Washington Nationals Seek Improved Results From New Conditioning Coach John Philbin

Austin Kearns Washington Nationals
The Nationals are hoping new strength and conditioning coach John Philbin -- who has experience with nearly every sport except baseball -- will bring a new approach and help keep oft-injured players like Austin Kearns, above, healthy more often. (Toni L. Sandys - TWP)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla., March 7 -- During the last two decades, John Philbin has trained boxers. He has worked with the Washington Redskins. He has coached the U.S. Olympic bobsled team. It's all there, listed on his résumé, the one he submitted to the Washington Nationals last winter when the team began its search for a new strength and conditioning coach.

But Philbin's 29 years of fitness experience at the time were just as notable for what they didn't include. He had minimal experience with baseball. Sure, he had trained a few baseball players at the Gaithersburg fitness center he's operated since 1993, but they were local guys. High school players. Maybe a few collegians.

"They obviously took a chance by hiring outside their comfort zone," Philbin said. "Which is unusual for baseball."

As it turned out, Philbin's distance from the sport aligned with Washington's desire to upset the status quo. In 2008, the Nationals lost 1,317 player-days to injury. Almost every critical member of its lineup spent time on the disabled list.

The injuries became so pervasive that some in the organization refused to accept it as coincidence, and after the season the team dismissed its strength coach, Kazuhiko Tomooka.

When Philbin interviewed with then-general manager Jim Bowden, the deficiencies with the old program "were a big topic," Philbin said. "They said, 'We need to fix this.' "

"What did I like about him?" asked trainer Lee Kuntz. "To be truthful? His lack of knowledge about baseball. Tabula rasa. He comes in here with a clean slate. Baseball is so tradition-bound. We're bringing in new ideas."

Philbin subscribes to a philosophy known as high-intensity training, fitness based on minimal reps and maximum exertion. He wants workouts to last 25 minutes or so. Quick, efficient. "And when you're playing every day," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, "you can't be working out for an hour."

Starting in the early 1980s, when Philbin was an intern with the Redskins, he learned the high-intensity method from one of its pioneers, Redskins strength coach Dan Riley. Since then, Philbin has written a book called "High Intensity Training." And this winter, when Philbin flew across the country to meet with several of his new players (including Lastings Milledge and Dmitri Young) one-on-one, observing their workouts and suggesting improvements, he gave them copies of the book.

Last year, Philbin said, Washington's players commonly did three or four sets of any given exercise. Now, they do only one. But swapping time for intensity also puts a heightened emphasis on form.

"We're big believers in that," Philbin said. "Which is a little different, again, if they had somebody before critiquing that. Obviously they didn't have that before, because most of them were doing it, in our eyes, wrong."

There is, of course, no guarantee that Philbin's methods will correlate with any decline in injuries. But Philbin wants to improve other elements, too. At his recommendation, the team hired a nutritionist. He sometimes begins workouts with an all-hands-in huddle, unusual for baseball. Last year, the team relied on just Tomooka; this spring, though, the team has used trainers from Philbin's Gaithersburg gym -- they come to Florida in two-week shifts, two at a time -- to give the enlarged roster extra assistance.

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