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Working out with Mariners Strength & Conditioning Director James Clifford

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Or, how I became impossibly swole and capable of crushing a baseball 489 feet

MLB: Seattle Mariners-Workouts
Evan “Supple Hamstrings” White
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Depending on your state, county, safety preferences and proclivity for physical activity, it’s likely been a significant portion of time since you set foot in a gym. I miss it terribly, and have tried to replace it with an amalgamation of yoga videos, at-home workouts with wine bottles and running, to middling success.

As such, it was welcome news when the Mariners sent out this tweet:

I’ve long harbored a desire to be one of those Buzzfeed “I Trained Like X For A Month” people, and jumped at the chance to pretend I was Kyle Lewis, gearing up to capitalize on my ROY season.

We begin at the Mariners’ Performance Center in Peoria, where Clifford briefly shows us around. I am extremely envious, and ponder masquerading as a prospect to be granted access to this gym.

Clifford explains we’re going to go through two complexes (he holds up two fingers, helpfully), three times times (three fingers up), with four exercises (four fingers, waggled at the camera) per complex.

Four!

1:52 - The workout begins. Clifford reminds us to check with our doctor to make sure we’re cleared for exercise. I’ve recently moved back to Seattle and have no doctor, so I check with my hip flexors instead. (They beg me not to.)

2:10- 8:23 Warmups! Half-hearted knee tugs, lateral lunges, some kneeling hip flexor stretches (ow) and calf stretches, a salute to yoga with cat-cow, the classic BP warmup arm circles. A hamstring exercise which Clifford refers to as a “grass sweeper.” “Bend over and go like this, just like you would if you were sweeping the grass,” he tells us, as though we’re all just sweeping grass on a regular basis. Maybe grass sweeping is what counts as a baseball player’s hobby?

The highlight is a “diagonal thumb,” which could just as easily be a warmup, a Mafia threat or the name of a particularly potent cocktail. In essence, you fling your arms diagonally across your body - with control. Crucial here to keep your core stable but your hands and arms loose. It feels impossibly good.

I appreciate Clifford’s dedication to stretching and warming up - a phase I am all-too-guilty of skipping under normal circumstances.

Diagonal thumbs!

8:26-21:24 The first complex. Clifford recommends kettlebell and dumbbell alternatives - water bottles, paint cans, a backpack full of books, etc. I use my trusty Dutch oven (filled with rice and potatoes for lower body, empty for upper).

  1. 10 static lunges, holding the weight in the offset hand (Clifford encourages this weight placement for added stability). Second round: 10 step-back lunges, completing the set on each leg. Third round: 10 Bulgarian split squats, or elevated static lunges (I hate these, and glare at Clifford throughout).
  2. 8 skaters (I am J.P. Crawford: Gold Glove winner, I pant to myself, leaping side-to-side on woefully weak ankles. No grounders are getting past me.) Each round pushing farther to either side, emphasizing hip extension and sticking the landing. “Use the force that’s going into the ground, that you’re stopping and decelerating on to push yourself back the other way.”
  3. Side plank - 20 seconds on each side, increasing difficulty each round. First round: kneeling side plank, second round: full lift, third round: side plank bird dog, with arm and leg extension/contraction
  4. 10 glute bridges. First round: both feet planted on the floor (Clifford keeps his toes elevated but doesn’t share why - likely to limit quad recruitment and increase posterior activation). Second round: single leg glute bridge, 10 on each side. Third round: 10 elevated glute bridges, weighted. Clifford also mentions that a common exercise for the guys is a glute bridge march, where you keep your hips elevated, glutes engaged, and alternate lifting your feet off the ground.

21:30- 21:34 Clifford clambers to his feet and encourages us to get some water. Each time this visibly strong man gets up from the ground you can’t help but wince a little. The now-50-year-old has more than two decades of professional fitness coaching and strength experience - all with the Mariners - but prior to that he was a twice-drafted prospect in Seattle’s minor league system and an inside linebacker for the University of Washington, where he was a member of their 1991 championship team, led the Pac-10 in tackles and played in three Rose Bowls. The man leading us through this workout may have a few more aches and pains, but looks nearly identical to the young UW star on the field in Montlake.

“I’ve been with Cliffy for almost 10 years now,” Kyle Seager recalled in a 2019 interview. “He was our coordinator in the minor leagues, and when I was getting called up he was here. I’ve been around him so long that I trust him not just in the baseball sense, but with life.”

21:50-32:50 Complex two! Upper body.

  1. Push ups (insert grumbles here about the infuriating nature of building upper body strength as a woman). First round: 10 basic pushups. Second round: 10 pushups with alternating leg lifts, squeezing your glute to lift your leg. Third round: 10 pushups with double shoulder taps. (I try to smack my shoulders with the same meaty authority as Clifford, to minimal success.)
  2. Single arm row, 10 times each side. “You don’t want to get that trap all involved,” Clifford says, drawing his shoulder back. “Think of it like reaching back toward your pocket.” It’s a helpful visual, and I remind my nonexistent traps to stay out of this. Clifford keeps his feet planted evenly, rather than staggering his feet in a forward lunge as is typical. He doesn’t elaborate on why, but I like the way it forces more core engagement. For the third round Clifford introduces a single leg RDL (Romanian deadlift) row, hinging forward on one leg, extending the other backwards and then executing the row (with the other arm holding on to a support). “It’s all about where you’re at, not about where we’re at,” he reminds us kindly.
  3. 10 bicep curls. Clifford uses a long band here, but says you can also use the weights from earlier, soup cans, water jugs, etc. He also says you can use “just tubing in general,” means nothing to me but may be illuminating to you.
  4. 10 tricep dips. Second and third rounds: 10 tricep dips, with alternating leg lifts.

“We call bis and tris recess around here,” Clifford tells us. “When the guys get all of their real work done, they can go to recess.” (Typically this would be referred to as accessory work, but recess is cute.) Aha! I’ve often wondered what baseball benefit bicep curls possess, but hey, the Instagram models aren’t going to DM themselves.

32:55- 34:01 “That’s two good complexes, lower body really gets your heart rate up, upper body, a push, a pull and a little bit of recess for the fun. That’s it. I really appreciate it if you joined me, and hopefully it gets you excited for the season.”

Workout completed. Clifford thanks us for joining him. I eat a chocolate chip cookie.