Written by Chad Wesley Smith
Physical preparatory training for baseball players seems to lag behind that of other sports and due to this lack of emphasis of general physical preparedness, baseball players are prone to experience many similar problems to those discussed in James Smith’s article “The Club Sports Conundrum”. I am often frustrated by baseball coaches who feel that the overwhelming majority of their athletes training needs to be focused on extremely light, high repetition weight training, rotator cuff prehab work and long distance running.
Baseball utilizes the alactic/anaerobic exclusively, but also requires the athlete to have a well developed aerobic system to preserve heat in the muscles during long periods of inactivity. Maximal strength and speed development is also of paramount success to baseball players and it perplexes me how many baseball coaches would argue to the contrary. If being strong wasn’t a benefit to baseball players, then why are performance enhancing drugs such a prevalent issue in MLB? Certainly there is a point of diminishing returns in upper body strength that will be quickly reached for baseball players due to the light external resistance being dealt with in the form of the ball and bat. Lower body maximal strength though is of much greater importance as it will have great influence upon sprinting speed and leg drive in batting. Also, due to the high volumes of practices and games, as well as the high technical demands required in baseball, it is extremely important to manage the athlete’s workload and stressors that are competing for the energy needed to develop technical abilities.
There are two periods that we will examine, off-season (if the athlete is actually fortunate enough to have one) and the in-season or most intensive period practices.
The off-season period, or a period that does not include more than 3 practices per week, will be best suited to consolidating all the intensive training stressors to the same days. Also, when you are farther away from the competitive periods you can utilize special strength exercises that more closely mimic sporting activities, as the issue of competing for the energy to develop technical abilities is not as significant. Here is a look at a week for an athlete with 3 sport practice sessions per week with sufficient physical preparation…
Day 1- Sport Practice
-Sprints (Depending on the time of year/athlete’s preparedness these sprints will either focus on the development of alactic capacity or alactic power)
-Jumps-Either box jumps or jumps for distance are acceptable
-Explosive MB Throws-Medball throws are an excellent developer of the special strength necessary to increase throwing/hitting power. Due to the light weight of the ball (5 oz) and bat (32-36 oz) the velocity of movement is of greater importance than force, so lighter balls are acceptable for throws with higher dynamic correspondences (Rotational variations, see video below and overhead forward throws), while heavier balls can be utilized for general power throws such as Overhead Backwards, Scoop, Vertical and Diving.
-Explosive Pushup Variations
-Squats-Force development in the lower body is key to increased sprinting speed and leg drive during throwing/hitting, so the baseball athlete should not shy away from pushing heavy weight here, assuming their GPP base is sufficient and technique is sound.
-Positional Power/Speed Warmup-These can consist of drills to simulate different fielding actions, done at a smooth, rhythmic pace with an emphasis on relaxation and correct technique. You may also incorporate special strength drills, such as single leg hops, to develop the unilateral strength necessary to improve leg drive during batting/pitching, or first step power necessary to make quick lateral movements when fielding.
-Aerobic Capacity Development-This can be achieved in many forms, but our preferred methods are through tempo runs and tempo throws. Aerobic capacity developed in these manners are much more beneficial to baseball players, than the lactic loads with long distance running that is common place in many programs. Pitchers need a high aerobic capacity to recover fully between their intensive bouts of alactic power (ie. Pitches) and position players need it to maintain warmth in the muscles in between their bouts of alactic power (sprinting in the field, running the bases, swinging the bat) which are divided by extended periods of inactivity.
-Extensive Medball Throws-These will continue to develop the athletes aerobic capacity, in addition to increasing the strength and integrity of the musculature and ligaments in their shoulders, elbows, hips, lower backs and legs.
-Explosive MB Throws
-Accessory Strength Training-This will vary slightly depending on position but should definitely cover the lower back/hamstrings, scapular retraction, scapular depression, rotator cuff (external rotation only), and arms. This training is merely to maintain muscular suppleness in the areas and should be loaded as such.
-Repeat Day 2
Day 5- Sports Practice
-Jumps or jumps for distance are acceptable
-Explosive MB Throws
-Explosive Pushup Variations
-Dumbbell Press or Weighted Pushup Variations-Neutral grip pressing is always favorable for any throwing athlete. Floor presses are also an excellent choice as the strain on the shoulder will be reduced. The inclusion of thick grips (Fat Gripz, Grip4Force, or Fat Bars) is also advisable as stress will be reduced on the wrists, elbows and shoulders.
Day 6 and 7- Off
Each day, you want to pick 2 of the following movements to train, scapular retraction, scapular depression, rotator cuff (external rotation) and elbow prehab movements.
Let’s examine some of the foundational easpects within this program a bit deeper…
Flexibility is of paramount importance to baseball success, and maintaining it is often an argument coaches use against heavy resistance training for their athletes. Within the context of a properly structured program, which includes a well designed warmup, there is no risk of losing flexibility, in fact it will be enhanced. The proper warmup for a baseball player will entail raising the athlete’s core temperature in a low cost manner (wearing sweats, low amplitude abdominals), improve the range of motion in the joints (joint circles for neck, shoulders, arms, elbows, hips, ankles, Medball Mobility Circuit), activate the musculature to be targeted during the training session (baseball players will be well served to perform scapular activation drills even on lower body training days), prime the Central Nervous System for the tasks of the day (running drills, reactive medicine ball rebounds), and introduce the specific movements of the session in a submaximal manner (sprint buildups, rolling hops, medball rebounds, warmup sets for various lifts). There are many ways to achieve these goals in a warmup, so be creative while keeping the intent of the warmup in mind.
