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Fitness & Health

18th Jul 2019

How Cristiano Ronaldo transformed his physique at Manchester United

Mick Clegg spearheaded Manchester United's power development training under Sir Alex Ferguson. Now, his son has stepped into the role at Old Trafford

Alex Roberts

For 11 years, one man spearheaded Manchester United’s strength and power training

Mick Clegg served under Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United’s power development coach. He is perhaps best known for helping transform a shy and gangly Cristiano Ronaldo into the explosive and machine-like powerhouse he is today.

In truth, the club as a whole depended on his work – from club captain Roy Keane down to Fergie himself.

Now, the dynasty continues as Clegg’s son Michael steps into the role of power development coach.

Still working in football but operating out of his own personal gym and fitness facility, Clegg says the purpose of power development is slightly different to that of strength and conditioning.

“Strength and conditioning in football clubs is totally different to what we do. In my mind, that method is focused more on injury prevention than performance, whereas our focus has always been on improving performance. We want to work the brain and teach the body,” he says.

In the same way that the class of ’92 and a whole host of top-level talent came through the United academy, Clegg began his work with young players before immersing fully into first-team duties.

Boxing forms the foundation of Clegg’s core training principles, as Paul Scholes found out (Photo: Getty Images)

“My role was Power Development Coach for the youth team, when I went to the club in 2000 at Carrington training ground.

“Soon after starting, I was asked to manage the gym, then worked with the medical staff to give training on rehabilitation into performance training. Always within my remit was the knowledge to provide the brain with exercises and thought processes that would help them to be better players with power.”

The mind-muscle connection

A lot is written about the mind-muscle connection in fitness. But power development goes beyond priming your body to generate force. Clegg says it’s as much about the mind as anything else.

“The brain is the most important place to start when working towards the goal. Muscular strength is a very simple component for the brain to deal with but, in football, far more difficult is the acquisition of football skill,” he says.

“Concentration is key: it’s the glue between acquisition of a skill and the confidence that grows from attaining that skill.”

Modern gym environments can make it quite tough to work on concentration, according to Clegg.

“Training concentration these days is extremely difficult, with all the noise of what the world is doing around you.

“Look in any gym and you’ll see people listening to music, staring at mirrors, using their phones and generally chatting with one another while training. That’s totally inefficient in terms of reaching their desired result.”

Winning football matches depends on generating power – whether a player emphatically finishes off a counter-attack, makes a last-ditch tackle or explodes down the wing to lay a sitter on a plate for a teammate.

However, without developing concentration at the same time, these goals could not become reality.

Clegg (far left) leads a training session during United’s 2003 tour of the USA (Photo: Getty Images)

One of Clegg’s finest case studies is that of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Madeira-born product arrived from Sporting Clube de Portugal a shy and gangly teenager, but under Clegg’s tuition developed into the powerhouse you see today.

Many assumed Ronaldo’s development must have been ordered by Sir Alex, but Clegg says the player himself was intent on being the absolute best – both physically and technically.

“Very early on in his time at the club – in the first couple of weeks – Cristiano had asked me to help him become the best in the world. He wanted to be better than Ryan Giggs. He wanted to be better than everyone.”

Developing Cristiano Ronaldo

Clegg says this sort of transformation doesn’t just happen overnight – it takes a long-term plan.

“Initially, we worked on strengthening his system to stabilise and prevent injuries. We strengthened his upper body, did a lot of mid-section and core work with an old boxing routine I’d devised.

“As he saw results and grew in confidence, we incorporated a wide variety of power exercises. Over the years we looked for more specialised work to make sure he was training harder, faster and more intensely than anyone else we knew, including in the field of up-and-coming brain cognition training.”

The results of Ronaldo’s power training were clear to see from day one, as he’d gone from an extremely slim frame to a player capable of shrugging off even the stockiest of opposition players.

Ronaldo fends off Gennaro Gattuso during a Champions League match (Photo: Getty Images)

But Ronaldo’s greatest improvement came in a mental and cognitive sense.

He clearly had immense self-belief from the outset, but his determination and ability to stay switched on improved no end. He went from being easily manipulated and wound up by opponents, to having arguably the steeliest mindset in football.

In his debut season at Old Trafford, Ronaldo was sent off against Aston Villa for two petty bookings. Contrast that to recent years, and you’ll see a player who has captained Portugal to European glory and netted the winning penalty in a Champions League final.

He built his brain as much as his back and biceps.

Speaking about the specific exercises he programmes into power development plans, Clegg has a variety in mind.

