The TB12 body coach provided helpful insight into my common runner's pain
What It Is: A session at TB12, Tom Brady’s sports therapy center in Foxborough, MA
Who Tried It: Stephanie Emma Pfeffer, PEOPLE Health writer and editor
Level of Difficulty: 4/10 — The treatment is highly individualized and depends on your performance goals and/or injuries. That said, the deep tissue massage can be beastly if your muscles are tight!
A partnership between Tom Brady and his longtime trainer and business partner Alex Guerrero, TB12 first opened six years ago in the shadow of Foxborough stadium, home of the New England Patriots. The sports therapy center helps top athletes not only recover from injuries (rehab) but also prevent them (known as pre-hab). The body coaches practice Guerrero’s legendary methods of helping people achieve peak athletic performance using functional training that mimics what they actually do on the field, court, etc. At the core is a holistic approach to health.
When I first walked in, I couldn’t believe how small it was. This is where legends train? It’s about 6,000-sq. feet of open space covered by turf on one half of the main floor and maybe six high-tech cardio machines on the other half, plus a basketball hoop. Not a free weight in sight. The space is flanked by eight private rooms with sports massage tables.
I expected an intimidating atmosphere but my body coach Matt Denning — who has his doctorate in physical therapy and trained under Guerrero himself — put me at ease as he asked about my athletic history. A runner, I came in sore, having just completed a hilly half marathon. I admitted that even before the race my lower back had been hurting, so Denning made easing that pain one of our primary goals.
Deep-Force Muscle Pliability Work
We went into one of the side rooms to start the deep tissue work, which felt like a painful massage. He started with the bottom of my feet (I apologized profusely for not having gotten a pedicure — I didn’t know!), which were extremely tight from running.
As he continued to work on my legs, Denning explained that my hip flexor seemed to be carrying too much of my running load, which should be more evenly distributed into my glutes. “The glute is our biggest and strongest muscle so you need to be efficient with that,” he said, adding that my lower back pain was likely from tight muscles overloading the joints and ligaments.
This was one of the pliability components of our session (the other was at the end, when we used a vibrating foam roller). I was skeptical when I first heard the term pliability. I mean, isn’t that the same as flexibility? I stretch post-run — do I need to do more? Actually, yes. I learned pliability helps in injury prevention. “It’s not how long the muscles are, but how soft that tissue is, how effective that tissue is,” Denning said. “When you have pliable tissue, it’s more vascular, there is better blood flow, it’s more efficient, it can fully relax and contract. When not pliable, the tissue is tight, so when there is trauma, like getting hit in football or running a hard race, that load will be transferred to a joint or a ligament.” In short, pliability aids in recovery.
Hydration and Nutrition
During the deep tissue work we talked a lot about the center’s multi-faceted approach, including hydration and nutrition. Denning recommends drinking half your body weight in ounces each day. “Our muscles are 80 percent water, so we need to be sufficiently hydrated so we can do all the metabolic functions they need to and make the necessary nerve connections,” he said.
Asked what I eat, I told him I start the day with a plant-based protein shake — Brady has his own line of TB12 protein powder — and then I might have an egg on avocado toast for lunch. I snack on peanut butter and yogurt and fruit but admitted that dinner is tricky at my house with two young, picky kids. Denning recommended a few simple changes: I should stay away from foods that have inflammatory properties, like peanuts. That means swapping peanut butter for almond butter (and if I do want PB, never before a race). He also suggested I reduce my dairy intake. “Limiting how much inflammation is systemically in our body helps us recover, so if you have a tough run, your quads shouldn’t be as sore if you remove the inflammation already in the body.”
But above all, he encouraged moderation. “We don’t expect everyone to eat exactly like Tom does,” said Denning, alluding to Brady’s restrictive mostly plant-based, dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, white flour-free, caffeine-free and alcohol-free (you get the idea) diet. “Most 42-year olds don’t have to get hit by 300-lb. people, that’s not everyone’s daily life.”
