How the Steelers use gaming to dominate the weight room

PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Shazier's severe spinal injury suffered in December hasn't stopped him from outshining many of his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates in the weight room.

All he needs are two orange fob pads the size of a small wallet.

"Ryan Shazier’s hand strength was off the charts compared with all of the other players," Steelers strength and conditioning coordinator Garrett Giemont said. "We’re sitting here competing and Ryan is kicking butt."

The Steelers recently signed a four-year deal with Activbody and ActivSports products, which use technology to "measure, quantify, and improve muscle function for isometric and traditional gym-based exercises," according to the company.

For the Steelers, that means players occasionally ditching the squat rack to huddle around a table full of iPads that track isometric scores.

The Activ5 isometric tool the Steelers utilize can isolate muscles, simulate weight and track balance. Players can place the fobs between outstretched hands for chest exercises or between the knees to improve the midline/adductor area of the body (this reporter failed miserably in a demo).

Giemont can set various time intervals for endurance, and he can gauge a player's stats such as total weight lifted and muscle accuracy.

More importantly, those stats simulate competition.

"It’s instantaneous engagement," Giemont said. "For the modern-day athlete that plays video games right or left, that’s one of the things that it does -- it engages the players."

With 30-plus years in the NFL and 11 years with coach Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, Giemont always was fascinated with how data influences performance. The numbers available to him over the years weren't overly helpful, and ActivBody offered an alternative.

The new data was only the beginning.

"I was solely numbers-driven, but then I found out they’ve got something here, because these guys love these video-style exercise games," Giemont said.

Not every player uses it, but defensive end Cameron Heyward (a beast with the chest fly, apparently), wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, linebacker T.J. Watt and safety Morgan Burnett are among the most dedicated.

Burnett can use it for rehab on a groin injury that has cost him four games. The nine-year veteran said he uses ActivBody to "fire those [lower-body] muscles" that need strengthening.

"It monitors the force you're putting in," Burnett said. "You can definitely feel the burn. There are certain areas you're not used to getting a certain amount of attention to in one area. And it puts you in a video game mindset, but at the same time, you're working hard."

The Steelers are operating in a partnership with Activbody, reporting back to the company with progress and analysis.

For players, the report might as well be the same: Get your numbers up.

"Everyone’s in there, and you’re going to give it your best shot," Giemont said.