"You've got to hold your body straight," barks Mark Verstegen, director of the International Performance Institute (IPI), as we launch into a warm-up for yet another workout. "If I pat the top of my head like this" -- he taps his prickly crew cut with the flat of his hand -- "that means 'Check your posture.' Think to yourself, 'I am hanging from a meat hook.' "
A meat hook is an apt image. After my three-day stay at IPI, they'll need a hook of some kind to haul me off the floor of the Dome, a 70-by-40-yard indoor playing field that's carpeted with springy, Flubber-like synthetic green turf. Here, Verstegen and his staff spend most of their time transforming genuine jocks into world-class athletes. But during IPI's off-season, he and his team take on weekend warriors like me.
At the other end of the Dome, roughly two dozen major-league baseball players, including Red Sox all-star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, are enduring spring-training prep -- the sports equivalent of the pre-SAT.
An hour from now, a group of future NFL draft picks will arrive -- fresh from Notre Dame, Texas, Nebraska, Michigan, and UCLA -- to train for the NFL Combines, in which every attribute that's possibly related to playing professional football is tested, measured, evaluated, and calibrated, and the players' fate as people who either make a lot of money (second-round pick) or a whole lot of money (first-round pick) is more or less sealed.
So why am I here? A consummate desk jockey, I'm about as far from being a professional football player as someone can be without hailing from another planet. I'm actually tagging along with a team of twentysomethings from adidas-Salomon, who come to IPI once a year to gain inspiration and to walk a mile in the shoes of the people who wear their shoes professionally. The adidas crew includes the kind of folks who pat themselves on the back for simply showing up at the gym: They are students of the "I went, therefore I worked out" school of fitness. In other words, they are a lot like me.
Verstegen doesn't care that we're not all-world. His goal for all of his clients -- rookie and pro alike -- is disarmingly simple: to build a better athlete. Verstegen doesn't do sport-specific drills: IPI features no batting practice for baseball players, nor does it offer roadwork for marathoners. What the pros who come here do, and what the people from adidas and I will do, is work on getting stronger, faster, quicker, and more agile. Our mission: to become masters of movement -- because the basic requirement of any sport is to move.
So pro baseball players at IPI perform hundreds of lunges to improve their agility and quickness -- skills that will ultimately make them better fielders. And, to get more explosive power into their running stride (the better to steal a base), they do dozens of 40-yard dashes while harnessed like big dogs to 120-pound sleds.
For amateurs who simply want to see real progress in their sport of choice, the message is this: There's physical fitness, and then there's movement fitness, in which the training regimen aims to make you run faster and jump higher -- and to give you the balance you need to land on your feet. While your current weight-and-cardio workout might make you fit, it won't make you a better weekend skier or tennis player. And that's where Verstegen can help.
The Warm-Up: Doin' the Worm
Verstegen has an undeserved reputation as being a bit of a drill sergeant. No doubt it stems in part from his neo crew cut and his freshly pressed gym clothes, which look as if they're from another era -- one that ended before the trend toward little socks and giant shorts made jocks look like circus clowns in training. While Verstegen is no brute, a casual attitude won't cut it with him.
The meat-hook minilecture kicks off a 20-minute warm-up exercise that Verstegen calls the "worm," an excruciating little tune-up that requires us to run single file around the perimeter of a tennis court. The last person in line then breaks into a sprint, snaking slalomlike between the people who are jogging ahead of her (with the exception of one lone man, all of us are women) until she reaches the front of the line. Then it's the new last-person-in-line's turn to sprint.
Verstegen leads the warm-up at such a fast clip that I'm ready to hit the Gatorade before we've even started the actual workout. It's only 8:30 a.m., and I'm already sweating from parts of my body that I didn't even know had sweat glands. Jane Fonda, wherever you are, the burn is back.
If We're Lucky, We Work Out
As we take a quick breather before launching into the full-blown workout, I ask my adidas teammates what sports they are training for. Kristin Kohler, a business-unit manager, skis and runs. Rick Woodford, a product-development manager, likes to hike, run, and snowshoe. Jaime Meredith, an assistant product-line manager who's built like a professional volleyball player, plays indoor soccer. Kim Johnson, a product tester, says she runs, snowboards, and kayaks.
Then Jaime Meredith starts to laugh: "Who are we kidding? We don't have time for sports. We work, and, if we're lucky, we work out."
And there's the rub: How can Verstegen help people like the folks from adidas -- people who, in any given month, spend more time commuting between adidas-Salomon's world headquarters in Germany and its various factories in Asia than they do commuting between home and their offices at adidas in Portland, Oregon?
But if there's one problem that Verstegen understands all too well -- in no small part because he experiences it himself -- it's the working stiff's time crunch. Today is Thursday, and he hasn't had a chance to get into the weight room all week. He's not worried, though: "Give me 25 minutes, and I'll be good for a couple of days."
