With only six months available for baseball players to train—minus a handful of holidays—it is important that each and every workout be optimized to get the most out of this short window of time. Following the three tips in this article will ensure that maximal baseball performance and injury prevention gains are made this off-season.
Baseball is a highly anaerobic sports, and it requires minimal aerobic and muscular endurance. This, of course, excludes pitchers and catchers, but even they have long breaks between action. (The average time between pitches in Major League Baseball is over 18 seconds—not exactly blood pumping.) What baseball players do need is speed and power, and their training should reflect that.
Before baseball athletes can produce force quickly (speed/power), they must first be able to produce force slowly (strength). The beginning of the off-season is an ideal time to begin developing "raw" strength. Once adequate strength levels are reached, focus should begin to shift towards power and ultimately speed.
During this period, movement quality and speed should be emphasized. The goal is no longer how much or how many, but how fast. This is not the time to add fancy new exercises, but to increase the quality of the current ones. To do this, simply reduce the load on the bar, decrease the target number of reps and increase the speed. Exercises during this period may include explosive Squats, Deadlifts, Presses and medicine ball training. This is also a good time to add explosive linear and lateral movements.
Integrate Don't Isolate
Put down the resistance bands. Seriously.
In spite of their portability and convenience, resistance bands are of little use to throwing athletes. First, resistance band exercises are incredibly hard to perform correctly, usually resulting in shrugging of the shoulders and hyper-extension of the lower back. These compensations during an exercise are actually more harmful than no exercise at all. Second, the level of resistance is opposite the force curve of the muscles (muscles get weaker in end-range positions, where the resistance is greater with bands.) The combination of the two makes resistance bands the absolute last resort for athletes training their shoulders.
Another reason I do not recommend isolated band work is because of how time-consuming it is. Two or three sets of 15 reps on all four of the rotator cuff muscles can take upwards of 30 minutes to complete. This is valuable time that could be used to train more beneficial movements.
Finally, isolated rotator cuff exercises do little to reduce injuries. The arm during the overhand throwing motion—the most violent motion in sports—can internally rotate well over 7,000 degrees per second. Do you honestly think the small muscles of the rotator cuff can decelerate this motion all by themselves? If you answered no, you must acknowledge that the scapula stabilizing muscles of the upper back also play a large role in decelerating the arm. Only when these muscles do not function properly does excessive stress shift to the rotator cuff and cause injury.
If bands are not the answer, what is?
Working with throwing athletes, I prefer an integrated approach where the scapula and shoulder joint work in unison, as in the motion used for throwing. Because every movement in sports is an integrated pattern, training individual muscles for hypertrophy does not necessarily improve their function or strength when put back into specific movement patterns.
Two of my favorite movements are crawling patterns and kettlebell press and carry variations. With these exercises, no specific muscle is being targeted; instead, the movement itself is being trained.
With all this being said, the throwing motion is extremely violent and repetitive, and special attention should be paid to injury prevention of the rotator cuff. Whenever possible, this should be in the form of manual resistance instead of resistance bands.
Train the Core for Stability
Before I begin discussing the core, I want to make one thing clear: the static plank is not a core stability exercise; it is an isometric muscular strength/endurance exercise. The static plank may have a place for beginners learning body positions, but once it can be held for a handful of seconds, it is time to move on.
If planking is not stability, what is?
In its simplest form, stability is the ability to prevent motion in one place while motion happens somewhere else. This is the basis for how the body creates force. When the body cannot stabilize the torso, energy/force is dissipated and less energy/force is put into what you are trying to move (i.e., a baseball/softball).
To exemplify this, consider the pectoralis during the throwing motion. The pectoralis originates on the ribcage and connects to the upper arm. During the throwing motion, the pectoralis pulls on the ribcage and upper arm. If the ribcage is not stabilized by the core, it will elevate up toward the arm and reduce the force being applied to the baseball/softball. Core stability is also pattern-specific; thus, training the core in a static plank position does not translate into dynamic stability required for the throwing motion.
Another common mistake in training the core is thinking of the oblique muscles as movers/rotators. While the obliques do have the ability to produce rotation, athletes who rotate the least through the mid-section produce the greatest amounts of force, whether for throwing a ball or swinging a bat.
The obliques must be thought of as anti-rotators or connectors. Essentially, their role in baseball is to help connect the right glute with the left latissimus dorsi and vice versa. This is most evident in the swinging motion. Force originates at the athlete's back foot and works its way up to the glute. With a rock solid core, the powerful glute can fire and transfer a larger amount of energy through the latissimus dorsi, down the arm, and finally to the bat. Any weak links in this kinetic chain will rob the athlete of crucial power.
Training the obliques for anti-rotation is as simple as incorporating single-leg or split stance variations of exercises. Other great options are the forward and lateral Bear Crawl. During these exercises, the body will want to twist, lean, and bend. When done correctly, the obliques (as well as the rest of the core musculature) will be forced to fire to prevent these motions.
Contrary to what many experts would lead you to believe, off-season training for baseball is not much different from any other sport. Early in the off-season, all athletes regardless of sport should strive to improve their strength. Only as the season nears does more sport-specific training come into play, and even then, only minimally for youth athletes. The number 1 priority for youth athletes is to build raw strength. As the athlete matures, more sport- and positioning-specific training can be added to his or her off-season routine.