Russell Martin, three-time MLB All-Star catcher and recipient of a Golden Glove and Silver Slugger award, has enough hardware to prove he’s one of the league’s most versatile guys behind the plate. And the former Yankee is just days shy of starting his eighth season in the Bigs, which will be his first with the Pittsburgh Pirates—an up-and-coming team led by a bright young star named Andrew McCutchen.
But at age 30, Martin knows that wear-and-tear from playing catcher is inevitable—the position demands agility, flexibility, ultra-fast reaction speed, and no fear. So he added a new component to his offseason training in recent years that most fans wouldn’t associate with a low-contact sport like professional baseball: mixed martial arts, or MMA. With that in mind, Men’s Fitness asked Russell about his upcoming season in Pittsburgh, and how MMA training has given his on-field endurance and fitness a major boost.
Men’s Fitness: Baseball has the longest season in pro sports. To stay in peak shape, you’ve incorporated MMA style workouts into your training. Why?
Russell Martin: I had a buddy who, back in 2002 [the year the Dodgers drafted Martin], went to Thailand and discovered Thai boxing. I remember watching his first amateur fight. I felt that rush seeing him out there in the ring competing, something that I have never felt before. And I guess it was that moment when I really became a fan of the sport.
Wait, so how do you actually train with MMA? Do you climb into the ring and grapple with other fighters?
I don’t want people to get confused—what I do is power endurance, high-intensity, high-speed circuits involving lots of kicking and punching. I don’t do any mat grappling and I haven’t sparred with anybody. It’s dangerous and I don’t want to risk getting hurt. I signed a contract to play baseball.
How have you benefited from power endurance training?
Since I work out in a circuit-training environment, the power endurance was what really attracted me to MMA workouts. There are no limits [to how hard you can go]. That’s how they push themselves. It has helped me become more efficient, getting the most out of a workout in the shortest period of time. For me, the key is mastering mobility and stability. Everything in baseball — my catching, my swing — I want to make sure I have it all under control.
MF: How has your MMA training made you a better catcher?
RM: What I’ve gained the most from MMA that applies to baseball is balance—using both sides of my body more. Baseball can be so one-dimensional, unless you’re a switch hitter; for me, it was always right-handed repetition—throwing the ball right-handed, hitting the ball from the right side. I felt like there was an imbalance in my body, and MMA training, with the [bilateral] kicking and punching, counteracts that. I’ve always been pretty agile and quick—my best assets as a catcher. I have more control and my core is so much stronger. It has helped me defensively as a catcher, no question. My hips are looser, I’m more flexible, and it’s easier to move side-to-side.
This past offseason, what did you do in the gym to prep for your first season with the Pirates?
I started with a good 30 to 40 minutes of warm-up: a lot of stretching and range of motion exercises for my hips, core, shoulders and arms. I did hip drills with resistance bands mixed in with regular stretches and glute-firing exercises. Then I’d get into a powerlifting phase and would circuit that in with other movements—one day focus on pushing, the next on pulling.
Do you think working on power, endurance, and overall fitness, will help you to catch more games this season—and beyond?
You know, I’m going to catch as many games as I possibly can. Whenever my name is the lineup, I’ll be ready to play. If my name is in there 162 games and I’m capable of doing it, I’ll go out there and play. Am I going to be as productive if I play every game? Probably not. Over the years I’ve realized that sometimes less is more. You get to recover, and you’re just more explosive for your next game. I used to be hardheaded, just wanting to play all the way through, and then I’d get into September and have no gas left in the tank. The last couple of years, I’ve been getting more rest. I’m not sure about the exact statistics, but I think I hit half of my home runs last season on the days after I had a day off.
Do you think MMA training can help extend your career?
I feel so athletic that I believe I can play anywhere on the field. A lot of catchers tend to wear down and lose parts of their game, and that’s the battle that I’m going through right now—trying to defy those odds of age and get through that grind.