Over his storied Major League Baseball career, George Herman Ruth — you may know him as “Babe” — clubbed 714 home runs, a record that stood for nearly four decades. He was, without question, the most feared hitter of his era. But gifted as Ruth was at sending baseballs to the great beyond, he wasn’t exactly a model athlete and was more likely to be mistaken for a grizzled plumber than a Yankee legend.
Today, ballplayers have evolved. Faster, stronger and leaner, players in the modern era train on the cutting edge of exercise science. Prompted by the specter of a 162-game schedule and the lure of lucrative contracts, players now live a slavish and dual existence, working as much on their craft as they do their bodies on a year-round basis. Of particular importance, however, are the months that lead into spring training, which begins each February, because players who show up ill-prepared for camp can find themselves battling for a spot or worse, injured and unable to compete. Sets and reps — as much as swings in the batting cage — are now big business.
“Players take their physical conditioning very seriously now,” says Keith Wilson, CSCS, owner and head performance coach of Pro Advantage Training Systems in Arizona (proadvantagetraining.com). “MLB organizations expect their players to show up ready to go the first day of camp.”
What follows is a look at how two big leaguers prepare for the rigors of such a long season. While they play different positions and are at different stages of their careers, both have cultivated their natural athleticism to produce strong numbers on the field. Bulgarian split squats, sprint drills and extensive core work — in the 21st century, these are but a few of the things it takes to produce consistently at the major league level.
Somewhere, Ruth is rolling his eyes.
Angels middle infielder Howie Kendrick is a speedy, hard-hitting ballplayer with the gym cred to match.
Team: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Position: second base
Birth Date: July 12, 1983
Weight: 205 to 210 pounds
Second basemen aren’t typically the most imposing physical specimens on a baseball field. Baseball Hall of Fame member Joe Morgan, for example, stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 165 pounds. Usually of slight build, players at this position are known more for their fancy footwork than for their raw physicality. But the Los Angeles Angels’ Howie Kendrick — tall, well-muscled and every bit as agile as the second basemen of yesteryear — is helping to break the mold with his adherence to more modern training protocols.
Kendrick is coming off a year during which he set career highs in doubles (41) and hits (172), finishing 10th and 15th in the league, respectively. But as valuable as his bat is to the Angels, it may be his legs that make him such a vital component of the team’s “run at all costs” offense. A few seasons back, however, Kendrick’s ability to execute that strategy was hampered by a hamstring injury, but it may have been the best thing to happen to him because his return to health was assisted by lots of gym time.
“Over the past two years, I’ve been healthy, knock on wood,” Kendrick says with a nervous chuckle. “Keith Wilson, the head guy at Pro Advantage Training Systems, has done a phenomenal job of keeping me healthy.”
These days, Kendrick takes a more dedicated approach to his leg training, working at all costs to maintain his value as a durable, top-tier hitter and base runner. “We do a lot of form running to make sure everything is in line so I don’t blow anything out,” he says. “Bad form can lead to injury. We do a lot of speed ladders and reaction-ball drills along with sprint work on the treadmill.” But Kendrick also performs several functional lifts for his lower body, both to build strength and to reduce his risk for re-injury. “We do a lot of Romanian deadlifts, step-ups with the dumbbells and Bulgarian squats with weights or bands,” he says. “It’s all about getting my glutes to fire right.”
Wilson also has Kendrick perform squats with a Woody Bag, a crude training implement that most closely resembles a punching bag with handles. “One day, we might do eight Woody-Bag squats, taking five seconds down and two up,” Kendrick says. “Next time, it’s explosive reps, through your heels, a really nice sit, then exploding up through it.”
Still, for all the cutting-edge lifting and drilling at Pro Advantage, Kendrick has to be aware of one key disadvantage: He gains muscle easily. And sudden starts, like trying to score from first on a double or legging out a bunt, can become a bit of a labor when you’re lugging around muscle in excess. Also, if muscle gain isn’t accompanied by an increase in flexibility, it can put you one cold sprint away from the disabled list.
