Sparta Sports Science Lab

Grant Shorin

Athletes train at Sparta’s high-tech indoor facility. Many current and former Paly athletes train at Sparta to boost their performance in the hope of making it to the next level.

James Harrison, Staff Writer

At first glance, Teresa Noyola and Jeremy Lin might appear to have little in common besides their high school. However, another similarity remains. Both of them take part in workouts at Menlo Park’s Sparta Performance Science, the only sports science lab in the Bay Area where professional and amateur athletes can train.Sports science labs are facilities that integrate the science behind all sports with specific workouts to push athletes to the best of their abilities. Sparta was founded three years ago by Dr. Phil Wagner, who thought of the idea while working as a strength coach at the University of California, Berkeley. He was surprised by how it seemed that college athletic programs had so little evidence to back up that their training was improving players, and felt motivated to change this.“I wanted to try to find something that would allow us to start getting people stronger through more objective reasons,” Wagner said. “As a result, I went to medical school and learned what they call evidence-based medicine. When you treat a patient, it is based off of lab values and the ability to diagnose and subsequently treat disease. [We] took that model into performance and injury reduction.”Sparta is unique in the fact that it uses force plate technology to help athletes determine their strengths and weaknesses before they start a workout program. This device measures how much force you exert against the ground.“The idea behind this [force plate technology] was initially just to train athletes and use it based off objective measurements,” Wagner said. “The centerpiece of our measurements was a force plate.”Aside from being one of the few labs in the nation to have this type of technology, Sparta is also an innovator in other ways, such as using video for analysis and feedback. Through the use of software, the trainers diagnose and prescribe the athletes’ needs. Dr. Wagner feels that a crucial part of the “Sparta effect” is helping athletes with what he refers to as “regeneration.” The regeneration process Wagner has created combines nutrition, sleep and flexibility programs.“We work quite a bit with the Stanford sleep lab to find the proper prescriptions for sleep,” Wagner said. “We counsel [our athletes] on proper sleep hygiene, teaching them the best times to go to bed and some ways to fall asleep quickly or stay asleep.”

In addition to sleep consulting, Sparta athletes receive individual counseling on nutrition and flexibility, including expectations regarding how much protein and vegetables they should be taking in. The trainers teach the athletes correct stretching techniques and use foam rollers to target key areas that each individual uses differently.

The makeup of the program is about half professionals and half high school or college athletes. The major sports represented by Sparta athletes are baseball for men and volleyball for women, although trainers have played and studied enough to accommodate most sports.

Some of the professionals who have trained at Sparta include Nnamdi Asomugha of the Philadelphia Eagles, Tyson Ross of the Oakland Athletics and hometown hero Jeremy Lin of the Houston Rockets. Teresa Noyola, who also works out there, just finished her soccer career at Stanford University.

Sparta has many Paly athletes participating in workouts as well. Pitcher Brian Kannappan (‘14) likes that it is not only specific to the sport the athlete plays, but also the athlete’s position. He has worked out at Sparta since the middle of last summer.

“They analyze how balanced of an athlete you are, then adjust your workout to accommodate that balancing rate, force and timing,” Kannappan said. “They helped me as a pitcher by making the most use out of my body. They helped my rotational power, leg strength and shoulder flexibility, which increase throwing speed.”

Sparta’s individualized attention separates it from other gyms. There are different workouts for each sport and individual, depending on what his or her strengths and weaknesses are.

“The force plate really addresses the individual and then we use what we call skills to address the sport,” Wagner said. “With a pitcher, we work a lot on lateral drive like they do off of the mound. We will bench with football guys and work on approach jump with volleyball players.”

Sparta also mixes different types of music into the workouts to help the athletes with the rhythm of their movements. During the running and jumping exercises, hip-hop and other music full of beats and rhythm are played, whereas during the weightlifting, more heavy electronic music is utilized to help pump up the athletes.

Sparta faces competition from the colleges and professional programs that are free to athletes. Since Sparta is a privately owned business, the programs start at about $130 per workout. Sparta differs from those other programs because of its focus on the individual rather than the general position or sport the individual plays.

“[We are] able to objectively assess somebody and say, ‘this is what you specifically need,’” Wagner said. “There are other assessments out there for athletes, but they are subjective and not certain.”

Basketball player Hope Crockett (‘14), who has worked out at Sparta since February, enjoys the individualized attention and instruction that the trainers give to each athlete.

“It is an all-around better athlete training,” Crockett said. “It is tied into science a lot, so they have lots of facts to back up what you do. They have really good instructors and they focus on mechanics so you feel like you are getting the most out of all your workouts.”

Most gyms around Palo Alto help athletes get faster and stronger, but without any scientific evidence to support the exercises they do. Sparta is the only place in the area to help individuals find their weaknesses and improve them using their scientific technology. It has shown great success, in its three years of operation, by producing professional athletes in the Bay Area, like through Noyola and Lin.