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OAKLAND A'S: It's a Whole New Ballgame
Oakland A’s strength coach Bob Alejo is breaking
By Laura Dayton and Kim Goss
Published: Fall 1998

When Bob Alejo landed a job as a strength coach for UCLA in 1984, he was on top of the world. A former Olympic weightlifter and collegiate baseball player, Alejo figured this chance to coach at one of the top U.S. schools had make his life as good as it gets. But years later, when the chance arose to switch to a winning professional ball team, there was no looking back or second thoughts. He grabbed the ball and ran, so to speak.

It was 1993 and the Oakland Athletics were bashing themselves into the home run record books and leading the pennant races. Different from other baseball teams, the A’s were proud of the fact that pound for pound they had the beefiest players in the majors; and they made no bones about the fact that weightlifting was as much a part of their training protocols as it was for their neighboring football favorites, the San Francisco 49ers. Alejo saw not only the opportunity to move into the pro arena with a crack at—dare he dream it?—the World Series, but also a chance to raise awareness of the importance of strength training in the game of baseball.

“Had it been any other team,” says Alejo, “I probably wouldn’t have made the switch. As you know, baseball is behind in its approach to physical training. Everyone knows that football and weights go hand in hand, but baseball has never really embraced weight training. I knew, as an ex-player myself, that there are a lot of positive things that can be done and I knew if given the opportunity, I could prove it.”

Alejo also recognized the rare opportunity that had been given him: a real chance to change the way everyone perceived baseball conditioning.

“The Athletics were unique in that they already had a history and tradition of weight training when I arrived. The guy who had spearheaded it was Dave McKay, their first base coach, who was also a former player. As a big leaguer, he knew weight training had helped him in his career. He became one of the first strength coaches in baseball. The A’s general manager was already sold on strength training; he just wanted an expert on the subject to fine-tune the program, and that’s where I stepped into the picture.”

The “picture” in 1993 was still looking pretty rosy for the A’s. However, in 1998 Alejo has a brand-new team to work with. Sure, slugger Jose Canseco is back where he started, and base-stealer Rickey Henderson has also returned to the fold, but in essence the team is starting over.

About the upcoming season, Alejo says the A’s are looking to build a good solid base and do what other teams have done in the past: start at the bottom and build up. “Morale now isn’t any different from any other season starting out—we’re eager to go out and compete against other teams and see how good we are. I don’t think anybody is assuming we’re going to be a poor baseball team—to the contrary, everybody is prepared to work hard and play hard, and they expect to win.”

The base the A’s build this year starts with Alejo’s program. “One of the biggest mistakes any coach makes is to look at someone else’s winning program and say, ‘Let’s do it because they’re winning.’ This type of reasoning is ludicrous,” says Alejo. “We have a young, developing team. We’re going back to the basics, getting baseline data and aggressively charting our progress.”

The Athletics’ off-season training runs from November 1 to February 15. The athletes’ programs vary according to specific needs, and weight training sessions may last anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a half. Plyos, sprint training, agility drills and nutrition are also addressed. In-season training offers three training periods to choose from: morning, afternoon and evening. Usually only the players who know they are not playing that day will train right before a game; however, it’s not uncommon for players to train immediately after a game.

The Pro Challenge

Alejo stresses that training at the pro level is very different than college ball. “In college you’re accountable for your guys lifting or not lifting,” he says. “In the pros, the players are accountable for themselves—it affects their paycheck directly. But that doesn’t mean you’re baby-sitting or telling the guys, ‘Come on, come on. You have to work out, please,’ at least not in our organization. We believe in letting them sink or swim, and it works out pretty well. Everyone is treated like an adult, like a pro.”

The Athletics’ weight room is a serious place to train, but also a good place. “Let’s face it,” says Alejo, “the last couple of years we haven’t been as good as we’d like, and there were a lot of reasons for the guys not to come and work out.” To keep the weight room user-friendly, Alejo keeps the music going and all the TV'S tuned to the various games going on across the country. This promotes a good attitude, even when the team is lifting with the team they’re currently playing, a situation not uncommon during the season.

