Views from the SMC Dugout: An Inclusive Guide to the Gaels In-Season Baseball Program
March 15, 2016
I love baseball. It is truly “one of a kind.” Thanks to its long seasons, I only have to survive a relatively small portion of the year without it. In fact, baseball actually has the longest season of all Division I sports. Baseball is also a “skill dominant” sport, where success is largely determined by skill level, rather than pure athleticism. This becomes more and more accurate as we move to the higher levels of competition seen in Division I and MLB. To put it simply, baseball is unique, at both the collegiate and professional level, and the distinctive nature of the sport SHOULD have some serious implications for Strength & Conditioning Coaches. Over the remainder of this post, we will examine how I approach In-Season programming for SMC Baseball. Don’t worry, I will be overly thorough (damn OCD), and explain “why” for just about everything. First stop, demands & philosophical stuff. Seriously.
Demands & Philosophical Stuff
Ask just about any Strength Coach where to start with a program, and they will probably look at you like an idiot for a minute before they tell you a “demands analysis.” So that’s exactly where we are going to start. To make this as quick as possible…Baseball is an anaerobic, rotational-based sport, with an overhead component that places heavy demands on the shoulder (more so for pitchers but hey everyone in baseball throws a baseball). With the exception of switch-hitters, and the very occasional switch-pitcher (shout-out to Pat Venditte), baseball is extremely unilateral, which leads to all types of asymmetrical adaptations. While we have already established that Division I baseball has the longest season in college sports, we didn’t mention the other “demands” of college baseball, most of which revolve around the whole “college” deal. Attending class, missing class, traveling, playing, practicing, conditioning, weight-lifting, attempting to have a social life, having a sub-par diet…these are all stressors that all student-athletes are exposed to on a daily basis. The only difference with baseball is that in-season demands last longer, which should be taken into consideration when programming.
Cal Dietz says that a strength coach is a “stress manager.” He’s right. Our job is literally to apply stress to our athletes in order to produce a favorable adaptation. However, this is a fine line. As we just established, our student-athletes are already exposed to a ton of stressors. Thus, the challenge for strength coaches is to understand the demands and stressors that our athletes are exposed to and “ride the line.” Being on the “right side of the line” is even more important when our athletes are in-season and doing their job, playing baseball at the highest level possible. Quick detour as I think it is really important to highlight that point…As strength coaches, I think it is way to easy to forget that our athletes are baseball players, not power lifters, not Olympic weight lifters, and definitely not CrossFitters. While having strong athletes is awesome and an important step in the performance process, it is not the end goal. Baseball is a power sport, and is much closer to the absolute speed end of the strength-speed continuum.
Periodization (& more philosophical stuff)
Due to the nature of baseball as a sport, the stress manager concept, and the importance of riding and being on the “right side of the line,” I favor the block system over other forms of periodization as I feel it is a better fit for athletic performance, especially in-season. Thus, we utilize an undulated block system based on Triphasic Training principles as laid out by Cal Dietz. I say “based on” Triphasic principles because there are many aspects of my system that are different, specifically exercise selection, which I will talk about shortly. Since we use the block system the length of each “cycle” varies throughout the season, as our cycles are based off of residual training effects. We spend the majority of the season between the 55-80% range, because this is where we can maximize both force and velocity (and it also is more closely aligned with the demands of the sport). We revisit accumulation parameters (80+) every 4 weeks to ensure we are not losing strength.
One of the major philosophical bases for my programming year-round is QUALITY. This has always been a priority for me but after studying Cal Dietz it has essentially become an obsession. I will admit it…I am obsessed with high quality reps. I’m sure you have heard the whole, “quality over quantity” deal time and time again in the strength and conditioning field. This can come up in a variety of contexts, whether we are talking about programming or technique. I am a strong believer that if we want our athletes to succeed, we must give them the tools to do so. If we say we strive for quality and then turn around and hand our athletes a sheet that tells them to knock out 3 sets of 5 reps @ 80%, I think we are kidding ourselves if we think reps 4 & 5 are going to be “quality” reps. Saying quality is a priority and actually programming for quality are two TOTALLY different things. Unfortunately, they usually don’t coincide as often as they should.
High quality reps not only create a safer training environment, but they also lead to a “cleaner” more effective and potent stimulus. If I am trying to focus on power, I am going to get a better result if I give my athlete a set/rep scheme that ensures that they will actually be able to move the bar at a high velocity for the number of reps prescribed. High quality reps are incredibly important in-season as I try and stay on the “right side of the line.” By giving my athletes more sets with fewer reps I can preserve quality and ensure that no stress will be wasted on anything unless it accomplishes the training goal I have set for the day/cycle/phase.
Timing and Frequency
When we transition to in-season training, we move from 3 to 2 days per week. Monday is a medium-intensity day with moderate volume. Wednesday is a high-intensity day with minimal volume. These training days are subject to change due to mid-week games, travel, and changes in practice schedules. However, we stick to 2 total body days per week for the entirety of the season. The only exception to this is our starting rotation, who train on 7-day cycles based upon their day of start (Friday, Saturday, or Sunday). But we will save how we train our pitchers for another post ☺.
