When you think of elite baseball development, it only makes sense to think of Cressey Sports Performance.
Whether it’s the 39 guys they had in the major leagues last year, or the 100’s of minor league and developmental guys they training, it’s obvious they’re pretty darn good at what they do.
At IFAST, we may not have the numbers to compare to CSP, but I think we do a pretty darn good job of training our baseball players as well.
With off-season baseball training cranking up, here are five things to consider using in your off-season program.
#1 – The Liberal Use of Specialty Bars
When it comes to athletes in general (and specifically baseball players), it’s obvious that they are not powerlifters.
Is it helpful if they’re strong? Absolutely.
But let’s be honest – no one cares about how they get strong. You don’t get bonus points for deadlifting from the floor, nor do you have any reason to put a barbell on your back if you don’t have to.
At IFAST, we’re huge fans of specialty bars for our athletes, but especially for our baseball players.
Trap bars are an amazing tool, if you ask me. It’s an incredibly easy exercise to coach, you reduce the mobility demands (vs. a sumo or conventional deadlift), and you load guys up fairly quickly without compromising technique.
On the other hand, just because we don’t put a barbell on our back doesn’t mean we don’t squat!
The safety squat bar is an invaluable tool if you train baseball players (or really, any overhead athlete).
You know that your wrist, elbow and shoulder are your money makers, so the last thing you want to do is expose yourself to injury in those areas.
The safety squat bar front squat is awesome for newbies, as it teaches them a front squat pattern without having to “rack” the bar using the wrists, elbows and shoulders. I’ll often start my baseball players off with this variation for a month or two, just to get them back in the swing of things.
If we want to load up the squat pattern a bit more, all we have to do is flip the safety bar around and now we’ve got a back squat progression that again unloads the upper extremity.
Quite simply if you train baseball players, invest in a high quality trap and safety squat bar. You’ll thank me later.
#2 – Push-ups
Push-ups are a critical component of our baseball development program at IFAST, and for numerous reasons.
Serratus Anterior Development
First and foremost, push-ups (versus a traditional bench press), allow for a high degree of serratus anterior development. And I’d argue that in the upper body, the serratus anterior is one of the most overlooked, yet incredibly important, muscles we have.
Strengthening the serratus anterior does a host of good things for us (and this stuff is important, buster, so listen up!):
It upwardly rotates the scapulae.
We’ve all heard probably 1000 times that upward rotationg of the scapulae is important, but especially if you’re an overhead athlete. Quite simply, serratus anterior must be working well if you want to keep your shoulders healthy.
It improves the thoracic kyphosis.
This is a really loaded topic, so I’ll try to keep it brief.
Back in the day we would look at most people and say they have an excessive thoracic kyphosis, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true.
What I think we see (more often than not) is a flat thoracic spine, coupled with shoulders that are rolled forward due to an inability to expand a chest wall. (Thank you, PRI).
While we tend to get caught up on the scapular attachment site (or motion) of the serratus, it also attaches anteriorly to the ribcage. If we lock the scapulae in place and engage serratus anterior, it pulls on the rib cage and gives us a more normal thoracic kyphosis.
Now I’m sure you may be thinking, why do we want a kyphosis? Isn’t more extension a good thing?
You need a kyphosis (or subtle rounding of the upper back), because your scapulae are curved as well. If you have a curved scapulae sitting on a flat upper back, you lose passive stability at the shoulder.
And when we lose stability at the scapulae, we are virtually guaranteed to lose stability at the shoulder.
So that’s a really long-winded explanation, but I hope it makes sense!
Serratus repositions the rib cage to give us abs.
Now here’s where things get really cool…
Not only does serratus give us back our natural kyphosis, but that kyphosis also helps reposition our ribcage.
If we live in total-body extension, we see the following things:
- A protrusion, or jutting forward, of the lower rib cage.
- An extended lower back.
- An anterior pelvic tilt.
When we engage serratus anterior (or reach), this repositions our ribcage and lower back, so that all of our ab training is now infinitely more effective.
It shifts the center of gravity back.
Last but not least, we know many of our athletes nowadays are fighting a degree of extension, or tone, throughout their body.
Not only does this flare their ribs, extend their lower back, and anteriorly tilt their pelvis, but it also shifts their center of gravity forward.
Try this – stand up tall and close your eyes to get a feeling of where your weight is on your foot.
Now, reach long through your arms and upper back. Get a feeling of where your center of gravity is now.
It shifted back, right?
If you have athletes who are constantly on their toes, or who don’t have a balanced center of gravity, training serratus can make a huge difference in their health and performance.
Rotator Cuff Development
You can’t talk baseball training, and not talk about the rotator cuff.
