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Train Like the Pros 

New Workouts Hit the Diamond

Yoga and water jogging are helping reduce injuries. How you can do the same

March 18, 2006; Page P4

Baltimore Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons used to get ready for a new season with squat presses and dumbbell curls. But now, he's making some big changes in his routine.

To soften the impact on his joints, the 29-year-old veteran is using rubber-band-like resistance tubing and other workout methods designed to reduce strain while getting his muscles toned but not bulky. Mr. Gibbons, who spent eight weeks on the disabled list a couple of seasons ago with a torn hip flexor muscle, hopes the new program will make him less injury-prone -- and extend his career. "The route that I was going, who knows how long I could have lasted," he says.

In training rooms across major-league camps in Florida and Arizona, fitness routines are changing. The emphasis is on tailoring workouts to reduce the injuries that plague teams in markets big and small. The Minnesota Twins bought more than $100,000 worth of equipment, including weight machines that use air pressure to provide constant resistance through the entire motion, giving a better workout with less weight.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have added "active stretching" before games, in which players go across the field while lunging and grabbing their feet behind their backs to stretch their quadriceps, getting them warmed up better than old-fashioned stretches on the ground. The Detroit Tigers' strength coach has started taking more plane trips to visit players during the off-season and make sure they are on schedule with their training regimens.

Fitness experts say many of the new exercises, which focus on things like coordination, balance and strong abdominal and back muscles, are appropriate for weekend warriors, too. Craig Friedman, a trainer at Athletes' Performance in Tempe, Ariz., says the approach he takes with pro baseball players can help in everything from golf to "lifting a bag of groceries off the countertop." The reason: These workouts hit muscles that traditional weight lifting doesn't reach, helping to eliminate areas of weakness that can cause injuries, he says. Velocity Sports Performance, a nationwide chain with about 70 locations, also provides training based on the new techniques to both pros and amateurs.

Teams have always worried about injuries, but they're making increasingly huge investments in aging players. Johnny Damon, the 32-year-old former Boston Red Sox slugger lured to the New York Yankees with a four-year, $52 million contract starting this season, has raised concerns with a case of tendonitis in his left shoulder. Brian Cashman, general manager of the Yankees, calls Mr. Damon's tendonitis minor and says the player probably pushed himself too hard, too soon. "That happens in the spring with a lot of players," Mr. Cashman says, adding that Mr. Damon has spent little time on the disabled list during his career.

Also shifting the focus of teams' exercise programs is the increased focus on testing for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. As the obsession with muscle-driven home runs fades in favor of fundamentals like base-running and fielding, players need to be fit enough to play consistently hard throughout a game -- and throughout the grueling 162-game season.

So, to protect against injuries and bolster endurance, it's a lot more yoga and Pilates and a lot less bench pressing and biceps curls. The new focus in baseball training is part of a broader shift in the sport that's been under way for years. No longer do players kick back during the off-season and use spring training to whip themselves into playing shape at the last minute. While many past players had rigorous off-season exercise regimens -- think Cal Ripken Jr. -- teams are now taking a more active role, working with players to fine-tune workout plans throughout the off-season.

Javair Gillett, the Tigers' strength coach, says the team has long visited players during the off-season, but he has stepped up his travels lately, even flying down to Venezuela this winter to see shortstop Carlos Guillen. Drills he runs in his visits include one in which the player stands on an unsteady platform and tosses a medicine ball back and forth with a partner, which works the abdominal muscles, the back and the arms while also aiding hand-eye coordination and balance. Mr. Gillett follows up with players once or twice a month by phone and also consults with personal trainers that some players hire for themselves. "If they don't come back stronger and faster and quicker, that looks bad on me," Mr. Gillett says.

The San Diego Padres have been doing yoga twice a week since last season. The idea came not from a strength coach but from surfing legend Taylor Knox, a friend of relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman. When Mr. Hoffman learned how yoga had helped Mr. Knox through his surfing injuries, he offered it up as an idea for the team. It's especially effective for pitchers, who tend to be more flexible on one side than the other, says Todd Hutcheson, the Padres' head athletic trainer. "It gives players better awareness of their bodies," he says.

José Vázquez, who just left the New York Mets to become the Texas Rangers' strength and conditioning coach, has the team's pitchers working out in a swimming pool twice a week. Mr. Vázquez instituted workouts in which a player moves a box around underwater, toning his chest, shoulder and abdominal muscles with the natural resistance of the water. Other players jog in the pool -- and some do plain old swimming. Low-impact water training helps players to recover more quickly after workouts than they would after exercising in a gym or on the field, Mr. Vázquez says, and being in the pool keeps players out of the hot sun.

Baseball's new, tougher drug policy adds another wrinkle to preseason preparations. In addition to steroids, the sport now tests for amphetamines, which many players have used to perk up their weary bodies ahead of games. Tim Bishop, the Orioles' strength and conditioning coach, is teaching players breathing exercises that can wake them up naturally. Since players get little recovery time between games and can't just decide to go on vacation, "let's try to create energy as best we can," he says.

One player with a particular appreciation of the challenges facing aging major-leaguers is the Mets' Julio Franco, at 47 one of the oldest men ever to play in the majors. He's constantly searching for new theories on exercise and diet. His latest toy is Trixter's X-Bike, which works the legs and the abs at the same time. "You're always upgrading your computer; I'm upgrading the body with things that are out there," he says. But Mr. Franco points to some outside help: God, he says, has "continued to give me the ability to play baseball."



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