When selecting exercises for my programs, I begin by filling out a template that I created with varying movement categories. The basic idea came from Joe Kenn’s tier system. I find that this simplifies the entire process and ensures we are covering all the bases. My template is very flexible and rather than following it in a rigid fashion, I frequently modify it to accommodate the parameters I set for each cycle based upon what we are trying to accomplish. There is nothing revolutionary here, we just make sure we are hitting the basic movement categories. In addition to the normal movement categories, I also include core stability categories to make sure we are hitting every aspect required for our athletes. These categories include anterior core stability, rotary stability, lateral core stability, and posterior core stability. The basis for these categories came from Eric Cressey and Mike Reinold’s Functional Stability Training, which is a great resource (if you haven’t checked it out, you definitely should). BTW Eric Cressey is an INCREDIBLE resource for baseball training, he’s a genius.
There are some basic guidelines I follow year-round with baseball due to various considerations based upon the demands of the sport, a majority of these revolve around pitchers.
Pitchers do NOT bench press, and I try to limit the amount of time our position players spend with their chests under the bar. The primary rationale for this is that scapular movement and stability are heavily prioritized in my system, especially for pitchers. Benching simply doesn’t accommodate for this as the shoulder blades are pinned against the bench, which doesn’t allow the scapulae to “follow” the humerus. From their first day in the weight room, I am constantly coaching our players up on the necessity of proper scapular movement and stability. While scapular dysfunction may not be the CAUSE of shoulder problems, it’s certainly no coincidence that it accompanies essentially all shoulder pathology. So how do we train horizontal pressing movements in our baseball players? Great question, very simple answer. We rely HEAVILY upon push-up variations for our upper body strength. A PROPERLY performed pushup, which begins with a neutral spine, anterior core engagement, and active glutes, not only allows for proper scapular movement, but also encourages proper movement patterns including serratus anterior activation. Don’t worry, we have plenty of chains to load this movement (when appropriate), so I never feel like we are missing out by keeping the bench press out, or limited, in my program. If you think pushups are easy, try loading 8, 20 pound chains across your back and then come see me.
We also stay away from most traditional overhead presses, as they tend to irritate the shoulders of most of our players. Similar to bench press for our pitchers, the risk/reward ratio just doesn’t pan out. Not to mention they are notorious for exacerbating the heavily extended posture most of our players live in. Instead, we opt for landmine press variations for the majority of our “vertical” presses. Ya, it’s really more of a “hybrid” movement that falls in between a horizontal and vertical press. BUT it helps facilitate the scapular movement we want to see, namely protraction and upward rotation. Landmine pressing variations are also a great teaching tool for proper anterior core control (which should accompany ALL overhead movement) and the asymmetrical loading helps further develop core stability. In addition to landmine presses, we also utilize bottoms up kettlebell pressing variations.
You will not find any cleans, snatches, or jerks in our program. Yup, I know the last few paragraphs have probably upset about 50% (maybe more) of the strength coaches reading this and I’ve squashed any credibility I may have had, but what can you do? It’s not that I don’t feel like they have value within an athletic training context. I really do, BUT considering the deficiencies many of our athletes have (that we have to spend time correcting), the amount of time that must be devoted to teaching these lifts (which means less time for other training), and the EFFICIENCY plyometric training means and medicine ball throws do possess, they don’t make sense in my system. I also feel like plyometrics and medicine ball throw variations are a more applicable means of training that helps bridge the gap between the weight room and the field. With that being said, we significantly decrease the amount of medicine ball throws programmed for in-season training as our players spend more time on the field hitting and throwing.
OK, so what changes do you make in-season aside from downshifting to 2-days/week? Exercise selection becomes a bit more selective for in-season training as we have to accomplish more in a limited amount of time and have more considerations. For the most part, I select exercises that provide a big return or “bang for your buck.” This means utilizing exercises that have a strong integrated core stability component and help fulfill more than one movement category. I also try to limit the amount of eccentric stress that we expose our athletes to, and when we apply it during this stage of the year. For example, our squat day is always going to be earlier in the week (unless mid-week games pop-up), while our deadlift day will be mid-week. We also favor single leg exercises like step-ups over lunge variations for this reason. We closely monitor our plyometrics in-season through data gathered from Jump Mats (no Tendo units or force plates here) to get a feel for their level of fatigue and adjust workouts if necessary.
Below are examples of our first phase of in-season training with explanations for each exercise:
Day 1 (Monday): Total Body- Knee Dominant Lower Body – Vertical Press Emphasis
1. Banded Wall Slides – Serratus Anterior and Upper Trap activation to drive proper scapular movement (protraction, upward rotation, and retraction)
2. Marching Glute Bridge – Glute activation, anterior core, and rotary stability. We do these for breath cycles rather than reps.
3. Mini-Band Lateral Walk – Glute med activation. Done in an athletic position to add slight hip flexion to decrease TFL contribution. Increases HR and core temperature, as well as reinforces the hip hinge pattern that we will be using in the next 2 exercises. The single arm swing portion of the complex also serves as core stability work.