And I get it – it’s important. But I don’t think the best way to train it is to use tubes and perform internal and external rotations for thousands of reps and random shoulder and elbow angles.
Instead, due to the fact that the push-up is a closed kinetic chain exercise, we know it puts a premium on stabilizer (i.e. rotator cuff) involvement.
So if you want a great, integrated rotator cuff exercise, get more push-ups in your program.
Integrates upper and lower body
Last but not least, push-ups do a wonderful job of integrating, or tying together, the upper and lower bodies. It’s not uncommon to see athletes who have more than enough upper body strength to perform push-ups well, but their core is actually the weak link or limiting factor.
So when it’s all said and done, yes, push-ups are a critical exercise and give you a massive return on investment. Just use ’em!
#3 – Tri-planar hip development
Whether it’s stealing bags, tracking down a fly ball, or crushing home runs like a young Bo Jackson, there’s more to the hips than sagittal plane development.
Sure it never hurts to be a stronger squatter or deadlifter, but I’d also argue that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
We also need our baseball players to be able to move well in both the frontal and transeverse planes as well. I like to think of the sagittal plane as the “key” that unlocks the frontal and transverse plane.
If you’re into PRI, you can even take this a step further and think of it like this:
We need the ability to shift into and load our left hip, while we need the strength and stability to push (or get off) our right hip.
Once we have that basic movement capacity, now we need to start cementing it. This can be done initially in the weight room, with exercises like dynamic chops, lifts, the TRX Rip Trainer, etc.
I’m also a huge fan of concentric med ball throws as well. Start low to the hip initially, and then raise it up over time. Progress to eccentric as movement capacity and strength improve.
Taking this a step further, don’t be shy in doing some aggressive lateral plyo progressions as well. Work on Heidens/skier jumps with a stick first to develop eccentric strength and control, then work on improving speed, power and explosiveness.
Last but not least, we need to prepare our baseball players for the specific demands of their sport, and this is where lateral acceleration and crossover stepping comes into play.
At IFAST, Ty Terrell does an excellent job of teaching these movements, and if you need a go-to resource I can’t recommend his or Lee Taft’s work high enough.
At the end of the day, use the weight room to get strong in the sagittal plane, but don’t forget that the frontal and transverse planes are critical for a highly-functioning baseball player!
#4 – Thorax Rotation
Just like the hips are meant to rotate, so are the thoracic spine and upper thorax.
While we know that the lumbar spine has some degree of rotation, it’s very limited – especially when compared to the thoracic spine.
To address this, I like to use exercises that stabilize the core (to a degree), while promoting rotation and alternating function in the upper thorax.
Here’s an example of how you can take a standard half-kneeling cable press and add some alternating function on top:
Incorporating exercises like this early in the off-season will not only stabilize the core, but start to integrate better movement throughout the kinetic chain as you get to more dynamic and explosive work later on.
#5 – Aerobic System Development
Last but not least, I’m a huge believer in developing the aerobic energy system for our baseball players.
Now before we get into a huge pissing match about this, let me tell you a few things:
- No, aerobic training (done the right way!) won’t make you slow.
- No, I’m not having my athletes run poles, or any distance running.
- And no, I don’t think conditioning should be used as a tool for punishment (especially when this style of “conditioning” does almost nothing to improve the skills or physical qualities of a baseball player).
With that being said, here’s what developing the aerobic system can do for your baseball players.
- You can perform more volume in a session.
- You can recover faster between sets
- You can recover faster between workouts.
- You can do more high-quality, skill-specific work such as hitting, throwing, fielding, etc.
- You improve recovery in general (due to a stronger parasympathetic drive).
I know in our world we love to talk about training, but you can see that the aerobic energy system is crucial for improving recovery.
For baseball players, I think the best way to improve conditioning is to perform cardiac output circuits 2-3x/week on non-lifting days.
At IFAST we use a ton of different tools: The Prowler, dragging sleds, battling ropes, med balls, unstable surface trainers (i.e. TRX, Jungle Gym, Blast Straps), kettlebells, etc.
The goal isn’t to “kill it” during these sessions, but rather to improve the aerobic system/work capacity, enhance recovery, and restore mobility.
Put more succinctly, these sessions are there to boost recovery so that we can put in more and higher quality work during our main sessions.
Developing a robust aerobic energy system isn’t as cool as deadlifting 500 pounds, but it can make a huge impact on how your athletes feel, and more importantly recovery, throughout the year.
I don’t think there’s anything new under the sun, but I firmly believe we can make better use of the tools in front of us.
While we don’t do anything incredibly sexy at IFAST, I think doing the little things better makes a huge impact on the performance of our athletes.
Give a few of these tips a shot, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results!
All the best