Which workout routine is the best for baseball players?

Baseball Muscle

Pictured is Gabe Kapler in his prime.

Asking the question to a strength and conditioning coach as to which workout routine is the best for baseball players must be replied to with a complicated answer. All baseball players are different and while there are basic workouts that could fit each player — there is no advanced workouts in a “one size fits all” package.

Back in 1979, I “was” somewhat of an expert on working-out as one of the strongest humans pound for pound at 75 kilograms. It is history — uh actually ancient history as I am 3 years away from 60-years-old and the loss of natural hormones causes fat to surround muscle at a greater pace than when I was younger. In my youth, I was fit and strong and teaching others how to do what I did. What I learned back in the late-1970s and early 1980s is that not everyone could do what I did because of genetics.

It was also that era when athletes were finding muscles in a syringe. Anabolic steroids were readily available in my gym, and some of these “gym rats” would want you to believe they did it “naturally”. It turned me off from the world I was in. Hanging out in dirty smelly gyms like Dynamo in College Park, Maryland was no longer as fun as it once was. My group that I hung out in would travel around to different gyms showing off our feats of strength. I got away from that life at the right time as performance enhancing drugs were becoming too widely prescribed and considered acceptable. The dirty little secret was out although widely ignored in baseball for nearly two decades. 

My baseball career was over when I got into strength training. What I learned then with my own body has helped me train young athletes and my own 5 children on what to do and what not to do. I cringe when I see what some of these athletes are doing to their bodies as they pose for social media trying to impress their fans.

“Trout never maxes out on his weights,” Angels beat writer Alden Gonzalez wrote. “So [his off-season trainer Dan Richter] can’t tell you what his limit is on a bench press or a squat rack. Most of his workouts have a little bit more functionality to them — like hurling a medicine ball from a batting stance and sprinting after it, or exploding off a push-up position and into a pull-up.”

Mike Trout has only been on the disabled list once in his MLB career and that was last year when he tore up his thumb on a head-first slide. He has played almost every game since he got his permanent call-up on April 28th of 2012. During the four years from 2013-to-2016, Trout averaged 158 games year only sitting out 4 games a year. Excellence in anything you do is a process.

Many players today are caught up in social media bravado. They want you to think they are competing in the “Strongest Man” competitions and pulling forklifts are somehow better than parachute runs which aren’t quite as sexy. What was Gio Gonzalez thinking?

“We start with [Mike Trout for] a couple of weeks of light workouts as an introduction back into training. Then in December, we start getting serious,” Dan Richter says. “I plan the workouts based on Mike’s needs from week to week, and I mix things up between plyometrics, strength, cardio, and flexibility work because he gets bored easily. The focus is getting his body ready to endure the long baseball season, which means total-body care.”

When I took our travel baseball team of pre-pubescent young men in the mid-2000’s to a gym, we went to my old work-out buddy John Philbin. This was before Philbin was named in 2009 as the strength & conditioning coach of the Washington Nationals. We worked on strictly speed and agility which would be our secret weapon. When the Nats were looking for the right guy to run their conditioning program I recommended Philbin to Stan Kasten of the Nationals. Today, “Coach” John Philbin is with the New York Yankees training young players like Aaron Judge on strength and conditioning. “Coach” is the best in the biz. If players listen to him, he can get them to the next level. But they have to listen to him.

Baseball muscle

Coach Phibin working with Stephen Strasburg

You must know each player’s genetic makeup and what is best for that player. No two athletes who are not identical twins are alike. Working out Bryce Harper exactly like Trea Turner would be questionable in my opinion based on their body types. They say that  discretion is the better part of valor. Always err on the side of caution with workouts. Go into it slowly as Dan Richter recommends.

Maxing out weights breaks down muscle fiber. It breaks down a lot of muscle fiber. You are injuring fibers with each workout. I cringe when I see pro athletes working out with bad form and ignoring full range of motion. This commercial for Jack Link’s beef jerky tells some truths:

There are 650 skeletal muscles in the human body and some are more important than others. It all starts in the core. Skeletal muscles are composed of thread-like myofibrils and sarcomeres that form muscle fibers. Hitting a baseball far is not all about muscle. Gabe Kapler was the strongest baseball player in 2001, and he only managed to hit 17 home runs that season when Barry Bonds hit 73 dingers. Kapler was a gym devotee with an impeccable diet and swore he was all-natural. Comparing him to Bonds isn’t fair, but skinny Alfonso Soriano was a rookie in 2001 and bested Kapler by hitting 18 home runs in that same 2001 season.

Here is the most important part of this physiology lesson: After you workout, your body works on repairing/replacing  damaged muscle fibers during rests periods during a process whereby cell by cell the body attempts to fuse muscle fibers back together to form new muscle protein strands (myofibrils). If an athlete does this program the correct way, the repaired myofibrils increase in size and thickness and number to create muscle growth known as hypertrophy. The opposite of hypertrophy is atrophy. Too many players are causing atrophy when they are not working out properly and making themselves susceptible to injuries.

While we show Bryce Harper in that twitter pic, there is no way I would ever say he isn’t working out the right way for his body. There are too many unrelated factors involved in cause and effect with working out and performance. Bryce does his yoga and strength training and embraces his own ways of doing things. What did he do in the off-season prior to 2015 that can work for 2018?

You want answers? I don’t have all the answers. Maybe Ryan Zimmerman figured out something last off-season when he committed himself fully to yoga and completed a season free of serious injuries and compiled the most at-bats in the last four years.

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