Alejo emphasizes the importance of experience if you want to succeed at coaching a pro team. He says first and foremost a coach must have been exposed to various sources of training. In his opinion, the best background to come from is college coaching. Second, he feels you must be proficient in sports medicine. “You don’t need to know everything a physical therapist or doctor knows, but you better be fluent in your ability to talk with them,” says Alejo. “You need to be privy to enough information that you can deal with these health professionals on a one-on-one basis, because injury prevention and recovery is so important at this level.

“Third, you must be prepared to work with different personalities. At the college level, you can pretty much make your athletes do what you want them to do. At the pro level you can’t because what they’re doing is going to have a direct result on their paycheck. You have to remember this is their profession, so you have to be flexible. You need to compromise.”
Compromise, Alejo points out, must be made because it’s the best course of action, and this is where experience counts. “Earlier in my career I may not have been quite so apt to question someone’s opinion or theory on conditioning,” he says. “Now that I’m older I’ve got no problem telling someone what I know and where I stand compared to what they know. I believe that’s a problem with new coaches. Until you have stability in the profession and considerable knowledge gained by experience, it’s tough to tell someone, no, that’s not right.”

Alejo’s influence extends beyond the A’s playing field, another indication of his success at this level. Most pro athletes, especially some of the bigger name players on the A’s, have a respectable knowledge and interest in conditioning. Slugger Canseco even has his own book on weight training for baseball. Therefore, developing a rapport with his athletes is essential for Alejo in guiding and integrating the training the players do on their own into the overall conditioning levels dictated by the team and the game.

“I know these guys and have been around them long enough that if they want to go off on their own and try something, they know to come to me to have a look at it first,” says Alejo, who often encourages players to branch out on their own during the winter—with his approval, that is. “When I design a program, we sit down together and go over what makes them tick, what can make them better ball players. Their input is just as important, as far as I’m concerned, as my knowledge and experience. There’s got to be mutual respect.”

Alejo’s Challenge

Alejo is as much involved in coaching his team to a great season as he is in continuing his personal quest to integrate solid weight training programs into the off and in-season training for every baseball team, at every level. He and the A’s have already accomplished much to that end in the five years he’s been with the team. One of the problems he still encounters is a resistance to some weight training exercises because of injuries.

“I don’t think there has ever been a proper weight training program that has ever hurt a baseball player—never in the history of the sport,” he says. “What has hurt baseball players is an improper weightlifting program, either in implementation or design.”

An injury hits the athlete in the pocketbook, and in the pros today, that’s a mighty deep pocket. As such, Alejo says his main focus as a strength coach is on reducing the risk, incidence and severity of injuries. “After that, we work on enhancing all the other qualities—speed and power are just the icing on the cake. I think our strength right now is that we have a comprehensive program that includes nutrition, weight training and plyometrics. The sum of that program translates to our biggest strength, which is our injury data.”

Alejo applauds the team management for their support and encouragement to continue a steady and aggressive weight training program, but acknowledges that one of his toughest battles in the early days was to get management and the players to accept some specific aspects of his conditioning program, especially plyometrics.

“Plyos are done on our sprint days, but in the pre-season we can’t do much of that with balls flying all over the place,” says Alejo, who admits that he misses the convenience of large college weightrooms that have areas set aside for plyometrics and agility drills. “We incorporate agility drills into our interval conditioning. For example, we might field a certain number of ground balls in sets of ten, with so much rest in between, and our outfielders catch balls repetitiously, also with a certain rest period assigned.”

Inside the A’s Weight Room

In addition to injury control, a proper conditioning program can also keep a team from suffering a mid-season slump. “There’s no question that fatigue is a major factor for a July, August or September slump,” says Alejo. “This is why the total fitness of the baseball athlete is so important.”

The way Alejo trains each player differs in terms of injury limitations, age, position and their role. For instance, a program for a bench player would be substantially different from that for a full-time player. The primary purpose of weight training in baseball, according to Alejo, is development of the trunk—both front and back. “In baseball we’re twisting all the time, either swinging, throwing, or fielding. We are always going from left to right or right to left in a rotational manner, and always from a different angle: standing, squatting or bending at the waist. Conditioning of the trunk is our highest priority.”

Next on the list of priorities are the glutes and hamstrings, third are the quads to deliver the force of the legs up to the trunk, fourth are the forearms and hands for gripping strength. Then in descending order of importance are the upper back, chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps, gastrocnemius and soleus.

