Why Relative Strength Is Crucial for Baseball

Relative strength training is routinely overlooked by baseball players, and because of that, explosiveness and all-around baseball performance suffers.

In this article, I'm going to show you that strength training in a baseball-specific way can have a major impact on improving your explosive speed and all-around baseball performance.

Strength training in the baseball world is typically seen as a method purely to increase batting power and reduce injury risk, and although it does do those things, it also lends extremely well to speed development which is what many players, parents and coaches totally forget.

Especially when it comes to lifting heavy loads, parents, coaches and players will say things along the lines of:

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In this article, I'm going to show you that strength training in a baseball-specific way can have a major impact on improving your explosive speed and all-around baseball performance.

Strength training in the baseball world is typically seen as a method purely to increase batting power and reduce injury risk, and although it does do those things, it also lends extremely well to speed development which is what many players, parents and coaches totally forget.

Especially when it comes to lifting heavy loads, parents, coaches and players will say things along the lines of:

  • "I don't want to be a bodybuilder!"
  • "Why am I doing heavy powerlifting stuff?"
  • "Keep away from the heavy weights, you'll get too bulky and slow!"

These are all massive misconceptions. By the end of this article I'll convince you that heavy strength training might just be the next big thing that you add to your offseason programming.

The Exact Strength You Need for Baseball

The term "relative strength" represents how strong you are in relation to your own body weight.

This is an important distinction to make because "absolute strength" represents how strong you are no matter what your body weight is.

Someone who is seeking relative strength gains is one who wants to remain functionally strong and improve their athletic outputs—whereas someone who is only after absolute strength is the kind of character who is willing to put on a bunch of body fat to improve his Bench Press, Squat or Deadlift.

Whenever you are in the gym you need to have the mindset of being there because you want to be a better baseball player and not just become better at exercising.

Baseball players need relative strength because that's what's going to allow them to improve their all-around baseball performance.

The problem that players, parents and coaches run into is that they fear lifting heavy.

Yet, repetitions within the 1-5 rep zone per set (i.e., 85-100% intensity) develop maximal relative strength. Thus, requiring you to put a lot of weight on the bar to make such a short rep range extremely challenging.

Let's talk through why you need to drop the fear of lifting heavy and start incorporating it into your baseball periodization whenever applicable.

Why Baseball Players Need to Lift Heavy

Training within the 85-100% intensity zone allows you to develop relative strength because it most effectively trains your nervous system rather than targeting muscular development.

The two primary changes that occur as a result of training the nervous system are increased synchronization of motor units and decreased inhibition by the protective mechanisms of the muscle.

Let me explain these concepts by using the example of a Barbell Back Squat.

Increased synchronization of motor units: Let's say you can squat 100 pounds for 1 repetition.

If you put 80 pounds on the barbell and squat it once, only a few muscle fibers involved in the movement will become activated. This creates fatigue in those activated fibers, so to do another rep you need to recruit some new fibers within those involved muscle groups.

Continue this for 8-12 more reps and by the last rep all of the fibers within the involved muscle groups will be both activated and fatigued, leading to failure in that set.

Now if instead of putting 80 pounds on the bar you put your full 100-pound max on the bar and try to squat it, all of the muscle fibers are forced to contract at once (and not sequentially) so that you can complete an all-out one rep max.

This creates a simultaneous contraction rather than a sequential contraction which is a nervous system adaptation and plays a big role in how we govern our baseball-specific program design.

Let's say you have a stronger baseball player who can deadlift 400 pounds for one rep and 350 pounds for three reps.

Then, if this athlete only focuses on performing triples in a training cycle and increases that 3-rep-max to 370 pounds, you might assume that they could probably deadlift around 420 pounds, but in fact what may happen is that they only improved their max to 405 pounds.

This is because the nervous system was, in a sense, holding back on recruiting all the fibers until the third rep.

As such, to achieve optimal results in demonstrating maximum relative strength baseball players need to perform very low rep ranges (even singles) at some point within their baseball training periodization.

Think about this translating into a game setting now.

Who do you think is going to be the more all-around explosive baseball player, the one who takes a while to get his engine firing on all cylinders (sequential contraction), or the baseball player who can explode at 100% right out of the gate (simultaneous contraction)?

Now you're starting to see where I'm going with this, but it doesn't end here because we still haven't discussed the second primary nervous system adaptation to heavy lifting.

Decreased inhibition by the protective mechanisms of the muscle: Muscles work in pairs—the agonist and the antagonist.

