Don't let the baseball uniform fool you—New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard loves spending time in the gym.
A self-described “gym rat," the righthander admits he enjoys “picking up heavy stuff and putting it down."
Since breaking into the Major Leagues, he's focused intensely on his training routine, which, on any given day, could include shoulder-specific workouts, leg curls, upper back exercises, rowing workouts, weighted pullups, squats, deadlifts, sled pulls, and free weight exercises. The gym, says the 6’6”, 240-pound pitcher, is a "theraputic place."
So maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise he can throw 100 mph.
"Each day is tailored to my needs," says Syndergaard. "Whether it's doing a [scapular] exercise, rotator cuff workout, back, or leg training—each day I have something structured and targeted. My strength and conditioning coaches do a really good job of making sure we're healthy and staying strong on the field."
Syndergaard had a strong rookie season in 2015—he put up a respectable 3.24 ERA and struck out 166 batters in 150 innings—but the Mets' march to the World Series may actually have worked against his overall fitness by cutting into his winter training time.
That time away from the gym made the offseason even more important for Syndergaard. He knew that if he were to live up to his nickname, “Thor,” he'd need to make sure he got the most out of his training—and that's why he turned to trainer Josh Bryant, M.F.S., C.S.C.S., who operates out of Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas. Bryant helped Syndergaard get his strength up this offseason and the results have been pretty good: “Thor” hammered a 415-foot home run during the 2016 season.
“Since the season went so long, Noah wasn’t quite where he needed to be at the start,” says Bryant. “His hamstrings and his upper back were not as strong as we would have liked them. We used compensatory acceleration training and worked at getting his upper back stronger and strengthening his grip a lot—as we got closer, we converted into more explosive power. It was off to the races from there and it paid off."
Bryant and Syndergaard spoke with Men’s Fitness about the workouts, training tips, and exercises that help the Mets pitcher stay at the top of his game:
When Bryant started off with Syndergaard, he wanted to get his leg and back strength up where it needed to be along with his hamstrings and core. The towering pitcher deadlifts over 500 pounds at his max, but Bryant focused him more on getting quality rather than quantity from the pitcher.
“More sets, less reps, more cluster sets—just so you can really focus on the quality of the movement,” Bryant says. “A lot of people think the only way to get stronger is to lift real heavy or to get explosive—your force is your mass times your acceleration. But for us the goal was using sub-maximal weights but lifting with maximal force. For instance, on the deadlift, we're using more trap bar lifts and what you do is if he's at a lighter weight he would lift it more explosively. If you're using 70% of your max, you might do 5 sets of 3 reps and do them as explosively as possible because you can still put 100% force into it.”
“We worked on getting Noah stronger right away," Bryant says. "By getting stronger, you get more explosive to a point, so I always tell people a good ratio to strive for is about 2.5 times your body weight on a squat or deadlift. At that point you're going to get to the point of diminishing returns. So if you weigh 200, you need to deadlift 500. If you're lifting 400, then you get more explosive up to that point. Beyond that, you won't progress as much by just getting stronger alone."
Safety Bar Squats
Bryant utilized various types of squats in his training with Syndergaard, something the pitcher was fine with: “A squat-heavy day is probably my favorite," he says. "Squats—anything badass really—lifting weights, pushing sleds—but squat day is best.”
Bryant says they focused on safety bar squats in particular. “The safety bar not only removes stress from your shoulders but also forces you to keep your torso really rigid, because it's going to want to scrunch you down. A lot of powerlifters will use it if they have a problem rounding their upper back to force to correct it, to attack that weak point.
“We used a lighter weight, but the guideline there is you can't compromise your lifting technique to do it," Bryant says. "For example, if you're an Olympic shot putter, a 16-pound shot put might practice with a 14-pound shot put and you wouldn't alter your technique to throw that further, even though if you were going to throw a really light shot put at competition it might be a different technique. You just practice throwing faster—it’s the same type of thing here. You don't want to lose your technique, lose your tightness. It's maximum bar speed assuming perfect technique—no sacrificing anything.”
Bryant wanted to add some strength and muscle to Syndergaard’s lower body during the offseason. By doing pause squats, Syndergaard added extra strength in the weakest part of his squat movement and hit his hamstrings and quads, which helped him power through his delivery on the mound.