Shoulder injuries are inherently problematic in baseball, and Alejo believes much of the trouble arises from weak trunk and leg muscles. “When these areas are under conditioned, the stress goes to the shoulders. Any pitcher will tell you when you’re getting tired, the stress hits the arms and shoulders because the legs can’t take it anymore.”

Weighted rotational movements are placed high in Alejo’s repertoire of lifts. For the lower back, hyperextensions, and hyperextensions with a twist going backwards to complement the forward twist, are his favorites. He also likes the glute-ham raise, leg curls and one-legged squats. Back squats are also a staple in his programs, and he has no reservations about athletes going below parallel in the squat.

“Remember, however, we are very sensitive to our players’ medical histories, where they’ve been, what they’ve done,” he says on the subject of deep squats. “We don’t ever attempt something that we don’t think has a positive benefit-to-risk ratio. If someone has no back or knee problems, I definitely include the squat in his program—I believe it’s the best lower body strength movement you can perform.”

That same philosophy spills over to the power clean, deadlifts and benching. A former Olympic lifter himself, Alejo feels the power clean can definitely be a core lift in college routines, along with the snatch. “The explosiveness involved and the inclusion of the total body segment is so good—-I recommend it highly.” However, each player’s medical history comes first, with special consideration given to the health of the wrists. If a player comes to Alejo from a weak conditioning past, his primary concern is going to be protecting those wrists over building a stronger back. “That wrist is going to help hold a bat, a ball or a glove at some point. No matter how strong your back or how much your vertical jump improves, without a healthy wrist in baseball, you’re done.”

The only lifts that Alejo eliminates from the A’s programs is the overhead press because of the possibility of shoulder impingement. “As far as everything else, we shy away from nothing as far as benches or incline presses.”
Alejo also feels there’s a direct correlation between increasing body mass and increased batting power. However, it’s a correlation that needs to be tempered depending on an athlete’s position. McGwire at first base could pack on the muscle, but a third baseman needs to stay agile and lean. “You have to be real cautious about adding weight because of the surfaces we play on, plus the fact that some of these guys may play 152 games in 181 days.”

Bodyweight is another factor Alejo considers in his fitness program, although he says at present the Athletics don’t have any players who are at risk of being overweight. “We’re in a sport where you do not have to be at optimal physical performance levels to play,” he acknowledges. “But that doesn’t give a baseball athlete an excuse to get overweight. Too much bodyweight has a direct effect on the health of an athlete’s knees and ankles.”

A Program in Transition

Recently Coach Alejo had the opportunity to visit Japan’s baseball training camps. The experience, he says, was an eye opener. Rather than minimize weight training and other forms of physical conditioning, as has been the American tradition, in Japan he says it is “friggin’ crazy!” He says it is not uncommon to watch a team in spring training doing calisthenics for an hour and half before going into the weight room for another hour and a half! What Alejo hopes to see in America is a less intense, but more universally accepted, approach.

Alejo has helped solidify weight training in the major leagues’ conditioning programs. He has not, however, done this alone. He is careful to credit the athletes on his team and the management of the A’s. One individual who Alejo says has been integral is Dr. Lewis Yocum, a prominent orthopedic figure in professional baseball who involves strength coaches at the annual Sports Medicine Baseball Conference.

“I think we have a great group of professionals in major league baseball,” says Alejo, “and we’re determined to make a statement about what is right in the training of baseball athletes. While we still have a ways to go, I believe that today weight training is more a part of the pro leagues than at any other time. I’m glad to have been a part of the movement.”

Bob Alejo Oakland A’s, Photo Credit: Micheal Zagaris
Coach Alejo stretching Jason Giambi. Alejo stresses that training at the pro level is very different than college ball. “In college you’re accountable for your guys lifting or not lifting,” he says. “In the pros, the players are accountable for themselves—it affects their paycheck.” Photo Credit: Micheal Zagaris
The A’s slugger Jason Giambi smashes another one. Photo Credit: Micheal Zagaris
Oakland A Jose Canseco, who even has his own book on weight training. Recently resigned and returned to Oakland. Photo Credit: Micheal Zagaris
Rickey Henderson poised and ready to sprint to second at any moment. Photo Credit: Micheal Zagaris

Return to Fall 1998 Articles

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