Yoga starting to take hold among ballplayers
Athletes putting added emphasis on flexibility in training regimens
During Spring Training in 2007, the Devil Rays brought in a certified professional instructor and conducted a team yoga session. It was viewed mostly as a gimmick at the time, another shot in the dark for a franchise struggling to find its way.
But manager Joe Maddon said that he expected yoga and flexibility training to become more mainstream in baseball, much like weight lifting was in the 1970s. Five years later, one of Maddon's star players is proving his prediction to be accurate.
Rays third baseman Evan Longoria has said "flexibility is the new strength," and with the way sport-specific exercises, yoga and Pilates have caught on among players, it's possible that the desire for bulked-up pitchers and musclebound sluggers could be a thing of the past.
Longoria initially got into yoga because it provided peace of mind. He turned to a three-dimensional training regimen this offseason at Spooner Physical Therapy in Scottsdale, Ariz., as part of his left foot rehab. While at Spooner, he focused on functional movements through the three planes of motion, with an emphasis on rotational exercises.
"All of the stuff that I was doing was more focused on the movements that we actually do for baseball," Longoria said. "To be strong in general doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be strong from a baseball standpoint. ... When we're hitting, you want to be as stable as you can and use the three-dimensional aspect -- the rotation in your core -- to actually translate to power."
That kind of program starts by assessing simple mechanics, said Adam Fry, a physical therapist at Spooner's Phoenix location, like how a player walks -- how his feet and ankles move, hit the ground, get leverage when pushing off and so on -- to discover any potential weaknesses. From there, they can get into running and more sport-specific movements.
Longoria first had to establish stability in his foot, then he could strengthen the rest of his body from the ground up. By the time he was finished, he said, he had lost only five or 10 pounds, but he believes he carries his weight better now. Maddon even picked up on how fluidly Longoria was moving early this spring.
As for yoga, Longoria primarily enjoyed the "nice, peaceful mind" it gave him. It also provides significant benefits in terms of flexibility, breathing, and perhaps most importantly in baseball, injury prevention. And, as Longoria said, having to hold some of the stretches for more than an hour while sweating in a 95-degree room is hardly a walk in the park.
"We have students who are bodybuilders, and they come in thinking they're incredibly strong, but as soon as you get them doing yoga, they're shaking like a leaf," said Roni Sloman, a certified yoga instructor and meditation coach at Bella Prana Yoga and Meditation in Tampa, Fla., where Longoria has taken classes. "They begin to realize very quickly that their body, foundationally, can be quite weak. Once they realize that, it becomes a priority."
That's been the case for plenty of Major Leaguers. There's Jimmy Rollins, who enlisted his wife as his yoga instructor following an injury-riddled 2010, then went on to play 142 games. Aubrey Huff practiced Pilates before his excellent 2010 season, and did so again this winter. And Jim Thome embraced Pilates and yoga this offseason at age 41 to better prepare himself to play first base.
"Let's face it," Thome chuckled over the offseason. "I'm not the proto-yoga person. But it's helping me."
Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and Giants pitchers Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson are among many others who reported to camp having tweaked their workout routines with flexibility in mind for more practical purposes.
Lincecum, who hoped to improve his endurance on the mound by putting on more than 30 pounds last offseason, said he lost 21 this winter. Most of that came from a healthier diet -- Step 1: less In-N-Out Burger -- and more cardio work. But his goal was simply to feel more athletic -- "more wiry," as he put it.
Wilson pitched through elbow pain all last season and eventually landed on the disabled list, so he emphasized flexibility and added more sport-specific movements to his regimen. And Rodriguez, who played only 99 games last season due to injuries, focused on corrective exercises, saying he had to accept that "less is more" if he wants to stay healthy.
"I just felt that I needed to get up early and do the work, and stay up late and do the work," Rodriguez said. "When you're in your 20s, you think about training then you think about recovery, and at this point in your career, it's actually the exact opposite."
The obvious question for players altering their training is whether it will affect them on the field, lowering a pitcher's velocity or slowing a hitter's swing. While they may look leaner, Fry said, they are still capable of producing plenty of power.
"With the muscle, you think about the loading and exploding," Fry said. "In order to get the maximum loading, you also have to get the maximum range and the maximum stretch of the muscle. ... The more you train, as far as being able to properly load, the more effectively and more efficiently they're going to be able to get that explosion they need to produce the power, the speed or whatever movement they need to improve to help them perform better."
In other words, maybe flexibility really is the new strength.
"It absolutely is a foundation for anybody who's really taking their body seriously," Sloman said. "It used to be somewhat optional if you wanted to stretch. Now, it's an absolute necessity if you really understand the way your body works."
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Chris Haft, Bryan Hoch and Todd Zolecki contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.