Justin Verlander's Lower Body Strength and Agility Training Plan

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The chorus of Notorious B.I.G's Victory kicks in as Justin Verlander steps under a bar loaded with 365 pounds for the second time in the past few minutes. As Justin pounds out one of his final sets at the Detroit Tigers' spring training facility in Lakeland, Fla., few other Major Leaguers can be seen.

It's the middle of winter, and Justin has been at this for weeks. It's just him, Biggie and expert strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett. This is how Justin spent his winter break.

Justin once hurled a baseball at 102 mile per hour. In the ninth inning of his no-hitter against the Brewers last June, he was clocked at 101. Those frightening three-digit numbers are exactly what make Justin the ace of the loaded Tigers staff—and one of the best pitchers in the Majors. "It's all about the fast-ball," Justin says with a grin. "That's my way of challenging guys. That's the best, when you just blow one by a guy. I live for that one-on-one competition out there. On the mound, it's me versus you, and that's what I love about it. When a good hitter comes up, it's like, 'Here we go.'"

Justin's confidence is completely devoid of cockiness, due in large part to his parents' guidance. "When I first started pitching," he recalls, "I had a really good game; and in the car on the way home, I said, 'Man, I am good!' Immediately, my parents turned around. They told me it was OK to think I was good, but don't go saying those things. There's a difference between confidence and cockiness. Stay on the side of confidence—and don't be a jerk."

After taking his parents' good advice to heart, Justin soon had a chance to teach his father a lesson of his own. In the Virginia countryside, the two guys came to a lake with a dirt road alongside it—the perfect setting for some father-son rock tossing. Justin says, "Before I knew it, we were getting into a little throwing contest. He was throwing them about halfway across the lake, and I was clearing the whole thing. I looked over at him, and he was already looking at me."

Justin's freakish power made him every Little League parent's worst nightmare. "Back then, I never knew where the ball was going," he says, "I always had a really good arm, but I used to make kids on deck cry, because I hit so many batters. It's pretty funny now when I look back on it, but parents didn't like me and didn't want me to be allowed to pitch." Some kids ended up quitting; others refused to step into the box against Justin.

At the age of 14, Justin was 6'2" and 150 pounds with size 14 feet. He says his parents described him as "a Brontosaurus clobbering down the basepaths with flippers on." But it was during those awkward teenage years that he developed control of the ball.

As he matured, Justin became dangerous on the mound for reasons other than plunking opposing batters. Over the span of his high school career, he grew into his body and hyped his already-amazing velocity. Throwing in the high 80s and low 90s, he became the best pitcher in Richmond; but no MLB scout or big-time college coach wanted to take a chance on him.

Old Dominion was pretty much the only school that came knocking, and Justin obliged. "There was no recruiting process for me," he says. "Old Dominion was the only college interested in me early on, so I committed." Soon thereafter, Justin rewrote the Monarchs' record books. In his freshman season, he was their number one hurler, posting a 1.90 ERA; he later went on to strike out 17 in a game against James Madison. By 2004, he had exploded into a feared 6'5", 200-pound menace on the mound. Pro scouts could not pass a second time. In the 2004 MLB Draft, the Tigers selected Justin with the second overall pick.

After two successful seasons in the Minors, Justin put it all together in 2007, when he went 18-6 for the Tigers and fanned 183 batters.

Justin's improvements on the mound have directly resulted from his devotion to training. "I didn't get into training until kind of late," he says. "When I got to college, I first started working out and saw some gains in my on-field performance. I went into college weighing 170, and during my first semester I put on 25 pounds. My upper body stayed the same, but my legs got a lot stronger. I went from 93 miles per hour to 97 in the course of a year. But it still really didn't sink in. I [worked out] because I had to."

When Justin got to the Majors, he learned how the long season can cause bodies to break down and what it takes to stay afloat. "I couldn't sustain myself for 162 games without physical preparation in the off-season," he says. "That was three years ago, so this is my second off-season of really working hard. Last year, I saw big improvements because of [training]."

During those three years, Tigers strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett created workouts that turned Justin's body into a resilient, powerful fastball machine. "[Javair is] really good at [customizing] workouts," Justin says. "I came in, told him I wanted to get stronger and gain some weight, and he individualized a workout for me."

Gillett's program seeks to get Justin's lower body as strong as possible in the off-season, then progresses to build his explosiveness and power. "As the pre-season progresses," Gillett says, "we decrease the volume of strength training and increase the volume of power and explosive work on the field and in the weight room.

