Why Great Baseball Players Are Built in the Fall

Baseball players who train in the fall get a major jump on the competition and set themselves up for a productive offseason.

With the fall season right around the corner, I thought this would be a great time for me to talk about the importance of early offseason training.

I call this the "re-conditioning" phase.

Increases in strength largely come via two broad adaptations and two training methods. The two adaptations are muscle morphological adaptations (hypertrophy) and neural activation adaptations (absolute strength). The two training methods are:

  1. Hypertrophy/Tissue Prep: Lifting moderate resistances at higher repetitions to improve muscle fiber size, promote change in fiber structure and architecture, and prepare the ligaments and tissue for the heavier work ahead.
  2. Absolute Strength: Lifting very heavy weights at lower repetitions to improve neural activation of motor units within a muscle, increase the rate of firing of motor units, and possibly increase some synchronization of the firing of those motor units.

As the need for maximum strength increases, so should the length of the maximum strength phase of training. An athlete's ability to increase maximum strength depends on the diameter of the cross-sectional area of muscle involved (muscle size) and the resilience of the soft tissue to withstand higher loading in the weight room. Muscle size depends greatly on the duration of the hypertrophy phase, whereas the diameter of myosin and the increase in protein content in the form of cross-bridges depends on the volume and duration of the maximum strength phase.

Many young athletes opt to play fall baseball and skip training during this crucial period when we can focus specifically on the hypertrophy phase. Unfortunately, these athletes are often underweight and weak, making them the ones who could benefit most from this dedicated training time. However, if you really have your heart set on playing fall ball, you can train during the same time.

What is the re-conditioning phase?

During the season, constant throwing and multiple games and practices per week can really wreak havoc on a baseball player's shoulders and hips. During in-season training, these are areas we can't focus on due to the fact they're already under a tremendous amount of stress from throwing and hitting all week. Then you've also got the 5 pounds of weight loss and 2- to 3-mile-per-hour drop in velocity most players experience throughout the summer and you've got a beat-up, weak athlete.

This is all the more reason for ballplayers to get in early for the "Re-Conditioning Phase" during which we can focus on hypertrophy and tissue prep. Ideally, this will help the athlete put on an additional 5-7 pounds of muscle and get a jump on increasing their movement quality before we hit it hard in the winter offseason. Starting the re-conditioning phase in September accomplishes a few things:

  • It can be implemented during Fall Ball when many kids are playing limited innings and the slight residual soreness from training will not interfere with "in-season" competitive play.
  • It re-introduces and solidifies good movement quality after a long season.
  • It provides an extra 8 weeks of muscle building and focus on weight gain.
  • It focuses on hypertrophy (muscle mass), better preparing the body for heavier volumes of lifting come winter.

I'm going to take you through much of what goes into this phase of training at our facility and why we at Rockland Peak Performance believe it's so important.

1. Learn How to Breathe

Learning to breath into the belly is one of the most neglected elements in a training program. At RPP, all of our athletes begin every session with breathing drills to relax the neck and upper traps and to take some tone out of the lats, opening up space in the shoulder area and assisting in better upward rotation for better overhead movement. Many players will tell you they have seen us get 5-10 degrees of shoulder internal rotation back with just 5 minutes of breathing drills. This video is a great example.

2. Soft Tissue and Mobility Work

Due to the deceleration forces that occur from throwing and batting, soft tissue can become very gritty and short (tight). This can present itself as tightness in the shoulder region, t-spine, hips, lower back and hamstrings, among other areas. Many pitchers have laxity (loose joints), so actively stretching the muscle can sometimes do more harm than good (for more info on this topic, please read my blog on laxity). Incorporating self-myofascial release (foam rolling) to improve tissue quality and mobility work (such as a hip flow circuit) to help improve movement quality and prevent injury are two of our main focuses in the fall.

3. Cuff and Scap Activation

Working on cuff strength is a must, but working on correct movement and teaching the scap to fire quickly is equally important, if not more so. We include manual external rotation drills for strengthening as well as stabilization drills to help increase blood flow to the area and teach the cuff to fire quicker.

4. Med Ball and Plyometrics

Because baseball involves so much rotating and lateral movement, we try to keep much of our work in the early offseason in the Sagittal (front to back) plane and keep all throws purely on the non-dominant side for the first four weeks. This helps to get back a little rotation on the "less-used" side and give the dominant side a much needed break. Saggital plane plyos such as Broad Jumps replace lateral work prior to doing any multi-directional work.

5. Manual Resistance

Nothing works on strengthening the posterior cuff better than manual resistance drills. They're also great for activating the posterior cuff just prior to going into the weight room. However, guys who are still playing fall ball need not apply, as throwing is hard enough on the cuff.

6. Strength Training

September and October is when we focus on hypertrophy/tissue prep in the weight room. Maximum strength is a must for creating and cementing good stability at adjacent joints as well as being the building block upon which both power and speed are built on. Building athletic qualities without a good solid base of strength and tissue quality would be like building a house from the top down.

In the Fall, we like to focus on unilateral exercises for the simple reason that they are a bit more of a "forgiving" movement than bilateral squatting or Deadlifts. This is because while performing a single-leg exercise, you can "cheat" by borrowing a bit of movement from the frontal (side-to-side) plane. In 4-6 weeks, we'll work eccentrically to help cement some good hip mobility as well as better ankle and core stability. Only then will we start training bilateral with exercises like Deadlifts and Squat variations.

Remember, many young athletes don't continue to train in-season, so their movement quality and muscle mass is a bit compromised coming into the gym by September/October.

7. Anterior and Anti-rotational Core Work

Good anterior core strength helps stabilize the thorax (rib-cage) to give the scapula a nice stable surface to move on. It also does wonders to keep our athletes who have anterior pelvic tilt (perhaps the most common posture problem in our modern society) out of extension in their lower lumbar.

Although there is no "rotational" core work early on, we do work on "resisting" core rotation, which can go a long way in helping prevent lower back pain as a result of going past the end range while throwing a baseball or swinging a bat. Tall Kneeling Cable Push Presses are great for working on both the anterior and anti-rotational aspects of the core at the same time.

8. Conditioning

OK, here is a personal pet peeve of mine. We do no running during the early part of our offseason. Period!

Excessive running can really compromise an athlete's strength, and we don't want to risk any injuries given the amount of strength training our guys will be doing in the upcoming months. Besides, this is the time to get strong. Our emphasis on speed comes later on in January/February. If you'd like to dive deeper into my thoughts on this, please read my prior article on "Running, the Gift of Slowness."

9. Nutrition

Many guys enter the fall underweight due to the grind of the summer season and the poor nutrition habits they utilized during that hectic schedule. We're going to give these guys a diet plan to help them gain muscle and consume healthy calories. On the other hand, some of our guys need to drop weight, so we'll try and get them to choose better quality food and adjust their workouts accordingly. It's very common to see an athlete gain 10-15 pounds of muscle or lose 10% body fat during the offseason. For all you "hard gainers," this can easily become a 20- to 25-pound weight gain if an additional 8 weeks of strength training and nutrition are added.

Though many baseball players will spend their fall without setting foot inside the gym, those who do get a major jump on the competition and set themselves up for a productive offseason.

Photo Credit: Srdjana1/iStock