Baseball is a unique sport consisting of primarily low-intensity activity interspersed with sporadic bouts of quick high-intensity action over an extended period. There is a significant amount of skill involved and the demands vary tremendously amongst each position. An outfielder could conceivably play every game on the schedule, whereas a pitcher would be lucky to find their way on the roster every fourth or fifth game of the season. No matter the position, however, an effectively designed strength and conditioning program that is implemented effectively is critical to remaining injury-free and performing at the highest level.
Physical Demands of Baseball
When analyzing the sport of baseball, several things must be considered before beginning a program including key movements, important muscle groups involved, and common injuries.
- Throwing or Pitching
- Change of Direction
- Swinging a Bat
Key Muscle Groups
- “Core” (more on this later)
- Rotator Cuff Tears
- Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL)
- Shoulder Labrum Tears
- Knees (MCL or ACL Sprains & Tears)
All these variables are the basis with which a baseball program should be centered around no matter the player’s skill level. A coach that can increase a player’s speed, agility, throwing ability, and rotational power will give provide the tools necessary to be more successful on the field of play.
Phases of Training
To get the most optimal adaptations from training, a definitive annual plan with distinct phases throughout the year is critical. There is no one size fits all program for any athlete. However, a basic template can be followed and adapted according to the athlete. Training phases in an annual plan for baseball include the offseason, preseason, in-season, postseason, and active rest periods. A basic description of each phase is below:
Offseason: Athletes begin structured general physical preparation (GPP) work aiming to increase their work capacity and build their stamina back up from anything they may have lost over the season plus the active rest period. This is a great time to focus on technique as well as address any glaring asymmetries and deficiencies. After an initial phase, athletes will then begin strength work and slightly increase their baseball-specific conditioning, however, it remains rather general.
Preseason: This is typically the most grueling training athletes see all year as the volume starts to decline but intensity ramps up dramatically. Athletes typically begin shifting their training to a greater emphasis on power and speed shorter more intermittent bouts of explosive conditioning. The goal is not to “peak” for the first game (baseball is a very long season) but to be ready for high-level competition and build enough reserve that can easily be maintained through a long season.
Season: This is the most overlooked aspect of training by athletes and sports coaches alike. Training must continue throughout the season, and athletes should still be moving heavy weights and working on power as the season progresses. The volume will be rather low but maintaining all the hard-earned qualities through the offseason is paramount, as they decline rather quickly in the absence of training. Aiming for at least two brief 45-minute bouts during the week is enough to keep your baseball player going throughout the season so long as the programming is intelligently structured. Monitoring fatigue and ensuring your workouts don’t do more harm than good is of utmost importance at this stage.
Postseason: The last phase athletes typically see in the postseason or “championship season” as I like to call it. This is where athletes must peak and display their greatest level of performance, which can be difficult after a grueling season. If all the steps previously mentioned were followed correctly, this is certainly attainable.
Active Rest: Immediately after the season wraps up, athletes can take a break from structured training and focus on healing nagging injuries as well as playing recreational sports for fun. This should last about two to three weeks and certainly no longer than four.
With basic descriptions and an understanding of how each phase works, the details of the program are below. It should be noted that this is a traditional or ‘linear’ periodization model which is best suited for the high school athlete as they likely do not have significant experience in strength training yet. This is by no means exhaustive, and there are many ways this can be successfully executed.
Offseason Phase 1: Anatomical Adaptation:
- Duration: 2-5 weeks
- Load: Bodyweight – ~50% 1RM
- Frequency: 3x per week
- Reps: 12-15 down to 8
- Total sets: 2-4 rounds through the circuit
- Exercises: 9-12
Goal: (Re)introduce load to prepare the body’s joints, bones, tendons, ligaments, and soft tissue for the training cycles ahead and build a foundation of solid movement technique. The program below is 3x per week with 2 circuits and 1 day focused on technique.
Offseason Phase 2: Maximum Strength 1 & Hypertrophy
- Duration: ~6-8 weeks
- Load: ~60-80% 1RM
- Frequency: 3-4x per week
- Reps: 6-12
- Total Sets: 18-24
- Exercises: 6-9
Goal: Increase the cross-sectional muscle area of the prime movers and lay the foundation for increased strength and power. This is NOT like bodybuilding but instead increased functional mass in all the right areas. The following is a program that is 4 weeks long and can be run in successive cycles or adjusted according to the coach’s liking.
Offseason Phase 3: Maximum Strength 2
- Duration: ~6 weeks
- Load: 80-95% 1RM
- Frequency: 2-4x per week
- Reps: 1-3 fundamental, 8-10 accessory
- Total Sets: 16-24
- Exercises: 2-5 fundamental, 1-2 accessory
Goal: Increase maximum strength and absolute force expression. This is where the heaviest of loads will be lifted, which can be very taxing on the athlete; therefore coaches must program and train intelligently. Coaches can repeat days 1 and 2 for a 3rd day in the week if deemed appropriate.
Preseason Phase: Power
Duration: ~6-8 weeks
- Load: ~50-85%% 1RM
- Frequency: 2-3x per week
- Reps: 2-5 fundamental, 6-10accessory
- Total Sets: 16-24
- Exercises: 2-5 fundamental, 1-2 accessory
Goal: Increase rate of force development and power output. All the hard work in building strength begins to shine through. The program below is 2x a week but can become 3 if the coach so chooses; however, it is important to remember that sports practice has likely begun in the preseason and the athlete will likely be fatigued from that.
In Season: Strength & Power Maintenance
- Duration: ~16-20 weeks
- Load: Varied. However, one must include loads <80%
- Frequency: 1-2x per week
- Reps: varied
- Total Sets: 10-12
- Exercises: 3-5
Goal: During the competitive season, the primary goal is to maintain and potentially make slight improvements in strength/power. Time is limited. Therefore, athletes may only be able to get 1-2 workouts in a week maximum. These should be short and sweet, around 45 minutes and only target necessary movements with little to no unnecessary volume, creating excessive fatigue. With a sport like baseball that has so many games training will be sporadic, and rather than display a workout below I have included a template for easily creating an in-season session.
- Exercise 1, Full-Body Power: (hang power clean, hang power snatch, medicine ball toss)
- Exercise 2, Lower Body Strength: (box squat, trap bar deadlift, barbell step-up)
- Exercise 3, Upper Body Strength: (pull up, incline bench press, chest supported row)
- Exercise 4, Posterior Chain or Shoulder Health: (Hamstring Curls, band pull aparts)
- Exercise 5, Core: (dead bugs, plank shoulder taps, paloff presses)
Active Rest Phase:
The active rest phase begins as soon as the season ends. I am a major advocate for high school athletes to play multiple sports, and if this is the case, they may not get much of a break, potentially only 1-2 weeks. They should talk with their coaches and parents to monitor their health and proceed responsibly. If, however, they are not playing another sport, they should take a solid 4-week break from any structured training and enjoy being a young adult. This means playing unstructured activities such as pick-up basketball with their friends, attending a yoga class, hiking, whatever gets them excited. The transition period is meant to separate oneself from the sport so that one can both physically and mentally recover from the continued stress their body has been under. It may be tempting to begin training right after the season ends, but trust me, it’s not worth it. Take the well-deserved break.
Strength and conditioning are key to health and successful performance in any competitive sport. Baseball is no different. There is no one size fits all program. However, there is a general methodology with which every coach and athlete can follow to ensure they are getting the most out of their training intelligently and effectively. When aiming to set up your high school baseball training program this season, try using these foundational principles to help guide you along the way and watch the results speak for themselves.