Stand Up Performance

January 29, 2015
At the University of Alabama, perfect posture is a focus of every strength and conditioning workout. This year, it was part of what earned the softball program its first national championship.
By Michelle Martin Diltz

Michelle Martin Diltz, SCCC, CSCS, is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Alabama. She is responsible for training the softball, women's basketball, and women's golf teams, and assists with cheerleading. She can be reached at: mmartin01@ia.ua.edu.


Most people know University of Alabama softball for its big bats, speed on the bases, and continuous winning seasons. While our lifting program helps produce those monster hits and our conditioning program helps keep the players' feet churning, what a lot of people don't know is that our focus on posture is also a major contributor to the team's success.

Softball is about power and speed through precise movements, but if the body cannot maintain good posture throughout those movements, power and speed suffer. If a batter has some deficiencies in her posture, she will not get full force behind her swing. If a pitcher has poor posture, her pitches will not be as strong. Gray Cook said it best in his book Athletic Body in Balance: "Most athletes work around energy leaks instead of through them."

That message has stuck with me, as well as one from my mom, who always reminded me to stand up straight when I was growing up. At 5-foot-9, I used to slump in order to be the same height as my friends.

Then, I started noticing a trend at Alabama. Freshmen were arriving with bad posture just like I used to have. The problem was highlighted about five years ago at an off-season training session run by Head Coach Pat Murphy. The players lined up from freshmen to seniors to introduce themselves, and the freshmen were standing slumped over, looking scared and uncomfortable, while the seniors were standing tall, looking confident and proud.

Although I had never worked directly on the older players' posture, I realized that by focusing on coaching proper form and technique, using the right coaching cues, and even role modeling good posture myself the players had improved in this area. Since that day at camp, I have done a lot of research on the topic, and I now combine traditional strength and power exercises with Pilates and yoga philosophies to improve posture.

While the team's focus on posture translates to great results on the field, it also gives our athletes better body awareness, confidence, and a certain swagger. It creates a "look good, feel good, play good" mentality, and our players demonstrate that when they walk into the batter's box or pitching circle. In this article, I share some of our team's off-season strength and conditioning program and explain how I integrate a focus on good posture into every workout.

DEFINING POSTURE
Bad posture can be influenced by a lot of things, including genetics, hand dominance, past and current injuries, illness, emotional stresses, sitting at a computer, texting, driving, wearing a backpack, and even playing a sport. If you think of a college athlete, almost all of these influences are present, so it makes sense that we see a lot of players coming into the weightroom with poor posture.

In general terms, bad posture equals bad body alignment. Poor alignment means that stabilizing muscles are stretched, which weakens them while putting other muscles under heavier stress. When muscles are under heavy stress for a length of time, misuse results, and injury can occur.

The most common type of bad posture seen in athletes is kyphosis-lordosis (KL). KL posture is present when the head thrusts forward, upper back is rounded or slumped, shoulder blades press out from the ribcage as if they were wings, thumbs rotate toward the posterior, pelvis is anteriorly rotated, and the pubic bone is posteriorly rotated. Athletes with KL usually have tight low backs and hip flexors and weak abdominals and gluteals. These unbalanced weak links in a softball player's body translate to inefficiencies in movement and over time, create energy leaks or overuse injuries that can sideline or end a career.

Good posture is defined as head in neutral position, shoulder blades back and down the thorax, spine with natural curvature, palms facing the body with thumbs anteriorly rotated, pelvis in neutral, pubic bone in line with the pelvis, and knees straight ahead. Any force is distributed evenly, muscles are balanced and relaxed, movement patterns are normal, and joints are open and loose with the core stable to allow energy (power) to flow through the body unhindered.

Posture is usually thought about just in context of the spine, but there is a lot more to it. When I talk about posture in the weightroom, I am referring to the players' "girdle of strength," core, hips, shoulders, and feet.

