The Importance of In-Season Training: Baseball
Imagine for a moment that you were going to build a house. The house was built beautifully. Everything was custom, the best furniture was ordered, and you had every tiny detail you could want. Now imagine that after you built this palatial home, you decided to live in it but never clean it. You never took out the garbage and you forgot to pay the electric bill. How would the house look? How would that house function?
You see, this is what happens when you spend all off-season working on building yourself up to play your game. You get everything the way you want it and then you just hope it stays together. Does this sound successful?
The answer is simple, and everyone knows what it is but fails to pay it enough attention: in-season training. It isn’t rocket science to establish a quality program for the in-season, and you don’t need to spend four hours a week in the gym to make it work. Just follow these few guidelines.
Some schools of thought out there don’t want to endanger an athlete in-season by throwing around heavy weight. So instead we’ll do some light maintenance and band work and hope for the best. It never works. Athletes regress physically and don’t maintain an ounce of the strength they worked so hard for.
It is important to maintain strength levels throughout the season, and this requires rep ranges below eight with subsequently heavy loads in order to foster the proper adaptations. This intensity will slow the dissipation of strength across a long season and keep athletes stronger throughout the year.
The sister of intensity, volume, needs to be kept in check in order to insure that central nervous system fatigue doesn’t set in and that the ability to play multiple games/practices a week at a high enough performance is maintained. What's the use of in-season work if it detracts from the ability to play the game?
My standard recommendation for athletes and coaches looking to implement in-season strength programs is to keep your days per week to no more than two and your sets at no more than two per exercise. This is, of course, excluding warm-up sets for primary exercises.
In a sport that requires instantaneous excitement of the muscles in order to produce fluid, timed movements, and explosive actions, the nervous system plays an important part in maintaining performance. Volume must be tracked and maintained, and athletes need to be monitored accordingly to watch for drops in strength performance and game performance.
As the new taboo word in strength and conditioning programs, corrective exercise has started to earn as bad a wrap in some circles as “functional” training. Let’s just define corrective exercise in terms of how I use it in my gym.
Corrective exercise: Any exercise that helps promote or repair proper movements.
So for some athletes, this is a bottoms up squat. For others, it's wall slides, and for some athletes, this simply means a squat. Corrective exercise doesn’t need to mean that an athlete is doing rubber bands and stretches for an hour. It just means taking the time to think of a logical progression of an exercise that helps the athlete move better. In the land of strength and conditioning, this just sounds like smart training. Call it corrective. Call it functional. Call it stupid. I don’t care. Take the time to figure out what your client base needs in order to keep them performing at 100 percent for an entire season.
What happens when you alter a movement pattern and replace an exercise in your program with one you haven’t done in a while? You get sore. Your metabolism increases. Stress increases throughout your body, and your immune system can be depressed if the work was too much. This is the last thing that we want to happen in-season.
In-season, we want our athletes to do movements and patterns that they've done before and often and that will keep them strong without impairing their ability to perform. No matter who you are, soreness leads to altered movement patterns. Best case, this decreases performance. Worst case, this can lead to fatigue and ultimately injury.
One of the new hot topics in strength and conditioning is the role of the Postural Restoration Institute and it’s influence on corrective exercise and breathing patterns. Largely, most of the discussion has been about the right hemi-diaphragm and the body’s ability to push air into that half of the midsection to reset proper positioning and allow for better movement/performance. In order to achieve this, much has been said about teaching proper breathing from the diaphragm and not by elevating the shoulder and traps and using improper muscles.
While this information is useful, it most likely would require its own article. The meat to what I want to use is in the idea of retraining body position by properly inserting a left-right-left, right-left-right protocol in warm ups and activation. For instance, the right hip internal rotators are generally tight and require an increased amount of soft tissue/stretch work to improve movement and performance. In order to balance this need, foam roll and stretch the muscles around the right hip internal rotators (think piriformis) on the right side. Then foam roll and stretch the left hip internal rotators and go back to the right side. This will lead to faster and more body specific work.
However, beyond simple pre-habilitation and activation work, baseball is inherently dominant on a single side. More than just dominant, it is the application of significant speeds and stresses both concentrically and eccentrically that cause breakdowns in the body. In tying these ideas back to the concepts presented by Gray Cook, an imbalance between sides of the body in movement ability will ultimately lead to compensation patterns and invariably injury. Thus, it is imperative in-season to try to assuage these imbalances by focusing some of our training on a left-right-left, right-left-right framework.
For example, a right-handed thrower will produce a tremendous amount of hip rotation during the course of the year. If we consider that he will throw over 100 pitches per game including long toss pre-game, a warm up between innings, and the game itself, the ability to produce and resist forces on the opposing side is vital to long-term health and performance. Thus, an athlete doing sets of Pallof presses would be wise to begin on his non-dominant side, work on his dominant side, and then return to his non-dominant side in order to maintain some form of tightness and strength throughout the system. For athletes young and old who will compete in upwards of 100 games a season, managing this imbalance can mean the difference between injury and continued long-term development.
Managing eccentric stress
Forced negatives and eccentric only training have long been shown to produce substantial gains for powerlifters and other athletes alike. Through the application of eccentric stress, far more central nervous system fatigue and muscle soreness occur. For athletes looking to maintain strength while limiting these impacts, alternatives are necessary. Thus, we have concentric only or concentric dominant training.
Concentric only training includes the application of exercises that deemphasize the lowering and/or loading of the eccentric movement. This allows an athlete to utilize the mechanical loading of the muscular system while sparing the central nervous system. In easy speak, we can work more often with greater ability to recover. This idea is important for athletes who spend a great amount of time cramped on buses and in locker rooms eating less than ideal diets. Recovery is important but at times difficult to sufficiently handle.
Some forms of concentric dominant training include medicine balls, weighted sled pushes, TRX rows using a pulling sled, TRX presses using a pulling sled, and deadlifts, everyone’s favorite. Now, while concentric dominant training is useful, it isn’t the only form of training you should utilize. It is ultimately another tool that we use to control stress on the body while still completing work. Remember, eccentric exercise is important to teach the body how to properly decelerate the body and control movements. However, once in a while, the change can be useful to promote long-term sustainability.
Some athletes will say that they never train and haven’t ever had an injury, so why change what is working? I ask, if you added training to your in-season/off-season regimen, how much better/longer could you play?
Simply adding in a small emphasis to in-season training for your athletes or yourself can pay great dividends in long-term athletic development. If you can maintain more physical ability year to year, your off-seasons can be more productive and thus earn you more in the form of playing time, scholarships, or financial rewards in the future. Take these basic concepts into account in your in-season training and watch your performances improve.