"Noah would lower into a squat stance, pause at the bottom for a second, and then come up," Bryant says. "He'd have to get rid of the stretch reflex—that way, he was forced to concentrically overcome the dead load. We'd also do dead squats, in which we'd put a safety bar in the squat rack. He'd get under it and squat it up from a dead stop. Again, you're limiting stretch reflex. It really works the rate of force development.”
Trap Bar Jumps
“A lot of studies have shown that your hamstring strength is a good indicator of how injury-resistant you are,” Bryant says. “Toward the end of the workout we'd build explosive strength by doing three to five reps of trap bar jumps—like a jump squat, but instead of the barbell on his back he'd be holding a trap bar. Then you step out of it and jump up in the air as explosively as you can without the weight. Do one vertical jump without it after—that really helps hit those muscles.”
Dumbbell Bench Press
“For bench pressing we used either dumbbells or a neutral grip barbell," Bryant says. "We didn't want to put too much strain to start.”
Nordic Leg Curls
Bryant targeted Syndergaard’s legs early on, especially because “his hamstrings were not as strong as we would have liked them to be when we started.” Hamstring injuries are common for pitchers, and therefore a major point of focus for injury prevention.
One good strength-builder: Nordic leg curls. To do these, start by kneeling with his hands straight down at his sides and having a trainer or gym partner hold your knees. Slowly lean forward, pivoting from the knees, and then finally push back up to the starting position.
Bryant would load up 30-40 pounds for Syndergaard to help add strength for his shoulders and upper back. “We would do all sorts of different grips on the pulls—primarily neutral grip pull-ups. We do that on his shoulders to really get those going. We sometimes do what's called a back grip, so the diameter of the grip is thicker.”
"We did a hell of a lot of upper back work, lots of rowing—that's huge in keeping his shoulders healthy,” says Bryant. “We would do rowing of all sorts—we would do barbell rows, dumbbell rows, neutral barbell rows, all sort of rows. Sometimes we'd do skill rows, using dumbbells, which is basically like an elevated flat bench row—dumbbells are at the ground. We'd do all sorts of different rowing exercises. I'd rather doing too much rowing than too much pressing."
Bulgarian Split Squats
Bryant focused on single-leg workouts and exercises that could help Syndergaard build strength and muscle in a short period of time. Split squats are especially good for increasing flexiblilty and injury prevention.
To do a Bulgarian split squat, stand knee-length away from a bench with dumbbells in each hand. Put the top of your left foot on the bench and then lower your body down until your front leg forms a right angle with the floor. Lift yourself back up. That's one rep.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
“One-legged Romanian deadlifts were key,” Bryant says. “That very simple exercise helps keep your hamstrings healthy. It's also good unilateral movement. Make sure you're not imbalanced. We've had sprinters do those with 150 pounds in each hand—so people can go pretty heavy on them.” The deadlift can help work out your glutes, increase flexibility in your hamstrings—very important for pitchers—and strengthen the lower back.
“We lateral lunges and reverse lunges, which are easier on the knees,” Bryant says. “Lunges are an important movement pattern that needs to be loaded. It's going to also keep track unilaterally—you can't fudge it. If you're doing a squat, you can kind of favor one side, but you can't do that with lunges. They tackle all those muscles unilaterally, and take some of the load off the lower back, which is very important. Squats are awesome, but if we do 20 sets of squats and nothing else, it's loading your lower back pretty hard, whereas lunges are going to be a little more lower-back friendly.”
“We did a lot of work on core. One land ot was landmines, because they do so much rotational stuff in baseball,” says Bryant. “They’re good anti-rotational movement, which builds balance.” Check out how to do landmines here.
All-Around Leg Strength
If you want to emulate Syndergaard in the gym, Bryant has some advice: "Definitely focus on your leg strength—get to a good strength level for your body type. For squats, you should stick with safety squats, front squats, things like that, because it's a little rough on your shoulders to be back squatting all the time. I would say, a deadlift variation too. Noah's body type is better with a trap bar. A lot of times, I will like a regular deadlift because it's going to hit your hamstrings, glutes and lower back a little better, but it's just a little awkward with how tall he was."