Feb 12, 2001- Sporting News Article

Show of Strength

Through an unusual conditioning program that stresses balance, the Diamondbacks’ Steve Finley has turned back the clock and turned up the power.

By Stan McNeal

     
   
 
   

Hidden amid the hills and valleys of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., an enclave north of San Diego for the rich and famous, is Steve Finley’s fountain of youth. Spend a couple of mornings in the off season with Finley, and chances are you’ll go home convinced he has found the way to cheat Father Time.

Here is a 12-year veteran on the wrong side of 35 who says he never has been in better shape. Finley has made himself arguably baseball’s fittest player, and his performance over the past two seasons supports his case:

He has reached a career high in home runs in each of the past two years for the Diamondbacks, hitting 34 in 1999 and 35 in 2000.

He was having perhaps his best season last year--.29 with 22 homers and 63 RBIs through June—before colliding with a wall in Houston and aggravating an old injury, which required off season surgery to repair a bulged nerve in his lower back.

He needed only three weeks to recover fully. Doctors had figured it would take at least twice that long and told Finley many people would have felt the effects for six months—those of us without any special powers, that is. Those of us who do not believe in Finley’s fitness program.

Of course, there really is no magic fountain on Finley’s 10-acre ranch. There’s a swimming pool, but it’s just like any other swimming pool, except for the huge boulder someone dropped in the middle.

There’s also a “gym” with vaulted ceilings, a massive fireplace, huge paintings on the wall and a stone steam room. Although the steam is relaxing, there is nothing mystical about it.

What makes this place unusual is simple: the training that takes place inside it. In Finley’s world, no matter how old you are, you can become a better baseball player—a better athlete—by retraining the nervous system to be more efficient.

“Everyone is used to saying that when you get into your 30s, you’re on the way down. That’s always been the mindset. It doesn’t have to be that way,” Finley says. “Barring injuries, I feel like I can play as long as I want. I haven’t lost a step.”

So how does one retrain the nervous system? It’s certainly not an undertaking many baseball players would endure in the off season. Remember John Kruk’s line, “I’m not an athlete. I’m a baseball player”? Well, that thinking doesn’t play with Finley.

“What we are trying to do is get the body working more efficiently,” Finley says “We are trying to take the nervous system to a higher level.”

If all of your muscles are working together, Finley says, you will be stronger and faster than if some of your muscles—no matter how developed—are carrying a disproportionate load.

Although Finley is such a believer in these training techniques that he is considering ways to help market the program, he admits there is one problem: It is difficult to explain.

Finley tried when we spoke last season. “You really have to do it-to go through the exercises—to understand it,” he said then. “Can you do that?”

Well, uh, sure. If this is a program that can work for everyone, I thought, even those of us well into 35’s wrong side, I’ll go for it.

And if it’s going to mean a trip to San Diego in the middle of winter, I’m there.

For two days recently, Finley and I went through his “out of balance” workout. I still can’t hit a 90-mph fastball, but I’m starting to understand how, one month from his 36th birthday, Finley still can.

Before the Program

Steve Finley never has been one to kick back in the off season. He has a degree in physiology from Southern Illinois University and has tried a variety of training methods since the Orioles traded him to the Astros 10 years ago. In 1992, Finley hooked up with Tim Hallmark, the personal trainer for heavyweight boxer Evander Holyfield, and learned about explosive power training—how to get stronger without getting bigger or losing flexibility.

When Finley was traded to the Padres after the 1994 season, he met Dean Brittenham, a San Diego-based trainer who was working with top baseball prospects and other pro athletes, including Patrick Ewing and Jim Courier. From Brittenham’s program, Finley learned about balance and more about flexibility.

After the 1997 season, Finley was introduced to Dr. Edythe Heus, a kinesiologist. Though her dynamic conditioning program sounded intriguing, Finley says, it still was “too far out there” to try at that time. But he didn’t forget about it.

After struggling in 1998, batting .248 with 14 homers and 67 RBIs in 159 games, Finley talked to Heus again. He has been working with her for more than three years now, the longest he has stayed with one trainer, and with reason.

The Program

Definitely not needed for this workout: anything having to do with bench presses, squats or traditional weightlifting. No treadmills, stair climbers or stationary bicycles.

What is needed are several items not found at your average gym:

    • Exercise balls: Imagine huge, bouncy balls that grown-ups can roll around on.

    • Balance disks: Think of a plate large enough to stand on that is glued to a softball.

    • Slant boards: A sort of V-shaped platform on its side.

    • Water apparatus: Equipment for the arms and legs that helps builds muscles by resisting movement.

    • Three special machines for combining use of the exercise balls and weightlifting.

Needed most of all is a willingness to roll around on the exercise balls and flop around in a swimming pool. “When I first started,” Finley says, “I felt totally out of it. I was wondering what the heck I was doing.” But the payoff, he adds, was worth it.