Leveraging time, it turns out, is a trademark of Verstegen's -- one of the things that elevates his coaching above that of run-of-the-mill personal trainers. At IPI, every drill is designed to do double and triple duty: One exercise improves balance, endurance, and strength. Another works on flexibility, balance, and agility.
Take the "balance box squat." Balance on one leg while standing on a box. Slowly squat as if you're about to sit on a chair. Meanwhile, drop your raised leg below the edge of the box. Hold that position for several seconds. Did I mention that you're also gripping a dumbbell in each hand? Never mind that 5-pounder -- you can do 10 pounds. As you squat, do three sets of 10 curls.
In a matter of minutes, that exercise will work your glutes, quads, forearms, and biceps -- and improve your balance as well. It will also show you that by exercising the Verstegen way -- that is, with perfect form -- you can't cheat. When I tell Verstegen that at home I can lift weights for a full hour without breaking a sweat, he hoots: "You're one of those people who moans about the time it takes to exercise -- but when you get to the gym, you act like you've got all the time in the world."
Mud and a Tennis Court
IPI's campus spans 140 acres in the somnolent Florida gulf-coast town of Bradenton, where it's part of the Nick Bollettieri Sports Academy. The place resembles a Hollywood studio lot, with its agreeable sprawl of one- and two-story wooden buildings, each hugged by oleander and palmettos, and its transient population of uncannily handsome teenagers. It's not unusual to find a nearly brand-new tennis racket stuffed in a garbage can -- the result of some whiz kid's snit.
IPI itself is pretty unprepossessing. The weight room is nothing fancy, and the six trainers employed by Verstegen are humble to the point of being nearly invisible. There are no marketing campaigns for IPI. In fact, the whole operation has the aura of a well-kept secret.
The IPI story goes like this: Verstegen, a one-time linebacker at Washington State University (who went on to earn a master's degree in sport science at the University of Idaho), was given, he says, "a tennis court and a patch of mud" and told to put together a world-class sports-training facility.
IPI opened its doors in 1995. Nomar Garciaparra, who knew Verstegen from their days at Georgia Tech -- Garciaparra played ball there, and Verstegen was assistant director of player development -- came down to train. Garciaparra had abundant talent and discipline, but he was still unsung: a rail-thin kid. But the next season, after putting in six weeks with Verstegen, Garciaparra earned the title American League Rookie of the Year.
Starting with the next off-season, Garciaparra was joined by many of his Red Sox teammates for what he calls "my yearly ritual."
IPI's appeal to professional athletes and serious amateurs is clear: No one, with the possible exception of their mothers, knows the innermost details of those athletes as well as Verstegen does. "I'm the most anal-retentive individual you'll ever meet," he says. "I doubt there's any aspect of these guys' athletic needs that I haven't considered."
The day you walk in the door at IPI, you're given your own binder filled with graphs, charts, and notations outlining your personal workout regimen. You submit to physical assessments and to nutrition counseling, and then you begin the real work of building power, strength, flexibility, balance, quickness, linear speed, multidirectional footwork, and movement mechanics. Verstegen knows he'll get maximum effort from you -- because you've signed a note pledging that if you don't put out, you'll pull out.
Verstegen is so confident of his ability to make a difference that he has photos taken of all participants on both their first and their last day at IPI. His goal: to provide tangible proof of their progress.
I don't have to look far to find tangible proof of IPI's progress. After all, most participants are professional athletes -- people who live in a world where great stats translate neatly into great contracts. The evidence of such contracts is parked in a lot across from the weight room: a metallic charcoal-gray Explorer XLT; a black Mercedes ML 430; a Toyota Land Cruiser, which still has its stickers on it.
The Workout: Limbo and the Ladder
IPI's royal treatment is reserved for $1,500-a-week big leaguers and for ambitious amateurs like foreign-currency-investment giant Andrew Krieger, who visited the same week that I did. But even mere mortals get plenty of personal attention. At 8:30 a.m. on our second day, Verstegen breezes into the Dome to check on the adidas crew. Saying that he "doesn't want to kill" us, he kindly assesses our soreness from the previous day's double session.
"Between 1 and 10 -- with 10 being 'I'd rather die than stand up' -- how sore are you?" he asks. Our group average is 4. I'm about a 3 on the soreness scale and about an 11 on the fatigue scale.
Satisfied that we can withstand a lot more, Verstegen places a dozen hurdles in a row, spacing them 18 inches apart. This seemingly simple, limbo-style drill involves "walking" over one hurdle -- by raising one leg and bending it at the knee and at the hip -- and then immediately squatting under the next hurdle. The next step: Keep going over and then under, over and then under, until you've cleared the last hurdle, at which point you return to the front of the line and do a forward lunge. Then you start over again.
Like any effective torture, this drill yields useful information: Our balance deteriorates as we tire; we are remarkably tight in the hips. By the third time around, we're doing anything that we can to clear the hurdles: slumping sideways, tossing in a little hop-step -- anything.
