Ichiro Suzuki is still doing it.
He's still making contact at an incredible rate. He's still legging out infield singles. He's still a defensive dynamo in the outfield. He still never misses games due to injury. How, at 43 years old, is baseball's biggest Japanese star still so healthy and productive?
Preparation. For roughly two decades now, Ichiro has been training the same way. He only takes three or four days off from his program each offseason, as he claims he actually feels more tired and stiff when he doesn't do it. But you can't walk into your local L.A. Fitness and work out like Ichiro. Why? Because Ichiro's program is built around a set of machines that are extremely rare inside the United States. Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish also uses these special machines, but no one depends on them quite like Ichiro.
The story behind Ichiro's unusual routine begins in Tottori City, Japan, at the headquarters of World Wing Enterprise. The company's slogan is straightforward—"the company that researches and develops advanced training concepts." Not only do they research advanced training concepts, they also manufacture exercise equipment built around those concepts.
These are the machines Ichiro uses in his training. Take a look:
That's actually Darvish demonstrating how one of the World Wing machines works in the second video. As you've probably noticed, the machines look pretty similar to traditional weight-training machines. However, there are some key differences. For one, the amount of weight available is much less than most traditional machines. Even if you wanted to lift heavy, you really could not. This allows reps to be done at a quick tempo and with good form. Second, they offer a wider degree of freedom than traditional machines, making them capable of targeting different, larger ranges of motion.
What's the reason for these differences? The answer lies in a training concept known as Beginning Movement Load Theory, or BMLT.
If you look closely at the machines, you'll notice they're all adorned with the letters "BMLT." The concept originated with Yasushi Koyama, a Japanese fitness expert. Koyama founded World Wing Enterprise as a training facility in 1981. In 1994, he published the theory that would become known as BMLT. The theory is based in part on the idea that athletes should get more flexible as they train, not less. Koyama believes that many athletes make the mistake of using too much weight and too little range of motion in their training, resulting in hard, tight muscles and limited flexibility and mobility. According to a patent filed by Koyama for a World Wing training apparatus, traditional strength training machines are often built on the principles of "ending movement load training."
"[Ending movement load training entails] strengthening the muscles with the strong tension (hardening) of the muscles," reads the patent. "However, since muscles obtained by the ending movement load training are less soft and less elastic, there is a problem that body movements necessary for actual competitive sports are lost." Essentially, traditional machines don't take into account how the human body naturally moves.
"Human bodies are always strained by gravity, load, distortion, and so on," Koyama told Waseda Weekly in 2004. "Therefore, any exercise that does not consider the balance of movement merely damages the muscles and increases the burden on internal organs and finally leads to physical injuries."
So, what makes Koyama's machines different?
They're specifically designed to lengthen and loosen muscles while an athlete uses them. They're also designed to train the patterns of muscle activation used during unconstrained movements, making them much more functional than traditional machines.
From a 2014 study on BMLT: "Koyama developed Beginning Movement Load (BML) training as an approach to improve motor performance by focusing on actions about multiple degrees of freedom that required a stable base of support. These actions, which are performed on BML training machines, require the activation of muscles in a sequence that progresses from proximal to distal, involves minimal co-activation of antagonist muscles, and engages trunk and proximal (shoulder and hip) muscles."
The words "multiple degrees of freedom" are important. The fewer degrees of freedom a machine offers, the less functional it usually is. Athletic movement is dynamic and unrestricted, so training in just one or even two planes of movement might not be all that logical. Typical machines don't challenge the stabilizing muscles as much as free weights, which are not limited to one plane of motion. The body must completely control the load and move it in the correct way. This stabilization actively recruits more muscle groups than traditional machine lifting. It's also interesting to note that Koyama's machines engage the trunk, shoulder and hip muscles—areas often neglected by traditional machines. "Athletic movement is dynamic, occurring in many planes simultaneously," says Daniel Buck, CSCS and sports performance coach at Vantedge Performance. "[Training that incorporates more degrees of movement] creates an overall stronger and more dynamic athlete who is capable of moving in ways that sports demand."