“For overall strength, use deadlifts with a clean grip. For upper body, do lateral raises. The mid-section and core need an old-fashioned boxing routine and overhead squats.

“For power, clean and jerks work brilliantly. Moving into bodyweight work, I use single and double-footed jumps, both high and long, followed by lay-ups with basketball. To improve reaction speed, boxing or the D2 machine in my gym.

“For foot movement, I use simple ladders with a twist. Then, regardless of position, it’s key that players learn to shoot with both feet, head a static ball and, in my regime, invest in cognitive training with the Neurotracker and virtual reality on the Rezzil system we use.”

Working wonders with the rest of United

It wasn’t just Ronaldo who gained from Clegg’s tutelage. Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick were beneficiaries, too.

Clegg puts Ronaldo and Evra through their paces at Carrington (Source: Mick Clegg)

“Michael Carrick was one of the easiest and nicest people to train. He was already in good shape, like a Rolls Royce coming through the door. Very dedicated, humble, but desiring improvement. It was like putting a supercharger on one of the most efficient engines in football.

“Patrice loved core work and did a lot of sessions with Cristiano. He was very, very dedicated to his physical development.”

It wasn’t just the playing staff who got involved in training, either. Now running his own gym in Ashton-Under-Lyne, Clegg has previously spoken of putting Sir Alex Ferguson through his paces too.

Working under the Scot was crucial for his own development as a power development coach, Clegg says. He still refers to Sir Alex as ‘The Gaffer’.

“The gaffer was an observer of men, football and conflict. He knew when people were at their best, worst and in-between.

“His job was to win his battles with the weapons (players) and system at his disposal, and his greatest asset was that he would never be afraid to take on a challenge. This mirrored the players he wanted in his team. Individuals who would thrive under pressure. Players who always wanted the ball, and had the creative expression to either score goals themselves or create them for others.

“He continually surrounded himself with that kind of player over a vast amount of time. Look at the success it brought.”

Sir Alex Ferguson joins his United squad to lift the 2008 UEFA Champions League trophy (Photo: Getty Images)

Powering a healthy team culture

You’d be forgiven for thinking such a dedicated training culture was all-too-serious, but Clegg says it enhanced the squad’s camaraderie.

“The best gym story was one where two players fought out on a particular power exercise. Without naming them, let’s say Player One was doing some 5kg medicine ball slams.

“He started by throwing to the floor but then decided to do the overhead throw to see how high he could get it. The physio working with him decided to join in. They were throwing it until it almost hit the roof in the Carrington gym, which is quite high.

“At that point, a young player – let’s say Player Two – walked in and said: ‘What are you doing?’ Player One chided him with some derogatory comments. Player Two said: ‘I could hit the roof in one throw.’ Player One and the physio then poured scorn on the young lad and told him: ‘F****** do it then.'”

Clegg says the youngster rose to the challenge.

“I’m stood there watching all this and thinking, Player Two stood no chance because he was so young and skinny. Then, with his first throw, he hit the ceiling!

“Instantly, a member of the maintenance team charged straight in and started shouting at him. In turn, this resulted in Player Two running out of the gym with the maintenance man in hot pursuit, leaving three totally bewildered men in the gym with a 5kg medicine ball at their feet, all of us having been proven totally wrong.”

From Mick Clegg to Michael

It’s been seven years since Clegg left Old Trafford, but now the future looks bright for United’s power development dynasty. His son Michael has now taken on the job.

It seems United fans everywhere have a lot to look forward to.

“Manchester United fans can expect 41 years of coaching experience from an old geezer (me), crammed into a young mind that already has a wealth of relevant experience.

“As well as all the time we’ve spent together, Mike has played at the highest level in football. He has 22 years of coaching experience plus 12 years operating under countless different managers. All the while, he has met tonnes of players and coaches who really want to understand the power that is involved in coaching at the very highest level.

Michael Clegg spent seven years as a Manchester United player (Photo: Getty Images)

“Mike loves the club, knows what needs to be done and has a lot of ideas about how to do it. I’m very excited for him and for United.”

Michael Clegg was part of United’s 1995 FA Youth Cup winning side. He went on to play for Ipswich, Oldham and Wigan before retiring. Afterwards, he became strength and conditioning coach at Sunderland, and has since made a name for himself as a hugely-respected name in the industry.

He was appointed as new Power Development Coach at Manchester United on 6th July. With a whole raft of rapid players at his disposal, the future looks bright under Clegg Jr.

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