Welcome to Your Future, Sissy Boy

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Fitness special, August 1998

Welcome to Your Future, Sissy Boy

You fancy yourself an athlete? Well, so did the NBA All-Star, and the American League Rookie of the Year. But hard-guy trainer Mark Verstegen broke them down. And then he remade them: bigger, faster, better. Here's how he'll do the same for you.
By Andrew Tilin

"You guys are moving like a bunch of 10-year-old girls," Mark Verstegen bellows to the assembled, his voice rebounding off the retracted bleachers of an empty gym. "Pretty soon I'm going to have to kick some ass!"

Verstegen is poised with his knees slightly bent and torso upright, well forward on his feet, like a cat keenly aware of the presence of an unseen rodent. Rivulets of sweat begin to drip from beneath his imposing flat-top. "We need to work on your first-step quickness," says the 6-foot, 200-pound drill sergeant, commanding complete attention from the trio of NBA hopefuls before him. As well he should: Verstegen, 29 and a former linebacker at Washington State University, is now a leading sports scientist and the director of the International Performance Institute, a training center on the Gulf Coast of Florida that's quickly gaining renown for its ability to work physiological miracles with the country's best amateur and professional athletes. He turns soft guys into hard guys, and hard guys into harder guys.

Enrolling at Hardbody U.

Want to feel the pain for yourself? IPI is happy to oblige — even if you're not starting out as the toughest kid on your block. "We work with anyone who has a goal, even if it's just to attain supreme physical fitness," says director Mark Verstegen. "Whatever the sport, we tailor the workouts to that sport's demands." How bionic can you become? That depends, naturally, on the time and money you're willing to spend.

A one-week, $400 program at IPI begins with a fitness assessment that tests such attributes as agility, speed, power, strength, and flexibility. You'll then work with Verstegen or one of his crew for an hour each morning and afternoon, and follow a written routine with other students for three additional hours. For $1,250, meanwhile, you get the same attention lavished on NBA hopeful Lee Nailon: a personalized regimen designed to make you better at your native sport. It includes from two to five training sessions a day, covering all the usual IPI bases and nutrition as well. And sometimes you'll even get a little extra: "I won't hesitate to pull you out of your room at 9:30 at night," says Verstegen, "if I think you need a pool workout." Finally, all athletes depart IPI with a customized plan they can use at home and encouragement to call in as needed for further consultation with the staff — the last thing Verstegen wants, after all, is for you to stray from his program.

The closest regional airport is Sarasota/Bradenton, 15 minutes away, while the closest international hub is in Tampa, about 48 miles to the north. On-campus lodging ranges from $550 a week for a two-bed, hotel-style room to $1,550 for a three-bedroom suite. All accommodations have kitchens, but cafeteria meals are also included. For more information, call 800-872-6425.

"Now let's see if we can grasp this exercise," Verstegen says gently, becoming the Simone to his earlier Sipowicz in a one-man good cop/bad cop routine. "Stay up on your feet and keep your posture." Then he demonstrates, exploding forward in a blur, resetting, and then moving backward with equal speed.

Among those watching is Lee Nailon, a sinewy 6-foot-7, 230-pound junior from Texas Christian University with an illuminating Magic Johnson grin and the hope that someday he'll "drive a big Suburban" down the streets of his hometown in Indiana. Growing up he was called Little Spruce, but actually, he's more of a giant sequoia, the kind of guy you'd grab as first pick when the beach volleyball game starts up. Nailon has been touted as a potential star power forward, a bruiser who'll be able to bang bodies with the likes of Karl Malone. Verstegen halts abruptly and nods at Nailon and company. "Now you try." Size 14 and 15 high-tops thud loudly against the floor, their owners jerking about in a none-too-successful attempt at mimicking Verstegen's graceful strides.

"Stop!" the coach calls out. "Lee, you have to get up on your toes," he says, grasping the shambling 23-year-old by his shoulders. The fact that Nailon was the third-leading scorer in the NCAA last season, and that he's on the verge of a multimillion-dollar pro career, impresses Verstegen not one whit. This is, after all, a man who views the human body as so much machinery and is bent on building the perfect prototype. Verstegen's previous work as the player development director at Georgia Tech University, where he placed three players in the top 20 of the 1994 Major League Baseball draft, turned more than a few heads in the elite training community. When the call came to start his own shop, the Seattle-area native couldn't refuse. "Transcend the old movements, Lee!" he barks. "Transcend the movements!"

