The making of Jonathan Taylor: How Colts star RB took his body to another level this offseason

Joel A. Erickson
Indianapolis Star
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INDIANAPOLIS — The day the Colts reported for training camp, Jonathan Taylor stepped out of the machine that haunted his thoughts for six months.

The Bod Pod.

A cylinder that looks like something out of a science fiction movie. A cryochamber to put somebody in a deep sleep, maybe; or the cocoon that helped turn Steve Rogers into Captain America.

“You’ve got to squeeze in it,” Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich said. “You get in there with just tights and a hat to hold your hair down, and it basically tells you your body composition, lean muscle mass, body fat percentage.”

Some NFL teams care deeply about weight. The Colts are obsessed with body composition.

Rusty Jones, the team’s director of sports performance, has compiled three decades of data on body composition. He knows the ideal target range for every position on the field.

To the untrained eye, Taylor arrived in Indianapolis as a rookie last season looking like a running back created in a lab. Big. Fast. Powerful.

A member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in pads.

The rookie got off to a slow start, but the moment he got comfortable in the Colts offense, Taylor transformed into a superstar, putting all of his physical gifts on display in a six-game, 741-yard finish that pushed him all the way to third in the NFL in rushing with 1,169 yards.

But Taylor felt like he’d been playing at less than peak potential.

“Especially with the year of COVID, it was tough to really get that proper training; everything was an at-home, do-it-yourself kind of thing,” Taylor said. “That was my main goal this year, was to come into camp in the best shape possible.”

The day the Colts reported to training camp, the Bod Pod churned out the numbers.

“I was down to 4% body fat,” Taylor said.

An ecstatic Taylor immediately sent the numbers to Fort Lauderdale.

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Colts' #28 Jonathan Taylor joins teammates in stretching before Colts training camp practice Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 at Grand Park in Westfield.

Why Jonathan Taylor does Pilates at the local community center

Taylor first met Adam Boily of The System 8 in college.

The long line of running backs Wisconsin has produced is a close-knit fraternity, and before his junior season, Taylor and teammate Garrett Groshek traveled to Fort Lauderdale with then-Chargers, now-Broncos back Melvin Gordon, to train.

The System 8’s philosophy fit Taylor’s detailed nature perfectly.

“Everything is built around what you, specifically, need,” Taylor said. “It’s not like these other places where you go in there, and everyone’s doing the same thing, just maybe a little bit different weight. You’re on a totally different program than everyone else.”  

Taylor trained in a couple of different places last offseason. A YouTube video was filmed at the EXOS facility in Arizona in February. Under Armour sent Taylor and a couple of its other spokesman into the wilderness to camp for three days. The running back spent two weeks in Indianapolis with the Colts for offseason workouts.

But Boily and The System 8 is responsible for Taylor meeting the goals he sets each offseason.

“When he came in, his body fat was like 6.5, 7%, which is low for a lot of people, but for someone like him, who’s a stallion, it was a little bit high,” Boily said. “For someone who’s a dialed-in machine at 228, and he loses body fat down to 225 or 224, but yet he gains a lot of muscle, that’s a lot harder to accomplish.”

Scott Getman, The System 8’s nutritionist, helped streamline Taylor’s diet. The Colts star typically prepares his meals a week in advance, sometimes hiring a chef to meet his needs.

Boily directed the rest of the running back’s training.

Taylor might look like he can bench-press a truck if a jack’s nowhere to be found, or hold up the side of a house on his back, but he rarely maxes out for the sort of big numbers that turn heads on social media.

For example, his favorite lift is the squat — “legs feed the wolf” — but he rarely puts more than 225 pounds on the bar. The last time he maxed out, Taylor believes, was probably in college.

“That’s a misconception,” Taylor said. “How many times do you need to move that much weight?”

Boily does not train Taylor the way he’d train a bodybuilder or powerlifter. For one thing, Boily said, those athletes build up to their max days, right down to the sleep they get the night before and the way they build to a peak. For another thing, it’s risky to lift that much weight; Taylor lifts, but he lifts fast, he lifts often, he focuses on exploding out of his stance over and over again.

The way he has to explode on the football field.

“You don’t need to max on your workout,” Taylor said. “You need to be able to have that longevity.”

Taylor is obsessed with longevity. With avoiding injury.

“I want to really make sure all of my muscles are flexible, I’m able to bend in certain awkward positions,” Taylor said. “It’s not so much stopping you from getting injured, but it’s minimizing that a ton. A lot of times when you get injured, your body is bending in ways the muscles aren’t really used to bending. If you’re used to stretching those muscles, you limit the chances of injury.”

With that in mind, Taylor often left the System 8 this summer on a day with a short workout and headed five minutes down the road to a local community center for a free Pilates session.

