Nolan Ryan joined the Houston Astros prior to the 1980 season as the highest-paid player in MLB, earning $1.1 million a year. I received a phone call from the Astros GM, Tal Smith, inviting me to a reception to introduce him as the Astros’ newest member. Prior to the reception, I had never met Nolan. I had watched
him pitch in the 1979 MLB All-Star game on TV and I knew that he lived in Alvin, Texas about 20 minutes away from my home in Clear Lake.
Before we signed Nolan, our starting pitchers were doing one total body workout between each start. I had four of the five starters on board with the program, but the fifth, Ken Forsch, was not as committed at the other four. I was talking to Ken at the reception when Nolan walked up and introduced himself. He asked if I was the strength coach; I said yes. He said, “Well – I’m going to have a problem with your strength program.”
My first reaction was we have a million-dollar prima donna who will undo two years of the things we have worked for. Ken grinned ear-to-ear thinking he had somebody on his side. But Nolan said, “I can only lift three times between starts.” That set the tone for the Astros for the next three decades and Nolan and I became instant friends.
The Program. In 1980, we had one exercise bicycle, no treadmill, a little bit of surgical tubing and a couple of leather medicine balls that would burst after 3-4 hard throws. Dr. Frank Jobe had just published his research on the importance of strengthening the rotator cuff, so we had a few 3-5 pound dumbbells for “Jobe exercises”, but nothing heavier. Lifting free weights was taboo in baseball at that time. GMs, managers and coaches equated free weights to body building and they believed that body building would make you “muscle bound”. Nautilus machines were the hottest thing going in the early 80s and four teams had them, the Dodgers, Phillies, Reds and Astros.
Starting pitchers completed one total body workout between each start and position players did three total body workouts a week. We did three sets of ten (3×10) of 7 to 8 different exercises each workout and it took forever. We divided the players into two lifting groups. Starters lifted on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Extra men lifted on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Sundays were off-days. Because very few National League teams had facilities for their players in the early 80s, it was not always easy to get in a quality lifting workout on the road. We had access to a very old universal gym in the Montreal Alouettes’ (CFL) weight room in Olympic Stadium and could occasionally sneak in and use the Steelers’ and Chargers’ facilities. Many workouts on the road consisted of body weight exercises, push-ups, lunges, step-ups, etc. There were not a lot of portable equipment options. There were no suppliers for MD balls, bands, boxes, cones, hurdles, etc.
Prior to the arrival of Nolan, starting pitchers lifted one time per week. They stretched, ran and did a core workout (we called core work sit-ups back then) four times between starts. Because we didn’t know any better, pitchers did a 20-30 minute flush run they day after a start. They threw a bullpen and ran ten, 30-35 second poles on day two, followed by slower poles and a total body workout on day three. Day four consisted of a 10-12 short sprints and a few sit-ups. On day five, they stretched and ran a few sprints before they pitched. Relievers ran shorter distances (half-poles, quarter-poles and sprints) and lifted after games in which they pitched. Total body Nautilus workouts consisted of five leg exercises (leg press, calf raise, leg curl, leg extension and hip extension), a chest press, a pullover, biceps curls and triceps presses.
The Emergence of Free Weights. The transition from machines to free weights occurred in the mid-80s, in large part, because of the formation of the NSCA. There were not very many strength coaches in professional sports that you could consult with in the early 80s. Bill Allerheiligen, strength coach with the Houston Oilers, and Bob Ward of the Dallas Cowboys really helped me, as did Dr. Bill Thornton. Bill was an engineer with a medical degree and over 300 hours in space as an Astronaut. He was responsible for designing most of the exercise equipment, exercise protocols and in-flight measurement procedures used by NASA astronauts during the Skylab and Shuttle Programs. Bill taught me to how to evaluate exercise protocols and the importance of personalized exercise prescriptions and accurate measurement and recording procedures.
The Oilers and Cowboys used Nautilus machines in the late 70s and early 80s, but as the NSCA became more established, things started to change. I was invited to speak at one of their meetings in Dallas in 1983. I talked about our Nautilus workouts and most of the football strength coaches looked at me like I was crazy because they were into free weights. Strength coaches in baseball started talking to those in other sports, saw the results that were being achieved with free weights and began to incorporate more free weight exercises into their programs.