"Justin's been gifted with natural athleticism. He's a very powerful athlete naturally, so he's not just starting to learn how to balance and coordinate his body. He already has that, so now it's just about maximizing it." Much of Gillett's training regimen for Justin involves body control, so the star pitcher can improve his performance in less-than-ideal positions. "We start with a lot of balance and agility movements," Gillett says. "Then we work our way into baseball-specific stuff that prepares him to react in different directions after he throws the ball. We are getting him ready to perform in awkward positions, like when he's going down to field a baseball and has to pop up very quickly."

Besides wanting to have the biggest legs on the team (he was behind a few players heading into spring training), Justin has set no goals for himself this year. "Let's say I [set a goal] to be a 20-game winner," he says. "What if I win 20 games and have three starts left? It would be very easy for me to say, 'I'm right where I wanted to be, so I don't have to do anything more.' I don't set baseball goals. I know that [taking] one game at a time and [doing] everything I can for that one game [is] a good approach for me."

Last winter, we observed Justin going through a brutal "power day" with Gillett. The intensity was high throughout, as Justin tore through his balance, agility, speed explosiveness and lower body strengthening exercises. This is where velocity is born.

Hip Poppers
• Stand with left foot in speed ladder, right foot outside it
• Quickly pop hips, rotate left and land facing opposite direction, with right foot in ladder and left foot out
• Immediately pop hips and rotate right to return to start position
• Repeat continuously for specified duration

Sets/Duration: 2-3x10 seconds
Gillett: Start the movement with the hips—hop, rotate the feet, land and pop back. These work on baseball specific movements he's doing on the mound. We'll go up to 180- and even 360-degree hops.
Verlander: This touches on the hips, speed and quickness, all things I want to work on so that I can field my position a little better.

Overhead Med Ball Throws
• Assume athletic stance, holding med ball in front
• Lower into squat, then explode through hips, knees and ankles to throw med ball as high as possible
• Run to med ball, pick it up and repeat

Sets/Reps: 2x10
Gillett: This is a modification of Olympic lifts. Throw it straight up, and the ball will naturally [fall] behind you. Get your hips, knees and ankles extending when you drive through the ground.
Verlander: I like these because you have to incorporate your whole body into it—especially legs, core and a little upper body.

Backhand/Forehand Med Ball Toss
• With partner to right, stand in split-squat position, left leg forward
• When partner tosses ball to you, catch it, jump vertically, rotate hips right, then throw ball back
• Land facing opposite direction in split-squat position, right leg forward
• Repeat back and forth in continuous fashion for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 2x10 each side
Gillett: We are training the legs to explode powerfully, and the med ball works core stability, balance, reaction and hand-eye coordination. He's really got to stick that landing, because he's got to get down and drive himself back up again. [In a game], when he has to go down, grab the ball and throw to first off balance, it will be a little easier for him to control his body.

Half Moon Stepping With Football
• Place five cones in semi-circle and one cone in center
• Stand at center cone with semi-circle to left; partner stands outside semi-circle
• As partner tosses football to first cone, step toward cone with left leg and catch ball
• Toss ball back; step back to center cone
• Repeat continuously for all five cones
• Perform to opposite side, stepping with right leg

Sets/Recovery: 2 sets each side/ 45 seconds rest
Gillett: This helps improve the efficiency of his first step. In baseball, a lot of movement is from a stationary position. After throwing a pitch, he waits, then has to react. Whether he steps with his right or left foot, at some point he has to slow down. This teaches acceleration and deceleration.

Half Moon Fielding With Baseball
• Place five cones in semi-circle and one cone in center
• Stand at center cone with semi-circle to left; partner stands outside semi-circle
• As partner rolls baseball to cone, sprint to cone, break down and field ball
• Toss ball back; backpedal to center cone
• Repeat continuously for all five cones
• Perform set with semi-circle on right

Sets/Recovery: 2 sets each side/45 seconds rest
Gillett: This works on getting into the right position—low with a wide base. Start slowing down with your back leg first; then get on that front leg. If your weight is too far on the front leg, you'll keep going forward. I incorporate a baseball to make him more efficient, since fielding a ball comes so naturally to him.
Verlander: Just like everything we do outside, it's got some conditioning to it. It's also a mental thing for me. You have to focus to get your footwork right, but you also have to think about catching the ball.

Six-Pack Scap Routine
• Position physioball on incline bench and attach surgical tubing underneath bench
• Lie with stomach on ball, holding tubing in both hands
• Brings arms to positions below, holding each for six seconds
• Repeat for specified reps Arms in front V, thumbs up Arms in front V, palms down Arms to side, thumbs up Arms to side, palms down Elbows at 90, shoulders at 90, thumbs up Elbows at 90, shoulders at 90, palms down

Reps/Duration: 6x6-second hold at each position
Gillett: To me, the core spans all along your spine through your hips, including the scap muscles. Pinch your scaps together, and keep your shoulders down. Everyone talks about the rotator cuff, which consists of four muscles that stabilize the shoulder girdle; but they forget about the scaps, which is your shoulder blade area. If your scaps don't move properly, [you'll have] instability in that shoulder.
Verlander: I do it before my workout, and do manual resistance strengthening at the end.