“This year when I went in, we discussed not getting as big, so we increased the reps and focused on strength,” Kendrick says. “I have a tendency to get bigger in the offseason, and I usually struggle with my flexibility when I gain muscle.”
Ironically, long games and lots of travel make it a challenge to maintain lean muscle during the season, which is why Kendrick insists on training two to three times per week throughout the year to keep joints and muscles strong. “This is the most endurance-based sport on the planet, and for anyone who says that baseball players aren’t athletic, I’d challenge them to come play 162 games in a season,” he says.
It’s clear that Kendrick feels just at home in the weight room as he does on the field. He prides himself on being a student of performance training. While he concedes that natural ability is imperative for a player to succeed at the big league level, he knows that training for greater strength and speed can make good players great.
“We’re not training like football players, but you have to be strong enough to drive the ball,” he says. “Exercise science has improved, and players today are stronger and get over injury faster. It can only benefit you to keep yourself in shape and get stronger. And it only gets you closer to winning that championship.”
Howie Kendrick’s offseason leg-training program builds strength, size and endurance for the road ahead. Here’s a partial look at his typical Monday workout.
Slideboard Leg Curl
Place a towel on a slideboard and lie on your back with your legs at full extension and your heels resting on the towel. Keeping your hands on the floor along your sides, flex your hamstrings to bring your glutes toward your heels. Your lower back and glutes should lift off the floor, while your thighs remain in line with your torso. When your feet come flat on the slideboard, slowly reverse the motion and repeat for reps.
Gym substitutes: Leg curl, lying leg curl, standing one-leg curl
Vertimax Squat Jump
Using a Vertimax squat-jump platform, anchor yourself into the harness with the desired band resistance. Descend slowly into a squat position and explode upward, jumping as high as you can at full extension. Land softly and repeat for reps.
Gym substitutes: Squat jumps, squat jumps with weight vest
Young Marlins slugger Mike Stanton was a late bloomer in baseball, but his commitment to strength training is building his worth for years to come.
Team: Florida Marlins
Position: right field
Birth Date: November 8, 1989
Weight: 235 pounds
It’s no cliché: Hitting a pitched baseball well may be the hardest thing to do in all of sports. It’s an event in which success and failure are measured in fractions of inches. But those who do it right with regularity and authority are the reason that baseball continues to set attendance records in a down economy. It’s not just chicks that dig the long ball. Everyone does, which is why there is so much fuss over 21-year-old Florida Marlins right-fielder Mike Stanton.
Last year, his first with the big club, he led all MLB rookies with 22 home runs in just 100 games. Over a full season, that translates to roughly 35 dingers, putting him in the company of some of the game’s elite power hitters.
Tall and built like a tank, Stanton is every bit the prototypical power-hitter. A three-sport athlete in high school, he built a strong foundation of athleticism through long workouts in the weight room for football season and endless hours of sprinting and cutting on the hardwood for basketball season. Strangely, baseball was his “third” sport. “I never played baseball more than three months a year until three years ago,” he admits. “It was really my third sport in the sense of time put in.”
But the specificity and physical demands of playing baseball full time meant that his training program was bound to be lacking when he signed with the Marlins as a second-round pick in 2007. Fresh out of high school, where a 20-game schedule is the norm, Stanton’s body was taken aback by the sudden and drastic uptick in baseball activity. In the last few years, he has had to contend with a stress fracture in his back and a torn labrum in his left shoulder, both extremely painful and debilitating injuries. As a result, the up-and-comer has adopted a new approach for offseason training. “With the injuries that I’ve had, I need to have a workout that keeps me from re-injuring those again,” he says. “It’s weird for me that this is the first offseason that I’m not rehabbing and can focus on what I need to do.”
