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Men's Fitness: Ravens' Tom Zbikowski's Training Regimen

Men's Fitness-September 2011 Issue Cover
Men's Fitness-September 2011 Issue Cover

The upcoming September issue of Men's Fitness features their NFL Training Blowout issue, including Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski's training regimen. See how 'Tommy Z' kept in shape for his off-season boxing career during the NFL Lockout in the story titled, 'Heavy Hitter.'

In addition, the September issue of Men's Fitness lists the training secrets of other NFL players, including the Ravens' Ray Rice, noting what they do to stay in shape in the off-seson in preparation for the end of the lockout and head into Training Camps in top physical shape.

Here's what they say about Zbikowski to promote the issue:

When the NFL lockout kept Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski out of his team’s training facilities, he stayed in shape pursuing his "other" career as a pro boxer. On the field or in the ring, stand in front of Tommy Z and you’re going to get leveled! Men’s Fitness has the inside scoop on how he trains his ass off for 2 sports!

(For the full text from the Men's Fitness article on Zbikowski, click on the 'Jump')


When the NFL lockout kept Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski out of his team’s training facilities, he stayed in shape pursuing his “other” career as a pro boxer. On the field or in the ring, stand  in front of Tommy Z and you’re going to get leveled. 

“What the hell am I doing?”  

When Tom Zbikowski stepped into the ring for  the first boxing match of his life, he didn’t care that his  opponent had fought 17 times before. “I don’t even remember who my first fight was against,” says the Arlington Hills Heights, IL, native, clad in black Ravens workout pants and a tight-fitting ­Under Armour long-sleeve shirt—size XXL. Zbikowski has been throwing combos at mitts and heavy bags for two hours. His memory isn’t cloudy because he’s punchy from nearly 100 amateur fights, four bouts as a pro, or the hundreds of hits he has doled out playing safety for Notre Dame and now for the Baltimore Ravens. He can’t recall the opponent because, at the time, Zbikowski was only 10 years old.

After earning that first bloody “W”—just two days after his 10th birthday—Zbikowski realized that he had a passion for boxing, which continued while he starred on defense for the Fighting Irish. In four seasons on campus, he nabbed eight picks, brought two back for TDs, and scored three more as a punt returner, all while earning a reputation as a punishing safety. After his junior year, Zbikowski convinced then-Irish head coach Charlie Weis to let him box as a pro. He had made an impression on promoters while fighting at a fund-raiser in Chicago earlier in 2006, and he couldn’t turn down the chance to compete in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The NCAA allows you to be a pro in one sport and an amateur in another, so not only was he eligible for his senior season, but he also made $25,000—even if a big chunk went toward tickets for approximately 25 of his teammates. Zbikowski fought  Robert Bell of Akron, OH, on the undercard of a Miguel Cotto WBO title bout, earning a TKO stoppage victory after just 49 seconds of the first round. Bell never stood a chance. 

So when the NFL locked out its players in March, Zbikowski had a plan. While some traveled and others went back to their alma maters, he trained for both football and boxing at the ­Academy of Human Performance in Aurora, IL. This past spring, he improved his pro record to 4–0 with three wins: a first-round TKO in March, a unanimous decision two weeks later, and  another first-round victory in April. “It’s something I’ve always loved doing,” says Zbikowski. “I am a legitimate fighter.”

As brutal as football can be, there’s a primal appeal to boxing that he couldn’t get on the field. “You get all the drama of a fourth quarter and overtime in one round,” he says. “You score a touchdown or you get blasted, it’s just not the same. You’re never on the sidelines.” While it’s been reported that Zbikowski made six figures this spring, he says he took home only about five grand, total, after paying his trainers, taxes, and other costs.  “So, it’s not like I’m doing it for the money,” he says before a set of 30-inch box jumps. “Still, every time the bell’s about to ring, I think, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ ”

“Hungry for football” 

What he’s been doing is training his ass off  for two sports, until meetings between NFL ownership and players approached in early June and Zbikowski became convinced that they would end the lockout. So, during the last week in May, he refocused on football—without knowing when, or if, the season would actually start. He scrapped plans to fight at L.A.’s Staples Center on June 4, but as the work stoppage stretched into the summer, it only motivated him further.

“He’s hungry for football to come back,” says Derek Wagner, one of two strength coaches who train Zbikowski, and a former Marine. After boxing for months, Zbikowski had to adjust his workouts, even if he still trains with gloves. “Boxing has always been a critical part of Tommy’s football conditioning,” says R.W. Brown, C.S.C.S., the strength coach who designs Zbikowski’s boxing training and who’s a former three-time All-American boxer at Iowa State. Brown fought through the NCBA, or ­National Collegiate Boxing Association. (Boxing was a varsity sport until 1960, when a fighter slipped into a coma and died a week after a fight. There were no boxing championships held between 1960 and 1976, the year the NCBA was formed.) Brown graduated from Iowa State in 1996 and is the founder and owner of the academy. “The goal the whole time was to be within 30 to 40 days of football shape,” he says.

Zbikowski’s training built up his strength and added quickness while his body weight fluctuated. “When he was training for the fights, he was in here every day but Sunday,” says ­Wagner. “Sometimes twice a day.” Zbikowski lost up to six pounds of  water weight each day, focusing less on lifting and more on in-ring skills and cardio. “We weren’t doing heavy squats and things you’re used to seeing in an off-season program,” says Wagner. In total, Zbikowski lost about 25 pounds, weighing in for fights  between 191 and 193 pounds. “But that’s not what Baltimore wants him playing safety at,” he says. “The transition means we can’t keep all that weight off him. We need to let him get back into strength training.”