Girdle of strength: Joseph Pilates coined this term to identify the muscles making up the center of the body, including the pelvic floor, transverse abdominus, internal obliques, and multifidus. These four muscles form a natural corset that draws up and in, creating a strong center from which smooth, easy, and safe movements start.

The muscles in the girdle of strength are stabilizers, so they are the first and deepest layer of muscles that contribute to creating a tall, stable spine to support the body, transfer power, and make movements efficient. The girdle of strength's function is to prevent or stabilize movement rather than initiate it.

Core: Though traditionally defined as the abdominals, the core actually encompasses everything located between the hips (pelvis and glutes) and the shoulder girdles. The core muscles in the hips need to be flexible and the core muscles in the trunk need to be strong. Combined, they make up the powerhouse of an elite softball player. A strong core allows energy to flow from the center of the body out to the arms and legs.

Hips: The hip is a ball and socket joint made up of the pelvis, gluteal, hip flexor, adductor, and abductor. Movement at this complex joint depends on the teamwork of all the surrounding muscles. For example, if a player's girdle of strength is weak, then big mobilizers like the hip flexors and hamstrings will do much of the work, creating an imbalance.

KL posture usually creates imbalances and eventually injuries due to the pelvis being anteriorly rotated (tilted forward), which has an affect on the spine and hips. The forward tilt creates too much curvature in the spine, shortening the erector spinae and hip flexors while creating weakness in the gluteals due to tightness in the hamstrings. When stiffness or tightness is present, an athlete's body will find a way to work around it, expending extra energy and decreasing power and speed.

Shoulders: Throwing athletes who exhibit KL posture tend to have abducted scapula, weakened lower trapezius, lengthened serratus anterior, and slumping due to tight anterior deltoids and pectorals. On the surface, a lengthened serratus anterior is an advantage for a softball player because it allows the athlete to throw further and harder. But this is only a short-term benefit. Eventually, the internal rotation of the shoulders shortens the latissimi, pectoralis, and subscapularis, causing the muscles in the upper back (rhomboids, trapezius, infrasinatus, and teres minor) to lengthen. This creates dysfunction and weakness at the shoulder joint. If the athlete continues to work around the weakness, an injury will likely occur.

Feet: The foundation of the body, the feet are also crucial for good alignment. Most athletes forget about the importance of their feet because they have come to rely on sneakers, cleats, and/or orthotics to stabilize them. However, when using shoes and orthotics for stabilization, the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the feet become untrained and unresponsive to the stresses produced by playing sports.

A player who has weak feet and limited range of motion at the ankle will see her performance suffer. This reliance also increases the chance of injury by creating an imbalanced, dysfunctional weak link.

'BAMA WORKOUTS
Training proper posture is a never-ending task, but it is one that can be done during any team activity. In the weightroom, I prescribe a traditional workout and focus on posture in each exercise we do.

During the off-season, the team lifts three days a week. Each lifting session is 90 minutes long and includes a warmup, quick feet drills, Olympic variations, and lower body, upper body (including shoulder prehab), and core work. Here's a glance at the team's lifting day workouts, including how posture is a focus in each part.

Warmup: The team lines up on the 20-yard line of the turf field three mornings a week, barefoot and ready to begin its warmup. Movements consist of dynamic stretches, balance work, and glute activation. Warming up barefoot--without tape or socks--allows the muscles, ligaments, and tendons of the feet to strengthen, which promotes good alignment and force absorption up the kinetic chain from the ankle, knee, and hip.

Before each new exercise begins, the players complete a posture check: toes straight ahead, knees in line with toes and not collapsing in, girdle up and in, pubic bone titled forward, chest open with shoulder blades back and down--like putting your shoulder blades in your back pockets--and neck long with head held high.

Every movement of the warmup, from a jog to tin soldiers to leg swings, must be done with good posture by every player or the entire team starts over. Focusing on proper movement of the body from the start prepares it for the more advanced exercises that come later in the workout.