A far cry from the power clean and deadlift days of football hell week, Stanton’s training routine — developed by his outfield coach Tarrick Brock — is now more dynamic, helping him to better use his 235 pounds on the field. “I go to the beach and run in the sand, which is definitely not fun,” he says. “Some days, we go to the UCLA track and run the stairs, run laps, run the track, run sprints. Then when we get to the gym, it’s the stair stepper or five sets of something with very little rest — just building endurance for muscles. It’s not necessarily in the eight-rep range to build strength, but I’m just as sore as when I’m training heavier.”
While building stamina to stay strong — or even coherent — in the sky-high heat and humidity of Miami is tops on the priority list, Stanton still has to focus on his bread and-butter: hitting the long ball. Contrary to what most people may think, however, the ability to hit home runs is not determined by arm strength. In other words, bigger biceps and triceps don’t necessarily help you drive the ball — your legs and core do. “My core training has to be real specific,” Stanton says. “Anything that I can keep my back straight on is what I do. So I only like moves that reduce stress on my back. There are some machines in the gym that I kind of stick with and some may say those are easier, but I will put a lot of weight on those and use those anyway.”
Stanton is the rare example of an athlete who learned the value of weight training through misfortune. If not for his injuries, he may never have explored the concept of training in totality. This season, he is projected to be a big-bat run producer in the Marlins’ batting order, thanks in no small part to how hard he has worked on his body in the offseason. What’s important to consider is that his physical gifts and his knowledge of their upkeep are just now starting to gel.
“Training the way I do has kept me more explosive in the outfield because getting stronger legs is gonna make you quicker if you do it right,” he says. “I have a stronger arm in the outfield and faster hands at the plate. This is all because of things I’ve learned about training. Now it’s about the dedication to the plan.”
POWER FROM WITHIN
Mike Stanton uses a dedicated, year-round core-strength program to build (and keep) home-run power.
Average time, in seconds, of MLB infielders in the 60-yard dash
Average percentage of body fat among MLB outfielders
Average time, in seconds, of MLB outfielders in the 60-yard dash
Percentage of surveyed MLB strength-and-conditioning coaches who employ Olympic-style lifts
Percentage of surveyed MLB strength-and-conditioning coaches who employ plyometrics
THE MODERN SLUGGER
Keith Wilson, CSCS, owner and head performance coach of Pro Advantage Training Systems in Arizona (proadvantagetraining.com), knows what it takes to build ballplayers who can perform at a high level for 162 games a season. We asked him four burning questions about training the stars of America’s favorite pastime
Q: How important are athleticism and strength for Major League Baseball players?
A: Players in the MLB need a high level of athleticism. Athleticism is especially important in the middle of the field — shortstop, second base, center field — and even behind the plate at catcher. Strength and power are traditionally more important on the corners — first base, third base, left field and right field.
Q: In general, what does it take to prepare an athlete for such a long season?
A: Ideally, I like to have 16 weeks to prepare a player for the season. It’s a long season, and you need to put a lot of gas in the tank, so to speak. If I have the full 16 weeks, I can take my time and work on creating a good strength-and-stability base by spending adequate time in a prep phase. I place each of my athletes on an individualized plan specific to their needs. Each plan has progressions in intensities, volumes and complexities of exercises. I concentrate primarily on building strength until the first of the year. During this time, we complete movement-skill training daily, but I keep the volume low. After Jan. 1, we start addressing the energy-system demands of each position and ramp up movement-skill training while still working on their strength gains. To that end, our training volume is the highest in January. In February, baseball-skill work is at its highest. At this point, we level off our training volumes, especially with strength training. We want everyone to go into big league camp strong and feeling fresh.
Q: How have advances in sports medicine and exercise science changed the physical makeup and durability of today’s players?
A: I feel that players and strength-and-conditioning professionals understand so much more about injury mechanisms and how to manage and avoid them. Players are much more in tune with their bodies and realize that performance isn’t just about “being good” but more about getting the most out of your body.
Q: Some people argue that building strength can’t help a player’s power numbers. Your thoughts?
A: I don’t know of too many weak home-run hitters. It takes a lot of strength and power to produce enough bat speed and torque to hit home runs on a consistent basis, not to mention the mental edge a player gains when he feels strong.