Train Like a Warrior!

Build Muscle and Accelerate Fat Loss with Former NFL Player Joe Donnelly

Train Like a Warrior! - Build Muscle and Accelerate Fat Loss with Former NFL Player Joe Donnelly
By Ron Harris

From The NFL To Fitness Magazine Cover Model

Joe Donnelly moved around a lot as a kid, thanks to his father’s job with the Eastman Kodak corporation. They usually returned to their native Rochester, New York between moves to Oregon, North Carolina and the United Kingdom. But when his father got the chance to be President of Kodak’s Asian division, it was time to pull up stakes for Tokyo, Japan. Joe was a high school sophomore and already a standout football player, and the American high school kids in Tokyo played seven-man football instead of the 11-man squads we know. Joe stayed behind and finished his primary education at a private high school in Connecticut before being recruited by Syracuse University, where he played alongside Pro Bowl NFL defensive end Dwight Freeney. “Dwight was one of the strongest men I have ever known,” Joe informs us. “One day we had our strength test and I maxed out with 755. Dwight did it, too— for seven reps without a belt or wraps, and made it look like 135.”

Joe was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, where he played tight end during the 2004 season when Michael Vick was quarterback. Before the next season, he moved to the Buffalo Bills, where he was excited to finally be a starting player. It was not meant to be, as he injured his knee in May and never made it to the season. “It was a huge setback and a tough time, but God had a plan for me,” Donnelly says. “And if you ask me what I got out of my brief time in the NFL, I would say it was the opportunity to play with tremendous athletes with excellent attitudes and incredible work ethics. That taught me that practice and preparation are the keys to any kind of success in life. If you are willing to put the work in, you can do anything you want to.” And as a byproduct of his own fierce work ethic in the gym, Joe is making a rapid and successful transition to the fitness industry.

In This For All The Right Reasons

Why does a man become a fitness model? Many are driven by ego and vanity— the desire to show off and be seen. Others hope to make big bucks. Joe Donnelly literally stumbled into all this by accident with none of those motivations. “I actually went to the Arnold Classic this year and met FitnessRx for Men cover model Greg Plitt,” he tells us. “We got to talking, and my older brother was a West Point grad just like him.” On the drive back home, Joe came to the epiphany that he wanted to do more in this industry than simply help people on his Facebook page. “I realized that I could help inspire and educate others to reach their fitness goals, on a large scale.” His Facebook page had blown up to thousands of friends in a matter of weeks, and even fitness models were asking him for workout tips as Joe posted his daily routines. A photographer offered to shoot him for what ended up being his first magazine cover, which led to others soon after. “If I can use the little bit of status I have as a former NFL player as a vehicle to show people they can do things like get stronger or lose unhealthy body fat, that’s a great way of giving back since I have been so blessed in my own life.”

A Natural Athlete— Literally

Another mission Joe Donnelly is passionate about is showing young people that they do not need steroids to get bigger and stronger. “A lot of them say they just want to do them for a little while to get bigger and stronger, but it never works that way,” he explains. “Once you start down that path, you have that mentality of cutting corners and cheating. That can carry over into the way you approach school, work and relationships.” Of course, the best way to show what’s possible is by example, and Joe has posted very impressive lifts like a 535-pound bench and the aforementioned 755-pound squat.

Joe takes pride in what he calls “killing himself in the gym” every day for 60-90 minutes. “Nothing can replace the mental fortitude you build by pushing yourself 100 percent,” he shares. “I would rather train at 100 percent and know I did the absolute best I could, than look better and know I could be training harder.” The real shocker is that Joe really doesn’t even concern himself with his physique. “For me it’s really all about the challenge of training as hard as I can, with no excuses— the physique just comes along with that. I don’t go into the gym with the idea that I want more of this or that like a bodybuilder does.”

Joe’s Unorthodox Diet

What would you say if I told you Joe only eats one meal a day? It’s true. Dinner is a solid meal, but the rest of the time he subsists on powdered greens and protein shakes. “Most people don’t realize that 80 percent of our body’s energy is used to digest food,” he says. “That’s why we all tend to get sleepy after a big meal, especially if it’s rich in carbs, which spike your insulin levels and help make you fat as well as tired.” Joe steers clear of grains. Because he eats just one solid meal a day, Donnelly could eat whatever he wanted, be it two pizzas or ten bowls of chili, which he has done. But most of the time he prefers eating clean: fish, chicken and occasionally red meat with copious amounts of vegetables like asparagus, baby spinach or broccoli. “They have almost no carbs and very few calories, but they’re loaded with vitamins and minerals,” he adds.

