LeBron's Secret Workout Yoga 'Bubbles' Could Start a Pregame Revolution

photo of Tom HaberstrohTom Haberstroh@tomhaberstrohContributor INovember 3, 2017

It might not shock you to learn that the most viral video this season on the NBA's official Instagram feed is a clip of LeBron James. Duh.

But what is shocking? This video does not capture his dunking in transition, whipping a pass around multiple defenders or swatting a fast-break layup into the first row. There are plenty of those clips on the NBA's feed, which broadcasts content to over 25 million followers worldwide. But those didn't captivate the audience quite like this one.

Turns out the most-watched video of the season—generating 3.2 million views—is a clip of LeBron James merely standing in place. And it is mesmerizing.

The magic of the video, which was filmed just before an October 25 game against the Brooklyn Nets, can be traced down to the clear plastic bubbles he's standing on. Actually, wobbling is a more accurate descriptor for what's going on courtside.

With Beats headphones on, James is trying to maintain balance on these neck-pillow-looking things and tossing a basketball back and forth to his longtime trainer, Mike Mancias. After he does that a few times, the four-time MVP does a little patty-cake hand exercise with Mancias while attempting to stay upright on the translucent pillows, one underneath each of his Nike LeBron 15 shoes.

Mancias looks on and monitors his movements. James is dead-focused, legs shaking all the while. It looks equally difficult and alien.

The short clip would get almost double the views generated from Blake Griffin's buzzer-beater three-pointer a day later. A few days later, the Cavs' official feed filmed the same pregame routine in Cleveland. And that became the team's most viral content of the season. Boom, one million views. All because of the mini-pool-tube floats.

So, what on Earth are those things? And why is LeBron doing this? They're called Waff Mini Elites, the latest training tool originally marketed to hardcore yogis that is now quietly sweeping the NBA.

They serve a purpose beyond being social-media magnets. James began using the Waff Mini Elites this preseason with Mancias after an ankle injury sidelined James in early October. A weak ankle can trigger all sorts of breakdowns in the long chain of body movement. When James plays nearly 40 minutes per game for a battered Cavs squad, he needs that chain to be as rock-solid as possible.

As other players get up shots as part of a decades-long routine, you can find James performing the wobbling act as a warm-up of sorts, potentially becoming a threat to Stephen Curry's dribbling routine as the NBA's must-see pregame theater. As the ankle needed strengthening, Mancias and James decided to incorporate the bizarre activity into James' pregame ritual—a most sacred time for a pro athlete.

Trainer types refer to a Waff pad as a proprioception tool that helps control and boost unconscious movement—something important to maneuver through a hyper-fluid NBA game that requires jumping, sliding and sprinting without conscious thought. Waff balance devices can help ignite the central nervous system and wake up the core muscles for rigorous activity.

How did this come to be? The road to James' feet begins, in part, with French workout guru Fabrice Gautier, who has been working with NBA athletes for almost a decade as the osteopath for the France men's national basketball squad. Through his work abroad and in his Los Angeles facility, Gautier is close with Rudy Gobert, fellow banana-boater Carmelo Anthony, Joakim Noah and other pro hoopers needing offseason workouts to prep for the NBA grind.

Gautier was familiar with similar products like Airex pads or Bosu balls, which have been popular tools in workouts that help build the core and sharpen proprioceptors. But he needed something more portable and more challenging for his work around the globe. Then he found Waff, a small company in France with inflatable versions of products he already used. He brought them everywhere with him, and players gave him positive feedback after it challenged their mind and body. Gautier later became VP of Waff Corp as he introduced the tool to pro athletes in workouts.

A few weeks ago, when Waff began selling online, Mancias picked up some Waff Mini Elites for James. Trainers such as Mancias can pick up on valuable information in how the athlete wobbles or stands on the Waffs. How do you know if an ankle is weak or his body's circuit board isn't firing correctly without the benefit of an X-ray or MRI machine? Products like Waff can provide a window.

"It also serves as an assessment tool," Gautier says. "If you put an athlete on two Waffs and you have an athlete just balance, you can see which chain he or she favors. LeBron is doing it to make sure all the proprioceptors of his tendons and ligaments are firing."

In layman's terms, James' viral workouts have a clear use: to jolt the sensors in his body awake.

But the critical benefit is that you can't hide on a Waff. If your ankle is weak, it'll be very clear when the left foot shakes and gyrates on the bubble. That's a signal that something underneath may not be as strong as it needs to be, a critical red flag for return to play. That's why Gautier calls it a lie detector test. It's like a field sobriety test that exposes an impairment to your proprioception when you can't touch your nose with your finger.

For James, who's dealing with a sore ankle, it's an essential tool.

"Mike [Mancias] does a really good job of challenging him and his weaknesses," Gautier says. "The more you do it, the better you get at it. And it's not just your ankle; it activates everything."

The funny thing is that the Waff originally began as a relaxation tool with a giant circular bed that helped athletes and yogis alike to "deactivate," a fancy word for napping after workouts. For instance, the first video on the Waff YouTube channel, posted nine years ago, is titled "Waff relax baby 4 months." It shows a baby trying to nap in what looks to be a white pool float tube. Another video is of a pregnant woman in yoga gear getting some rest on her side.

But the company grew. What started as a relaxation device invented in 2008 became a health and fitness tool for athletes. Later, the company developed smaller versions called the Waff Mini Classic, which allowed users to stand on inflatable pods, one under each foot. Soon, videos popped up of surfers, tennis players and golfers standing (wobbling) on them to stimulate their core and proprioceptors.

To see this in action, watch this video of Gautier's client who was rehabbing from a herniated disc in his lower back. Squatting down on a flat surface may not immediately reveal a weakness or imbalance, but on the Waff? His left leg turns into a jackhammer.

NBA fans' first introduction to the Waff may have been in Dec. 2015, when Carmelo Anthony posted an Instagram photo with the caption "Find Your Comfort Zone!!!! #StayMe7o." In the photo, the 6'8" former scoring champ is lying in a Waff Max—the relaxation bed version of the product—with black Normatec sleeves covering his legs and spurring recovery. (This is what trying to stay fresh during a grinding NBA schedule looks like.)

Go to Gautier's Instagram feed and you'll step into a portal showing what offseason workouts look like for the world's top athletes. There's Gobert performing an overhead squat while standing on the Waff Max and shaking as he lowers his body to the pillow. There's Bismack Biyombo somehow doing lunges with the bubbles underneath each foot. Before Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton mashed an MLB-best 59 home runs this season, he was standing on Waffs with Gautier in offseason workouts, aiming to stabilize his core and control his power.

These bubbles won't make you a world-class athlete, but Gautier believes it can help fine-tune the athlete's mobility and stability. It won't make LeBron an MVP or Stanton a Hall of Famer, but it could help fuel their health and wellness going forward. The Waff device is yet another wonky technology to help sharpen the body's sensory system—not unlike the strobe-light glasses that Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard wear in their training.

"You're putting gas in a Ferrari," Gautier says.

James is going to need every edge he can find in his 15th season. He has played every postseason game of his career and has reached the Finals a whopping seven straight seasons. With news that Tristan Thompson is out for the next month nursing a calf injury, James' responsibilities will only grow. The margin for error is dwindling every passing day.

The Cavs entered November with a 3-5 record and a gimpy roster, so James' championship hopes stand on shaky ground. But that doesn't mean we can turn away.