IPI is set amid 140 palm-tree-flecked acres on the grounds of the Nick Bollettieri Sports Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Its mission is starkly simple: To help its clients make quantum leaps in athleticism in a very short period of time. "With enough desire, we've proven that what supposedly can't happen can," says Verstegen, loosing a line of rhetoric to make even Vince Lombardi flinch. And to ensure requisite desire, each IPI plebe inks a contract promising "maximal effort."

With that pledge — and a check for $1,250 a week — in hand, Verstegen and his four assistants say they can show you how to take yourself from reasonably fit Joe to bona fide jock. That is, so long as you're not too shy to sweat next to some of the world's most accomplished athletes. Take, for instance, Nomar Garciaparra, last season's American League rookie of the year. The shortstop came to IPI three years ago "unspectacular and with the legs of a bird," says Verstegen, but after three months of toil emerged faster, more agile, and toting an additional 15 pounds of muscle mass. Or Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers' 19-year-old dunk machine, who after a mediocre first season in the pros showed up at IPI's doorstep last summer for a ten-day tune-up-and seven months later was named to the Western Conference squad for the 1998 NBA All-Star Game. Then there's Kyle Turley, a rookie offensive tackle for the New Orleans Saints, to whom Verstegen's approach has meant millions. Turley put in seven weeks at IPI before attending the NFL's pre-draft scouting combine. The results? Weight: upfrom 299 to 309. Vertical leap: up from 28 inches to 32. Forty-yard dash: down from 5.27 seconds to 4.97. And finally, draft pick: up from a projected 17th to seventh overall.

"And what we do isn't limited to those three sports," Verstegen points out. "If we can prepare an athlete to do something properly once, we can condition him to do it 4,000 times, whether it's rushing the quarterback or running world-class miles." That's because IPI focuses on the raw fundamentals of the game, whatever that game may be: movement, strength, and their platonic blend, athleticism. Those ingredients, says Verstegen, are what unites a football player with a mountain biker and a baseball player with a kayaker.

So how long does it take to make you the quickest, toughest, hardest athlete you can be? If you're starting in reasonably good shape, Verstegen says he can show you dramatic improvements in only four weeks. And if that's too long a commitment, he claims he can still buff up your game in as little as 14 days — which, not so coincidentally, is exactly the amount of time Nailon has left to prepare for his pre-draft audition before NBA scouts in Chicago. "We can compress two months' work into two weeks," Verstegen says. "As long as you're ready, we're ready."

Though it may seem so obvious as to hardly be worth mentioning, how your body moves is the primary key to attaining godlike sporting status, whether you're scrambling up a rock face, negotiating dicey single track, or running a root-strewn trail. Central to this are three basic athletic Legos that, in concert, determine how well you move — balance, quickness, and agility. And if Mark Verstegen is to be believed, most folks on this planet grade out in these areas as follows: F, F, and F. "We have to take a lot of people back to rudimentary movement," explains Verstegen. "We have to establish new habits."

Indeed, the folks at IPI place such emphasis on this facet of training that they start the clients off each day with a full hour of movement work. (Verstegen himself rises before 6 A.M. to take a 90-minute dose of his own intense medicine.) The sessions, typically held on the playing field of IPI's cavernous, million-dollar dome, are so grueling that the athletes must first complete a half-hour warm-up. They start with the same ten minutes of light aerobic exercise that you would ahem-always do before any workout to get your blood flowing. But the similarities end there. The remaining 20 minutesof IPI's warm-up is any normal man's workout, consisting of both "mobility" and "dynamic flexibility" drills.

Mobility exercises are designed to elevate an athlete's core temperature to get blood flowing even more liberally, which improves range of motion. One of Verstegen's favorites, as Nailon is discovering this morning, is the Inchworm: Nailon is in a sort of Superman pose, holding his weight off the floor on his palms and curled-under toes. Then, as the name would imply, he slowly inches his feet forward, folding at the waist but keeping his legs and torso straight, until he reaches what is essentially the ultimate masochist's toe-touch, hamstrings and glutes taut as tightropes. Then he walks his hands out and starts again.