A Grueling Workout Style Not For The Faint of Heart

By now you should have guessed that Joe’s training style is not typical, with straight sets and only moderate amounts of work for each body part. Donnelly will do 50 sets or more for large body parts, with a lot of supersets and tri-sets (three exercises performed back to back). Rest periods are rarely more than 30 seconds between sets. “I approach my workouts almost like football practice,” he explains. “You run a play, you rest just long enough to catch your breath, then you keep on running plays or doing drills.” He does break down the body parts so that the first third of the workout usually focuses on core free-weight movements for mass and power, the second third switches gears toward muscle shape and contour with more isolation movements, supersets, and drop sets, and the final third will often consist of even more intense supersets and drop sets with as many as six weight reductions in an effort to totally exhaust the chosen muscle group. “I go into the gym with the attitude that I am going to attack the weights and take it to the edge of insanity and pain,” he notes. “I’ve been told that I am overtraining or that I will burn up muscle mass, but my results speak for themselves. I never feel as empowered as when I have nearly destroyed myself in the gym. Once I have made it past that, the rest of the day is easy.” Joe urges others to use the training as their gauge for success rather than what you see in the mirror. “If you make it about your appearance or how you look compared to others, you are setting yourself up to fail because you will never be happy.” Joe has a wide range of exercises he chooses from every day in the gym. These are some of his all-time favorites.

Plyometric/Clap Push-ups

Train Like a Warrior! - Build Muscle and Accelerate Fat Loss with Former NFL Player Joe Donnelly“These work your middle to upper chest, depending on the height of the bench and thus, the angle your torso is at. The triceps and front delts are also involved. Because of the plyometric nature of the reps, you get very similar effects to a heavy negative bench press. It takes explosive power to push yourself high enough to clap, then a good deal of negative strength to catch yourself and lower back down to the start position. Doing clap push-ups will increase anyone’s bench-pressing power, and they even have cardiovascular benefits. Just doing these, or especially as the second half of a superset after heavy incline or flat presses, will have you heaving for air. Beginners should start by doing these on your knees. Once you can get ten good reps that way, advance to standard position with feet up. Once those are getting easy, proceed to elevating your feet behind you on a bench. Eventually you can attempt a double clap on each rep, and for the elite mastery level, clap behind your back. But don’t get ahead of yourself— a buddy of mine tried clapping behind his back and wound up splitting his lip when his face hit the floor!”

Weighted Chin-ups

“Weighted chins are probably the single best mass-builder for the upper back. I do them three ways; with a wide grip, shoulder width hands facing each other as shown here, and an underhand grip. Pulldowns do not duplicate this exercise. Any time you have to pull your own bodyweight plus additional resistance through space, you will force your back to work its hardest and you will feel the difference in the soreness of your lats the next day. I get as heavy as over 240 pounds, so when I strap on an extra 45 or 90 pounds, just controlling the negative slowly on the way down rips apart every last muscle fiber and primes it for growth. Less than a year ago, my back was a lagging muscle group on my physique. The only change I made was to add these into my workouts, and now I’m told my back is one of my best features. It doesn’t matter how much extra weight you put on as long as it’s heavy for you— it could be 10 pounds or 100. One excellent way to make the exercise even more intense is to do 8-10 reps to failure, then drop the weight and do another 8-10 reps with just your bodyweight. If you have a training partner, having him or her assist you with a few forced reps when you can’t do any more on your own will also drive your upper back deeper into exhaustion— and that’s the name of the game!”

Standing Narrow-Grip T-bar Rows

Train Like a Warrior! - Build Muscle and Accelerate Fat Loss with Former NFL Player Joe Donnelly“T-bar rows are another great mass movement for the back. Chins will hit the upper region, but T-bars will get the middle and lower back nice and thick. Again, the myriad machines available for rowing and even the common version with the chest pad are weak substitutes for a real T-bar row off the floor with an Olympic bar and a close-grip handle. The bar forces your hamstrings and lower back to work hard just to keep you stabilized throughout the set. Keep your chest up and your lower back flat or just slightly arched, and pull all the way up until the plates touch your lower chest.”

Heavy Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows

“Dumbbell rows are a fantastic back exercise, but only when you use a full range of motion and go heavy enough— two things you rarely see anyone doing at the same time in the gym. First of all, don’t be shy on any back exercise to use wrist straps to reinforce your grip. You want to fail when your lats give out, not your hands or forearms. Begin from a full stretch of the lats, and pull all the way up until the dumbbell touches your rib cage. Hold and flex your lats a half second, then lower to a count of about two seconds. Always remember that the contraction and the negative parts of the rep are actually the most critical toward stimulating muscle growth. I like to do 3 or 4 sets of anywhere from 8 to 15 reps on dumbbell rows.”

