This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2018.
Saquon Barkley shouldn't have too much trouble adjusting to the bright lights of New York City. The Giants running back -- and newest NFLer to pose for the Body Issue -- doesn't appear to have anything to hide. In that spirit, Barkley opened up to ESPN's Hallie Grossman about changing his philosophy on weightlifting, how he dropped his 40 time and the one piece of advice he'd give to other aspiring football stars.
ESPN: Your training and your workouts have gone viral. Which moment stands out to you?
SAQUON BARKLEY: My favorite moment would be my first power clean. Not the 405 one ... the highest I've gotten. My first power clean was my favorite one because I actually didn't get it the first time. I failed. I remember just looking at that board and seeing 390. I never even went that high. But me and my coaches were talking about what should I go for. ... I said let's go for the record. Let's go try to tie the record -- tie Anthony Zettel -- he's a freak of nature. That was my freshman year [at Penn State] going into my sophomore season. That's when I started truly being a competitor and pushing myself in the weight room. In my first two years, I put up pretty good numbers and I finished my sophomore season really well with a Big Ten championship. I actually got into trouble for that lift because it took a little longer than it was supposed to, and I was five minutes late for class!
I heard that you looked at the Penn State weight room record board and said you wanted all the records. Do you have them?
Yeah. That's the mindset I wanted to take. I wanted to go down as one of the best running backs to ever play at Penn State. If you look at the history of the running back position, all those guys are amazing and I wanted to at least be mentioned in the same category as those guys. I remember looking at the board and seeing what the records were for running back and thinking, "I know I can get all that." And even though I'm on top of the board at all the running back positions, the best thing from that was pushing my other teammates, the other running backs. They exceeded their expectations themselves, trying to catch me. At the end of the day, all that together creates a better room and a better team.
When it comes to training, what's your favorite thing that you do?
I'd say more lower body. My favorite part is max-out days because everything just comes together, you know? You can throw some weight around and challenge yourself and beat yourself. But right now, I've been taking more of a different approach [to lifting], working on more explosive stuff. Not a crazy amount of weight but more firing up and working on jumps and exploding off the ground and efficient movement that translates to the football field. That's the big thing that I've been focusing on. If I ever have to tell a kid who is training what could be a main thing he should focus on, it would be that -- efficient movement that translates to the football field. Not putting 600 pounds on his back, maybe 400 or 500, 355, or whatever's reasonable for you, and then controlling the weight down but exploding up with jumping out of your shoes. Those are the new things that I've been really packing in.
Your dad has talked about the time in peewee football when you knocked down a coach when you were doing drills. That's the moment he knew you were different. What's that moment for you?
So, high school, going into my junior year, I kind of had the idea I was going to be the starting running back. I was a little smaller, so I decided to gain weight and try to get faster. I wasn't a fan of the weight room. I thought just the God-given talent would take you where you needed to go. Now I understand that you need hard work. Once I figured that out, that's when I started having a lot more success. That's when it all clicked for me. My sophomore year, I quit basketball. I didn't quit, I stopped playing basketball to focus on the weight room and really grind and really work my butt off. I dropped my 40 time from a 4.7 my sophomore year to a 4.4 my junior year. I'm pretty sure I got into the 4.3s going into my senior year.
What goes into that drop?
A lot of people ask me that: How did I gain weight and continue to get faster? I think it was the fact that I was gaining weight, but I was gaining good weight. I wasn't taking creatine and all these other things to get my body bigger. I was eating steaks, potatoes, chicken, and all that stuff. Just working hard. That's what I think really helped me was getting stronger and keeping to continue to work on flexibility and not just being tight. Being strong but also being athletic and still working on movement. That kind of just changed me, I guess. I got faster, I got more explosive, my first step got quicker, my burst got quicker, and it all just came together.
You've said you're always watching competitors. Are you picturing anyone in particular when you're looking for that mental edge?
No. That's something that I did with lifting in the beginning. Because I kind of felt like I was under-recruited and I wasn't getting the recognition of other guys, and I felt like I was one of the best in my draft class. I still do watch guys' films because I'm a fan of the game, and a lot of guys do a lot of amazing things. But the thing I put in my head right now is myself. Competing with myself. Competing with trying to be elite and trying to be the best I can.
What would you say is your most impressive physical feat?
I would say, in a game, it would be my hurdle against Illinois my freshman year. I took off at, like, the 4-yard line. I was able to jump into the end zone. I would've gotten farther, but a guy kind of jumped up and hit me. After he hit me, my momentum kind of just carried out, and it was kind of cool. That's probably one of my favorites.
Do you want hurdling to be a part of your game in the NFL?
Yes and no. It will be a part of my game, but I don't want to be known as a hurdler. I'm not a hurdler, I'm a football player. I want to be known as a guy who breaks tackles; that's the whole objective of the game. A lot of people think a running back is just a guy who lowers his shoulder and runs people over, and that's not my game. I want to be known as a guy who breaks tackles, and I think if you look over my college career in the last few years, I don't know if there's another guy who has been able to break a tackle as much as I have.
For more from the 2018 Body Issue, pick up a copy on newsstands starting June 29.
Set Design & Prop Styling by Anthony Asaro/Eleventh Street Workshop; Grooming by Sussy Campos/Art Department