And how often does the famous quarterback swing by? “During the [football] season, he’s here a lot because he’s getting more load on his body, and also because of the proximity of the center to the stadium,” Denning said. “In the off season — when he’s not traveling or doing stuff with the family — he’s in a couple times a week.”
His wife Gisele Bündchen is no stranger to TB12, either. Denning said she comes in very often. “She will work with one of our body coaches a couple times a week for most of the year,” he said. “She’s one of the hardest workers in here. She’s got great form.” Apparently she’s there so much that she has her own reserve of TB12 protein powder — the bag is marked with a big “G.”
Functional Strength and Conditioning
After Denning finished the deep tissue work, we went to the floor machines, which included an anti-gravity treadmill. This particular one came from Brady’s house — he used it to accelerate his recovery after he blew out his ACL in 2008. This is one cool machine: By reducing an athlete’s body weight (it can go as low as 20 percent!), it allows them to get back to moving more quickly and reinforces the neuropathways that improve muscle memory. I was zipped into what looked like a plastic skirt with spandex shorts before an air compressor essentially sucked out the gravity and made me feel like I was running on air. There was virtually no impact on my joints, so I totally understood how it could physically and psychologically help a sidelined athlete recover faster.
Denning also analyzed my gait, which I was pleased to learn was pretty even on my left and right sides. (One less thing to worry about!) But although my walking and running were symmetrical, he again said I appear to be quad and hip-flexor dominant, so my glutes aren’t stabilizing my pelvis, which might be contributing to my lower back pain. It could even be negatively impacting my running times, since I am essentially not using the biggest muscle in my body as efficiently as I could be.
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That theme continued as I tried a self-propelled TrueForm treadmill. Denning explained that with a lot of motorized treadmills, since you’re not generating ground force — just picking up your legs — running becomes more of a hip flexor activity. But with this machine, because you have to propel the treadmill forward, it keeps your biomechanics neutral (spine neutral versus flexed forward) and forces the power to come from your glutes. I realized that all of my race training had been happening on indoor treadmills during the winter, which might be why my glutes were weak. I vowed to train outdoors more often now that the weather is warm.
The TruForm treadmill was also covered in turf so athletes can run on it in their cleats. Denning said that almost everything done at TB12 is intended to mimic an athlete’s true movement and experience. That’s why there are no free weights. Everything is about body weight, pliability work or dynamic warmup to activate tissue for functional training.
Next up we did some strengthening exercises on the turf, which was again, very specific to my goals as a runner. We focused on the single-leg stance for the stability of my hips, followed by resistance band squats, planks and a glute med side plank. Everything was also high intensity, like a circuit.
“When we do this at high intensity, it helps boost testosterone levels and eliminate cortisol production so we can burn belly fat and build the muscle,” he said. “We want to load up your muscles with good resistance, but it’s not going to your joints like traditional weight lifting.”
While TB12 is a haven for athletes, it services all types of clients. Denning says the youngest is a 3-year-old girl with an injury from birth, while the oldest is a man in his mid-80s. “And we have everything in between,” he says. “Some people come for performance enhancement, or to experience what Tom experiences, or for rehab, maybe post-op. We have all ages and pathologies.”
And now more people will have the chance to try it out. A second TB12 location is set to open in early August in a much more central and highly trafficked location, Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. At 10,000-sq. feet, it will be almost double the size of the Foxborough center, which is 30 miles southwest of the city.
Boston’s new TB12, which happens to be near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, will also include a group fitness studio, which will probably make it more accessible to the public. (Currently only one-on-one sessions are available, and they cost around $200.)“From the beginning, Alex and Tom have wanted to help as many people as possible,” says Denning. “This new location will allow them to do that.”
The Verdict: For serious athletes, a person recovering from an injury or anyone with a specific performance goal in mind, a visit to TB12 can increase awareness of weakness, asymmetry or problem areas and give you tangible, functional ways to improve. It will be even more accessible — both in location and cost — when the Boston outpost opens this summer.