Standing Reverse-Grip Barbell Press

Train Like a Warrior! - Build Muscle and Accelerate Fat Loss with Former NFL Player Joe Donnelly“Due to my past shoulder injuries, I haven’t been able to do standard military presses in years. Frank Sepe, who has also been a cover man for FitnessRx for Men, taught me this pressing variation about five months ago and I have already seen a big improvement in my shoulders as well as my triceps. I like to have my hands shoulder width or a bit wider, with a slight bend in my knees to take the pressure off them. When I go heavy, I like to use a staggered foot stance with one ahead and one behind for a stronger and more stable base. Key points are to press up to a full lockout, but to only lower the bar to about the level of your chin to keep tension on the shoulders. Always get that nice slow negative, as you should be doing on everything. I will pyramid up in weight and my reps will usually be 12, 10, 8 and 6 before I strip half the weight off and burn out my delts
with about 20-25 reps for the last set.”

Upright Rows

Train Like a Warrior! - Build Muscle and Accelerate Fat Loss with Former NFL Player Joe Donnelly“A lot of people shy away from doing upright rows because they think it’s mostly for rear delts and traps. But if you focus on getting your elbows up and over the bar and pulling high, it’s actually a great overall shoulder movement. I love doing these as the second half of a superset with the reverse-grip barbell presses, and alternate between using an EZ-curl bar or a Smith machine. Either way, I pull the bar almost all the way up to my chin. At the point where I am passing the chest, I slow the rep down and focus on the peak contraction. Another tip is to never lower all the way down to the point where you lose tension on the delts. Think about feeling the muscle work and squeezing the shoulders hard at the top of every rep.”

Dumbbell Lateral Raises

“These have been a staple of my workouts since I was a teenager and I’ve done many variations of them. In my college years I went extremely heavy on these, which no doubt contributed to my shoulder joint issues. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I don’t use more than a pair of 35s or 40s at most, but with perfect form. I keep my elbows as high as the dumbbells or higher and there is absolutely no swing to the movement. As always, I like to slow the rep down as I near the point of contraction to get the most out of it. And to maintain constant tension, I don’t let the dumbbells come all the way down to hit my sides. When you really use the medial delts to do the work on laterals, you will see and feel the difference— and you might get twice the results by using half the weight you do now, that’s the crazy thing.”

Barbell Curls

Train Like a Warrior! - Build Muscle and Accelerate Fat Loss with Former NFL Player Joe Donnelly“Pretty much every guy out there does curls to build his biceps, but few do them the right way to actually stimulate growth. Every rep needs to be slow and controlled, with particular emphasis on squeezing the contraction and feeling the muscle elongate as you lower the bar. There should be no hip thrust, and the elbows should stay pinned to your sides. Don’t bring the bar all the way up to your collarbone as I often see. The biceps aren’t under tension once you clear the chest.”

Hammer Curls

“Hammer curls do a terrific job of targeting the long head of the biceps and the brachialis, a muscle that will add significant thickness to the biceps. I like to go really heavy on these, as in 6-8 reps for 4 sets. It’s one of the few exercises I will sacrifice perfect form on to generate more power. Still, I keep my chest up and my arms at my sides. It almost looks like I’m doing a 3/4 rep, because I curl up to about a 90-degree angle. Why? You guessed it— to keep tension on the target muscle! These are best done at the start of the biceps workout when your energy levels are highest and you can handle some good weight.”

Rope Curls— Pull Apart At Top

“Rope curls are a supplementary exercise, but a perfect follow-up to hammer curls. The supinating movement as you twist your hands forces the brachialis to work harder. It’s actually a similar movement to alternate dumbbell curls. I usually do 4 sets of 12-15 reps, then drop down with my back on the floor and do another 20-25 reps of rope curls just straight up and down without pulling the ropes apart. Sometimes my biceps get so pumped and full of blood after that, they feel ready to explode.”

Concentration Curls

“There is no greater finishing movement for the biceps than concentration curls, and no better way to focus on the peak of the bi’s. By this point in the workout, my biceps are so pumped and spent that I invariably wind up using the non-working hand to assist in getting the full contraction, so half the reps in 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps are forced reps.”


“This is a basic but brutally effective mass-builder for the triceps. You can use a straight bar or an EZ-curl bar. I use a flat bench like most guys, but you will notice that my head is hanging off the end. This allows me to bring the bar further back for a full stretch and a truly complete range of motion. I started doing them this way two years ago, and since then I have seen not only a major improvement in my triceps, but also feel a lot less elbow soreness. Keep your elbows tucked in rather than flared out, and focus on feeling the triceps contract as you flex them at the top, and then get a great stretch on your negatives.”

Triceps Pushdowns

Train Like a Warrior! - Build Muscle and Accelerate Fat Loss with Former NFL Player Joe Donnelly“Cables offer a lot of versatility for triceps training. I like to do cable pushdowns two different ways. Sometimes I will go very heavy for mass and let my form loosen up, or else I use extremely strict form. Either way, it’s important to lean forward a bit to allow for a complete range of motion. When you stand up straight, the bar will hit the front of your thighs before you achieve a full extension of the triceps. Cables let you hit the inside of the triceps, known as the long head, and squeezing hard gives you added definition and detail there.”

