All training revolves around the `hub'

Mark Verstegen stresses the body's core as he helps pros become masters of their sports


Chicago Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra transformed himself from a self-described "skinny, 155-pound college baseball player" into a muscular, 190-pound Major League all-star. And he insists he did it the old-fashioned way: no steroids.

Garciaparra says his secret weapon is conditioning guru Mark Verstegen.

The two met in the early 1990s at Georgia Tech, where Verstegen, a former Division 1 college football player with a master's degree in sports sciences, was assistant director of player development, meaning the guy in charge of producing hard bodies.

Verstegen became one of the early proponents of core, or "pillar," conditioning. Think of the body as a wheel, he says, with the arms and legs as spokes. You should focus your training on the "hub" - everything between the hips and shoulder blades. Work groups of muscles. Work them through all ranges of motion. Emphasize balance and flexibility as much as strength.

In 1995 Verstegen created the International Performance Institute at what was then the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. There he began working with tennis player Mary Pierce and other athletes.

Four years later, Verstegen moved to Tempe, Ariz., and opened his own body shop: Athletes' Performance. He has since added a second training center, in Los Angeles.

Over the years, the client list has grown to include soccer player Mia Hamm (Garciaparra's wife), hockey goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, baseball players Brian Roberts and Jay Gibbons of the Orioles, Mark Clayton and Ovie Mughelli of the Baltimore Ravens, plus 22 players selected in the first three rounds of the 2005 NFL draft.

Verstegen's first book, Core Performance ($29.95, Rodale), sold more than 100,000 copies. A sequel, Core Performance Essentials, will come out in January. He also just unveiled, a subscription-based online training site geared toward recreational athletes.

There are no shortcuts to fitness, says Verstegen, who supplements weight training with lots of balance and agility drills. "It comes down to having the right game plan. It can't be about a gimmick. It's not a pill."

You've trained hundreds of professional athletes. Who are among the hardest workers?

One of them is Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. Brian has been consistently improving. He's a true student of what he needs to do: improve his range and bat speed and power. Brian by nature is not a big man - maybe 173 pounds. It's a matter of how do we get the most out of this race car by helping improve his biomechanics and his muscle function.

Can you give examples that illustrate the principles of Core Performance?

I think something from our "movement preparation" exercises, maybe the inverted hamstring stretch. [Stand on one foot with both arms pointing to the side like airplane wings, keep your back straight and bend from the waist until your upper body and lifted leg are parallel to the ground.]

That combines balance, pillar strength and flexibility in one movement. The whole Core Performance system is based on core-foundation movements.

Name one piece of exercise equipment you'd hate to do without?

Well, the first one, I guess, is the body. Don't take body movement away from me. I think a stability ball is a real good use of exercise time.

Something as simple as a foam roll: That's a good massage tool. If people used that 10 or 15 minutes a week, they'd reduce joint pain and muscle spasms. It's kind of like kneading dough. It gets oxygen back into those areas.

What are some of the common mistakes you see people making in their daily exercise routines?

The formula is "work plus rest equals success," I don't think people know how to get a good night's sleep. People don't know that if you don't eat breakfast you're more apt to be obese.

Is eating right the blind spot in most people's lifestyle?

Poor nutrition is about poor planning. If people can just clean up the way they eat, it will make a world of difference. One, make sure you have breakfast every morning. You also should have five or six small snacks evenly spaced throughout the day.

One of my favorite things for breakfast is to take a scoop of oats, a scoop of whey protein, a scoop of flaxseed oil and a scoop of low-fat, low-sugar yogurt, and mix them all together.

What have you learned about the aging process? How much is inevitable biological change and how much is atrophy or lack of conditioning?

I see people who exercise all the time, but when I take them through a performance-screening test, they score so low. It's like they're a car running on two cylinders.

We've focused too long on looking good. But what if you're hips are so tight you can't bend over properly?

Your body is the greatest compensator of all time, but it's like going into debt: Sooner or later, it catches up with you. That's aging. But we do not have to accept things. You never waste time by being active, but there's a more efficient way to do it.

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