A 2010 study compared three different lat pulldown machines—one that restricted movement to a frontal plane (the traditional design), one that allowed for forearm supination-pronation (the palm can rotate during the movement), and one that allowed for both forearm supination-pronation and horizontal extension-flexion about the shoulder. The authors (which included Koyama) found that performing "BML exercises with greater degrees of freedom can enhance the association between training actions and functional activities." Essentially, the machine that allowed for three degrees of freedom for the movement was the most functional. You can see Ichiro using this machine at the 1:05 mark in this video:
"I cannot forget the smiling face of Ichiro Suzuki when he used the machine(s) for the first time, saying, 'my body gets even more flexible as I continue to exercise!,'" Koyama told Waseda Weekly. Ichiro's routine utilizes eight different machines designed by World Wing Enterprise, all offering more degrees of freedom than their traditional counterparts. He performs the circuit up to four times a day, always using light weight and a high number of reps. He has one set of machines in his home and one at the Miami Marlins stadium. Ichiro believes the machines are so important to his success that he even ships them to spring training, storing them in an empty shipping container:
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) March 3, 2017
"I believe flexibility gives me my strength," Ichiro told the Wall Street Journal in 2013. "Flexibility is my weapon."
The additional degrees of freedom offered by the World Wing machines not only increase Ichiro's flexibility, but also his mobility. Mobility is often confused with flexibility, but it refers to functional movement. A mobile athlete can move his or her joints in the required ranges of motion for their sport and training. Improving mobility requires a focus on flexibility, muscle activation, core strength and eliminating strength imbalances.
Although there isn't a ton of research on Beginning Movement Load training (a good amount of it is in Japanese), what's there is encouraging. In addition to the aforementioned 2010 study, a 2014 study looked at how eight weeks of Beginning Movement Load training can help older adults perform better at functional tasks such as going up and down stairs, getting out of a chair, and balancing on one leg. While the control group saw no improvement in these tasks, the BML training group "significantly improved their times" on each task. The study authors summarized: "The results indicate that light-load training with actions involving a unique relaxation-contraction–relaxation sequence of muscle activation that is performed about multiple degrees of freedom (BML training) provides a foundation to elicit functionally meaningful adaptations in the neuromuscular system of older adults,"
Ichiro is undoubtedly the most high-profile believer in the benefits of BML training, and he refuses to do any other type of weight training. His results cannot be ignored. His 3,030 hits in the MLB are the most of any active player, a fact made more astounding when you consider he had 1,278 hits in Japan before he came to the United States. He's the oldest position player in the majors, but he's still very productive. His .291 batting average last season was rock solid, and his 11.5% strikeout rate ranked 19th-best in the league for players with at least 300 plate appearances. He's incredibly durable, having never played less than 143 games in a season since he arrived in the MLB.
Ichiro's longevity and consistency bring to mind another athlete—Tom Brady. The 39-year-old New England Patriots quarterback is still playing at an elite level despite being the oldest non-kicker in the NFL. He hasn't missed a game due to injury since 2008. And wouldn't you know it, there are strong similarities between Brady and Ichiro's training philosophies.
When Brady is asked how he's been able to be so good for so long, he frequently stresses the importance of "muscle pliability." "If there's so much pressure, just constant tugging on your tendons and ligaments, you're going to get hurt. Like with a kid, when they fall, they don't get hurt. Their muscles are soft. When you get older, you lose that," Brady told The New York Times. He expands on that idea on his personal website, TB12Sports.com: "The key is in complementing traditional strength and conditioning training with muscle pliability. Pliable muscles are softer, longer, and more resilient: they help insulate the body against injury and accelerate post-injury recovery."
RELATED: Why Ichiro Never Throws His Bat
It's certainly interesting that two of pro sports most ageless wonders believe in similar training philosophies. Ichiro recently said he'd like to play in the MLB until he's 50, and Brady has said he intends to play into his mid-forties and possibly beyond. The way things are going, I wouldn't bet against either of them.
I'd love to tell you where you can work out on the World Wing-manufactured machines, but they exist only in a number of training facilities in Japan. The company doesn't sell the equipment to individuals, making only rare exceptions for pro athletes like Ichiro and Darvish. But if you're interested in enhancing your durability and performance, the importance of flexibility and mobility cannot be overlooked.
Photo Credit: Masterpress/Getty Images
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