Despite missing most of the month of September due to injury, Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton led the National League in home runs (with 37) in 2014, and he had another strong showing in 2015, belting 27 homers. Those dingers were not of the barely-clearing-the-fence variety. His average distance in 2015 was an astounding 417 feet.
If you're thinking that Stanton gained his extraordinary slugging power just by lifting heavy weights or by smacking the covers off balls at the batting cage, think again. Both played a role in his success, of course; but a different sort of practice was instrumental in helping him develop his power at the plate: Yoga.
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"I was looking for ways to maximize my strength, conditioning and flexibility," says Stanton, who first tried yoga shortly after high school. "Yoga helps strengthen your core, which is a key component of the swing—and all aspects of baseball, really. It also stretches and strengthens the other muscles in your arms and legs."
Stanton says, "Yoga helps strengthen your core, which is key for all aspects of baseball. It also stretches and strengthens the other muscles in your arms and legs."
Since beginning the practice of yoga, Stanton has worked with Los Angeles-based instructor Kent Katich, who was immediately impressed with how flexible Stanton was for a guy his size. "He's 6-foot-6, 240-pounds of muscle. He's massive. He's built like Rob Gronkowski," Katich says. "He's gifted with that power, so we just wanted to work on unlocking it."
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Katich knew that if he could help Stanton loosen and condition tight spots in his hips and hamstrings, and help the athlete sharpen his focus, he'd be virtually unstoppable at the plate. "You see guys who aren't necessarily powerful, but who can rotate their hips the right way at the right time, and they hit the ball hard," Katich says. "When you can get a guy like Giancarlo, who has so much sheer mass and power, to rotate his hips properly, the results are amazing."
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Although hitting the ball as hard as he does requires power from every part of his body, Stanton believes that the improvements to his breathing he learned through yoga have been nearly as important as its physical benefits. He says, "Yoga teaches you all about controlling your breath and your mental patience, which translates to hitting very well."
The following four yoga moves and sample breathing drill address muscles in the hips, core and lower back—three areas that play important roles in hitting. Spend a few minutes each day performing them, focusing on proper form. Be patient with yourself and embrace the challenge. Stanton says, "Keep practicing! Put on some good music and have fun."
Low Lunge with Twist
Stanton in Low Lunge with Twist pose.
Begin in a lunge position. Place your back knee on the mat and your hands on your front knee. Lift your torso up to a vertical position, take a few deep breaths and slide your knee forward toward the front of your mat. Hold for 30 to 40 seconds, then switch legs. "This gets those hip flexors activated. That's where your power comes from at the plate," Katich says.
From Low Lunge, press into your front leg, lift your rear leg off the mat and turn your rear foot out at a 45-degree angle. Maintain a 90-degree bend in your front knee and press the outer edge of your rear foot into the ground. Keeping your torso facing forward, raise your arms overhead, pointing your fingers toward the sky. Hold for 30 to 40 seconds, then switch legs. "[After the Lunge], we can rotate that hip because it's opened up, and you're activating your lumbar and lower back. Hitting is all about rotation," Katich says.
Downward Facing Dog
From a High Plank position, pull your hips back and up toward the ceiling. Keep your hands planted firmly on the floor and tuck your chin. Hold for 30 to 40 seconds. "This is a whole body pose which helps the spine," Katich says. "If you could only do one yoga pose, Down Dog should be it."
Modified Rotational Downward Facing Dog
From Downward Facing Dog, lift your left hand off the mat and reach it back toward the outside of your right calf. The move requires you to rotate your torso a bit. "It gives you the motion of twisting and lengthening at the same time, and that's the basic movement of hitting," Katich says. "I do this a lot with golfers, as well." Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat on the opposite side.
Stanton found that the ability to control his breath increased his patience and focus at the plate. And though "mindful breathing" can sound complicated (or a little "new age"), the practice is quite simple.
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Here's one of the first breathing exercises Katich worked on with Stanton:
Lie on your back, raise your legs and hug your knees. Inhale for three slow seconds, trying to sink the breath deep into your lower abdomen and navel. Slowly release it for three seconds. Practice doing this a few minutes at a time for a week or so, then attempt to lengthen your breaths (to a four-count, a five-count, and so on) and breathe in deeper. Eventually, you want your inhale and exhale to blend together so you can't tell where one stops and the other starts. "It's difficult, but over time it builds a composure and smoothness in the breath, so your breath doesn't feel forced or rushed," Katich says.
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