As a fighter, Zbikowski performed longer conditioning sessions. “You need more endurance, not just a five- or 10-second burst like you might get in football,” adds Wagner. “Boxing conditioning is a lot different.” Even so, there are similar benefits. “The boxing sharpens his quickness and his timing,” says ­Wagner. “Since Tommy fights from both sides, it’s not much different from swiveling those hips to breaking on the ball.” Brown understands the mental edge that comes with training as a boxer, too. “The good news with these two sports is you need that warrior mentality,” he says. “He has a competitiveness that is uncanny. Our challenge is taking a bit of the wild man and harnessing it.”

The boxing training he’s been doing since late May is meant to condition him for football. Instead of several minute-long rounds in the ring, he’ll do seven-second combinations of punches with 10 seconds of recovery, or six-second flurries with 20 seconds of rest. “What we’re trying to do now,” says Brown, “is make the boxing more similar to what he does on the field. We’re working on pure explosiveness.” 

“Squatting better than the lineman”  

After the crew breaks out the battling ropes, Zbikowski is asked to squat lower before starting his first set. “I don’t think you guys are getting the concept that my legs are sore,” he says, half-jokingly. It’s a Wednesday, and he lifted heavy on Monday and Tuesday, so he grimaces as he sinks deeper. For the grappler hip toss, he holds the rope with both hands at one hip, keeping them together as he brings the rope over his head and back to his opposite side. Wagner brings out a pad and Zbikowski kneels while holding the ropes, giving his quads a much-needed break.“We’ll usually go 20 to 30 seconds per set,” says Wagner. Zbikowski will do 12 to 16 total sets divided between 3 to 4 different movements. None are weirder than the single-arm lasso. For this, he’ll loop the rope through a 15-pound kettlebell and fold the rope in half. It ends up being so thick that he can’t close his hand, but he swings it over his head for reps. 

Clearly, he’s not really into the traditional weightlifting. “It’s too slow for me,” he says. “I need to be moving. I need to be  active. That’s just the way I train.” Zbikowski prefers towel pull-ups with a 20-pound weighted vest on for three sets of 15 reps (sometimes as many as 25) instead of heavy deadlifts. He wears the vest for push-ups, too. “If you’re a top 1% athlete, there’s no way you should be doing the same training as the average person,” he says. “It just doesn’t make sense.” 

But since the last week in May, his training has changed. “We’ve had to constantly adjust the program,” says Brown. “It’s been a week-by-week situation.” Since early June, he’s grown used to a more manageable four-day-a-week schedule (two sessions with Wagner and two with Brown). Wagner has ­Zbikowski lift using supersets (see sidebar). “We keep his rep range low, between four to six reps,” says Wagner. “I like stacking the strength movements on top of plyometrics.” 

By incorporating football-based drills back into his routine, like changing direction and sprinting, or cutting and decelerating, they can simulate game-time situations. “Why condition him for a 30- or 40-second drill when a football play lasts only seven seconds?” asks Wagner. Zbikowski will do as many as 16 sets, starting with reps that are eight seconds long, working his way up to 12 to 20 seconds for each. Within his first six months at the academy, he added eight inches to his vertical leap. He’s trained here for only the past year and a half. “I always had speed, but I never really had explosion,” he says.  

After finishing his in-ring work, Zbikowski tears into half of a Whatchamacallit candy bar, not because he’s cheating on his diet, but because the fast-digesting sugars restore depleted  glycogen in his muscles. “You’re burning so many calories you need that fast-reacting energy source,” he says. “You just crave it. I couldn’t finish a 10-ounce steak when I was boxing, but give me a bowl of rice or pasta, and that whole thing would be gone.” 

He may be eating chocolate during training, but ­Zbikowski is meticulous about his diet. He’s had to be to add mass back onto his frame, and now that he’s back near his playing weight (of 215 pounds), he feels stronger, too. “I’m starting to feel like I got size back on me,” he says. Zbikowski carefully structures out his micronutrients, moving from 55% carbs, 30% protein, and 15% fat while grinding out two-a-day boxing workouts, to 55% protein, 30% carbs, and 15% fat while training for football. “I’m craving more lean, red meat, and I can put down more protein,” he says. That protein supports the weight training he does for football. It’s the only way for him to put muscle back onto his frame, and he needs that  extra muscle to prepare for games. “Football isn’t condensed into 12 minutes like boxing,” he says. “You are going full­explosion every single play for four hours.” 

Zbikowski has been careful about his nutrition since college, says his former strength coach, Ruben Mendoza. “He loaded up on the proper foods,” he says. “He was really conscious of that, and I think that’s why he was so successful.” And he was intense in the weight room, too. “He never backed off from anybody,” says Mendoza. “Offensive linemen would be benching 405 pounds, and he’d get under the bar and do the same thing.” Zbikowski also squatted 575 pounds, and power-cleaned 315 pounds, as a member of the Irish. “He squatted better than some of our O-linemen,” says Mendoza. “I wish I had a full football team with that type of mentality, because we’d have been more successful.”

“You want to show what you’re made of” 

Zbikowski’s work ethic is one reason for his success. Another is his close-knit family. His sister, Kristen, handled his public relations during the lockout, and he credits his older brother for toughening him up. “I think it has to do with how I was raised,” he says. “I’ve been in competition with my brother my entire life. As a kid, the dude was a foot and a half taller than me. He laid the worst ass-whoopings on me anybody could have. It was me and him, whatever sport it was, just going after each other.”Those battles shaped Zbikowski as an athlete and as a man. He never quit when his brother beat his ass, and he didn’t care that some doubted if he could really box.