Jeff Cavaliere has been a strength coach and physical therapist to elite baseball players (including many New York Mets). Check out this recent interview he did with me.
How did you get interested in training?
Long before I ever touched a weight I grew up a huge fan of pro wrestling and action movies. Needless to say, with guys like Arnold, Stallone, Ravishing Rick Rude, and The Hulkster, I found myself wondering what it would actually take to look like them. Of course, I didn't want to do any work to get the look...but I sure thought it would be cool to be like them. It wasn't until high school and my first introduction to competitive sports that weight training became a significant part of my life. I realized that in order to play the games I loved, at the highest level, I would have to become stronger. Reluctantly, I started working out at home (too skinny to feel comfortable working out at the popular local gym). After one summer of consistent workouts, I not only started to see abs, but was finding it easier to get my job done on the field. The results propelled me to want more results and from there it was like I had been bitten by the bug. To this day, I still haven't found a cure for it. Not sure I'd want one either!
What do you think sets you apart from other trainers?
I think the thing that separates me from the majority of trainers out there is my physical therapy background, which allows me to look at training from a biomechanical perspective and make modifications for anybody regardless of what their limitations might be. I can make the easiest exercise more challenging or the hardest one instantly doable. Having a clientele consisting largely of professional athletes, my skill is being able to challenge the ultra-competitive client (and make it fun at the same time) while always keeping the exercises fresh and unique. David Wright swears that I flip a coin every time I walk into a gym to plan the day's work out with him. He's crazy. But in a way he's right. While I always go in with a plan, my ability to change things on the fly to react to the effort I'm getting on a given day and the flow of the workout is actually a strength. If he's got more in the tank and I can find a way to get it out of him...I get it out of him!
How did you get a kid's dream job, working with the Mets?
You're absolutely right that it was a dream job. I mean, I grew up an avid Mets fan. I lived and breathed the team and watched every inning of every game all the way through college. Once I was out of college and knee deep into my profession I had the opportunity to work with one of the members of the 2001 Mets, Mark Johnson. MJ was one of the hardest working athletes I had ever come across. Most importantly however, he showed me that while things may not always go the way you hope on the field in terms of wins and losses, you can still prepare yourself as if the goal was to win every day...and you can do that by working your butt off every day in your training and conditioning. At that point I stopped being a typical fan and realized the role I could have in eliciting this type of hard work that was ultimately going to make guys like Mark and his teammates better. In 2006, the Mets former physical therapist had left for the Texas Rangers to become their head strength coach. When word of the opening became public, MJ went to bat for me and highly recommended me. He opened the door for me for an "on the job" tryout at Mets Minicamp (held in January prior to the start of Spring Training in February). Still remembering my days as a competitive athlete, I enjoyed the feeling of being thrown into the fire and I rose to the occasion, managing to run functional testing on all 30+ guys in camp and impressed them enough that I was asked just a week before Spring Training to come on board as the team's head physical therapist...having never spent a day in the minor leagues. I essentially went from my private practice in CT/NY to the big leagues in a matter of 2 months. It was a dream come true for me and an opportunity that I will cherish and remember fondly forever. It changed my life.
Why did you leave?
Though I obviously loved the challenge of the job and the chance to work with a group of guys that are not only tremendous players on the field, but even better guys off the field...there was always an internal struggle I battled. I enjoyed the challenge of entrepreneurship and loved building my private practice but realized that I would have to leave that behind to become a member of a much larger team. Suddenly, I found myself in as big a corporate setting as you can imagine and it took a bit of adjustment for me. I also, to that point in my life, hadn't been much of a traveler. I realized that taking this job meant that not only would I be leaving the tri-state area, but I would be doing it on average every 7-10 days. My job wound up taking me to 14 cities in 81 days (some repeat stops) and essentially living out of a suitcase. It got to the point where I didn't even bother unpacking. I would just lay my suitcase down on the chair in the room, open it and basically use it as my own portable closet! In the winter prior to my 2008 season I got married and bought a house, and finally the pull of "home" and getting a chance to spend a summer day with my family and close friends, or even play a round of golf (something I hadn't been able to do in 3 years) became stronger than my desire to stay in the game and I decided to leave. Now, that said, with even just one year away from the game, I can't say that I would never go back. I miss the camaraderie and the opportunity to have an impact on 25 careers by working to keep the guys healthy and on the field where they can excel, and I can sit back and smile realizing I had a small but important part in making that happen. Who knows? You might see me back in the dugout next year...and I still might be able to stay close to home!