Rope Extensions

“This is a great auxiliary movement for the triceps, but I don’t see it done right very often. If you go heavy and swing the weight down, you are not getting the benefits you should. Heavy weights have no place here. It’s all about a very slow squeeze as you push the weight down and then pull the ropes apart, again engaging that long head of the triceps. As always with a cable for triceps, lean forward for the full range of motion. I actually do my reps so slowly that even the first rep of a set of 12-15 looks like it’s my last, but I’m getting total contraction of the muscle. If I ever feel like I can’t get that perfect feel, I never hesitate to cut the weight.”

Bench Step-ups

“This is a true athletic movement that everyone should be doing regularly. I typically like to step up on to a 24-30” box rather than a bench, just for the sake of greater stability. It’s not about speed, it’s about overloading the glutes and hams. If you’re new to the exercise, start with light dumbbells to get your coordination down first before moving on to more resistance. Keep your chest up and your hips tucked under your body. Push from the heel, and land with your foot flat on the bench or the box. I like to do 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps for each leg. Any football or soccer player should be doing these for power in the glutes and hams. They allow the legs to work independently, just as they do when you run. In fact, when I left high school at 230 pounds, I was running the 40 in about 4.8 seconds. My strength coach at Syracuse had me doing these, and a couple years later I was running the 40 in 4.39— weighing 250!”

Box Jumps

“There is no machine you could ever use that would duplicate the effects of a box jump, and few other exercises translate as well into real-world athletic applications. I use a box that’s anywhere from 4-5 feet high, but then again I’m 6 foot 3. You want to start and finish in a squatting position, coiling your body and exploding up off your heels to jump as high as you can, then landing in a squat position to keep your knees safe. Box jumps use the entire lower body, and will improve anyone’s explosiveness for just about any sport.”

Straight-leg Deadlifts

“No other exercise will ever give you the strength in your spinal erectors and hamstrings that straight-leg deadlifts will. People have asked me how I can squat 600-700 pounds at my height, and without a belt. I credit years of heavy straight-legs. As for belts, I have never believed in them. I couldn’t wear one out on the football field, so why should I wear one training in the gym? First off with this exercise, despite the name you do want a slight bend in your knees to take the pressure off them. Keep your back flat, stick your butt out behind you, and make sure the bar stays close to your knees and shins throughout the lift. I like to slowly lower the bar until the plates just about touch the floor, then drive my hips forward and stand fully upright at the top of the rep. Even though I go as heavy as 300-400 pounds, my reps are always very slow and controlled. I do 3 sets of 6-10 reps.”

Cable Reverse Crunches With Ankle Straps

“There is a huge misconception that the way to work your lower abs, the transverse abdominals, is to do leg raises either hanging from a bar or sitting in a Roman chair. That’s what even most fitness models do, and it’s why you rarely even see lower ab development on them. Regular leg raises primarily work the hip flexors. To reach the lower abs, you need to compress the abs fully by bringing the feet up to the head. One excellent exercise that achieves this is reverse crunches done with ankle straps attached to a low cable pulley. If you aren’t getting the full range of motion you see me using here, you’re not working the lower abs.”

Toes To Bar For Lower Abs

“You can do the same movement with a chin-up bar. Again, it’s a much larger range of motion than a leg raise. Instead of just bringing your feet up to chest level, you continue to raise them until they are over your head and touching the bar. I guarantee you will feel the difference the very first time you try these, and you will know what you are missing. I like to do 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps. Just be ready for the soreness the day after you try these for the first time, because it’s going to be bad.”


“To be totally honest, I don’t do much cardio at all. I don’t need to, because of the high intensity and high volume of my training, as well as the way I eat. But a couple nights a week I will go for a hard run of 3-4 miles, or swim laps for an hour. I also like sprinting and jumping rope, because you can get a great workout in a short time. Hitting the heavy bag is probably my favorite form of cardio and also works the core a lot. Too much running will shrink the legs, but boxing is a great alternative. And hey, it’s fun to hit stuff!”

Not A Fitness Model— A Fitness Role Model

Joe works full time as a business consultant, and truly is embarking on a fitness career in the interest of helping others. He just launched a new website,, and that also has a link to his Facebook fitness page where he posts every single workout each day, as well as answers every question he can from diet, to motivation, to specific workouts and more. “I’m not in it for the money or the fame,” he says. “Whenever I hear from some kid who tells me he used my workouts to gain 20 pounds and I helped him decide not to use steroids, or a guy who was overweight and lost 70 pounds following my advice, I feel like the richest man in the world.”

Photos by Per Bernal