After the athletes are awake and aware of how their body is moving, they complete supersets of balance and glute activation exercises. Generally speaking, softball players have "glute amnesia" due to their KL posture. Glute amnesia is a term Cook uses to explain that due to athletes' bad posture and their reliance on big mobilizers rather than the core to stabilize, their gluteals stop working in the right pattern for movement. The glutes essentially shut down, which creates tightness and shortening in the big moblizers, putting a kink in the chain.

We use scales and excursions to increase strength of the stabilizers in the feet and lower legs, and to reiterate girdle of strength activation to promote movement and not create it. Players also complete mini-band walks forward, backward, and laterally for five to 10 yards along with variations of bird dogs, clams, or bridges--all while focusing on using the glutes to stabilize the pelvis, which allows the hamstrings and hip flexors to mobilize.

Quick feet: After the warmup is complete, the nervous system needs to be primed for the workout that will follow. During the first few weeks of the fall off-season, freshmen and players who didn't stay on campus over the summer put their sneakers back on for this portion of the workout so we don't over-train their feet. Upperclassmen and those who were on campus over the summer continue barefoot. Each week, the players progress a little further into the quick feet section while barefoot in order to continue promoting good body alignment and strength throughout the kinetic chain.

A quick posture check to realign is completed if needed. To train quick feet, we use jump ropes, cones, ladders, hurdles, lines, and The Cube, which help improve ground contact time and multi-directional movement. Of all the tools out there, my favorite is the jump rope. It can be used by athletes at all levels to improve ground contact time, coordination, stamina, and posture. Jumping rope also promotes good alignment from the feet up, and it gives the athlete immediate feedback if their body is misaligned or out of sync. Good posture is necessary for power and speed in this activity.

Olympic variations: Triple extension is key to success for athletes in all sports, and the best way to improve it is through full body Olympic movements and medicine ball throws. However, our softball players do not clean, snatch, or jerk. Instead, we train Olympic variations. Using Olympic pulls and med balls in movements similar to Olympic lifts allows the athletes to reap the benefits of power without the risk of injury.

Players pull from the ground, hang, and rack, but never complete the catch portion of the lift. Posture and triple extension can be trained through the pulls without the athlete having to decelerate the bar at the shoulder, which can lead to an increased risk of shoulder injury. Prior to each pull, every player must complete a posture check which ensures their spine and core are in position to hold strong so that power can smoothly transfer from the ground up.

Med balls are also used for training power production and promoting triple extension. Granny throws, overhead backward throws, squat to presses, and many other variations are used to promote proper body alignment and posture for max power production.

Lower body: "Big butts, big power" is something you can hear our players saying around the weightroom pretty often. We squat, and we squat heavy, but not until the athlete is ready and their posture can handle the load on their back through full range of motion. Posture checks take place and are coached throughout the entire lift. If I see someone losing form and not working through full range of motion, then the weight is lowered to allow for proper body alignment and posture.

Single-leg squat and lunge variations are used during the other two lifting sessions of the week. They include lunges in all directions, step-ups, rear foot-elevated squats, and overhead squats. Each of these movements promotes and encourages good posture. Unlike the squat, the single-leg exercises are more similar to sport-specific movements. Teaching the athletes how to not only stand with good posture, but also how to move multidirectionally with good posture will have more carryover onto the field.

After working the multi-joint lifts, the posterior of the body needs to be addressed. To do this, we use partner glute ham raises, leg curl variations, and Romanian deadlift variations. Most female athletes are quad-dominant and have tight hamstrings and weak glutes, which creates imbalances in the body and increases the chance of injury all the way up the kinetic chain. Placing lateral band walks, lateral squats, and lateral lunges into the workout teaches the body to maintain posture while fielding, running the bases, pitching, and hitting.

Upper body: Next, the team progresses to upper body work, which includes one chest exercise for every four (or five) back exercises. The one-to-four ratio helps create better posture and shoulder strength because it balances out the players' actions on the field. Fielding, running, hitting, and pitching are all anterior-strengthening movements. Therefore, in the weightroom, we work more on the posterior muscles.