What is the basic premise of the Ath-LEAN X system?
The AthLEAN-X Training System was developed to give guys a chance to get the lean, strong, and athletic body that today's fittest professional athletes (like Terrell Owens, Rafael Nadal, David Wright, Jose Reyes, and David Beckham, to name a few) have without actually having to be one. Having trained many of the top pro athletes and getting these guys, who were already in seemingly good shape, get into the absolute best shape of their careers, I was convinced that I needed to make this same system available to all guys. I realized that there were plenty of them out there that wanted this look. Hell, I was one of them growing up! The big bloated look that you might find in one of MF's competitor magazines just isn't the kind of physique that I feel appeals to too many guys anymore. They want to be bigger and more muscular, sure, but they also want to look great in normal clothes and maintain a certain level of flexibility and function that seems to get compromised with lots of other training systems out there. It was also important to me to include two versions of the program (a home version and a gym version) so that everyone felt as if they could get a great workout in, with no built-in excuses....regardless of where they chose to train.
What are the most common mistakes you see guys make with their training?
They are mostly overtraining, doing too much of the wrong kind of cardio, and mistakenly following workouts that contain the same exercises, done the same way, that they've been doing for their entire lives. Muscles do in fact have memory. When you are coming back from a long layoff, this can be a good thing, since it speeds up the time that is needed to get results again that you may have lost during your down time. However, it can also be a bad thing as well. Muscles will quickly adapt to the stresses that you place on them and stop responding to them in the form of new strength and muscle growth. If you're not constantly exposing the muscles to new and unique ways, then you are basically going to stay in a rut. Constant variety also keeps workouts fun and inspiring...making it more likely that you will attack the gym and get more out of your workouts each and every time.
What are the top three ways we can prevent injuries, either on the field or in the weight room?
The best three ways to prevent injuries both on and off the field are: 1) increase awareness of overtraining and get both professional athletes and weekend warriors to realize when they are potentially entering into this danger zone. 2) Make both athletes and nonathletes realize the importance that proper hydration and nutrition have on keeping the muscles functioning at optimal levels. 3) Start incorporating single leg activities and more independent dumbbell work (where compensations are not only harder to hide, but must usually be addressed if the exercise is to be performed properly) for all upper-body exercises. The sooner we do this, the sooner we will see a significant decrease in the common muscle/joint injuries we are seeing at an alarmingly increased rate across all the major sports. I mean guys like Jose Reyes, Yao Ming, and Tom Brady...all hugely significant players to their teams, were all lost for a large part of the season this year and it had such a negative effect on their team's seasons. It is possible that by simply making some shifts in the focus of the controlled environment of the weight room we can have a significant positive outcome on the uncontrolled and seemingly unpredictable environment of competition.
I would like to show my support for my former colleagues on the training staff of the Mets who are obviously struggling pretty badly with the number of injuries this season to a number of their star players. During my three seasons there I was fortunate to be able to have the big guys like Beltran, Reyes, David, Delgado, Glavine, Wagner and Maine (to name just a few) maintain their health and stay on the field so the team could remain competitive. I know what a challenge it is during the course of an extremely long and grueling season to make sure that every guy gets the individual attention they need. Like I said, professional sports can be one of the most challenging environments you can work in, and you're seeing why this season.