But we women, by virtue of our physiology, have looser joints than men do. The fitter-than-your-average-manager Rick Woodford breezed through the other drills, but he's struggling through this one. His troubles worsen when Verstegen lays down the "ladder," a flexible gizmo with plastic rungs. We perform various antics between those rungs: one-legged hops, slalomlike leaps. There are dancers and ex-cheerleaders among us, and we are rocking.
Except for Woodford. Sadly, he's falling farther and farther behind -- and becoming an object lesson in Verstegen's teaching that brute strength and endurance will not, by themselves, build a better athlete. Almost anyone would consider Woodford to be in good shape. But, like many men, he lacks balance: The dude can't move.
"Great," he says, shaking his head in mock woe. "I've been shown up by a bunch of chicks."
Verstegen offers this advice: "Jump rope." Then he adds, "I've got a million routines up here" -- he points to the side of his crew cut -- "all guaranteed to create a well-rounded athlete." Part of his charisma is that he leaves no doubt that he can back up his boasts -- as long as each athlete has a goal and the determination to achieve it.
"We want only dedicated people," he says. "You know the 30 minutes that people spend on a stationary bike, watching CNN? That's rest and relaxation for my guys." And that, I realize, is the biggest takeaway from my time with Verstegen: If your workout is really going to work, you've got to put the "work" back into your workout.
Karen Karbo (email@example.com) is a contributing editor to Condé Nast's Women's Sports and Fitness.
Action Item: Stick It!
Any solid workout will produce lots of lactic acid -- the primary cause of soreness and stiffness. A massage is the best way to flush lactic acid from your muscles and to get your otherwise tired bod ready for the next go-round. What? You don't have your own professional massage therapist? The professional athletes who train at IPI do, but they still leave the institute with the Original Body Stick stashed in their duffel bags.
The Stick looks like an elegant rolling pin: It's got handles on each end and a row of white-plastic spindles that resemble those things on the ends of patio-furniture legs. The core is flexible, and it conforms to your muscles. Roll the Stick up and down your calves, hamstrings, glutes, and quads for a couple of minutes before and after a hard workout, and then it's all ahhhhhhhhh.
Coordinates: $39.95 The Original Body Stick. RPI of Atlanta, www.thestick.com
Sidebar: 30-Minute Workout
"Most people spend too much time in the weight room doing too little," says Mark Verstegen. "A workout should not take you more than 30 minutes." Here is the master's plan for putting your workout on a fast track.
Be dense: Aim for a dense, compact workout. Pair drills so that, with every exercise, you're working several skills at once -- weight training and balance in one exercise, for example, and balance and agility in another.
Be efficient: If you zip through each lift, allowing momentum to help move the weight, you'll reduce the intensity of your training. Lift at an even tempo.
Be disciplined: Keep a training log, or at least jot down your workout plan before you head to the gym. Recording your workout beforehand will discourage you from taking shortcuts and keep you from wandering aimlessly through your routine.
Sidebar: Have a Ball!
You've probably seen them sitting in a corner of your gym: those giant colorful balls that look as if they've escaped from a local preschool. Physio balls look old-fashioned, but using them requires more balance, control, and strength than you'll need on any high-tech gizmo. Which is why Mark Verstegen swears by them.
Alternate Reverse Hyperextension
How it's done: Drape yourself over the ball in a most unbecoming manner. Steady yourself by placing your forearms on the ground in front of you. Slowly lift both legs simultaneously, raising them as high as you can without losing form. Do 15 reps.
Why subject yourself to this?: It works all your lower back muscles -- a must for preventing back injury.
How it's done: Assume a push-up position, with your hands planted on the floor in front of you and your toes resting on top of the ball. Now use your abdominal muscles to roll the ball toward your arms until your knees are tucked under your chest. Do 15 reps.
Why subject yourself to this?: As you pull the ball forward, you work all of your abs; you also strengthen your arms and shoulders.
Double Crunch with Rotation
How it's done: Sit down on the ball with your feet planted firmly on the floor. Then lie back and balance your body across the ball. Clasp your hands at the base of your head, and point your right elbow at your left knee. Do 15 reps. Then do 15 reps in which you point your left elbow at your right knee.
Why subject yourself to this?: Two words: love handles.
Sidebar: If You Go?
You don't have to be the toughest kid on the block to enroll at the International Performance Institute, as long as you have a goal and the will to attain it -- along with enough time and money. IPI's Intensive Training Program spans five and a half days, from Monday through Saturday morning, and costs $1,250 per week. Figure in another $600 to $800 a week for on-campus lodging (not including meals).
On day one, you'll get a comprehensive physical evaluation. Trainers will then develop a personalized program for you that includes sport-specific movement; speed training; training in strength, flexibility, and agility; and sessions on nutrition and injury prevention. Expect two to five training sessions per day.
The closest regional airport, Sarasota/Bradenton, is 15 minutes away. The closest international hub, Tampa, is about an hour away.
Coordinates: International Performance Institute, 941-752-2570