The Secrets Behind Russell Westbrook's Extreme Physique

He's a triple-double machine, but his teammates say his workout routine is a mystery. How did Westbrook become so (MVP-level) explosive?
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterApril 21, 2017

By the time Russell Westbrook jogs onto the court, his work is already done. It's three hours before the Thunder are set to tip off against the Denver Nuggets in their season finale, but there's nothing left to play for. Oklahoma City is locked into its first-round series against the Houston Rockets, and Westbrook has already seared a seemingly impossible sum of statistical accomplishments into the record books. Still, here he is, sweating before many of his teammates have finished dressing.

As he cycles through midrange jumpers and free throws, he merely mumbles to himself. But when he starts working against a defender on post entry passes, he finds his voice—calling his makes and cursing his misses. Although Westbrook's pro career has been defined by his dizzying and dazzling play, it has been built on methodical practices like these. Fortunately for Westbrook—and for the millions who have marveled at his triple-double spectacular of a season—his body seems to have been engineered perfectly to withstand not just the rigors of an unrelenting NBA season but also the personal toll of his extra workouts and practice time.

Now down 0-2 against the Rockets, the Thunder will again ask for everything from their star. They need him to assist like a pass-first point guard, to rebound like a 7-footer and to score like the hero who for years was confused for a sidekick. They need every piece of him as they have all season. He'll be happy to oblige. In death, some people donate their bodies to science; in life, Russell Westbrook is giving his to basketball.

Face/Mind: 'It'll Shock You'

Before we get to Westbrook's mental game, a couple of notes about his face. First, the dent. On March 1, 2015, while attempting to secure an offensive rebound off his own free throw (which ultimately went in), he took a knee from teammate Andre Roberson, leaving a visible crater on his face. According to In Street Clothes, a site run by a certified professional trainer, the typical period for recovery from a facial fracture is nearly 13 games. Westbrook missed just one.

Then this: Westbrook claims he's never shaved. The wisps of hair above his lip and on his chin don't ever vanish, but they do sometimes seem to change lengths. Perhaps the secret then is not a razor but scissors.

(Allegra Lockstadt for B/R Mag)

As for Westbrook's mind, it appears, like his body, to possess uncommon endurance. Westbrook rarely wastes an entire flight asleep; instead, he studies game footage on an iPad. And if he notices a teammate consistently out of place during games, he'll slide into the seat next to them and wake them up (or send an assistant to do the same) to review and correct the error.

"It'll shock you a little bit," says backup point guard Semaj Christon. "It's been a while since he woke me up, but he isn't afraid to do it. He does it for the right reasons—to make everyone better. And you can see why he believes in it. Watching so much film allows him not just to play hard but to play smart."

When Norris Cole joined OKC as its third point guard after the All-Star break, Westbrook offered to watch film with him and even gave him detailed scouting reports on each of the team's players. "You hear all the rumors about his practice and preparation and dedication," Cole says. "He's exactly as advertised. Everyone can see that, but you don't know it till you're up close."

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Core: 'Kind of a Mystery'

Westbrook's workouts are shrouded in secrecy. The Thunder would not make trainer Joe Sharpe available for an interview for this story. The last time one of his workouts leaked, it was from former director of athletic performance Dwight Daub. The workout he shared with Stack focused on core and balance. Daub noted it was designed to help a player who prefers to crash the lane at every opportunity—and every angle—avoid repeated injuries.

In an NBA TV feature before last year's All-Star Game, Westbrook let cameras capture his on-court routine but not his weightlifting regimen. "I work out a lot—just not with cameras around," he said then winked.

Indeed, even many of his own teammates don't know the details of his workout routine.

"I think I saw him lifting weights once during the preseason," forward Domantas Sabonis says, "but not since."

(Allegra Lockstadt for B/R Mag)

Says Christon: "I've never seen him lift weights, actually. He's in before everyone else, but what he does is kind of a mystery."

Perhaps the only person outside Oklahoma City who watches Westbrook work out consistently is Wes Long, UCLA basketball's strength and conditioning coach. Long arrived in Westwood for Westbrook's final season as a Bruin, in 2007-08. He remembers observing a pickup-style preseason practice on his first day and marveling at the guard's ungoverned motor.

"This practice meant nothing, but he was rebounding. He was setting screens. He was cussing guys out," Long says. "It was like it was the national championship game."

Long can only remember Westbrook being gassed once, after he ran a progressive succession of ladder sprints, and long after all his teammates had tapped out. When they worked together, Long worried that putting too much weight on Westbrook would hinder his explosiveness.

"I was a young, dumb strength coach to doubt him," he jokes now.

Westbrook, who in December 2015 made the largest donation to UCLA ever by a former basketball player (the undisclosed amount was later matched by Kevin Love), returns each offseason to work out, but Long doesn't do much these days besides open the doors. "Russ is a huge investment for Oklahoma City," Long says. "So I don't touch him. He basically just asks if the gym is available, and it's always available for him. We love having him around here."

