Noah Syndergaard might be the most intimidating athlete in Major League Baseball.
The 6-foot-6, 242-pound New York Mets starting pitcher has been give the nickname "Thor," thanks to his shoulder-length blonde hair, chiseled physique and Scandinavian heritage. On the mound, Syndergaard's icy stare combines with his scorching velocity and take-no-prisoners mindset to shut down opposing hitters.
After a solid rookie campaign last season, the 23-year-old has been eviscerating MLB batting orders in 2016. Through four starts, he boasts a 1.69 ERA to go along with a K/9 rate of 12.83. According to Brooks Baseball, Syndergaard's four-seam fastball has averaged 98.71 mph, his sinker 98.74 mph and his slider an outrageous 92.67 mph. He has delivered more 100-plus mph pitches than anyone else this season, and he's quickly becoming the ace of the most elite pitching staff in baseball.
Syndergaard has always been talented, but how did his stuff suddenly become unhittable? His intense off-season training was a major key. STACK caught up with Josh Bryant, Syndergaard's off-season strength and conditioning coach, to get some inside info on Thor's workouts.
When the dust settled on Syndergaard's 2015 rookie season, he had every reason to be exhausted.
After starting the season in Triple A, the phenom got called up to the Show, where he pitched 150 innings in an intense playoff race. During the Mets' improbable run to the World Series, he tacked on another 19 innings of work, bringing his combined season total (including AAA) to 198.2 innings pitched. Though it was by all accounts a strong performance statistically, the grind took its toll; and Syndergaard entered the off-season feeling worn out and desperately needing to get stronger and more explosive for the next season.
"He wanted to put on about 15 pounds of muscle, he wanted to increase his max strength and he wanted to become more explosive," Bryant says. The only problem was that the Mets' deep postseason run, combined with MLB's short off-season, meant that Syndergaard only had about 80 days to achieve his objectives.
Knowing his client wanted serious results in a relatively brief timespan, Bryant put together a four-day-per-week program designed to address Syndergaard's most pressing needs. "His upper back and his hamstrings were lagging behind the rest of his body," Bryant says.
The day after Thanksgiving, Syndergaard met Bryant at The Original Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas to start training. Metroflex has long been regarded as one of the most hardcore gyms in the country, and its no-frills approach has attracted legendary bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman and Branch Warren. While this "iron paradise" was a mainstay for bodybuilders and powerlifters, Bryant knew that an athlete like Syndergaard needed a different style of training.
Embracing The CAT Mentality
Bryant knew that establishing a high level of maximal strength for Syndergaard would be a key to his success in the upcoming season. The stronger a player is when he enters the gauntlet of the MLB schedule, the better equipped he is to endure the grind and continue to perform at a high level. However, Bryant also knew that Syndergaard couldn't sacrifice his health in his pursuit of superhuman strength. "I still don't know how much he can actually lift, because I didn't let him go there. There was no need. Instead, we used a lot of what is known as Compensatory Acceleration Training," Bryant says.
Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT) is a training technique that requires the athlete to apply maximal force into a bar with a sub-maximal load. Instead of loading up the bar with as much iron as you can handle, you lighten the load and focus instead on moving it as fast as possible without sacrificing technique. This trains the fast-twitch muscle fibers and increases maximal strength without exposing the body to the extreme pressures of grinding through heavy loads. The end result is a stronger, healthier, more explosive athlete. "If [Noah was] squatting, instead of putting 95 percent of his max on the bar, we'd put 70 or 75 percent and work on doing it as explosively as possible. Mass times acceleration produces force. If you can accelerate that bar, you can get really strong and really explosive without having to go super heavy," Bryant says.
Getting results with CAT requires an aggressive, focused mindset. Although the loads might not be all that challenging, the athlete must attack every rep with the ferociousness of a wild animal pouncing on prey. According to Bryant, Syndergaard did exactly that. "You almost have to hold him back. He loves to work out. He's not one of those people you have to push into the gym—if anything, you're going to have to push him out of the gym," Bryant says.
Syndergaard employed the CAT technique for big lifts like Deadlift, Squat and Bench Press, and his accessory exercises consisted largely of bodyweight movements. Nordic Leg Curls were pivotal to strengthening his hamstrings, and Weighted Pull-Ups helped him build a complete upper back.
Arm health was another priority, since improved explosiveness and power are worthless for a pitcher if his arm isn't durable enough to channel it into the baseball. "For pressing, we used a neutral grip bar, because that's easier on your shoulders. We also stopped 2 inches above his chest. We used the safety bar for Squats for similar reasons," Bryant says. Syndergaard also performed anti-rotational exercises to help combat the asymmetries that often develop in pitchers. "You're rotating all the time when you throw, so you better have some anti-rotational strength as well to prevent asymmetries," Bryant says.
Syndergaard also performed a plethora of pulling exercises to combat anterior dominance, a problem that occurs in many athletes. Due to lifestyle and training choices, most people are anterior dominant—meaning they use the muscles on the front of their bodies more frequently than the ones on the back of their bodies. Anterior dominance can lead to postural and performance issues and ultimately leave you susceptible to injury. "A lot of people just want to work the front side of their body. We did a lot more pulling than pushing—Rows and Pull-Ups until the cows came home," Bryant says.
The Superhero of Spring Training
Bryant's fine-tuned program combined with Syndergaard's laser-focused approach helped him achieve shocking results at a rapid rate. Within the first six weeks of training, he had already put on over 10 pounds of muscle. "He puts on muscle very easily. If he decided to stop playing baseball and become a movie star with an action-figure physique, he could do it," Bryant says.
By the time Syndergaard left for spring training in mid-February, he had made extraordinary progress. He had added 16 pounds of muscle, gained the ability to rep out 400-plus-pound Squats with perfect CAT technique (up from a 300-pound max in November) and added 4 inches to his Vertical Jump. "It was amazing how it happened. [Noah] got bigger, stronger and more explosive every single time he walked in the gym," Bryant says.
From the moment he arrived in Port St. Lucie, Florida for spring training, Syndergaard looked different. His increased muscle mass was evident, and the ball exploded out of his hand with minimal effort. "[Noah] just came out throwing the ball incredible," Mets third baseman David Wright told The New York Post in early April. "I don't think I've ever seen a pitcher come to spring training that prepared and that on top of his game."
Now, the key for Thor will be maintaining his strength and explosiveness over a grueling 162-game schedule plus another potential postseason run. He is now following the team's prescribed in-season program, and Bryant believes Syndergaard should be able to continue terrorizing hitters all season. "Even if he's not lifting very heavy, he now knows about CAT. He can still put maximum force into the bar and he's going to maintain much better than someone who doesn't understand that concept," Bryant says.
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