Real-Life Diet is a series in which GQ talks to athletes, celebrities, and everyone in-between about their diets and exercise routines: what's worked, what hasn't, and where they're still improving. Keep in mind, what works for them might not necessarily be healthy for you.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but Milwaukee Brewers first baseman/outfielder Eric Thames doesn’t have much interest in lifting heavy weights. Yes, he pursued a bodybuilder physique in his younger days—one that hasn’t exactly dissipated—but now, at 32 years old and in the midst of a career reinvention after an unexpected stop playing pro baseball in Korea, Thames has prioritized something very different: stretching.
He can’t get enough of it. He loves yoga, especially yin yoga, which involves holding poses for so long that some people practically fall asleep. He thrives off the feeling that comes from stretching until his body feels like it’s permanently molded into a new position.
When Thames was an up-and-coming Major Leaguer, he struggled to stay in the lineup and show off the obvious strength that seemed like it should be in his repertoire. But he found that strength in Korea, and the key to his success wasn’t powerlifting—it was flexibility and mobility. Also: Far, far healthier food options than he’d been eating in America. In 2015, Thames won the Korean Baseball Organization MVP award, and in 2017, he made his MLB return with an entirely new fitness philosophy that paid immediate dividends. He hit 31 home runs for the Brewers, providing some unexpected and much-needed slugging. Last season was an injury-plagued slog, but this year, Thames has a career-high batting average (.268) with 13 dingers in 87 games.
After a recent batting practice session, Thames spoke to GQ about the best weightlifting strategies during a grueling season, his newfound cooking skills, and whether he could take John Cena—who he (jokingly) put in a headlock prior to a June game—in the wrestling ring.
GQ: I know for a while you had pulled back on using heavier weights. What’s your workout routine look like now?
Eric Thames: During the season, your workouts are more about not fatiguing. It’s getting a little pump just so your muscles are still working, and also to prevent injuries. What works best for me is a lot of resistance bands. I feel like those are more bang for your buck. A lot of bike, sprints, plyometrics. That, coupled with stretching. If I do weights during the year, I’ll get bulky and tired. Especially squats, my legs will feel like 1,000 pounds each on the field.
Is any of this position-specific? Like, does a pitcher have a different routine versus a position player?
For sure. Weight rooms are usually always pitchers, because they get so much time off. They’re throwing once every five days, so they can go in there and crush legs for a day and then recover. A lot of those guys don’t do lots of upper body work—it’s more so back, core, and a lot of legs. I would say position players focus more on bike, light legs, light arms, and then a lot of mobility, stretching, and foam rolling.
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about stretching. You once said you stretch for multiple hours a day. How does somebody stretch for that long?
[Laughs] It’s not all at once. I previously tore my quad because I was so tight, so bound up, doing workouts based on Flex magazine. I looked good in a uniform but it wasn’t really functional. My rehab for that was yoga. I did yoga every day for three hours, back-to-back hour-and-a-half classes. It was power yoga followed by yin yoga. Yin yoga is specific poses for four or five minutes—you’re just holding a long, long stretch. I remember when I first started, there were a lot of pregnant women and older women in the classes, and they were falling asleep while holding these poses. It’s supposed to be a relaxing class, but I’m dripping sweat and cramping up because I wasn’t flexible at all. Having to work through that, and doing research on gymnasts and contortionists—I’m really fascinated by that stuff and different bodies of work. In terms of flexibility, I need to sit in a straddle for like three to four minutes, where it hurts but your muscles relax into that stretch after a while.
So I learned all that, and then I went to Korea. And the teams there at the time weren’t really big on weights. Everything was more like mobility and sprints. They’ve evolved since then and a lot of teams have learned how to do big weights. But they do have an old-school philosophy of stretching and light weights for movement. I realized that for me to play until I’m 40, for me to reach my potential, I need to be flexible. I can’t just be this muscle-bound, tight player, because I won’t last, I won’t be explosive, and I’ll get hurt.
Did you learn any other exercise routines or workouts in Korea that people don’t do here?
It was mostly just really focusing on stretching and mobility—they’re both emphasized overseas far more than here. I remember when I was traded from Toronto to Seattle, Ichiro had just been traded from Seattle to New York. A lot of his weight equipment was still in the batting cages, and he had this series of equipment from Japan that had a lot of really light weight stacks, but the handles rotate, and there are all these levers and fulcrums. It makes your body move in all these weird ways to help with mobility. I had never seen anything like that. That’s one machine people always use overseas. I tried it and I was like, “I’m going to blow out.” I never moved like that before. Seattle told the players, “Do NOT touch those machines. You guys will get hurt.”
With so much travel involved in baseball, what does your diet look like during the season?
It varies from team to team. Some teams have very loose nutritionists or very strict nutritionists. That’s especially true in the minor leagues—it’s a grind to eat healthy there. Personally, here, it’s great. They provide three meals a day. There are cold cuts and stuff like that, but the meals are generally healthy. There’s always a green, fish, poultry, and some sort of dark meat.
What are your favorite not-so-healthy foods?
I love IPAs. I also love ice cream. But if I have a dessert, I’ll keep it to a bite. I try to avoid that greasy feeling that comes after eating something unhealthy. I don’t count carbs or macros or do meal prep or anything like that, though. I was looking at doing some of that last year, but I couldn’t find the right one that would work for me as an athlete.
One thing I’ll say about Korea: That’s probably the most jacked I’ve ever been in my entire life. In America, a lot of the food is soaked in chemicals and it’s so bad for you. Over there, a lot of the food in the millions of hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop restaurants that are really good come right from the farm to the restaurant. It’s amazing! I would eat a pound of steak for super cheap, and I was huge. When I came back to the States, for the first week or two of being back, I was sick every day from the grease. So I started shopping at Whole Foods, even though it’s really expensive. I’ve been buying fresh veggies, organic meats, and I feel like that’s made a huge difference as well.
How are your cooking skills at this point?
I keep things simple. Whenever I go on a date and they ask if I can cook, I say, “Well, I can grill.” I just bought one of those Instant Pots, and that’s been great. Throw some vegetables in there, steam them, get some rice in there, and boom, you’re done.
We need to discuss your appearance on Korea’s Masked Singer. You had some athletic feats involved in your performance. Were those spur-of-the-moment decisions to lift up audience members?
It was spur of the moment. I knew I was supposed to sing a song, but they didn’t really describe the process, or maybe it was lost in translation. But then they mentioned there was a talent section, and I thought I’d dance, because I can dance a little bit. We ended up doing six different things, but they only showed me picking some audience members up on TV. I had to like, break pencils, and squeeze an apple. They showed a basketball player squeezing an apple and breaking it, but the guy was 6’10” with huge hands. That’s easy when you’re that big! I’m 6 feet, and had to look it up on YouTube to see the best ways to do it. I found a way to break it really quickly so it looked like I was really strong.
Who wins in the ring, you or John Cena?
You give me like two months to work out, definitely me [laughs]. But see, he has experience. He knows all these moves and can fly off the top rope. I’ve never flown off the top rope and would be terrified to do it. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he’d kick my butt right now, but if I had some time to practice, it’d be a different story.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Originally Appeared on GQ