I prescribe the team a heavy bench press along with many different variations of the press, including incline, speed, or dynamic presses, dumbbell work, band work, and pushups. As with all of our exercises, posture is key. When completing a bench or incline press, athletes are expected to firmly plant their feet on the ground, pull their girdle of strength up and in, open the chest and push the shoulder blades back and down to create a solid and stable base.

A lot of softball teams no longer include the traditional bench press in their workouts, but this lift gives the athletes confidence and the opportunity for a little intra-team competition. If done correctly and with the one-to-four ratio at the right time of year (which for us is the off-season), the bench press can be a great exercise for softball athletes.

After a heavy bench press or variation, the players follow with one heavy back exercise plus three other posture or shoulder prehab exercises. My favorite back exercises are the single-arm dumbbell row and all-purpose band rows (single- and double-arm). Both of these exercises require good posture to resist rotation. Other exercises include pull-ups, horizontal pull-ups, Hammer rows, and lat pull-downs.

The posture and shoulder prehab exercises are completed with body weight, light bands, or light dumbbells, working between 10 and 15 reps to increase the stamina of the postural muscles. My favorites are the reverse fly, Y-T-W, bird dog, external rotation, and 90/90 band row.

Along with the prehab work that players do in the weightroom, Softball Athletic Trainer Nick Seiler, ATC, has set up a great shoulder care program for all freshman athletes and those with previous shoulder injuries. Nick creates an environment for the athletes to achieve success by working with them one-on-one during shoulder care to make sure they demonstrate proper posture and body alignment during the movements, reinforcing the message they are hearing from me in the weightroom.

Core: We end every workout with a core section, though a lot of core work has already taken place during the rest of the workout. The athletes complete four to five exercises such as sit-ups, Russian twists, supermans, crunches, wipers, planks, and other traditional movements. These exercises are completed in one to three sets, with 10 to 25 reps in each, depending on where we are in the off-season. On Wednesdays, the players complete a core circuit at the end of the workout that includes anti-rotation with bands, farmer holds with 25-pound plates, traditional core work, and back extensions.

We concentrate on posture in each of these ordinary core exercises in our own way. For example, when doing the superman, the athletes are told to pull their belly button away from the ground to pull the girdle of strength up and in. When doing crunches, they are told to pull their belly toward the ground to create a strong, stable center.

OUTSIDE THE WEIGHTROOM
Good posture can also be developed anywhere and anytime during an athlete's day--during class, while driving, or while doing homework, for example. As the athletes grow more aware and conscious of their bodies, they will be able to practice great posture throughout the day, now realizing that what had previously felt natural may not be.

In addition to hearing my coaching cues throughout their workouts, our softball players also hear me talking about good posture to my assistants, interns, and athletic training students. "Traps out of your ears" is a favorite of mine. Because the athletes hear it so much, I often see them fixing their posture themselves before I say anything. I know I've done my job well when I hear a sophomore telling a teammate, "Get your traps out of your ears and stand tall!"

Coach Murphy and his staff preach the mentality that champions give "that little extra." This could be the team's intensity, ownership, dedication, passion, or focus. In the weightroom, I contribute to that mentality by coaching and enforcing a little extra on the players' posture.


FEEDBACK

This is the most informative, useful article I have ever read about strengthening and conditioning for softball athletes. I'm not a coach, just a parent of a youth athlete. Making sure the body is prepared to handle the stressors of competition (and repetitive motion) is equally important as using the proper protective gear, learning good mechanics, and becoming a student of the game. Presenting information in an easy-to-understand format on the importance of good posture, the kinetic chain, and how weaknesses, particularly in the "girdle of strength," can cause compensation and injury, is invaluable. I'd love to see additional information on age-appropriate training for youth athletes.

- Lisa McVey
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