MLB Strength and Conditioning: What We Do and How We Do It
By Nate Shaw, ATC, RSCC
First, there is a major difference between the conditioning programs that many personal trainers design for fans and what a MLB strength and conditioning coach must do in order to establish a reliable, repeatable, effective training routine for each and every player. It’s important to understand why what you see in the local gym is not what works with top level performers. Most gym members get in, do their work and get out fairly quickly. Their workouts are over in 30-60 minutes and they move on to something else.
At the MLB level, a major portion of conditioning is concerned with establishing and executing an effective routine. On a “normal day” games start at approximately 7:00 pm. The coaching staff arrives at the ball park at noon and the athletes begin to arrive at around 1:00 pm. The daily routing starts with a quick warm-up before pre-batting practice in the cage, training room treatments, and strength and conditioning workouts.
The starting pitchers from the previous 2-3 games will usually lift weights and perform condition workouts. Some position players will perform strength and conditioning workouts, while others will prefer to lift after the game. Effective strength and conditioning coaches know how to adjust and accommodate the needs of every player. A number of different, personalize training programs are always going on at one time.
One-size fits all doesn’t work at high levels. Pre-game workout exercises are designed to improve and/or enhance the motor patterns and muscle groups that will be used during the game to follow. The pre-game routine and daily competition are what set baseball conditioning apart from what you see in other sports. Because players compete almost every day for six months or more, recovery is essential, and strength and conditioning coaches tend to error on the conservative side when prescribing exercise frequency, volume and intensity. There is no time or reason to “crush it” in the weight room. With the game scheduled to start in a few hours, coaches have to avoid getting overzealous with exercise prescriptions.
Strength training is only a small part of the entire strength and conditioning process. Coaches, athletic trainers and massage therapists perform soft tissue massage, stretching, cupping, etc. prior to batting practice. Batting practice is usually divided into 3 or 4 groups with one group hitting, and the others shagging fly balls, taking ground balls or working in the cage. Batting practice is a not home run derby. It’s a rigorous hour of planned skill preparation and development.
The groups rotate through each station and then return to the clubhouse for a few minutes (approximately 60 minutes at home and 30-40 minutes on the road) to dry off, change uniforms, refuel and hydrate before returning to the field for the pre-gamestretch. The pre-game stretch consists of a variety of game-specific exercises and routines designed to increase body temperature, increase range of motion and improve flexibility. Everything that players do in the time between their arrival at the ball park and game time is designed to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury.
After the game, the players who didn’t lift before the game, lift and perform exercises designed to improve the recovery process unless there is a day game the next day. Working out after a night game before a day game significantly reduces the recovery time between games. There are usually no post-game workouts when there is a day game scheduled after a after night game
Workouts before and after road games are slightly different than those at home. There are 18 scheduled off days in a 162-game MLB season, and approximately half of these are either on the road or involve travel. Road trips are usually 3 to 10 days in length. League rules limit the number of consecutive games to no more than 20 games. Players never have a week-end off. Most off-days are scheduled for Mondays and Thursdays.
The 162-game schedule is brutal, but the process of flying, getting in after midnight, riding buses, sleeping in strange beds, eating every meal in the clubhouse, hotel or strange restaurant, add to the fatigue. Games and travel are scheduled, but the circumstances surrounding them vary. There is always the possibility of travel delays, late arrivals, delayed starts, rain delays, extra innings and occasionally the lights go out. Sometimes it’s difficult to adjust. It’s not uncommon to go mentally numb, forget the day of the week and fail to remember your hotel floor or room.
And, there are language problems. Latin American players have been a large part of the game of baseball for decades, and most strength coaches have adapted and can at least communicate “weight room” Spanish. But now there are more than two languages being spoken in the weight room, training room, clubhouse and on the field. On opening day of 2019, MLB said that there were 251 players representing 20 different countries and territories outside of the USA on the 25-man Major League team rosters and inactive lists. It’s impossible for coaches to become fluent in that many languages, but many are trying. Communication is a two–way street, and coaches and translators are helping foreign born players learn “weight room” English.
Most certified strength and conditioning professionals know the principles of training – volume, intensity, variety, rest, periodization, etc., – but there’s a lot more involved when working with professional baseball players. Regardless of what the periodization chart says, there are some days when a player will have an issue or issues that make training that day counter-productive and the coach and athlete have to make adjustments.
The best coaches are the ones who know when and how to adjust. If the plan that was developed in April calls for an athlete to squat for 3 sets of 8 on August 12th, you can probably forget it. Coaches can’t predict in April that his team will have to play a double header in August against a non-divisional or interleague rival because of a rain out in June. Also, while most teams have a visiting weight room, they are not all similarly equipped which means you might have to substitute one great exercise for another of somewhat lesser quality.
Coaches can’t predict how a player will feel and the amount of physical and/or mental stress he will be under on a given day or within a given homestand or road trip. The physical stress after playing 15 days in a row in July is a lot greater than that on opening day. Likewise an 0-fer day or week will produce more stress and anxiety than a 4-4 day or player of the week award. Because of a lot of things that are out of the coaches’ and player’s control, you can’t predict compliance, and compliance is a basic factor in periodization programming.
