’t just help physically, but mentally as well.

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Knowing how to use recovery products

I would recommend foam rolling as a warmup prior to exercise. A good rule of thumb is you always want to do a little bit of movement first, get the blood flowing, and get the muscles moving. Then you want to do a little bit of that self-myofascial release either with a recover tool like a Theragun, a foam roller, and then after that, you want to go through a dynamic warmup just so you take your body through something that gets all the joints moving, gets your neuromuscular system running so then you’re able to coordinate complex movements.

It’s also a great idea to do static stretching after you’ve worked out and then apply the same principles. Let’s say you did a heavy squat day. I know it’s so easy to be like, “OK, I’ve put in my work. I’m good and I’m going to go home and sit.” The issue is when you sit, your muscle fibers remain the same length. Now that you’ve created micro tears in them, a lot of lactate and biological waste stays there. That’s why you’re so sore the next couple of days. You can mitigate a lot of that by stretching out the primary muscle groups that you’ve worked, applying the self-myofascial release to them and as a personal favorite, I always try and correct alignment before you go into sedentary activity after you’ve worked out. The chances are your hips, shoulders, neck, and back will be a little out of place.

One of the newest recovery tools the 49ers have adopted for the players is the BEMER pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy. PEMF improves circulation, resulting in accelerated recovery and performance on the field.

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When to either scale back or push through

Here’s another good rule: If something doesn’t feel stable, or if you feel a sharpness with any type of motion, that’s not just general soreness. Let’s say you did a heavy run day. It’s pretty normal to have sore calves, hamstrings, and quads. But, if you feel a sharp sensation in the calf when you’re going up or down stairs, that’s a general red flag and you might want to take a couple of days off, do some icing and soft-tissue work. Not around the area, but around the surrounding area. A lot of it is just body awareness.

It’s the same thing with professional athletes. If you’re feeling like something is out of place or you can’t do something — sometimes they have to push through it depending on what point of the season you’re in, what sport you play, but at the end of the day, you want to do everything you’re able to do to mitigate something that’s going to take you out for a prolonged period of time. If that means missing a day of working out, that’s perfectly OK.

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