Taylor has been doing yoga for years. When he was at Wisconsin, Badgers receiver Danny Davis introduced him to the discipline, and Taylor has made it an essential part of his routine. The Colts running back does yoga two times a week during the season, making sure to get in a session after games in order to stretch out tight muscles. Taylor knows yoga well enough that he does not need to take a formal class; he often gets his sessions off of YouTube or by going to public sessions at gyms and community centers.

Centers like the one that introduced him to Pilates this summer.

“Pilates, it’s almost like a workout; you’re going to sweat,” Taylor said. “It’s not like yoga, where it’s calm, cool, collected. You’re hitting reps in these poses, and you’re working small, intricate muscles. It’s almost like a strengthening component.”

Taylor’s tenacity is part of what sets him apart in Boily’s mind.

The Colts star is only in his second season, and he’s always working on getting better.

“He’s doing stuff sometimes in meetings, sometimes between reps in practice,” Colts running backs coach Scottie Montgomery said. “He’s stretching. He’s icing. He’s constantly taking care of his body. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in practice, when special teams are going on, he’s running ladder drills. A lot of times I have to stop him.”

Colts' #28 Jonathan Taylor runs a drill during Colts training camp practice Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 at Grand Park in Westfield.

4.39 seconds at 226 pounds

Even after cutting his body fat down to just 4% this offseason, Taylor will still be one of the biggest backs in the NFL.

A body that big should not be able to move that fast. When Taylor ran the 40 at the NFL Combine a year and a half ago, he finished first among running backs at 4.39 seconds, despite being the third-heaviest back in the field.

“It’s a freaky thing,” said fellow Colts running back Nyheim Hines, a former sprinter himself. “He’s gotta thank his mama and daddy for that. He trains and works hard, but a lot of his God-given talent is just genetics.”

Forever cognizant of the way his muscles operate, Taylor credits his flexibility.

“Being able to be flexible, especially in the hip flexors and hamstrings, that’s definitely a huge component to speed,” Taylor said. “You see guys who are kind of fast, and they might not have that extra gear because they’re tight in a certain area, they may be tight in the quad. To me, a little flexibility goes a long way.”

Boily, the trainer who has worked with dozens of elite athletes, has another explanation.

“What I noticed right away is his biomechanics, he’s built for sprinting, and he’s not just built for sprinting, he’s built for lateral movement and edges,” Boily said. “I think it comes from his ankles. His ankles are very mobile, but they’re very stiff. Not tight. There’s a difference between stiff and tight.”

The best example Boily can offer is a spring.

A loosely-wound spring — a Slinky that’s made one too many trips up and down the stairs — doesn’t jump all that high after it’s released. A tight spring flies further than imaginable.

“If you have a very loose, and therefore weak, ankle, you’re not going to have any kind of redirection of force, you’re not going to have any power in any direction,” Boily said. “All the plyometrics and all the speed drills that we do and all the sprinting and the ground contact and the weight training we do is to make the muscles around the ankle joints stronger and stiffer.”

As far as Taylor’s new position coach is concerned, those explanations are as good as any.

Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (28) works through a drill Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, during a joint practice with the Carolina Panthers.

Watch Taylor go through those ladder drills on the practice field every day, watch his feet churn through the obstacle flawlessly at full speed, and the way he moves begins to defy explanation.

“I have no idea,” Montgomery said. “I know it’s not easy for a 210-pound man to move like that, to have the contact balance he has, to have the vision he has. His feet work so well with his mind.”

Jonathan Taylor will do what it takes to avoid injury 

The reason for all of this work, for the obsessive way Taylor pushes himself and prepares, was crystallized when he had to miss the Colts’ second game against the Tennessee Titans last season.

Taylor was on the reserve/COVID-19 list because he was a high-risk close contact to a person who tested positive, reportedly his girlfriend.

“I’m watching the game, and regardless of the outcome, I’m supposed to be on the field with those dudes,” Taylor said. “That’s why I’m doing everything I can to try and prevent that from happening again this year, because that was the worst feeling ever. That was my first game I’ve actually ever missed.”

Taylor wants to be on the field for every game, playing at peak performance.

The position he plays makes that awfully hard. Even a being that seems as indestructible as Taylor is aware, and it’s a big reason why he works so hard.

“With football, the injury rate is 100%, so the only thing you can do is maximize the minimization,” Taylor said. “Maximize everything you’re doing to prepare, in order to minimize your risk of injury.”

That’s why a physical specimen like Taylor obsessed over the Bod Pod this offseason, why he’s stretching in team meetings, why he’s stopping into the local community center in order to get in a yoga session on an off day.

“The faster you buy in, the faster you get results,” Boily said. “His ability to buy into every little thing, and the discipline to apply it day in and day out, is why he gets great results so quickly.”

The kind of results that seem impossible.

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