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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Serious about the future

Matt Rodriguez        
Photo: Perfect Game

CARTERSVILLE, Ga. – Georgia is quickly building reputation for producing high-quality Major League Baseball prospects. Recognizable names like Jason Heyward of the Atlanta Braves hail from the greater Atlanta area, as well as recent first-round draft picks Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows. Following in their footsteps will be fellow Perfect Game All-Americans Michael Gettys, Michael Chavis, and Dylan Cease. Dazmon Cameron, Perfect Game’s top prospect in the 2015 high school class and son of former MLB outfielder Mike Cameron, also resides in the area.

Located just thirty miles north of the heart of Atlanta is professional performance trainer Mike Berenger’s Rapid Sports Performance facility; a diamond in the rough for those who are serious about their baseball futures.

Since 2002 when Berenger became the owner of Rapid Sports Performance in Woodstock, Ga. he’s seen his business flourish, not through publicity and paid advertising, but through word-of-mouth. Berenger’s client list started with Yankees infielder Kelly Johnson (formerly with the Braves) and has grown exponentially to where he and his team are now working with around 150 ballplayers in the offseason. His athletes vary in experience, from veterans Jeremy Hermida and Matt Capps, to first-year MLB prospects and former Perfect Game All-Americans Josh Hart and Travis Demeritte. He works with projected first-round players Dylan Cease and Michael Chavis, who attend high schools in the area, as well as Dazmon Cameron.

Berenger credits a lot of Rapid’s success to fellow trainer Matt McDuffie who has been with the business for about four years. McDuffie is an integral part of Rapid, responsible for educating new hires and interns, as well as training the top-level players. 

McDuffie and Berenger do not run a conventional gym littered with athletes sitting in machines you find at the local fitness franchise and cranking out reps to “feel that pump,” but rather a facility with state-of-the-art equipment and unique exercises that will draw any outsider’s curiosity.

“There’s definitely a demand for better training out there and that’s what we strive to do here is always try to be cutting edge and try to learn the best methods for training athletes, in particular baseball players,” Berenger said.

Berenger has educated himself on training baseball players in particular so that they have the best chance possible of withstanding the marathon 162-game season while maximizing their on-field performance. He knows how to structure different workouts for each individual based on that individual’s needs and how that person moves.

“Mike really takes pride in what he does and formulates a plan for each individual person and really cares about each specific person’s needs and the way their body works,” Hermida said.

Injury prevention is key for any athlete whose sport takes such a toll on the body, so before Berenger lets any of his players lift, he puts them through what’s called a Functional Movement Screen.

The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) identifies asymmetries and movement impairments that can potentially lead to injury. Once they’ve identified those movement impairments they clean up those issues before diving into a full-blown strength program.

“We’re really big on making sure that a player moves really well so that we could put strength and power on top of that, rather than someone coming in and not getting assessed and increasing the likelihood of injury,” explained Berenger. “It’s like getting a car aligned first before putting a bigger horsepower engine in it to make it faster.  If the car can go faster without the proper alignment, it’s just a matter of time before that wear and tear catches up.”

“If joints are not at an optimal range of motion, the body will either try and find that range of motion somewhere else in the kinetic chain or will compensate by working harder,” Berenger said. “That’s where you’ll eventually start to break down. We’re always looking at the big picture. If you’re a baseball player, we’re always gonna look at having sufficient stability or mobility from the ankles all the way up through the shoulders.”

Myles Smith, half kneeling chop.

Once Berenger and his trainers analyze an athlete’s movements through the FMS, they will put together exercises and lifts tailored to that specific player to help with their particular movement deficiencies. While he says about 85-percent of the workouts are similar among all players, there are differences between what the pitchers will do as opposed to the position players. For pitchers, the other 15-percent will be more rotator cuff work and shoulder stability exercises.

“With Myles (Smith) for example, his lumbar spine has an excessive arch which can add additional stress on his hamstrings and lower back. Our goal is to get his lumbar spine to a neutral position so optimal movement above and below is possible,” said Berenger. “Our exercises are going to focus around bringing his posture back into a neutral position so he gains stability and mobility in the right areas to help increase performance and decrease particular injuries down the road.”

Berenger and his trainers use very unique equipment that can’t be found at any conventional gym and the exercises they teach are very detailed and focused on a baseball player’s game.

He explains the exercises and their purpose below:

Myles Smith (Boston Red Sox) performing a Half Kneeling Chop: “Core stability is key for all baseball players. Training the deep core muscles that stabilize the spine and pelvis will not only generate a powerful swing or throw, but will help decrease the risk for injury. All the crunches in the world will not help a player rotate explosively. Flexing the spine not only is a waste of time for baseball players, but it could contribute to tight hip flexors depending on how they are done. You train the core from the inside out. Players need to stay away from training in isolation to “feel the burn” and do exercises, like a half kneeling chop, that require the activation of numerous stabilizing muscles.”