1. High Velocity Potentiation Cluster - (a) Front Box Squat- I favor the Front Squat for athletic populations but even more so for overhead athletes as it avoids contraindicated positioning for the shoulder and shearing stress of the spine. Use of the box squat also decreases unnecessary depth (and subsequent eccentric stress) in-season. This is done in a narrower “sport” stance to increase transfer to the field. (b) Depth Jump (Jump Mat)- Main plyometric activity for the day. Used to increase reactive ability and power development. The quantitative feedback provided by the Jump Mat not only helps athletes compete, it gives our staff a way to monitor progress and fatigue from week to week.
2. Anti-Rotation Deadbug - Adds a rotary stability component to the anterior core activation of the deadbug. I LOVE deadbugs (& other supine anterior core variations) as they provide feedback to help athletes stay out of extension.
3. Single-Leg Landmine Press – Further integrates the stability component of the landmine, which is our main upper body press. Helps drive proper scapular movement.
4. Power Cable Row - Main upper body pull for the day. Producing power in an opposite direction from the majority of baseball related movements. Done on the KEISER cable assembly to quantify power produced, increases competition and helps us track progress week to week.
5. ½ Kneeling Rotational Partner Scoop Toss - Training core stability outside of the sagittal plane. Gets our athletes in an athletic position that encourages hip mobility (Stolen from Eric Potter).
6. Deadstop Single Leg Landmine RDL + 1-Arm Row – Big bang for your buck. Tons of pulling here, we get to hit the hamstring and glutes while we develop single leg stability and grip strength.
7. Cable Lateral Lunge - Single leg training outside of the sagittal plane. Lateral movement is a huge component of baseball, thus it must be trained. Done on the KEISER cable assembly to track power produced.
8. Barbell Rollouts – Probably one of the best and most challenging anterior core variations of all time. Always instruct athletes to reach up and out to prevent shoulder issues and get more upward rotation of the scapulae.
Day 2: Total Body- Hip Dominant Lower Body- Horizontal Press Emphasis
1. 1-Arm Cable Rotational Low Row – Great exercise for pitchers. Helps emphasize the importance of driving upward rotation, activates both upper and lower body and proper power transfer. Gets everyone outside of the sagittal plane, primed, and ready to work.
2. Cookie Trays – Activates serratus anterior, rotator cuff, and drives scapular protraction and retraction. Great arm care drill.
3. Banded Hip Thrusts – Used for glute activation to get hips ready for deadlifts. We never touch a bar without turning our glutes on first.
1. High Velocity Potentiation Cluster: - (a) Trap Bar Deadlift- This is our “go-to” variation of the deadlift. While we also work sumo and conventional deadlifts throughout the year, I like this one best because it minimizes risk as it produces less shearing stress on the spine since the load is closer to our center of gravity. It also requires less mobility than conventional deadlifts and the neutral grip is always an added bonus for baseball players. (b) Depth Drop + Heiden (Stick)- Main Plyo for the day. Working on developing and producing power outside the sagittal plane.
2. Dinger Chops - Continuing to develop power outside the sagittal plane. We use this to reinforce proper force development from the lower body and develop core stability. Done on the KEISER cable assembly to give quantitative feedback. This is beneficial for both pitchers and position players as it is very similar to movement patterns seen in pitching and hitting to increase transferability to the field.
3. TRX Chain Pushup + Band Accelerated Plyo Pushup – Upper body complex. Chain pushup is the main upper body press for the day (Position players substitute for Bench Press). This movement is extremely challenging from an anterior core stability perspective. The band accelerated plyo pushup helps keep the velocity of the movement high and serves as our upper body plyometric movement of the day.
4. Slideboard SideSaw - Challenging lateral core stability exercise.
5. KEISER Step-Up - Single leg lower body movement of the day with a strong rotary stability component.
6. Swiss Bar Inverted Row [Feet Elevated on Physioball] – Main upper body pull for the day. I love inverted row variations as they require a ton of stability. We really emphasize the scapular movement on all of these variations. The swiss bar provides a way to utilize a neutral grip which helps put the shoulder in a more favorable position. The physioball helps take the core stability up a notch, we even played around with adding some pertubations to the physioball to further increase the difficulty.
7. Cable Bowler Squat - Great movement for glute med and the posterior chain. The transfer for pitchers is huge here. The cable “Y” also helps to develop the lower traps which is an added bonus.
8. Tall-Kneeling Overhead Med-ball Catch to Slam – Dynamic anterior core exercise.
Hopefully this post has provided an in-depth look at how our baseball strength and conditioning program here at Saint Mary’s College of California operates in-season. While many of my philosophical beliefs and practice may differ from how you operate, I hope you can find something you can take-away and use in your own programs. I think one of the most important aspects of our personal and professional development as strength coaches lies in our ability to look outwardly at what others are doing. Finding a way to seamlessly integrate the practices of others in a way that makes sense in YOUR system is what will help take you to the next level. That is why Insider Training is such a good resource for the strength & conditioning community, as it provides us a way to gain insight at what others are doing and improve our field along the way.
Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions, feedback, etc.
Thanks for taking the time to check this out!