Split-Squat on 2x4
• Holding dumbbell in right hand, assume split-squat stance on 2x4, left leg forward
• Lower into split squat, bringing dumbbell toward left foot
• Drive into start position; repeat for specified reps
• Perform set with right leg forward and dumbbell in left hand

Sets/Reps: 2x10 each side
Gillett: In most lunges, people have their feet at shoulder width, but when you're standing on the board, they're in a straight line. [For] baseball players, you're in a straight line when you're coming to field a ground ball on the forehand or backhand side. You need to make sure that your hips stay straight up and straight down. Don't lean to one side.

Squat
• Assume athletic position with bar on back and feet slightly wider than hip width
• Keeping chest up, core tight and knees behind toes, lower into squat until tops of thighs are parallel to ground
• Drive up, out of squat position
• Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1x10, 2x8, 2x6, 1x10
Note: After second set of 6 reps, immediately lighten weight and perform 10 reps without rest

Gillett: This hits every lower body muscle and is a great lower back and abdominal strength exercise. If you want power, the ability to push off and deliver a ball at a high velocity, you have to strengthen your lower body and have a strong core group of muscles.
Verlander: Although I'm really careful with my upper body, I like getting my legs stronger by really blowing them out in the weight room.

Dumbbell Walking Lunge
• Assume athletic stance, holding dumbbells at side [or wearing weighted vest]
• Step forward with right leg, lowering into lunge position with front knee behind toes
• Drive up and step forward with left leg, lowering into lunge position
• Repeat continuously for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 3x10 each leg
Gillett: This works glute and hip strength. We really want to make sure [both] are strong heading into the season. The glutes are where a pitcher generates his power. If they're not strong, the hamstrings are at risk of injury.

Single-Leg Squat
• Stand on one leg on top of box
• Keeping knee behind toes, lower into squat until top of thigh is almost parallel to ground
• Drive up into start position; repeat for specified reps
• Perform set with other leg

Sets/Reps: 3x6 each leg
Gillett: I want him to be able to decelerate and explode on one leg, [so] that one leg has to be strong to support the body weight. When you're moving at a high rate and you have to stop on a dime, the natural force of gravity and momentum put a lot of load on your leg.

Hamstring Curls on Ball
• Lie on back with heels on top of physioball
• Raise hips so that body forms straight line from feet to shoulders
• Keeping hips elevated, roll physioball toward you by bringing heels toward butt
• Slowly straighten legs to roll ball away from you
• Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 3x10
Note: Partner can apply resistance to ball to increase difficulty
Gillett: This is a two-joint movement. Your hip and knee joints need to be put though a range of motion. We move into this as we get close to the season, then into the season; it works stability a little more. You have to get the glutes to fire before the hamstrings.

Physioball Reverse Glute/Hyperextension
• Position physioball on incline bench; lie with stomach on ball
• Keeping legs straight, raise them until body forms straight line
• Lower with control; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 3x10
Gillett: It's important to get the glutes and lower back strong, [since] strong glutes take pressure off the back. Don't hyperextend to where your feet go above your body. Get to straight, relaxing your hamstrings as much as possible.

Flamingos/Single-Leg Straight-Leg Deadlift Combo

• Stand on one leg on stability pad
• When partner tosses med ball, catch it, stabilize body and toss it back
• After specified reps, partner tosses ball low and in front of you
• Catch ball in front, continuing to lower upper body into Single-Leg, Straight-Leg Deadlift
• Return to standing position; toss ball back to partner
• Repeat for specified sets
• Perform combination set on other leg

Sets/Reps: 2x10+6

Gillett: At first, he's not moving. He just has to stop the ball, stabilize and try not to lose balance. Then [he has to get] back up and throw it a little further—so he's got to reach for it and do a one-legged, stiff-legged deadlift. When he comes out to catch, he's really got to slow the ball down, then bring it down to his toes. He comes back up and actually tosses it with his lower back and glutes in a powerful manner.

Verlander: You wouldn't think this is working you very much, but when he's throwing the ball and your stabilizing on the pad, you're using your core more than you think.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: WEIGHTLIFTING | STRENGTH TRAINING | BASEBALL | JUSTIN VERLANDER | POWER | THROW