Dynamic flexibility work is yet a tougher brand of stretching. The routines throw the nervous system into gear, awakening the body's proprioceptors and motor units to improve balance and coordination. Verstegen demonstrates, joining his students for a set of seated arms runs — which basically entail sitting on the floor and furiously pumping arms back and forth like a sprinter, or a three-year-old in full tantrum bloom. "I never did anything like this at TCU," grunts Nailon. "This is hard."

Next, for the morning's main event, Verstegen starts with that most essential of athletic building blocks: the running stride. Of course, nobody has a proper one. "What we've been taught about sprinting is how fast we should bring our feet up. But how far do you go by raising a foot? Nowhere. To go faster, put your energy into going down. Concentrate on pushing off." The secret is to utilize the foot's dorsiflexor muscles, which cock the toes toward the shin, allowing you to land on the balls of your feet and then immediately push off. "Always sprint 'toe-up,'" Darryl Eto, IPI's assistant director, tells Nailon. "If you really want to make the change, you've got to perform hundreds of repetitions. Hundreds of perfect repetitions."

IPI might seem to go a bit overboard — OK, way overboard — on legwork, but Verstegen is quick to mention that the upper body isn't just along for the ride. "Your arms must be driving," he says. "And the head, hips, and ankles need to be oriented in a line so that you have a summation of forces." He's talking, to put it in layman's terms, about standing up straight. "A sprinter's body is like a snapping towel," he explains. "It has to be aligned so that the power created at the torso results in a 'pop' at the feet."

Great. So now that the class knows how to move in a straight line, it can take five, right? Think again. As fate would have it, linear development — Verstegen speak for running technique — also applies to lateral challenges. "You need the same approach whether you're sprinting, playing basketball, or tossing around a Frisbee," he says. "Your world is 360 degrees; it's chaos." To manage it, Verstegen points to that universal catlike stance he so ably showed Nailon et al back at the gym.

Ever the willing guinea pig, Nailon assumes the pose for a battery of drills that encompasses all of these tenets. "Cheeks tight! Be nice and tall!" yells Verstegen, standing cross-armed before the group. Nailon, a bit timid, starts in, but his motions are staccato. Verstegen assesses: "Effort, good; execution, horseshit. In the pros, you take slow steps like that and everyone's past you."

Harsh words perhaps, but as the butt of Verstegen's over-the-top diatribes, the TCU player is in mighty fine company. After all, to the coach's way of thinking, even the Lakers' Bryant could use more polish. When his three students make a beeline for the Jacuzzi, Verstegen steals a moment in IPI's "War Room" — the cramped, windowless office where all pre-session planning and post-session analysis takes place — to dissect the Lakers guard's form. The coach fishes out a video of Bryant and throws it into the VCR; the tape shows him performing a "random agility test." He knocks down cones set at the corners of a five-foot-square as fast as he can, returning to the center and getting back into the stance before accelerating to the next. It's a difficult test, and at times, Verstegen unabashedly volunteers, Bryant's back rounds out a little and his feet fall flat. And this from an established pro. "Lee can be a great player. He's got all the ability in the world," says Verstegen, who himself displayed professional-athlete promise before suffering a career-ending arm injury during his sophomore year. "But just like the rest of us, he has to understand that effective movements can be physically developed — with time and effort."

"Ooommmfff," comes the groan from the mirrored IPI weight room, a cluttered, fluorescent space bursting with color-coded dumbbells, Brobdingnagian squat racks, and a pair of wall-mounted TVs pumping out music videos. Nailon, his triceps shining with sweat and his sliver of a mustache quivering, strains to pushtwo 65-pound dumbbellsoverhead. Verstegen and Eto stand behind the incline bench, spotting individual faltering arms. Nailon manages an eighth repetition and then, with no rest, is prodded to grab the 60-pound weights and eke out yet more. Nailon is "running the rack," performing as many reps as possible with one pair of dumbbells, then doing the same with the next-lightest pair, and so on. "We're forcing muscle adaptation," explains Eto, every bit the hardass that his boss is. "This isn't a needlepoint session."

Despite reams of accepted wisdom to the contrary, Verstegen claims that all athletes would do well to adopt IPI's strength-training method — or at least its theory — regardless of their preferred pursuits. "You're not just lifting for added size," he maintains. "You want increased power output for both endurance and explosive sports, core strength so you have better posture, and joint stability to reduce injury."

