Unless you're one of the 750 players on a Major League Baseball roster on opening day, chances are you can't hurl a wicked, knee-buckling curveball that's part of the repertoire of Los Angeles Dodgers pitching ace Clayton Kershaw. Nor will you ever slam a ball 500 feet like New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. But whatever your level of athletic talent, you can train like a major leaguer to improve your fitness, experts say.
"Absolutely, yes," says Chicago-based performance trainer Kyle Bracey, when asked whether nonprofessional athletes could benefit from the training regimens of major league baseball players. Bracey trains people of all athletic levels, including major league players like Alex Bregman, the star third baseman of the 2017 World Series champions, the Houston Astros.
While most pro baseball players are athletically more gifted than the general population (Judge, for example, is 6 feet 7 inches tall and weighs a muscular 282 pounds), the methods they use to get in shape for the season are accessible to everyone, says Dr. Christopher S. Ahmad, head team physician for the Yankees. "The way pro athletes take care of themselves is not a mystery; we shouldn't view it as a 'black box,'" he says. While they operate at a higher level athletically, MLB players generally seek the same fitness goals as weekend warriors and people who just want to get in better shape and improve strength, endurance, flexibility, balance and conditioning, he says. Most, if not all, of the equipment pro ballplayers use to boost their strength and conditioning is available at a typical fitness club. "It's not technology that makes them better athletes – it's that they're more disciplined at the principles that make them better athletically," Ahmad says.
While they can use the same workout equipment, pro ballplayers and rec league competitors or people who just want to get more fit can have different motivations for training. An outfielder for the Chicago Cubs may want to get in optimal shape to hit a fastball at 100 miles per hour. Someone who doesn't play a pro sport may want to get in better shape to compete better in pickup games or to combat such conditions as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and depression.
Whatever your motivations, here are three ways working out like a major leaguer can improve your conditioning:
A Stronger Core
Pro baseball players spend a lot of time strengthening their core, which includes the trunk, gluteal, pelvic floor and leg muscles, says Dr. Luga Podesta, a sports medicine and regenerative orthopedic specialist at Bluetail Medical Group in Naples, Florida, and a former team physician for the Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels. "Your core is your foundation that all your other muscles are based on," he says. "The core's important for everyone. It maintains stability in your trunk, which allows your body to remain more balanced and perform more efficiently." One way that MLB players train to improve their core involves a "hurling exercise," which almost everyone can do, says Dr. Kevin D. Plancher, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine expert who is a clinical professor in orthopaedics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. In this exercise, you assume a batter's stance and hold a medicine ball, which can weigh a few pounds to about 14 pounds, as if it were a baseball bat, throw the ball hard and sprint after it. "This is good for both the core and upper body muscles," Plancher says.
Another good core exercise MLB players use that anyone can do is a "pull to punch" maneuver, Bracey says. In this exercise, you assume a quarter-squat position in front of a cable crossover machine or a similar device with your left foot forward and your right foot back. Extend your left arm to grab the handle of a weight-bearing cable while your right hand holds another weight-bearing cable in the "punch" position, with that hand behind your sternum. You use your left side to pull that cable while pushing the weight on your right side, and move both arms alternately forward and backward, pushing and pulling weight. Most, if not all, health gyms have this equipment, Bracey says.
Whatever position they play, it's important for pro baseball players to maintain maximum flexibility, says Marlon Byrd, a former major leaguer who now works as a trainer in Calabasas, California. For both pitchers and position players, being able to throw a ball with maximum force and efficiency isn't about having big arm muscles so much as being flexible enough to employ the proper form. "Using the proper technique is crucial," he says. Players typically adhere to a warm-up regimen that includes stretching before workouts and games. Every player's routine is different, he says.
Many MLB players also practice yoga or do Pilates to boost and maintain their flexibility. Research suggests yoga can help alleviate lower back pain and improve function, balance and posture. One study presented at the American Academy of Pain Management in 2016, for example, showed yoga was as effective as physical therapy in alleviating lower back pain. Chicago Cubs pitching star Kyle Hendricks is among the MLB players who's taking advantage of the benefits of yoga. In a TV interview, Hendricks demonstrated his Downward-Facing Dog pose, which he said helps open up his hamstrings and shoulders. Of course, you don't have to be an MLB player – or even particularly athletic or limber – to practice yoga. Gentle yoga is a good option if your body is unusually stiff or if you suffer from arthritis. This isn't a specific kind of yoga, such as Ashtanga, power or Bikram yoga. Rather, it resembles a slower-paced beginner's or intermediate class. You can use foam wedges to support your wrists and ankles during certain poses.
Pilates is another flexibility-promoting approach for both MLB players and nonprofessional athletes. Pilates involves specific exercises, a special breathing technique and concentration in order to connect body and mind. Pilates moves can be done with a mat on the floor or with resistance equipment such as springs and pulleys. In the fall of 2017 through February 2018, Laressa Mems, the lead instructor at Club Pilates in Novi, Michigan, worked with a pitcher in the Oakland A's organization who was suffering back pain and tightness in his hip flexors. "The exercises we gave him are the same ones we give our stay-at-home moms," Mems says. "Everybody is able to do Pilates."
If you're a recreational athlete, maintaining a healthy workout routine the way MLB players do can improve your speed, strength and endurance, whatever sport or activity you engage in, Podesta says. And adhering to a regimen that boosts your flexibility can not only improve your athletic performance, it can keep you on the field or court longer. That's because muscles are like rubber bands; if they're stretched beyond their capability during a workout, they can snap. "The more flexible you are, the less chance you will sustain an injury during exercise," Podesta says.
A Healthy Routine
Whether they're preparing for opening day or working out to maintain their conditioning during the season, each MLB player develops his own routine to promote strength, flexibility and endurance, Byrd says. That regimen typically involves developing healthy eating habits, says Dr. Christopher Hogrefe, a sports medicine specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which is part of Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. That means eating a balanced diet with a mixture of foods with healthy fats such as nuts and avocados, plenty of fruits and vegetables and lean sources of protein, like fish. Whether you're a pro ballplayer, a rec league warrior, a pickup game competitor or just want to get in better shape, "eating well-balanced meals can help you prevent some injuries, including cramping" and provide the energy you need for your workouts, he says.