Strength and conditioning as a profession is not rocket science, but being a strength and conditioning coach has its challenging moments. There are a lot of icebergs to navigate. We can talk about what should and could be done all day but the large number of variables that can affect decisions can quickly turn the attention away from “what could and should be done” to what has to be done to ensure the best performance for each player and the team.
Another essential and often not-mentioned aspect of the profession is the coaches’relationship with the manager, position coaches, front office and managementpersonnel. Hopefully its good, but if it’s not, that’s another in a long list of variables that the coach has to consider when doing his job. The bottom line is the players have to available to play and they get paid to play, not lift weights, run, foam roll, stretch, etc. What should, could and is done are influenced by a number of factors outside of the coaches’ control.
The sheer number of external factors that a player and coach experience almost every day, e.g. schedule, travel, diet, etc., makes following a traditional periodization program almost impossible. The goal of every team is to win which sometimes puts strength and conditioning on the low end of the totem pole. Skill work increases the volume of work that a player will perform in a given day, week, month or season and it always take precedence over strength and conditioning. Coaches have to monitor not only the frequency, volume and intensity of work that a player does in the weight room, he also has to monitor how much work he does with each skill coach and the volume and intensity of work performed during game situations.
Being able to monitor and understand total work volume is key in deciding what an athlete can handle in any given day. If a player is struggling at the plate, you can bet that that he is doing extra work in the cage. It is not uncommon for a struggling player to take an extra 100-300 swings a day. Where does that fit into the periodization model? If he takes 100-300 extra swings, is there any reason for him to do more rotational work in the weight room? Training must be kept in perspective. If a player is a switch hitter, you might omit additional rotations in the weight room. Something else, e.g., postural positioning or recovery techniques might be a better option.
Periodization should be to the level of current events. Effective use of off days is oneway to help maximize recovery. Some coaches recommend that players lift the day before an off day to help ensure a full 24 hours of recovery. Some players, however, prefer to lift on their day off. Coaches can try to influence and guide players, but it is eventually an individual decision.
Baseball is set up for failure. Pete Rose said, “If you had 10,000 ABs, got 3000 hits and hit .300, you were 0 for 7000.” You can’t get a hit every AB or win every game, but if you follow the 80% rule, you can be successful. Try to be the best you can on any given day and fit in what can be done.
Stephen Covey suggests that we should all “seek first to understand”. Bum Phillips said, “Players aren’t concerned about how much you know, they are concerned about how much you care.” The physical and mental skill set of strength and conditioning coaches, because of their unique position and relationship with the players, are key factors ineffective monitoring an athlete’s work load, health and well-being.
Effective coaches are a resource for the players. Players should feel comfortable asking questions and discussing whatever is on their mind. Effective coaches don’t impose mandatory programs; they provide guidelines and a framework under which players can work. When players assist in the design and implementation of a program, they are more likely to be compliant and accountable for their actions. Coaches should make recommendations based on education, scientific research and past experiences in professional baseball. There is no right or wrong way. There is only the way that provides the best opportunity for successful injury-free compliance and performance.
Almost anyone with a degree in exercise science and NSCA certification can design and monitor a mid-morning training session that works in December after an athlete has had 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, a sound diet, no travel and has been away from the pressures of competition. But has he or she ever had to prepare a team for a day game after an extra inning night game. Does he or she understand how much work a player needs and/or can accomplish before a day game in New York after a night game and 6-hour flight from LA. And then there are workouts for players who just went 0-fer, and those trying to play through a nagging hamstring, tight back, tender shoulder, sore elbow or jammed finger to name just a few of the things that might suggest that a player needs to modify a workout or skip it in favor of a therapy session.
Professional baseball has been in existence for almost 120 years, but the first official strength and conditioning coaches didn’t appear on the scene until the late 1970s and were employed by only 2-3 teams. The NSCA wasn’t founded until 1978, so there is not an extremely long history of strength and conditioning programming or former MLB strength coaches to draw from.
Once MLB mandated that all MLB teams employ a full time NSCA certified strength and conditioning coach at the MLB level and certified coaches at lower levels, there has been a significant increase in the number of qualified, experienced coaches and thevolume of anecdotal and scientific research in professional baseball. More certified coaches, experience and research have significantly increased the amount of strength and conditioning information in the professional baseball database with which to make informed decisions.
Change is good. Adaptation takes time. You can’t microwave success. Success does not occur by accident. For maximum, safe results, coaches must help each player select the right exercises and determine the proper frequency, volume, intensity and work to rest cycles for each. Coaches must also be present and attentive to ensure that every rep in every set of every exercise is performed with perfect technique year around. Sloppy technique in the weight room, like sloppy technique on the field, yields poor results and must not be tolerated.
Nathan Shaw ATC, RSCC, is the Major League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks Baseball Club.