The theory holds that if you overburden your muscle fibers, one of two positive things — or a concert of both — will occur. The first is "recruitment," in which the body's motor units (thousands of nerves running through your lean muscle mass) serve as physiological pagers, calling extra muscle fiber into action to help with the task at hand. The second result is that your muscles will incur "microtears," which cause soreness and trigger the production of protein to build thicker and more resilient fibers — otherwise known as hypertrophy.

IPI's workout, characteristically unrelenting, encourages both. Morning sessions consist of low-rep, high-weight "maximal strength" workouts that recruit additional fast-twitch fibers and build power. Afternoon stints are devoted to higher-rep work for hypertrophy, which also boosts muscle endurance. And occasionally, when Verstegen gets a wild hare, he may toss in an exercise that melds the two methods at once.

Saints rookie Turley was handed just such a heinous chore toward the end of his stay, when he was asked to run a series of 40-yard sprints. The catch? Tethered to his waist was a 120-pound steel sled, the idea being to employ muscle recruitment to the nth degree. "Oh, it made me sore," says Turley, who ended up being the fastest offensive lineman at this year's NFL combine. "But when that sled comes off, you've been delivered. You're flying."

Where does the development of such brute strength leave the distance-minded cyclist, paddler, or backpacker? "Inspired, I hope," Verstegen answers, adding that endurance athletes need more than some wimpy twice-weekly, high-rep, low-weight plan. "If you have to repeatedly paddle upstream in a canoe or climb a number of steep ascents with a heavy pack, you'll need bursts of power as well as endurance," says Verstegen, who recommends visits to the weight room at least three times a week. "And you want to include maximal-strength work because, done right, it increases your output without compromising your stamina. It's like dropping a bigger engine into your body."

All that added horsepower requires a stronger transmission — meaning the torso. So IPI's strength-training regimen also has athletes doing crunches and hip extensions on a Physio Ball, essentially a giant, industrial-strength rubber orb (available at many large gyms, as well as from Sissle, 888-474-7735, for $42) that works primary muscles as well as the small, stabilizing variety. When he arrived, Nailon tried to do modified sit-ups on the ball but kept listing to the sidelike a soon-to-be-handcuffed motorist performing a field sobriety test. No surprise to Verstegen. "The guy's got nothing to him. Zero rigidity," he'd muttered in the cafeteria soon after Nailon arrived, looking hard into his Palm Pilot — Verstegen's closest confidant and the guardian of untold combinations and permutations of labyrinthine workout plans — for an answer he knew wasn't there. But now, after eight days of plugging away, Nailon stays perfectly poised on the big blue sphere, pumping out15crunches while holding a 45-pound weight. "My stomach was shaking like crazy when I first did these," says Nailon, bobbing confidently on the ball between sets. "I still feel a burn, but it's a lot easier now."

Suchimprovement is owed to the stepped-up routine that Verstegen designed for Nailon: a brutal, four-day-a-week lifting regimen in which separate sessions are devoted to the legs and the upper body. "Lee is just finding out what he's made of," Verstegen says, going on to explain that athletes who don't lift weights regularly simply haven't begun to tap their nervous system's potential for recruitment."For the first five weeks you lift, the overwhelming reason you're improving is because of the increased work of the motor units," says Verstegen. "Most people don't know how strong they really are."

Indeed, at first Nailon was capable of bench-pressing 225 pounds just 11 times; four days later he was able to lift the same barbell 50 times. Similarly, his maximum in the squat has progressed from 225 pounds to 520. And the results will be even more astounding if Verstegen's entire plan succeeds: Employing a theory known as supercompensation, Nailon's two intense weeks at IPI will be followed with the same amount of relative rest. The result should be a rebound effect in which the lag spursthe muscles to steel themselves for another expected barrage — which means Nailon should peak just in time for the predraft camp. "Lee will get there and go to the hoop with a serious 'whooomp!'" assures Verstegen. "He won't even know where the strength is coming from."

