By: Nick Palazzo
The Minnesota Twins started the 1990s exactly where they finished it—in last place of the American League Central Division. Every year of that decade, except 1991 when they won the World Series, the club never ended a season above .500. They averaged only 69 wins a year from 1992-1999. It took until beyond the turn of the century to break their losing streak and turn the program around.
In 1998, after posting six consecutive negative seasons, the team hired its first strength and conditioning coach. Enter Randy Popple.
Popple helped get the team out of its slump, win various titles and become an AL Central Division powerhouse. And now, for three seasons strong, the Twins have not only averaged 92 wins a season, but also have won three post-season berths. They are now the class of the division.
To morph the Twins from the team they were in the ’90s to what they are today, Popple focused on strengthening the players’ core. According to Popple, a strong baseball team is the product of a strong core. "In baseball, the core is key for everything. Baseball is a lot of rotary movement—throwing, pitching, fielding, hitting. So, your core is the No. 1 thing to train—your abdomen and low back."
To boost abdominal and low back strength, Popple works the Twins with two routines. The first is a groundwork series that can be done on the floor with only your body weight. The second routine is a weight room workout that consists of medicine ball drills and low back exercises.
Alternating abdominal and low back exercises every other day, the players start these drills when they get to spring training. He has similar recommendations for any baseball player. "I’d start this core training at least six weeks out [of season]. If you’re going every other day, that’s three days a week, so that’s 18 workouts before you start."
The Twins’ core training routine begins with a basic abdominal strengthening program, which consists of five types of crunches performed in immediate succession for three sets. Complete one set of each of the five exercises without rest between each one. Then, immediately, with no rest after the first set, start back at the first type of crunch and go through the routine again. Perform these drills three days a week.
Crunches x 25
Perform crunches with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground to reduce stress on your low back.
Sit-ups and Twist x 20 each side
Perform a standard crunch, but at the top of the crunch, twist so the opposite elbow touches the opposite knee. Untwist and then lower your shoulders back to the ground.
Reach-ups x 25
Perform this drill by starting in regular crunch position. But instead of moving your elbows toward your knees, reach your outstretched arms toward the ceiling and crunch.
Bicycle Crunches x 20 each side
Lie on your back, but pull your legs and upper body off the ground simultaneously. Then, twist your upper body moving your opposite elbow toward your opposite knee. Move your legs like you’re peddling a bike—one leg should be fully extended while the other bent in toward your chest.
Toe Pickers x 25
Lie on your back with your legs fully extended into the air—your body should make an L-shape. Then, reach up with both hands at the same time and touch your toes.
Popple stresses performing every crunch of every rep slowly and deliberately. "It’s not a race. The biggest key to this is doing it slow and doing it right. If you go really fast, you don’t get as much out of it."
If on your first workout you can do all the reps for all three sets, you’re probably moving too fast. "With the guys at spring training, we can usually get through that two times, and it usually takes us three workouts to get to the third set. But some people, if they do it right, they might only get through it once and it might be a struggle just to get there," says Popple.
Low Back Exercises
Two drills Popple uses to work the Twins’ low backs are all-fours and supermans. Work toward completing two to three sets of each exercise. He recommends performing the drills on the opposite days you perform the abdominal workout for a total of three days a week.
All-Fours x 20
Start this drill on all four hands and knees. Extend your right arm and left leg to be parallel with your back. Hold this extended position for three seconds and bring them back to the starting position. Then, extend your left arm and right leg into the same position and hold for three seconds.
Supermans x 20
Start on your stomach with your arms extended out above your head and your legs straight. Then, arch your back and lift your arms and legs off the ground as high as possible. Hold this arched position for three seconds then return to starting position.
WEIGHT ROOM WORK
Abdominal Medicine Ball Circuit
In order to further train the core, Popple puts the Twins through a series of three medicine ball drills in circuit format. Start with one set of each drill with 45 seconds to a minute rest time. As your strength increases, so too should the intensity of the workout. "I start them out with one set of each drill then I add a second set, and then a third set. Then, I start decreasing the rest time," explains Popple.
The circuit should be performed in the same manner as the abdominal groundwork: perform one set of each drill then go back to the first drill to start the second set. Starting with a 6-pound medicine ball and working toward a 12-pound ball, perform the circuit every other day for a total of three times per week.
Seated Twists x 20 each side
Sit on the ground with a partner standing a few feet to your right and facing you. Have your partner throw a medicine ball to you. Catch the ball, twist left as far as possible and touch the ball to the ground. Repeat that same motion to your right and then back to your left, each time touching the ball to the ground. After the third touch, twist back to starting position and throw the ball back to your partner. That is one rep.
Twist Throws x 20 each side
Stand shoulder-to-shoulder (facing opposite directions) with a partner. Now, move laterally 10 feet apart but still in the shoulder-to-shoulder relationship. Throw a medicine ball to your partner by twisting toward him and bringing the medicine ball across your body. Have your partner perform the same throw back to you.
One-hand Catch x 20
Sit on the ground with your knees bent and feet off the ground. Have a partner, who should be standing about a foot in front of you, gently toss you a small 10-pound medicine ball. Catch it gently with either hand. Make sure to flex your abs and lower back to keep from spinning or moving when you catch it. Shot put the ball back to your partner.
Low Back Exercises
In a weight room, Popple suggests using a low back extension machine with your body weight or low back extensions with a machine and weight to improve your core. If that equipment is unavailable, Popple suggests an exercise that requires nothing more than a partner and bench.
Low Back Extensions
Lie on your stomach on top of a bench. Position your waist at the edge so only your legs are on the bench. With a partner sitting on your legs, hang your upper body off the edge and fold over. Use your lower back muscles to extend up until your back is parallel with your legs. Perform sets of 10 reps in the beginning and work toward performing two to three sets of 20 reps.
As a variation, perform a twist at the top of the extension. Twist back like you’re trying to look at your partner. Be sure to twist to the left and right.
For the weight room workouts, Popple suggests performing the medicine ball circuit and the low back exercises on the same day. "At the beginning it’s better to do the abs and low back on the same day because the low back can get tight doing some of the abdominal stuff. Once you get stronger, you can split them up because you’re adding more exercises to it."
By performing these exercises consistently for six weeks before the season, your core will be stronger, which will translate into a more powerful, successful season.