The biggest disconnect that I see in conditioning the baseball athlete is the immediate overemphasis on sports-specific conditioning (agility, balance, speed, etc.) done without the proper basic strength exercises. I see an overall lack of strength in baseball. I see this all the time at this level—not being strong enough to improve their game. Too many players, both high school and college, are moving away from basic strength development. One player coming into our program had not done squats in years! When we got him back into that habit, he commented that he had not felt that good since college. He is a typical player who got away from the basics and neither improved nor reaped the benefits of an “agility program.” He does not have the strength to be agile. You must have the right amount of strength to explode, change direction, accelerate and decelerate. Just as every baseball player should have basic skills, so too every athlete needs basic strength.
Defining the Base Program- The Four Base Strength Exercises
What are a base program and base strength? I have read certain numbers and definitions for what the base strength requirement is, for example, being able to squat twice your body weight, bench one and a half times body weight, etc. These are good markers. However, they may not be feasible due to the athlete’s medical history. There are basic, whole body exercises that give you the strength the player needs in order to do other athletic.gunnertechnetwork.comelopment things properly and to reap their benefits.
Exercise #1—The Back Squat
In my opinion, this has the greatest benefits of any exercise. You do not have to handle twice your body weight to gain these benefits. The rule of thumb I use for baseball athletes is to be able to squat their body weight with correct form for eight to 10 repetitions. For a workout, I like doing sets of three to five with a high volume activity—doing 10 sets of three reps rather than the traditional three sets of 10 reps. We also rest one minute during the base phase and for the power phase we do two to three minutes to ensure quality. It should be noted that loading is adjusted down based on the rest time to ensure proper techniques throughout the entire training session. This method also ensures good strength gains. This is enough to properly strengthen the major muscle groups (buttocks, quads, hamstrings) and offers great core stability work in the back and abdominal area. These are the muscles that are critical in sports-specific “agility type” training. There are only a few exercises that accomplish all this at once and I prefer the squat.
Exercise #2—The Barbell Dead lift
The dead lift might be considered a controversial exercise. Seven years ago, I would try to get athletes to do this exercise and they would freak out because they thought that it would hurt their back. However, this has changed. I know physical therapists who are now advocating the dead lift as a functional exercise used in everyday life (we pick up our children or boxes off the floor, etc). These are all dead lifts.
There are some basic techniques that are important, and the first is hand position. The dead lift is performed using an alternating hand grip. I have my players place their throwing hand externally rotated (palm facing up) and the non-throwing hand with the palm facing down. This puts the throwing shoulder in a more stable position. Most of my players are tall, so I recommend a shoulder-width stance rather than the wide stances that you see powerlifters doing (a technique know as “sumo style”). That is more for the shorter athletes, or under six feet tall. The head is straight or slightly looking up and the back is in a neutral position with the bar close to the shins on the way up. The coaching cue I use is for the athlete to think of mimicking picking something off the floor or sitting on a chair. With good technique and proper loading progression, there is no reason why an athlete should injury themselves. This exercise is relatively new to the Rangers, so we have the athletes do three to five reps of working up to body weight. We do a similar set and reps workout as with the squat—10 sets of three reps with one minute expanding to two to three minutes and increasing the load.
One point of emphasis is the concept of a neutral spine. The idea is not to have a lordosis situation of the lower back where the spine curves in toward the mid-line of the body. We emphasize this by keeping the athlete’s eyes and head looking at a specific spot dictating to the position of the lower spine. I also feel that this prevents curvature of the cervical and theoretic upper areas of the spine. This too creates an advantageous neutral spine. The second part of this is to have the athlete tighten up the abs. It is the coach’s job to ensure the back’s position does not break down.
Exercise #3—The Push up
This is a basic exercise that requires no loading. Once an athlete is able to do 30-40 reps, we do plyo push ups (clap hands) and reduce the number of reps to five or six with multiple sets. Many athletes will combine this with the bench press and do benches first, followed by a set of plyo push ups. We do three to five reps (light) on the bench followed immediately by five or six plyo push-ups.