These sprints should be performed in a resisted manner (uphill or with a sled) during portions of the year, to build up special strength and prepare the ligaments of the lower leg and the musculature of the hamstrings and quads for the higher velocity free sprints to be utilized later. These sprints should range from 10-60yds in length and while most the year will be dedicated towards sprints performed with complete recoveries, there is also a time and place for alactic capacity work to be done using incomplete recoveries.
Explosive MB Throws-
As discussed above, medicine ball throws are a great builder of special strength necessary to improve throwing speed and bat speed during the swing. For this purpose, we will divide the medicine ball throws into 2 categories; special strength throws, which will encompass all forward overhead throwing variations and rotational throwing variations; and general strength throws, that are overhead backwards, scoop, squat+vertical and diving variations.
Pullovers-Pullovers are a staple in the training of javelin throwers, who possess tremendous speed, power, and of course, arm strength. The pullover will build strength and integrity through the shoulders, lats and chest, while also providing a dynamic stretch. Barbells, dumbbells, plates, and other implements can all be used to perform pullovers, one is not superior to the others and you should make your selection based upon which the athlete feels most comfortable with. There are special strength exercises that can be created with the pullover that will have a high dynamic correspondence to throwing velocity.
Squats-The squat will have a great carryover to both the leg drive of pitchers and hitters, which from a biomechanical standpoint has many similarities to the leg/hip action utilized during the shot put and discus, whose elite competitors possess some of the greatest maximal and explosive lower body strength in the world. Increased strength in the squat will also play a great role in improving acceleration and maximal speed. Look at the lower body development of any elite sprinter, the fastest athletes in the world, and you can quickly tell that they are no stranger to the squat rack. Due to the high amount of stress on the shoulders during sport practice, I would advocate avoiding external rotation during squatting whenever possible. The safety squat bar, front squats and belt squats are all excellent options for this purpose.
Rows/Pullups-Back strength is paramount to total body strength, health and particularly maintaining shoulder health. The pullup/chinup are often championed for baseball players, due to the role upper back strength plays in maintaining shoulder health and while they are great, it is critical to avoid going into a dead hang, as that creates an impingement zone for the shoulder. Chinups/Pullups and rowing movements such as bodyweight rows from a bar or rings, bentover rows, dumbbell rows or chest supported rows can all be utilized to improve a baseball players back strength. As with any type of pressing, a neutral grip is preferable while doing any rowing/pulling movement.
Abs-The abdominal muscles play a number of functions for baseball players; developing rotational power, stabilizing the spine and transferring power from the lower extremities, through the trunk, into the upper extremities. Most of the abdominal training we prescribe are low amplitude/stabilization maneuvers. Rotational strength is of particular importance to baseball players, as it should be, but it is important to make sure when performing rotational movements to avoid a fixed hip position, as allowing the shoulders to rotate >30 degrees from the hips, places the lumbar spine in a compromising situation.
When looking at the in-season training (any period where there are games or practices occurring 5+ times per week) of a baseball player, you must spread out the training stimulus over more sessions, prioritize you training stressors and avoid utilizing exercises that compete for the same technical patterns as your sporting movements.
As there are so many possible combinations of practice and game schedules, I will not list which is occurring on what day, particularly since there is not a tremendous difference in the stressors imposed on the body from one to the other, with the exception of starting pitchers. Here is a look at a possible week of in-season training…
DB Press/Pushup Variation
These workouts, as you can see, would be very short in duration, while still making sure that all necessary physical skills are being addressed during the training week. It is critical, particularly during the in-season period, that the athlete knows their body and adjusts their intensity and exercise selection accordingly, based on how they feel, practice demands, and game schedules.
There is one other aspect of training to consider, when aiming to best prepare a baseball player for sustained success…recovery/restoration. Due to the high volume of practices/games that nearly all players deal with and the countless repetitions needed to ingrain proper movement mechanics of technical skills like pitching and batting, overuse injuries are common among baseball players. Though much can be done to combat the onset of these types of injuries, such as prehabilition work for the rotator cuff and elbow as well as scapular mobilization drills, to truly keep the player healthy and fresh from game to game, the introduction of soft tissue work from a trained professional is of utmost importance. We are fortunate at Juggernaut to have Paradigm Performance Chiropractic housed within our facility. Paradigm’s chiropractors/sports medicine diplomats are trained in myofascial release therapy and are some of the only Graston certified practicioners on the west coast. Both myofascial release and Graston are great ways to break up scar tissue, mobilize fascia and promote new blood flow, speeding recovery, into the elbow and shoulder, as well as any other area that may be hindering maximal performance. If you can’t get to Paradigm for treatment, or find a Graston, soft tissue mobilization expert in your area, there are TONS of self myofascial techniques you can perform with a foam roller, The Stick, and a lacrosse ball. Make sure you check out JTSstrength.com and ParadigmDoc.com for more information on staying healthy through a long season.