Home SHAPE Rebuilding QB1: How powerlifter transformed Browns’ Baker Mayfield

Rebuilding QB1: How powerlifter transformed Browns’ Baker Mayfield

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Nate Ulrich
The Repository, Canton, Ohio
(TNS)

Baker Mayfield ordered tough love from the world champion powerlifter who was charged with whipping him into shape.

And CJ McFarland obliged.

“There were definitely some moments when I wanted to tell CJ to F off,” Mayfield told the Beacon Journal by phone Wednesday. “But I told him from the very beginning, ‘Push me.’ That’s how I’ve always worked.”

With Mayfield on a mission to prove he is the franchise quarterback the Browns envisioned when they drafted him first overall two years ago, he employed McFarland as his private strength and conditioning coach for eight weeks in the buildup to training camp. In those couple of months, Mayfield lost seven pounds of fat and gained four pounds of muscle, decreasing his body fat percentage from 18 to 12, McFarland said.

Coming off a year of regression, Mayfield will head into the 2020 season opener Sunday in Baltimore looking like he did in 2018, when he set an NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes.

Mayfield, 25, noticed significant gains when he finished working with McFarland.

“Arm strength, for one. I’ve always said I had a strong arm, but arm strength comes from core, too, and being able to have that great stability and follow through,” Mayfield said. “I honestly felt quicker and faster. Just being lighter obviously helps — you know, the weight thing — but just being more explosive and shifty.”

All of it sounds good to McFarland, but don’t dare call Mayfield skinny.

In January, a photograph of Mayfield, New York Giants star running back Saquon Barkley and a few other vacationing NFL players went viral online because they were shirtless, and, well, Mayfield’s “dad bod” looked out of place among his friends’ shredded physiques.

“The first time that I saw that picture of him and Saquon was when everybody was sending me all these articles about this transformation, so that was when the jokes started,” McFarland said Sept. 5 during an interview with the Beacon Journal on Zoom.

“I would tell him, ‘Hey, I’m really tired of all these articles coming out saying that you’re skinny. It’s offensive to me that they’re saying you look skinny. I prefer something like, I don’t know, looks a little more athletic, looks jacked.’

“Then he would always come back and be like, ‘I do look skinny compared to this picture,’ and he actually sent me that picture.”

McFarland began working at Onnit Sports Performance in Mayfield’s hometown of Austin, Texas, in 2015 and ascended to head strength and conditioning coach two years later. He parlayed the job into internships with the strength staffs of Texas State University, the Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers.

McFarland also won the men’s single-ply, 275-pound open division of the Drug Tested 2019 International Powerlifting League World Championships in Limerick, Ireland. The 6-foot McFarland weighed in at 263 pounds and recorded a bench press of 485 pounds, a squat of 589.7 pounds and a dead lift of 628.3 pounds.

Powerlifting feats have given McFarland, 28, a plethora of content for his social media channels, and he established a connection with Mayfield’s older brother, Matt, a few years ago through Instagram. McFarland began messaging Matt in late January about possibly training Baker in the offseason.

But the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the gym before anything materialized between the parties. When the facility reopened in late May, McFarland reached out to Matt again and heard back from both Mayfield brothers the same day. The global heath crisis prompted the Browns and other NFL clubs to implement a virtual offseason program, though Baker needed a place to physically prepare in earnest for camp.

The planets aligned for a partnership with McFarland because Baker and his wife, Emily, spent much of the offseason living in Texas. The couple had bought a house there, but their move was postponed due to the pandemic. As a result, they lived with Baker’s parents for four months and with a friend for another month.

As soon as McFarland and Baker united, they set goals to cut the player’s body fat and increase his power and strength. Matt also took part in the workouts, which McFarland described as “brutal,” just the way Baker wanted them.

“It was great to be back in my hometown and being comfortable and finding somebody like CJ that’s all about work, no BS, nothing else,” Mayfield said. “There’s no secret solution besides just putting the work in.

“He handles writing the workouts up. He actually got in touch with [the Browns’] strength staff to see specific things that they might want to include. He’s not the ego-type of strength coach who says, ‘This is my way. This is the only way we’re going to do it.’ He’s so willing to listen and adapt and create new things and just ask me how my body’s doing.”

For two months, the Mayfield brothers trained with McFarland four days a week. Each session began at 7 a.m. and lasted for an hour and a half.

“Everybody has those days when you wake up and you might not necessarily want to go in there and work out,” Mayfield said. “My brother was going in pretty much every morning, too, so [there was] that little competitive drive between family members.”

Mayfield’s body needed revamping after last year, when the Browns collapsed under enormous expectations en route to finishing 6-10. His performance played a huge part in the dud of a season.

When Mayfield spoke to new Browns coach Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt early in the offseason, they emphasized their scheme demands movement skills of the quarterback because play-action passing is a staple.

Not only did Mayfield train under McFarland until the eve of his camp reporting date in late July, but he also altered his eating habits beginning in June.

The next month, Mayfield turned to Angie Asche of Eleat Sports Nutrition for further guidance about his diet. Since then, Emily Mayfield has been using grocery lists, menus and recipes provided by Asche to routinely cook healthy meals for her husband. Baker eliminated much of the Mexican food with which he fell in love growing up in Texas. Emily has filled the void with Asche’s recipe for Mexican chicken casserole. Asian chicken lettuce wraps are another hit.

“Baker and I both love food,” Emily told the Beacon Journal by phone Thursday, “so it took dedication on his part to crack down and really clean it up.

“He put in so much work in the offseason in the gym with CJ. It had to be a total lifestyle change.”

Mayfield’s improved physical condition doesn’t guarantee he’ll rebound from 21 interceptions (with 22 touchdown passes), a completion percentage of 59.4 and a passer rating of 78.8, but it should allow him to maneuver in the pocket and escape sacks the way he often did as a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Oklahoma and during his first season with the Browns.

“I predict that he’ll be doing a lot more of those style of plays,” McFarland said.

Listed as 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Mayfield revealed in May he played at a heavier weight last year than he ever had previously. Some of it was by design. He thought packing on pounds would better equip him to endure punishment from defenders. But some of it was a byproduct of a wedding and honeymoon. Nagging injuries also prevented him from working out like he normally would, so managing weight became more challenging. At the same time, his footwork and passing accuracy suffered.

“Being at that body weight that he was at last year, that’s not the correct route to go,” said McFarland, who has a master’s degree in applied exercise science from Concordia University Chicago. “We were able to kind of reduce some of that body fat percentage, so that way he could become more powerful, more explosive, have better speed and then also really structure around building his ligaments and tendons and his muscle tissue, so that way he can take those hits the appropriate way.”

Mayfield’s hips and shoulders were areas of focus, too.

“We do a lot of single-joint movements … that are going to target those specific tissues around those joints, and that’ll help stabilize the joint,” McFarland said.

Conversely, McFarland DID NOT run a clinic on bench pressing.

“With quarterbacks or pitchers or anybody who you want to take care of their shoulders, we don’t bench press, and if we bench press, it’s going be some complicated movement on dumbbell bench press,” McFarland said. “So Matt got a little annoyed because I think his chest got a little bit smaller, almost to the size of Baker’s. That’s kind of the running joke between us all is that Baker’s got a super small chest compared to Matt.”

In all seriousness, though, Mayfield has restored his physical appearance from two years ago, when the Browns thought they had found a long-term solution at the game’s most important position.

“The amount of work that it takes to build QB1 is a lot,” McFarland said.

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