The Player Factor and Management Buy In. The players also played a major role in the transition to free weights. By the mid-80s, several of the younger players had participated in college strength training programs that used free weights. Because strength training was still relatively new to the game of baseball, many of the college programs were football oriented. By the late 80s, the game went from most players having no lifting background to many players having 3 to 4 years of lifting experience.
The player who advocated strength training the most was Nolan Ryan. Nolan had started lifting on his own between starts during his time with the Angles. He found an old Universal Gym machine in the stadium that had belonged to a soccer team. The Angels, at the time, believed that weight training made you muscle bound, so Nolan had to sneak in his strength training workouts. Over time, he learned how to work different areas of his body for balance and flexibility and to take days off to recover. He also discovered that even if he was somewhat stiff from lifting, it really had no effect on his ability to pitch and that his arm would bounce back more quickly from one start to the next.
Nolan said that a key to his success with the Angels was that his velocity increased in the later innings. While the pitching coach said this was probably attributed to his establishing a rhythm, finding a good groove and improving mechanics as the game progressed – all valid points; Nolan believed the conditioning program made this possible by increasing his stamina. He believed that once you fatigue, it affects your mechanics and you can’t pitch with the precise timing required for a smooth, compact motion. Nolan said that he was so pleased with his results that he bought a Universal Gym for his home, and it paid dividends. During his first 3 years in the AL, he pitched more than 900 innings – most of these with only three days of rest between starts because they had a 4-man starting rotation. He said that there is no way he could have recovered as quickly, or been as durable, without a firm base of strength from lifting. He firmly believed that lifting helped him be more consistent.
Nolan also believed that no player, especially a starting pitcher, should ever lose because the opposition was better prepared. He shared this philosophy with his teammates and most of them bought in. He started the tradition where veteran players would lead by example and share with younger players the importance of working out.
We won the NL West in 1980 but lost in five to Philadelphia in the playoffs. With the loss, came a new GM, Al Rosen. Al was “old school”. He played third base for the Indians (1947-1956) back when you played yourself into shape had been GM for the Yankees (1978-79) just before teams began to initiate strength training programs. While Al was skeptical of the lifting program, he respected Nolan. Initially when a player got hurt or went through a tough stretch, he had a tendency complain about the program. Over time, he mellowed some and even asked me to accompany him to San Francisco when he became the Giants GM after the 1985 season.
We had a 90-100% percent participation rate in the 80s, due in large part to the work ethic of players like Nolan, Don Sutton, J. R. Richard, Joe Sambito, Terry Puhl, Craig Reynolds, Jose Cruz, Cesar Cedeno, Art Howe and Denny Walling . Because of our success in 1980 and the friendship between the owners of the Astros and Rangers, I had the opportunity to work for both the Astros and Rangers during the 1981 season. The owner of the Rangers, Eddie Chiles, an oil man from Texas, was big into motivational speeches. He brought in a speaker during the off-season who said that a good leader (or coach) should strive to duplicate himself through others. This seemed like a great idea to me. I had been telling our players that my goal was to get them to be so self-sufficient in the weight room that they could do it without me.
Nolan was our first team leader in the weight room and he set the stage for what came afterward. In each decade after Nolan, there was always at least one Astros player who became a leader in the weight room and helped ensure that everyone participated and that every workout was safe and productive. What started with Nolan was passed on to guys like Ken Caminitti, Jeff Bagwell, Shane Reynolds, Craig Biggio, Billy Wagner, Brian Moehler and Hunter Pence. It also helped that we were able to add veterans with great work ethics like Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite and Miguel Tejada to help keep the ball rolling.
My experience indicates that you can’t nag or force Major League players into the weight room. You also can’t take it personally if someone doesn’t want to work out. Your job is to design the best program that you can for each player, and be there to offer support, motivation and instruction on how to train in a safe and efficient manner. Someone once told me that being a strength coach is like being a missionary. You can’t save everyone in the World. You should be there for everyone, but focus most of you energy on those who want to be saved. You can’t tattle to the GM or manager if a player doesn’t work out and you can’t lie to protect him. If management asks if a player is not working out, you have to tell the truth and move on. The responsibility has to be on the player.
