Big muscles: big mistake


According to Patrick Hedge, the Baltimore Orioles' coordinator of strength and conditioning, young ballplayers stick out in spring training like someone wearing combat boots to a tap-dancing contest. They've got that chunky-chest, big-biceps overkill look.

"Too strong in the front of the body," says Hedge. "So we've got to balance them out."

Football players can fall victim to that same tunnel-vision training, notes Jeff Friday, strength and conditioning coach for the Ravens. Matter of fact, he adds, so do most members of local health clubs: "They overemphasize muscles they can see."

Hedge preaches the gospel of total-body conditioning to all Orioles, especially first- and second-year players. But his training philosophy applies equally to ordinary Jane and Joe athletes emerging from a long winter hibernation.

Hedge's workout program touches all the bases of flexibility, aerobics, calisthenics and weightlifting. The objective is to increase strength, speed and stamina, and to prevent injuries, not to produce cover-boy physiques.

The death of pitcher Steve Bechler from a risky mix of crash dieting and Ephedra boosters dominated the headlines during spring training this year. But despite that tragedy, Hedge, who has been with the club since 1993, thinks this was the "best year we've ever had with guys coming back in shape."

There's no guarantee it will pay dividends in the standings, but about 20 players trained six days a week last fall and winter at Camden Yards.

Hedge had them on a four-stage conditioning program: a light-running, light-lifting phase that lasted until early November; an eight-week strength phase featuring about 25 minutes of aerobic activity (running, biking and other calorie burners) and heavier weight work (no more than 10 repetitions per set); a six-week "power" phase that increased the intensity to a half-hour of aerobics and still-heavier weights (only six to eight reps per set); and a final phase leading into spring training that returned to high repetitions and light weights, but bumped the aerobic work up to 30 or 40 minutes.

Hedge believes in keeping the heart rate elevated while training, so he limits rest time to one minute between sets.

"You really should be sweating through the whole workout," he says. He is also a stickler for textbook posture. It's counterproductive to swing and sway the body when doing an exercise. Momentum won't make you strong. Hedge wants clean, slow lifts.

"Good form controls the movement," explains Gregg Davies, a 21st-round draft pick out of Towson State University last year who played his inaugural year of professional ball with Cal Ripken's Aberdeen IronBirds. The outfielder-first baseman says he "definitely got fatigued" as the season wore on.

Davies did six weeks of his winter training at Camden Yards. He jogged up and down the aisles in the stadium, did inclined sprints on the ramps connecting seating levels and ran agility drills. He didn't overpump in the weight room: He'd do 10 sets of squats, maxing out at 315 pounds; hold his bench press to three sets of eight reps at about 210 pounds.

Mike Huggins, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound first baseman, signed a contract right out of Baylor University last spring and joined the IronBirds. His strength coach at Baylor had everybody, even baseball players, power lifting. Huggins, however, has come to prefer Hedge's more balanced regimen, which he followed religiously this past off-season with encouraging results.

"I can't think of another time I felt this good," he says.

Huggins says he pushed himself "to the limit" in the weight room, but never got sidetracked trying to set any personal bests. "You want a toned chest," he says, sounding like a Patrick Hedge echo, "not a big chest."

He still makes his home in Texas, and Huggins did most of his training at Baylor. The undergraduate jocks he worked out with "didn't have a clue" about his methodology. They kept trying to get him to step it up and throw around heavier weights. Huggins stayed the course and resisted temptation.

"I'd look at them and say, 'I could do that, but there's no point to it.' "

Tips from the sidelines

Patrick Hedge of the Orioles and Jeff Friday of the Ravens offer these conditioning tips for amateur athletes about to crank it up again after a winter layoff:

* "You can't rush the physiology of the body," Friday says. Give yourself time to get in shape. Start slow, build your base, then push it.

* Limit rest periods in the gym. You can do a good, hard workout in about an hour.

* Don't forget calisthenics. Friday calls chin-ups "the squat for the upper body." Hedge swears by push-ups. Test yourself: Do 100 push-ups with just a minute break between sets. Most people need six or seven sets.

* Enough with the sit-ups! The secret to six-pack abs is burning off stomach flab, not doing extra crunches.

* Do your main stretching at the end of a workout when muscles are most supple.

* Find exercises you enjoy -- and do them. Consistency is the key to getting in shape.

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