Everything starts with the spine, according to Heus. She believes a strong spine is the key to athletic success. Her exercises are designed to help develop the dozens of small muscles that attach to it.

Working out on the exercise balls takes the stress off the back. Still, do this workout properly and you will know it the next day.

“When Steve told me his spine was sore, I was like, ‘Yes!’ “ Heus says.

The exercises are fun—much more so than running on a treadmill or going through sets of reps in a weight room. Finley and I played catch with a weighted ball, standing on one leg on a slantboard that rose from the floor at a 30-degree angle. “Dig your toes into the board” Finley said. “Do that and you’ll build balance.”

I tried to stand on two balance disks, a feat Finley made look easy but that was impossible for me without the use of support poles.

We each lay stomach-down on an exercise ball and walked forward on our hands while the ball rolled down our legs to our feet. This worked the abs.

We sat on exercise balls and played catch with a medicine ball.

We did 16 exercises in all, plus a set of short sprints and skipping exercises over small barriers.

The aim of the drills is to begin in an unbalanced position, then stay balanced while lifting weights or stretching. The balancing makes everything more difficult. For example, try lifting dumbbells while standing on one foot. That is the basic principle of out-of balance training.

On the second day, we worked out in the deep end of Finley’s pool wearing leg and arm weights. Heus says the exercises are even more beneficial in water because of the lessening of stress on the joints and an increased difficulty of maintaining balance. The more effort you put into balancing, the harder the weightlifting and stretching become.

If you don’t believe this, try holding your breath while lying face down in a pool with arms out, holding light weights. Keep your body straight and lift your arms up and down, generating as much power as possible. Or try standing in water over your head, elbows at your side and doing wrist curls. You will learn quickly that it is possible to sweat in the water.

Spreading the program

While major leaguers haven’t gone on a shopping spree for exercise balls yet, word about out-of-balance training has been spreading. Diamondbacks third baseman Matt Williams, who struggled through last year with injuries, adopted Finley’s program this off season and reports he feels much better than last year.

Dodger’s right-hander Kevin Brown is another player who has worked with Heus. She saw he caught on to the trick of using underdeveloped back muscles more effectively than anyone she has worked with.

Padre’s right fielder Tony Gwynn tried the program—for a day, anyway.

“It’s not for everyone,” Finley admits.

It worked for the Diamondbacks Omar Daal, though. The lefty had been losing velocity on his fastball. After a few sessions with Heus, he regained 5 mph, according to Finley.

“He said there was nothing bothering him, and he had no explanation for (the loss of velocity),” Finley says. “I recommended that he let Edythe take a look.”

Heus examined Daal and found that he wasn’t using enough of the muscles in his shoulder area.

“We have 32 muscles in the shoulders alone,” she explains. “He was using maybe six or eight of them.”

When Finley’s hamstring was bothering him last season, he had Heus do a checkup. She determined that his lower abdominal muscles were extremely weak. After three of four days of working on the abs, Finley says, his hamstring problem vanished.

“Our miracle worker,” he says.

The Program Pays off

After Finley struggled in 1998, the Padres did not seem disappointed when he signed as a free agent with the Diamondbacks. If anything, they were surprised Arizona would 1) sign him for four seasons and 2) pay him $21.5 million.

Before his first spring training in Arizona, months after he had begun training with Heus, Finley loaded a truck and hauled his new equipment to Arizona. The balls, the disks and the machines.

“Guys were looking at me like ‘What the …. Are you doing?’ “ Finley says. “Then they started watching me.”

In batting practice, they saw balls flying off Finley’s bat.

“I was swinging the same way I’ve always swung, but the ball was going farther,” Finley says. “I’d hit the ball and just stand back and go, ‘Whoa. Where did that come from?’ “

In the entire off season leading to that, Finley says, he didn’t lift a weight heavier than 25 pounds.

“Here it was getting close to time to be leaving for spring training and I’m wondering, ‘When are we going to start the heavy lifting? What’s going on?’ “ Finley recalls.

His concerns ended almost as soon as he hit the desert.

“All through spring training, I never had any of that soreness I usually have. I’d fly out of bed every day feeling great,” he says.

He started strong, too, until he dove for a ball in Bank One Ballpark in early June. Finley made the catch, ripping up the sod with his knee in the process, but he hurt his back.

It took two cortisone injections to help him get through the season, which he finished with a career best 103 RBIs, in addition to the 34 home runs.

He opted for training instead of surgery after 1999 and was off to another great start when he banged into a wall in Enron Field. The bulge was back, and so were the cortisone injections. He struggled through much of the second half, limping home with a .183 average in September.

The slow finish was mainly a result of getting hit on the wrist early in the season’s final month. Or was it old age? Finley would say no. After another winter at the fountain of youth, he will be ready to prove it.


 

   

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