Readers may wonder why the bench press is not part of the four base exercises. I believe that the bench is a good exercise as long as it does not interfere with the throwing motion. I did not do benches when I was a player because it bothered my shoulder. However, I have players who are not affected by it. That is why the push up is the primary exercise and the bench press is “supplemental.” It is a matter of the athlete’s specific needs/situations.
Exercise—#4 The Pull up
Many players cannot do a single pull up. We want to achieve the ability of doing the exercise 8-10 times with good form. This is a good indicator of overall body strength. Once the athlete achieves 10 pull ups, we load the athlete and have him do sets of five reps. This allows the athlete to gain more strength and rest between sets (they are not doing as many reps). You can use a kettle bell with chains or weighted vests to load. We do approximately 30-40 pounds.
Putting the Four Base Exercises Together
My basic philosophy is to do legs and back on the same training day. I learned this from Vern Gambetta. He believes that the back and legs are the bigger muscles and linked together. This makes working them both a matter of efficiency. We have one back/leg day when the squat is heavy and the dead lift light. The next workout, it is just the opposite—heavy dead lift and light squat. We would start with power clean, do the heavy/light squat/dead lift sequence and finish with pull ups. This is a great total body, multi-joint program done in a very time-efficient matter. On the “chest” day, we do a push press, the bench press, plyo push ups (super setting) and finally, shoulder presses. This is a program for position players whose shoulder concerns are less of a factor. Pitchers are more sensitive about doing overhead lifting, such as the shoulder press. I believe that done correctly, the shoulder press does not create shoulder impingement—improper throwing does. I should also point out that high volume in lifting should be discouraged.
I am not afraid to do any exercise as long as I trust the player to give me honest feedback and that the player is physically able to handle it. This goes back full circle to having base strength. You start the off-season with base phase strength for six to eight weeks and then add some of the other things such as agility, or plyo-type training. The base strength program is still done, but the volume decreases and the weight increases; the coach can use the agility work as part of warm-up. This is ideal because the athlete is fresh and can concentrate on their movement mechanics. Plyometrics can be done in conjunction with the lifting. We do super sets of squats with box jumps doing five to six reps, for example. We also do endurance work at the end of the workout.
Maintaining the Base
Strength work is less of a priority during the season, yet it is important to maintain it. I pick one of the Four Base exercises, the squat, which is the most important lift. Let’s say an athlete does 300 pounds for five reps starting in April. If the athlete can do 275-300 five times in September, the strength has been maintained. I give the players this long-term outlook. We adjust form based on how the season progresses.
The players with the best results in these four exercises are the ones who have the best vertical jumps indicating lower body power, the best 10-yard sprint for speed and the best 5-10-5 agility runs. The players who do the exercises and handle the weight are the ones who do best in these athletic skills tests. One of the things that I did in a research study with Jay Hoffman, PhD was to correlate slugging and on-base percentages with overall leg power. This study will be published in a scientific, peer-reviewed research journal later this year. At this time, the four players on the Rangers who are hitting over .290 are the ones who have vertical jumps over 28 inches and these are the guys who effectively do the Four Base Strength exercises. We tested players from the rookie league to the majors and the results are very interesting. This is an important first step to scientifically validate the relationship of strength training, lower body power and on-field performance. It is very exciting information and will give reason to make the Four Base Strength Program an important part of every player’s baseball and softball development.
Jose Vazquez PT, CSCS, member of the PBSCCS
Vazquez spent four seasons with the New York Mets and is now is in his second season with the Rangers. He served as the Mets’ Director of Rehab (2005) and was the club’s Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator (2002-2004). Before joining the Mets, he was the Sports Physical Therapist at the Therapy Center in Knoxville, TN, and at Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge, TN. He co-founded TNT Sports Specific Training in Knoxville in 1988.
After earning second team All-American honors at the University of Tennessee in 1992, Vazquez was selected by St. Louis in the 42nd round of the 1992 draft. He played professionally for three seasons as an outfielder for the Cardinals organization and for the Northern League’s Duluth club.
Article provided by Performance Conditioning Baseball/Softball www.performancecondition.com/baseballsoftball the Official Publication of the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society