Stronger? Yup. Faster? Check. More agile? You bet. Done? Uh ... nope. Certainly the tools are in place, but to transform from bulked-up wannabe with a few quick moves to the guy who makes the fans stand up and cheer, you must first endure a phase called integration, which attempts to take your more impressive 40-yard-dash and bench-press tallies and imprint them on real-world challenges: the long-armed defender in your face, the log threatening to send you over the handlebars, the unseen hole in the midst of the Class IV torrent. "Say you're an aspiring volleyball player," Verstegen explains. "Added strength and improved form may better your game in countless ways, but they aren't going to make you more proficient at spiking the ball. Something's still missing."

In Nailon's case, IPI attempts to bridge this gap by feeding him one basketball after another for 13-foot pull-up jumpers. The player who lit up Mississippi Valley State for 53 points last season is only canning about half of these shots, but that's not bad, given his circumstances: Nailon is tethered to Verstegen, apparently to show the burly forward what it's like to cut across the key with a reluctant Siamese twin. "Lee's learning to gather power," explains Verstegen, "so that without the harness he can elude a defender with an explosive move."

Similarly, Verstegen says that any athlete can polish his skills by practicing sport-specific tasks. A soccer player might try shooting while harnessed to a length of surgical tubing that's anchored to the ground. A surfer could hone his on-wave skills by catching tennis balls while teetering on a balance board. Even runners can employ the technique. "You want to run faster? Stride at the higher speed, even if you can only hold it for a few hundred meters at first," Verstegen says. "A runner churning out seven-minute miles will never know how quickly his arms and legs have to move to run a six-minute mile. You can't practice by running slow."

Nobody embodies the IPI ideal of integration better than Garciaparra of the Red Sox, who's done time at IPI for a cumulative six months over three years. Watching him perform a fielding drill on video, it's easy to see why the shortstop has garnered the nickname Spider-Man. He picks up a rapid stream of tennis-ball grounders and then fires them toward whichever base Verstegen calls out — a task made more difficult by the anchored surgical tubing attached to each of his hips. The farther away the ball, the more strength he has to gather, and the more precise his movements must be. "All this stuff that Lee's been working on is thoroughly programmed into Nomar," explains Verstegen, plucking items from the War Room fridge to fix his favorite protein — and carbo-rich snack: tuna topped with raspberry jam, eaten straight from the can. "He could make acrobatic plays all game long."

That's because Garciaparra possesses not only refined athleticism, but also muscle endurance — the final part of the curriculum at IPI. "But our endurance work isn't the usual low-level aerobic training, which encourages poor technique," Verstegen proclaims, not so subtly dissing legions of willowy distance junkies. "Endurance should be about conditioning an athlete to keep going at high intensity while maintaining the same high level of skill."

One of Verstegen's favorite tools for enhancing this capacity is a painful—all right, sadistic—training method called energy systems development. ESD is essentially full-bore circuit training in which athletes face a Versaclimber, a slide board for doing lunges, a mat for quick-footwork drills, and an 8.8-pound medicine ball that one holds overhead while performing sit-ups, hurling it against a vertical-standing trampoline and then catching it at the top of each repetition. The idea is to hit every station full tilt for 12 seconds, with 24 seconds of rest between stations and five minutes of rest after each of four sets. In 23 minutes the muscles learn a lot about how to buffer themselves against lactic acid. And though Verstegen says this exact routine should only be attempted by those in superhuman condition, you can modify ESD training for your own needs, reducing it to three sets and two or three stations that best mimic the moves you need for your favored sport.

Nailon, as it turns out, is cutting this last piece of the puzzle even shorter: Running out of time and already bone-tired, he's passing on ESD work altogether. Still, he's mighty pleased with the progress he's made in his 14-day stint. "They changed my body, so I'm ready for the scouting camp," Nailon says. "You think you already know everything when you get here, but you find out you don't."

Coach Verstegen, on the other hand, feels that he merely scratched the surface of Nailon's potential. "We did a good job with Lee, but we could've done better," he mumbles, distracted for a brief moment by a list of Physio Ball exercises on his desk. Just as quickly, though, his attention returns. He looks straight ahead, his steel-blue eyes attempting to convey the urgency of his message. "So many things always get left untapped." Then he picks up his Palm Pilot and hurries out the door, headed for the dome.

Andrew Tilin covered the fitness beat as a former senior editor of Outside.

Photos by Craig Cameron Olsen

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