Once he made contact with the ball, Addison Russell knew it was gone.
It was opening night at Wrigley Field in April, and Chicago Cubs fans were feeling nervous. Down 3-2 against the lackluster Cincinnati Reds, Russell stepped to the plate and decided to go for it on the first pitch. It paid off: Russell smashed the 95 mph fastball through the chilly spring night, deep into the left-field bleachers for his first homer of the season.
“It just had that feel,” Russell said.
The three-run shot held up, giving the Cubs their first home victory in a year that ended up being full of special wins. Over the 2016 season, the Cubs won an MLB-best 103 games, leading fans to hope that this year would be different than the 108 years before it—that it might end with a World Series title.
After a phenomenal Game 7 matchup with the Cleveland Indians, it did—and Russell was a major factor.
The Cubs tied up the series with a dominating win in Game 6, fueled by Russell’s six RBIs (tying a World Series record) and a grand slam (the first one ever hit by a shortstop in the World Series). Powered by Russell’s performance, the Cubs closed things out in Game 7 to break the longest championship drought of any team in the four major American sports.
Even though the Cubbies did break the curse this season, they’ll still have plenty of things to be excited about in the future. One of those things is Russell. The 6’0″, 200-pound athletic specimen already has two full years as a regular player under his belt at just 22 years of age, and his combination of power, speed, and defensive ability at shortstop shows what the future of the position looks like.
Russell doesn’t just rest on his natural abilities to excel—he pushes himself off the field too. When he’s training in the gym, Russell uses front squats, jumps, deadlifts, cable exercises, bridge-ups, core workouts, lunge squats, and hamstring curls to get his body where it needs to be. This offseason, he pushed hard on lower-body training to increase his power at the plate.
“I wanted to focus in on my legs, strengthening them, to help drive my power,” Russell tells Men’s Journal. “I do squats all the time. The more you do that, the better, in my opinion. I did explosive work and focused more on where my body needed to improve. I wanted to make sure that my body was feeling prepared and my body felt great going into the season. I really could feel the difference.”
Russell’s hard work paid off in 2016: He was voted as the National League starter at shortstop for the All-Star game, smashed 21 home runs—the most by a Cubs shortstop since Hall of Famer Ernie Banks in 1961—and had 95 RBIs, the most by a Cubs player at age 22 or younger since 1913. So yeah, Russell crushing it in the gym had quite the impact.
Traditionally, shortstops are not known for their offensive numbers—players like Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken Jr., and Banks notwithstanding—but Russell’s performance is changing that perception. Unlike most players at the position who have slick fielding skills and not much else, Russell sets himself apart by showing off power and Gold Glove-caliber defense at the same time.
Take this play from August, for example, when Russell had two crucial RBIs in a 6-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. With the bases loaded, two outs on the board, and the Cubs leading by three runs in the seventh inning, Russell flashed his speed and athletic ability, running over 105 feet from his position to track down the ball and making an incredible diving catch.
Along with other young players like Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros, Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians, Corey Seager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox, Russell is rewriting the book on what a shortstop should be—and he might be the best of the bunch.
After increasing nearly all of his offensive numbers in 2016, Russell looks prepared for superstardom and maybe even a World Series title (Spoiler alert: he got it).
Russell spoke with Men’s Journal about his intense training routine, what it would mean to bring the Cubs a World Series title, and why “grandpa” David Ross has been the heart of the team in 2016.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.)
What is your daily workout routine like? How do you prepare yourself for the season?
I try to get in the gym as much as I can in the offseason. Squats are one of my key moves. I try not to go too heavy, but we do a lot of repetition work with those. I like the front squat, the lunge squat, the reverse lunge squat, lots of different squat variations to get things going, plus a lot of things that work the hamstrings. I like sprints. I like to run every now and again. Jumps, too—I like working on explosive stuff, reaction time, things like the long jump. When it comes to upper body, I’ll stick to just small muscle groups during the season. I like to work out my shoulders, back, lats. Basically all the stuff that you have to hit on whenever you’re throwing a baseball.
What are some of the exercises, workouts, and drills you do in the gym that help you most on the field?
I do a lot of core work. My favorite core workout is “dead bugs.” That’s a great one for me—I’ll probably do four sets of that once every three days to make sure my core is fine. I like to do mini-band work for my legs. Some squat walks too, I try and do exercises to activate my glutes. Single leg bridge-ups are awesome. I’ll also do some push and pull stuff with the cables for my upper body, tricep extension rope curls for biceps, stuff like that.
You increased your offensive numbers across the board this season. Did you do anything differently in your training between last year and this year that you feel helped with that?
Absolutely. Last year I dealt with a hamstring injury, so that was one area I wanted to strengthen and improve. My legs, too. When we were playing the Mets in the playoffs last season, I blew it out. So I’ve been working hard on the legs, and also more on the mental aspect of the game too.
What would it mean to you to bring a World Series to the Cubs after such a long drought?
I know that we’re feeling pretty confident right now. We’ve been getting our reps, getting our workouts in. We’re definitely feeling good about things. I think that we’re ready. We’ve been grinding out all year and we put up some awesome numbers as a team. It seems like we’ve had each other backs since the beginning of this year and that’s something awesome looking forward to in the future. I think that’s something you can look at and say, “Wow, they have it all together.”
What did it feel like to play in the All-Star game? What did it mean to you to be the starting shortstop?
It was definitely a stepping stone for myself, and a great honor, absolutely. I was surprised to even be selected in that game, and to start the game was just a dream come true. It’s something that I’ll be able to take away from my life, and just be like, “Wow I can’t believe that happened.” I’ve done it once, and I’ve got a pretty good taste of it, and it makes me want to go back there and try it again.
How do you feel about playing in the postseason? Do you do anything differently to prepare yourself mentally, physically to get into those games?
I try to look at every single game the same way, and I try to go into every single game with the same preparation. It’s more mental than it is physical, I feel. How I feel really sharp is making sure that my body is okay and it feels fine.
What are some of your favorite memories of the 2016 season?
I would say “Grandpa” Rossy [David Ross, catcher for the Cubs] is the highlight of my 2016 year. The aura that he brings to the ball field, all the smiles he brings to the ball field is just awesome. Whenever he hits home runs, you can’t get more excited than that. He’s just a great guy, he brings a lot of energy to the table. People call him Grandpa, but he’s one of the most energetic guys out there on the field, and he’s always the person who’s going to tell you how it is. If any memories, it will always be something with Grandpa Rossy in it, because he’s a sight for sore eyes. He’s a great athlete and a great guy, and he’s made my 2016 year awesome.
What advice do you have for other athletes and workout warriors in the gym who want to emulate your success and your training?
Stay humble and stay hungry. Don’t be devastated if things don’t always go your way. You use that chip on your shoulder to get better, and you keep competing, and you don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything. I’ve had people my whole entire life tell me I can’t do things, and I’ve used that to my advantage, and I got a positive out of it. Definitely keep moving and pushing forward, and just stay humble, and stay respectful, and hopefully, things will work out. Definitely, the workout regimen has to be on key and you have to be willing to sacrifice and commit yourself to whatever thing you want to pursue your life in.