CHERRY HILL, N.J. – A pair of three-pound, fluorescent green dumbbells ordinarily wouldn't be intimidating for a professional athlete or any guy in the gym, even a sports writer.
It's a different story at Power Train Sports Institute.
Trainer Steve Saunders, founder and CEO of Power Train, and his staff make simple exercises a grueling task for their clients, which include a lengthy list of NFL players.
With the lockout dragging into a third month, players are finding their own ways to stay in shape. Several members of the Philadelphia Eagles, including Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick and star wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, have been working out with Saunders this offseason at his South Jersey location. It just so happens I've lifted weights for years and work out there, too, giving me a chance to see from the inside how Saunders helps some real athletes.
"When I came in and saw what he does, I knew this was the place to get you ready for whatever you needed," Maclin said. "His main focus and the thing that he does is prevention, and everything has a time and a pace. They do a good job of working body parts and muscles that you don't normally work."
That's where those tiny, bright-colored dumbbells come in. When Saunders tells someone to grab them, there's a lot of trepidation. Lying face down on an incline bench, the person holding the dumbbells shrugs his shoulders up, extends his arms outward and stays parallel to the ground. Then, while maintaining the extension, he brings his hands forward in front of his face, never letting his arms drop below his head. This is usually one of the last exercises in an upper-body session.
Think it's easy? Try it. Three sets, 12 repetitions.
"He's been tough on me since I got here and that's exactly what I've been needing," said Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who traveled from Texas to work with Saunders. "My arms have never felt the way they felt. Once I go against these centers and the guys inside, I feel I'll be punching a lot more efficiently. I look forward to seeing that. I look forward to getting back to work whenever they call us."
It might be a while as the labor situation unfolds in the courts. For now, Weatherspoon and other players have to get ready for the season on their own. Weatherspoon moved in with Maclin, his college roommate at Missouri, a month ago. So did St. Louis Rams wide receiver Danario Alexander, who also went to Missouri.
"I wanted to change the scenery and see what Steve has to offer," said Weatherspoon, who had been working out at Plex, a training facility in Houston. "I heard a lot about Steve. I knew he trained James Harrison, Hines Ward and a lot of the Steelers and a lot of the Eagles, so I wanted to get up here and see how they do it."
Saunders has four other gyms, all in Pennsylvania. Several Steelers train with him at his Pittsburgh facility. Harrison, a three-time All-Pro linebacker and The Associated Press 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, has worked with Saunders for more than five years.
"These guys have a tremendous desire to be the best in their profession and to get better," Saunders said. "Everybody is looking for that edge."
Even a journalist with an eight-month long softball schedule.
But no matter how much you can bench press or curl, it doesn't compare to the physical stress you'll endure in one session at Power Train. Time-under-tension — the amount of time your muscles work during a specific set — is one aspect of Saunders' training methods. It's no fun.
Put it this way. One set of eight TUT reps bench pressing 135 pounds is far more exhausting than doing four regular reps of 365.
"Everybody likes to train what they're good at," Saunders said. "Go in any gym across America on a Monday and you'll see 90 percent of the guys benching. Most people will take the path of least resistance. They don't have the knowledge to switch things up, do progressions or really diagnose what they need for themselves."
That's why they go to Saunders. He trains pros, college and high school athletes and soccer moms, too.
The current list of Eagles includes five-time Pro Bowl kicker David Akers, tight end Brent Celek, safety Quintin Mikell, offensive linemen Todd Herremans, Winston Justice and Jamaal Jackson, linebackers Moise Fokou and Jamar Chaney, and defensive linemen Trevor Laws, Victor Abiamiri and Juqua Parker.
Dallas Cowboys guard Phil Costa and Minnesota Vikings running back Albert Young also are clients.
Many of these players would be working out at Power Train regardless of the lockout. Those with workout clauses in their contracts likely would go to their team's facility to get credit during allotted time periods.
"The guys we have so far, 90 percent of them, would be here anyway," Saunders said. "I'd say 10 percent are trying it out because of the lockout. Those numbers may increase if the lockout goes into June and July. But these guys are committed. They understand their body is the No. 1 asset in their profession and they would be here anyway."
Saunders' system appeals to many athletes because he sets up specific workouts and diet programs catered to each player's individual needs. That's not always the case with team trainers. Sometimes a team will assign the same workout to the whole squad but players say privately they much prefer doing sessions that are tailored to their needs.
Saunders targets weaknesses and muscle imbalances in athletes and puts together a program designed to fix those particular areas while improving overall strength, health and conditioning.
"Some areas are stronger than others because of the sport they play and overuse of specific motor patterns or how they trained before, so basically we take an athlete and see what we need to work on, and there's a lot that goes into that," Saunders said.
"It's not only physical stuff, but you have to see what you are working with mentally with athletes, too. Some guys are workout warriors and they've done it all their life. Some guys have gotten by on natural talent and this is the first time they've gone somewhere else. They don't know what's out there so you have to expose them to it slowly."
The workouts can be a humbling experience at first. Doing it in a gym filled with elite athletes adds some pressure. Of course, there's trash-talking, especially if someone outside the fraternity is in the group.
"Those are the sorriest push-ups I've ever seen," Abiamiri said to me as I struggled to finish a workout.
While Abiamiri dished out insults, Jackson offered compliments.
"What's Lou Ferrigno doing in here?" he said.
Being compared to The Incredible Hulk will boost anyone's ego.