Terry McClure, resisted sled run.

Myles Smith and Spencer Kieboom (Washington Nationals) using the Vertimax: “We use the vertimax to develop triple extension power. Triple extension power is very critical for acceleration. In baseball it’s about guys getting out of the batter’s box and accelerating effectively over those first two or three steps when stealing a base or going after a ball. To be explosive, you need to have a powerful triple extension.  Most training facilities use an Olympic lift, like a power clean, to work on triple extension power.  At Rapid, we find that using the Vertimax with proper jump & landing mechanics, proves to be a safer and more effective solution to increase overall leg power.  As a result we see an increase in a guy’s vertical, and when you increase a vertical jump, you increase first step quickness. The Vertimax is always a big part of our jump training.

Terry McClure (Colorado Rockies) performing Resisted Sled Runs:  “During the latter part of Rapid’s strength phase and throughout all of the power phase, we implement resisted sled runs for speed development.   With baseball being a game of acceleration we work hard at transferring leg strength & power gains to acceleration mechanics.   Proper arm and leg action combined with a good lean will yield the best results for covering ground effectively.  On average, most of our athlete’s notice gains of 2 to 3 tenths of a second on sprint times."

Following the sled runs, the guys did some full speed sprints. Pictured at the top of this feature is Orioles’ first round compensation pick of last year’s draft, Josh Hart. Hart’s game is all about speed.

Charlie Blackmon (Colorado Rockies) doing a Box Squat:  “This exercise is used to take momentum out of the squat.  Sitting and pausing on the box and exploding out of the bottom position is an effective way for developing an explosive first-step.  The chains used here is a great way of loading an athlete heavier in the standing position (where he is strongest) while unloading weight during the decent allowing the player to explode up with speed.”

Charlie Blackmon, box squat.

Jeremy Hermida (Milwaukee Brewers) performing a Trap Bar Deadlift:  “This is by far one of the most effective lifts we do.   We utilize the trap bar to enable the player to pull the load along the centerline of the body, keeping their shoulders in an optimum position.   With hips and back in a neutral position, knees out and weight distributed towards the back of the foot, there is no better exercise to develop strong powerful hips.  Being in the power phase, we are using the tendo to measure bar speed.   The tendo enables us to accurately identify if the player is moving the weight with sufficient speed or not.   This accuracy ensures we are using the correct loads during the given timeframe in our training program.”

“Working out here is a little bit different than your conventional weightlifting cause we do a lot more explosive movements,” explained Blackmon, “a lot more acceleration-oriented in which you coordinate your entire kinetic chain from the ground all the way up to your hands.”

Rapid Sports Performance is where Blackmon has been working out for the past three years, coming in at least three times a week during the offseason. This offseason he started bringing teammate D.J. LeMahieu with him to workout. LeMahieu has bought in to what Berenger does and why Blackmon has been coming to Berenger for so long.

“I’ve never been somewhere to workout where there’s been so much hands-on interaction between a trainer and a lifter. All these lifts are very high-skilled lifts. There’s a right way to do them and a wrong way to do them and I think that’s what makes the workout so unique. There’s a lot of emphasis on posture and as a result you are always engaging what seems to be every muscle in your body to help stabilize or move,” Blackmon said.

Jeremy Hermida, trap bar deadlift.

“Everybody has strengths and weaknesses and Mike does a good job understanding everybody’s body. When he looks at me he’s gonna key on certain movements and weaknesses and help me correct those, which would be different than if he looked at somebody else.”

Berenger takes pride on his knowledge and abilities as a trainer and makes sure every player gets the attention they need. Educating players on how to stay healthy and on the field is as important to the guys at Rapid Sports Performance as the strength building part of training.

“He definitely has a passion for it and you can see it,” said Hermida, “it’s fun to work with him and it’s fun to pick his brain and find out how you can become a better athlete by using his tools and what he can offer you.

“It’s about my fourth or fifth offseason here now and it’s definitely changed my career as far as how I feel on the field and going into Spring Training.”

Berenger and his trainers are guys that the players really trust to put them in better shape and get them ready to go for the demanding professional baseball season. He models himself after some of the best in the business and is always looking to further educate himself on how he can become even better. His players see that and trust they are in good hands.

“We’re getting higher quality guys in the door everyday and word is spreading. We have a great team that’s doing all the right things and our training is, without a doubt, ahead of the curve,” said Berenger.

As Georgia continues to grow as a premier state for producing top baseball prospects, Berenger and his team are optimistic about the future of Rapid Sports Performance and their ability to have a major impact in player development and injury prevention.

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