Facility Adaptation – Ryan’s Hills and Pools. We redesigned the clubhouse in the Astrodome in 1981 and built a hill in the weight room. The hill had a 25-degree incline, was 15 yards long and 5 yards wide and went over the top of my office. We also installed one in the spring training complex in Coco Beach, FL. The idea for the hill came after the GM saw Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers run the banks of Buffalo Bayou during the off season. Earl, like Nolan, was the hardest working player on his team and Al reasoned that if it was good for Earl’s legs, it should be good for the Astros. Earl’s hill program has recently become popular as the Reds and Yankees have built hills their spring training complexes and the Houston Texans put one in Reliant Stadium.
We used the hill as part of our warm-up, especially in the off-season, before games and in the late innings when extra men had to get loose to pinch hit or run. Nolan loved the hill and used it as part of his daily conditioning program. He would run it 50 times a day going forwards and backwards, doing lunges, shuffles, cariocas, sprints, etc. On the road, we frequently ran the stadium ramps. This concept was foreign to baseball because the only hill is the pitching mound and the sport is played on a perfectly flat surface. We used the hill as a method of overloading our players and told them that their hips are the “money makers” in hitting, running and pitching. Later, we created a metabolic circuit where a player did an uphill sprint, before and after each strength training circuit.
The swimming pool was another training innovation that we developed to help prolong Nolan’s career, provide a non-impact conditioning tool and rehab lower body injuries. Nolan pulled a hamstring while pitching against the Mets in 1983 and it was bad. A friend, James Blackwood, an assistant track coach at The University of Texas at Austin, was having his runners do two workouts per day. The first workout was performed outdoors and the second was performed in a swimming pool. The track athletes got in the deep end of the pool and ran for 50-60 minutes. Texas has started the program because there was research showing that several elite athletes who had trained in the pool following a leg or foot injury were able to set personal and sometimes World’s records within a short time of their return to the track.
We met with the team physician and asked if there was any harm in doing the aquatics program. He saw no harm, but doubted that it would do any good. I went to a scuba shop and bought two snorkels and two masks. We both got in the pool and did a 5-minute warm-up jog. The mask kept the water out of our eyes and the snorkel allowed us to float vertically with only our hair sticking out of the water. After the warm-up, we did a 20-minute sprint program. I told Nolan that we could both run a 10-flat hundred so that he would have some idea of distance and time. A 10-second sprint would be 100 yards; a 5-second sprint would be 50 yards and so on.
We did sets of 10 all-out sprints of different durations with a slow jog between each rep. The rest to work interval between reps was 3 to 1. A 5-second sprint was followed by a 15 second slow jog; a 10-second sprint was followed by a 30-second slow jog and so on. There was also a 60-second slow jog after each set.
The program started with a set of ten 50s (ten 5-second sprints); followed by ten 100s; ten 150s; two 300s; ten 100s and ten 50s.
When you sprint all-out, most of your head comes out of the water and you suck air in and push it out through a 12-inch long hose that is 1-inch in diameter. Since the last air out is the first air in, you get a lot of CO2 coming back in on each breath. Also, because your chest is under water, there is an extra one-half PSI of force compressing you on each breath. The combination of extra pressure on your chest and reduced oxygen coming in on each breath makes breathing really hard and severely taxes the cardiorespiratory system.
We did this for 21 days, after which Nolan pitched a five-inning simulated game and averaged 95 mph. Three days after that, he started. He told me this program helped save his career because. He was on the last year of his contract and in previous rehab stints it took 21 days to recover and 21 days to get back into shape, and by that time it would have been September.
Nolan would frequently see a chiropractor between starts before he was injured to try and help relieve some of the stress on his body that had been caused in the previous 8 seasons with the Angles during which he averaged 36 starts, 272 innings and 295 Ks per year. We also estimated that by the time he joined Houston, he had thrown over 100,000 pitches at 90+ mph. That is a lot of wear and tear. After the hamstring injury, each start was followed by a 10-15 minute jog in the pool before bedtime. The first three days after each start started with pool workouts in the morning followed by strength training, stationary cycling and 30-60 yard sprints at the ball park. He was in the pool three times between starts and immediately after. He went from seeing the chiropractor almost every week to three times per season; it was that big of a relief. We used this program for decades.
In the next issue we will continue the 80s.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012, has been a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers since 2013 and is currently Professor in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.