Arms: 'Nothing He Can't Do'

Although Oscar Robertson, the first—and formerly the only—player to average a triple-double over an entire season, was a big man, Westbrook seems built to achieve the feat in the modern NBA.

He's the ideal size (6'3") for an NBA 1-guard, but his 7-foot wingspan is extraordinary. It was that length—and the defensive advantages it provided Westbrook—that led UCLA to offer him the scholarship that Jordan Farmar vacated when he declared for the NBA draft as a sophomore. And it is those long arms—and his ambidexterity (he shoots right-handed but writes lefty)—that have helped him become the NBA's most versatile player.

"Russ is just a very, very unique player," Thunder head coach Billy Donovan says. "He's clearly the best rebounding guard in the league. There's no doubt about that. And he sees the floor extremely well.

(Allegra Lockstadt for B/R Mag)

"He's got an incredible ability to score because he can play in transition, he can shoot threes, he can post up, he can play with his back to the basket and he can drive. So there's really nothing on the floor offensively that he can't do.

"When this whole thing started and people were questioning—Can he [average a triple-double]? Do you think he can get it?—the one area I knew was not in doubt was him getting 10 points. That was going to happen. It was just a matter of, are we making shots and his rebounding."

For the teammates who practice against him, his ability to secure rebounds was never a concern.

"Rebounding is a little bit about strength and a little bit about instinct," Sabonis says. "Russ has both. He knows where to be, and he isn't afraid to bully big men."

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Knees: 'He'd Pop Right Back Up'

At UCLA, Long watched Westbrook contort his body into impossible positions and land hard on the court on countless possessions. But every time, he'd pop right back up. "He's one of the freakiest athletes I've ever been around," Long says. "It was like he couldn't get hurt."

The only injuries Westbrook has suffered in the NBA have been somewhat freakish. In Game 2 of the Thunder's 2013 first-round series against the Rockets, Patrick Beverley collided with Westbrook on an attempted steal. Westbrook slammed his hand on the scorer's table but finished the game on what would later be revealed as a torn meniscus. A subsequent surgery ended his season but not his knee problems.

He went on to have two more surgeries in the next six months. But after each, he managed to recover remarkably quickly. After his second surgery, in October 2013, he was expected to miss the first four to six weeks but only sat two games. Westbrook underwent a third surgery in December. Ahead of his star's return, general manager Sam Presti released a statement saying that the team would "build his minutes over time."

On February 20, 2014, Westbrook played 24 minutes in his first game back and was back up to 30 in another two games.

Legs: 'No Regrets'

When Westbrook was preparing for the 2008 NBA draft, he trained with Rob McClanaghan—and without him. After mornings running full-speed basketball practices for over an hour nonstop, he'd carve out time to lift weights on his own in the evenings. And although McClanaghan begged Westbrook to take Sundays off and let his body recover, he heard reports each week of fans who had spotted him in one gym or another around Los Angeles.

"You'd rather turn a guy down than have to turn him up," McClanaghan says. "I never had to find Russ. If I told him to meet me at the gym at 9 a.m., he'd be there at 8:30 at the latest. It's no coincidence that he's doing what he's doing now. You would never predict a guy to average a triple-double, but if someone had made me, I'd have picked Russ."

(Allegra Lockstadt for B/R Mag)

Even now, Westbrook is consistently the first Thunder player in the building. Christon jokes that among Westbrook's skills is a sixth sense for when players are trying to beat him into the building. "We've all tried," he says, "and we've all failed."

Although arguments can be made that Westbrook's usage rate—an NBA record of 41.7 percent in the regular season, per Basketball Reference—can be detrimental to his team at times, there's no doubt that the Thunder need nearly all he can give them. When Westbrook gets a triple-double, his team wins 78.6 percent of its games. When he doesn't hit the trifecta, the team wins just 35 percent of the time. That kind of statistical output requires an incredible array of skills, but more than anything, it requires stamina.

For all the ways Westbrook impacts a game, Donovan says his star's greatest mark is his never-say-die attitude—and it's his legs that allow him to play that to fruition.

"When it's time to walk away, and I've seen this happen with a lot of players, a lot of them leave the game and are very, very regretful and very, very disappointed," Donovan says. "They look back and wish they had their time back to do things differently. I think with the way Russell plays the game, he's never going to have any regret. He's not going to look back and say, 'Jeez, I wish I'd given more energy. I wish I would have played harder. I wish I would have invested more.' Whenever his time is done, he's going to leave in a good place."

Correction: The story has been updated to note Westbrook's 2013 injury as a torn meniscus, not MCL.

David Gardner is a staff writer for B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @byDavidGardner.

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