Meet Matt, the black sheep of the Harpring family. For generations, Harpring men have played football – his grandfather at Navy, his father at Michigan, his uncle at Notre Dame, one brother at Northwestern and another brother at Akron. Matt followed in the family footsteps through high school, but somewhere he took a wrong turn off the gridiron and wound up on the basketball court. Poor Matt. He had to settle for a career in the NBA. The Harpring men just shake their heads.
Meet Matt, the black sheep of the Sixers' weight room. While his teammates follow the traditional conditioning regimen, Matt's doing things that frankly, scare them. Forget your basic bicep curls. Matt's pulling 195 pounds in power cleans. Basketball players won't touch that. That's a football lift. Only football players have that kind of strength. Poor Matt. He can't find a lifting buddy this side of Veterans Stadium. The Sixers' strength and conditioning coach, James Lloyd, just shakes his head.
Sixers strength coach James Lloyd spots Matt Harpring on the bench press. Photo by sixers.com
"I've seen a lot of people out there," says Lloyd, whose clientele as a personal trainer includes Alonzo Mourning and Allan Houston. "But when (Harpring) came to me, I must admit that I was definitely impressed."
Harpring's weight room wonders aren't readily apparent at first glance. With that kind of buildup, you're looking for The Rock or Rocky or Rahman – someone big and bulging. But Harpring's a lean, mean machine, with not one molecule of fat among the 231 pounds that cover his 6-7 frame.
"With how much I run and how much I exercise -- and I'm not taking anything to get big," Harpring says. "I do all my exercises to get strong and maintain what I do. With my body, I've found that if I don't do squats and things like that, my legs feel weaker on the court. If I do all that stuff, I feel as strong at the end of the season as I did at the beginning of the season."
Harpring stops moving to talk, but that's about the only time. He has earned the respect of the traditionally brutal Philadelphia fans through his hard-nosed, all-over-the-floor play. His 12.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game – the best of his career – as the Sixers' starting small forward don't hurt either. When the buzzer sounds, his teammates go home, go out, go eat. Harpring's back in the weight room because he says that's when he gets the best workout for his lower body.
"I actually just started working out after games last year," Harpring explains. "I'm already loose; I'm already going. I might be a little tired but that's actually good because then you're getting your muscles even more fatigued. And then you're getting a day of recovery – actually two days of recovery before you have to play again so it really works out well for me."
"We'll do a lot of power movements, which will be his power cleans, his squats – he always squats every day," Lloyd says. "And he free squats which is different too from what the average basketball player is going to do. Most players will squat on the Smith rack. Matt free squats – you'll see football players doing it – Matt can do it. But it's not something that I'll let anyone do that comes in here."
A typical lower body regimen for Harpring includes squats, leg presses, leg extensions, leg curls, stiff leg dead lifts, calves and abduction/adduction. On off days, he focuses on his upper body. While Lloyd puts the rest of the Sixers through 2-3 days of weight training each week during the regular season, Harpring lifts at least four times. And judging by the glimmer in his eye as he explains his schedule, it probably winds up being more.
Very few basketball players are able to do the power clean Harpring performs. Photo by sixers.com
Lloyd's right there with him, watching Harpring's form and breathing with the eye of someone who knows from experience. Lloyd carries the philosophy that a strength and conditioning coach ought to be able to practice what he preaches, which means Harpring does, actually, have a lifting buddy within the Sixers organization and someone who is all the more aware of his feats.
"The clean jerks Matt does, there's probably not even seven or eight guys who do that in the league. I would guarantee that," Lloyd boasts. "There's no way. As soon as a guy sees that, he thinks that's football stuff. And Matt used to play football so he does a lot of football-specific lifts and I think that definitely gives him an advantage strength-wise because those are power movements."
Again, Harpring's movements – power or otherwise – don't stop. Ever.
"In the offseason, I get up, lift in the morning, do shooting drills for an hour and a half, then we play. I eat, take a couple hours and then play again at night. So I leave the house at eight and don't usually come back until 7:30," Harpring says. "This is in Atlanta because I can play with a bunch of NBA players that live there and then I play with the Georgia Tech guys too, at night."
In fact, Harpring thinks the offseason is the toughest part of the year. You know, with all that down time.
"I take the weekends off during the offseason – I only play Monday-Friday," he concedes. "Saturdays and Sundays are off.
"I mean, I play tennis or something like that."
Okay, you can't be left with the idea that Harpring's a total health nerd. He explains that the benefits of his fierce training regimen include eating anything he wants, anytime he wants without gaining weight. And what he generally wants is junk food – "ice cream at three o'clock in the morning. I'll come lift after a game and then get a pizza and have a Haagen-Daz bar and cookies. It's what I do. It's what I enjoy doing."
Harpring doesn't hesitate to acknowledge that his conditioning program is unique among his colleagues but maintains that it's simply a byproduct of his football background. Should he ever get lost or confused, he might easily find himself blocking or on the receiving end of a Donovan McNabb pass with the Eagles. However the Sixers will keep a close eye on their misfit muscle marvel – they need Harpring to help shepherd them back to the NBA Finals.