For the aging star athlete, getting into the Hall of Fame just got a lot easier. Over the past decade, guys like Brett Favre, Kyle Turley, Curt Schilling, and scores of others looking to hold down a starting job or extend a contract have been turning to Athletes' Performance centers, a chain of innovative training facilities scattered around the country that focuses on honing mechanics of movement and building core strength. While stopping short of claiming that he's syndicated the fountain of youth, founder Mark Verstegen has proven that mature athletes can maintain elite levels of performance far longer than previously believed.
"Veterans accumulate the scars of a full career but haven't had proper maintenance, so their bodies stop responding as the years go on," says Verstegen, 44, who cut his teeth as an athletic trainer and developer of player performance at Georgia Tech. "But the clarity they bring to the game, knowledge of specific situations, and seasons of experience keep them competitive."
Athletes' Performance applies a data-intensive approach to training by analyzing and prescribing not just the right weights, reps, calories, and times, but also more nuanced protocols, such as proper skeletal alignment, kinetic symmetry, and carefully calibrated sleep patterns. The training focuses on helping athletes improve their recovery time between workouts – after all, that is the primary reason elite athletes seek out steroids. But Verstegen believes that a smart routine can supply some of the boost jocks get from illegal supplements, using things like extensive sets of "regeneration" exercises (foam rollers and stretching).
Career-best performances by Favre, Schilling, and other Athletes' Performance clients in their sunset years suggest that Verstegen is on to something. "You often hear veterans saying something like, 'If only I'd known then what I know now, ' " Verstegen says. "We give them the body to support that. We can have them feeling better than they did at 20."
Athletes' Performance's L.A. facility is a bunker below the StubHub Center (home of the L.A. Galaxy soccer team) in Carson, just south of Compton. Expecting a lot of elaborate, shiny workout machines and robot assistants, I'm impressed with the bare-bones "click-clack" vibe of the place and the low-key but focused energy of the black-shirted AP trainers. A typical stint at an Athletes' Performance facility lasts three to eight days and can cost a few thousand dollars for a week – not a problem for the pros, but it can be prohibitive for those on a budget.
My own program began with a few days of learning the basics with Verstegen's team, then a month putting the program into action at home via their new online regimen. This remote tutorial is especially useful for an older athlete who aspires to greatness but doesn't have six hours a day to work out or excess cash to spend.
For my first session, I'm paired up with trainer Sarah Money, who starts with a basic assessment. My game is lacrosse, and while my Yale team made it to the NCAA semifinals in 1990 and the quarters in 1992, the only reason I'm still able to play today at age 40 is that I've always had something of an old man's game: lots of back-door cuts, cherry-picking around the goal, and rarely holding onto the ball for more than a few seconds.
Athletes' Performance's key test is the FMS: Functional Movement Screen, a series of moves that scores your levels of stability, balance, flexibility, and core strength. The test informs the essence of what Athletes' Performance training is all about: how efficiently an athlete can move by recruiting the girdle of muscle groups known as the "pillar" to distribute power through the body. Your pillar – or trunk, as it's often called – is your shoulders, hips, and core. Basically, it's your body's main structural hub that drives and directs all other movement. The stronger, more stable, and better aligned your pillar, the better you'll be able to throw a football or make a sharp cut from a running pattern without injuring yourself.
In 2010, 360-pound offensive tackle Langston Walker of the Oakland Raiders checked into the Athletes' Performance L.A. facility on the advice of his agent. "I'm going into my ninth year in the NFL, and my body isn't recovering like it used to," said Walker. "I knew I needed to make an extra push." During his FMS test, trainers detected a hip misalignment that was slowing Walker down and increasing wear and tear throughout his entire 6-foot-8 frame. After three weeks of intensive work, Walker arrived at the Raiders' training camp and stepped into the starting right tackle spot.
The FMS consists of seven exercises. Each movement is scored from zero to three – zero if there's pain, one for inability to complete the movement, two for partial completion, and three for being able to complete it with no wobbles. Money informs me that a score of 14 or lower means that a person is "highly susceptible to injury." After about 10 minutes of twisting, balancing, and wincing, I learn that I have chalked up an FMS score of eight: Basically, it's inadvisable for me to walk in a stiff breeze, let alone play contact sports.
Nonetheless, AP performance manager Brent Callaway inserts me into a group morning workout. On the menu: movement and quickness drills. For 15 minutes, we perform core- and hip-intensive shuffles with rubber resistance bands that bind our knees together. Then we switch to bungee harnesses connected to our trainers, who provide resistance while we lurch forward, sideways, and backward, 15 yards at a time. Before I leave, Callaway sets me up with a 15-week lacrosse-specific program.
Once home, I'm easily able to pick up where I left off, but my new regimen quickly underscores the now obvious fact that Money's FMS revealed: I have almost no core strength. Lots of travel, meetings, and conference calls have eaten away at my stabilizer muscles and left me about as steady as a 5-foot-8 stack of dinner plates. Luckily for working stiffs like me, Verstegen launched Core Performance, an online program that uses video and databases to make customized versions of Athletes' Performance training available to recreational jocks.
The system's mobile Web interface serves up daily meal plans and three step-by-step 40-minute workouts a week, complete with videos that I can pull up on my iPhone to make sure I'm getting the form right. This turns out to be key since I wasn't able to learn all of the workouts while I was at the facility. I describe the regimen to friends as "yoga with weights," involving lots of stability work with plyoballs, dumbbells, and cable machines, in addition to the oft-excruciating regeneration maneuvers that require resting my full body weight on hard foam rollers or tennis balls. Fortunately, my club gym stocks everything I need.
A month later, my first moment of truth arrives: the Vail Lacrosse Shootout tournament for adults and high schoolers, one of the largest and most competitive meets in the country. I end up scoring in most games, and even beat my defenseman one-on-one from behind the goal, a rare occurrence, even in my college heyday. Incredibly, I survive four days of cross-checking and stop-and-go running without sustaining anything graver than bruised ribs and arms.