The muscle that is causing the primary movement is the agonist, and when it is contracting, the opposing muscle group (the antagonist) becomes relaxed.

For example, when you perform a Bicep Curl, the biceps are the agonists and the triceps are the antagonists; but when you perform a Tricep Press Down, the triceps are the agonists and the biceps are the antagonists.

For ease of explanation, let's use the example of a boxer throwing a punch to articulate why this agonist/antagonist relationship is critical to optimize for reaching your potential in baseball.

Let's say a boxer is punching a heavy bag. As the boxer extends his arm, the triceps muscle contracts, and after hitting the heavy bag, the biceps will contract to pull the arm back to where it started.

If the biceps were to continue contracting at the same time as the triceps contracted, there would be much less power behind the punch—you can equate this to pressing both the gas and the brake of a car at the same time.

In effect, this mechanism trains the muscles to more effectively utilize the unique strength they have and not inhibit each other's maximal power output.

Relative Strength Is Critical to Baseball performance

Despite what many coaches and parents think, the 1-5 rep range produces minimal gains in muscle mass (as it trains the nervous system mostly), and because of this, it is of great value for baseball players who need higher levels of relative strength.

At a certain point, muscle size becomes detrimental to baseball performance by limiting the speed, conditioning and agility potential of the athlete. Once the baseball player has "filled out their frame," it's ideal to place more training efforts into relative strength to make that frame perform at its maximum ability.

Baseball players benefit immensely from improving their relative strength as opposed to taking a more bodybuilding-focused result as relative strength will lead to more explosiveness, better aerodynamics, higher levels of acceleration, faster running, harder hitting, farther throwing and higher jumping.

Relative strength can and should be connected to all of these things in any baseball program design.

Beyond this, training for relative strength also offers baseball players some "hidden" benefits as well such as improved will power to fight through difficult contractions, maintain coordination patterns under extreme stress, and mentally learn how to "turn it on" from stimulated to relaxed.

Although these "hidden" skills are more subjective in nature, I still find them highly beneficial for baseball players.

Example Lower-Body Relative Strength Workout for Baseball

Bringing this to real-world application, below you will find an example of a single lower-body relative strength-based workout for baseball players utilizing the scientifically proven Cluster Training Method.

A1: Barbell back squat* – 5 x 1,1,1,1,1

Rest 120 secs

A2: Barbell stiff-legged deadlift* – 5 x 1,1,1,1,1

Rest 120 secs

B1: Dumbbell goblet Cossacks squat – 3 x 5-7/leg

Rest 90 secs

B2: Barbell reverse walking lunges – 3 x 5-7/leg

Rest 90 secs

Baseball Workout Explanation

For exercises A1 and A2, choose a weight that is 90% of your 1-rep max.

Perform 1 rep, rest 10 seconds, perform your second rep, rest 10 seconds, and repeat until you have completed all 5 reps. That is one set.

From here, rest 120 seconds, move on to Barbell Stiff-Legged Deadlifts and perform the same style of repetitions. Rest another 120 seconds and return to Barbell back squats to start the second round. Complete 5 rounds total of that cluster training agonist/antagonist superset.

For the B1 and B2 exercises, you will complete 1 set of 5-7 reps of DB Goblet Cossack Squats, rest 90 secs, perform the Barbell Reverse Walking Lunges for 8 reps per leg, rest 90 seconds and repeat the superset for three rounds.

The Necessary Caveats

Relative strength training is not something I recommend for baseball players under the age of 15 or for anyone who is new to the world of weight training.

Youth athletes simply do not need to utilize this method as I train them in a very methodical way that is bodyweight-only in design.

People who are new to weightlifting lack neurological efficiency, which refers to how effectively an individual recruits the higher-threshold muscle fibers. Having this group focus on this low of a rep range may not be an excellent use of training time as they often cannot recruit a significant number of high-threshold fibers in the first place.

This is a learned skill that you must develop over a few years of properly periodized baseball training.

Beyond this, I also don't recommend relative strength training during the season as it is highly fatiguing for the nervous system and may detract from performance outputs during your games and practices.

Reserve this for select phases in the offseason and you will be getting the most out of this method in the best way possible.

Photo Credit: AlbertoChagas/iStock

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Topics: BASEBALL | SQUAT | DEADLIFT | BARBELL EXERCISES | DUMBBELL EXERCISES | HEAVY LIFTING | MAXIMUM STRENGTH