Jan 29, 2015A Consistent Path
A well-planned strength and conditioning program has helped the Ithaca College baseball team be a perennial winner in the NCAA Division III ranks.
By Dr. Kent Scriber and Chris Hummel
Kent Scriber, EdD, ATC, PT, is a Professor and the Program Director for the Athletic Training Education Program within the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College. He has served as an athletic trainer with the baseball team for more than 30 years. Chris Hummel, MS, ATC, is a Clinical Instructor in the same department and is currently working as an athletic trainer with the baseball team.
For 28 of the past 29 years, the Ithaca College baseball team has been selected to participate in the NCAA Division III playoffs. It has advanced to the College World Series nine times and won national championships in 1980 and 1988. Although there are many reasons for the program’s success, one of them has been a consistent strength and conditioning program.
As a small school located in central New York state, where the winters are very long, there are some limitations to what we can do in our program. Our weight training facilities are not large, training outdoors cannot realistically happen until the beginning of April, and staying consistent with the Division III philosophy, we believe in making sure our athletes don’t spend too much time on their sport.
At the same time, we work hard not to be too restricted by our limitations. We maximize our sessions with an exercise program that is quite specific to our established goals—one that uses the least amount of time and space possible to produce well-conditioned athletes.
The primary activities in baseball—batting, fielding, throwing, and running—involve dynamic, total body movements, so our program focuses on multiplanar, functional exercises. Our primary goals are increasing strength, power, cardiovascular endurance, and dynamic flexibility. Our baseball-specific goals are to increase agility, speed, and quickness. (Note that we will discuss training position players only in this article—our pitchers have a separate program.)
Preventing injuries is another goal of the program. We focus on preventing injuries that occur around the elbow joint and the shoulder complex and to the quadriceps and hamstrings, which are most common among baseball players.
To accomplish these goals, our program has four main components: cardiovascular conditioning, core strengthening, upper and lower body weight lifting, and plyometrics. Our daily warmup is also an important part of the program.
Conditioning: Our baseball athletes perform cardiovascular conditioning three days a week. They go through seven cardio stations, which are normally two minutes in length with two-minute rests between stations. The aim is to increase heart rate and ultimately improve aerobic capacity.
The stations we use are: bike, stairclimber, upper body ergometer, treadmill, stairs, jump rope, and sprints. Body blade, wrist, or shoulder exercises are added if time permits. If you have the available space and equipment, you might add change of direction drills and partner sport cord drills.
Why do baseball players need this type of conditioning? In general, we feel that all athletes should partake in cardiovascular training for general fitness. Since games are often scheduled daily during the heart of the season, a well-designed cardiovascular training program fends off fatigue and should improve performance and prevent injury over the long run of the playing season.
Weight Lifting: To build a strength base and prevent injuries, baseball athletes perform standard weight lifting twice a week, often on the days they are doing their cardio conditioning. One day per week emphasizes upper extremity lifting exercises, while the other day emphasizes the lower extremity exercises. (See Lifting Program.) The upper body lifting focuses on the muscles around the elbow joint and the shoulder complex, while lower body work targets the quadriceps and hamstring muscles.
Core Training: Our baseball athletes strengthen their core one day a week through trunk plyometrics with various medicine ball rotational exercises. The exercises we use include: Russian twists, crunches, leg lifts, V-sits, fire hydrants, med-ball drops, med-ball crunch passes, med-ball side bends, and ceiling kicks. The use of stability balls can also be incorporated.
Plyometrics: Our plyometrics program is critical in providing our athletes with the small advantages that can add up when they are on the playing field. The benefits of these exercises include: first step quickness in fielding and base stealing, overall throwing strength, lateral quickness, and injury prevention.
To ensure our program is effective, we allow for a slow progression and at least two days for recovery between sessions. We emphasize warming up thoroughly beforehand and technique over quantity. We break our plyometric work into upper extremity and lower extremity routines, each done once a week. Volume is limited to 100 to 120 contacts per session. (See: Plyometrics.)
In developing our plyometric drills, we try to make them as functional as possible. For example, rather than just running sprints in a straight line, we might have them run sprints around the bases. This requires the players to do high intensity running drills that mimic what they do in a game situation. We do the same with throwing and catching exercises.
Warmup: Before we begin any session, we take five to 10 minutes to perform a dynamic warmup. This warmup ensures each athlete is ready to perform the skills for that session, as well as helping increase flexibility and prevent injuries. Some of the exercises we do include: jogging, skipping, side-stepping, lunge walks, arm circles, monster walks, butt kicks, cariocas, and backward runs.
Progression: We typically begin with 30-second sets and progress to 60-second sets as form improves. However, we do not exceed 120 repetitions/touches per session. We insist on proper form before letting athletes advance.
Putting It All Together
To fit all components into a schedule that allows for proper rest, we group the sessions into six topics then fit them into a monthly calendar. The topics are:
- Lower extremity plyos
- Upper extremity plyos
- Core strengthening
- Lower extremity weight lifting
- Upper extremity weight lifting
- Cardiovascular conditioning.
- Proper rest and diet along with exercise are essential to your development as a baseball player.
- It is extremely important to strictly adhere to the guidelines set for the exercise program in order to maintain proper balance between exercise and sport—before and during the competitive season.
- It is very important to perform each exercise with proper technique and listen to your body to ensure you are not doing more harm than good.
- If you experience pain, or feel you can’t properly perform an exercise, stop and tell the athletic training staff immediately.
Once the athletes are familiar with these principles, various exercises are demonstrated and the players practice each skill while being monitored by the athletic training staff for proper form. We reiterate frequently the need for them to tell us if they are in pain when performing an exercise.
Once the season begins, our primary goal is to maintain the athletes’ levels of strength and conditioning. Therefore, our in-season plan is a modified version of the preseason program. The main differences are that intensity and frequency are decreased, all work is done on the ball field, and the plyometric upper extremity exercises are eliminated. Because of the intensity of plyometric training, there is generally not enough time for muscle recovery of upper extremities between the exercises and an upcoming ball game.
For our lower body plyo workout, to emphasize agility (vs. power) we decrease the intensity and increase the speed of the jumps, skips, and other drills. Core training days are kept the same. Cardio days are modified so they can be done on the field: Various running drills that maintain an increased heart rate for a minimum of 15 minutes replace the cardio stations from the weight room. Athletes still come to the weight room for lifting sessions during the season, but we either have them lift less weight or decrease the number of repetitions.
From the preseason to the in-season, we feel the key to our program is that it is easy to follow, doesn’t take a lot of time, and focuses on the most important aspects of training baseball players. Another strength is that there is variety, which stimulates the athletes and results in better program compliance.
We have found this program easy to implement and well received by our coaching staff and players. It has also been convenient for us to monitor and allows for modifications as situations arise.
Table One: Lifting Program
Ithaca College baseball players typically perform three sets of 12 repetitions for each exercise during preseason training.
Upper Extremity Lifting: Lower Extremity Lifting: Incline bench press
Lat pull down
Table Two: Plyometrics
Upper Body: Lower Body: For our upper extremity plyometric exercises, we use medicine balls to enhance power and speed, as well as prevent injuries that affect throwing athletes. We typically use two to three pound balls for throwing-catching activities and eight to 10 pound balls for bilateral throwing activities or rotational trunk movements. If available, the use of a mini-trampoline can also be helpful.
Plyo-wall push ups
Chop and throw:
We use the following lower extremity plyometrics to improve agility, power, and quickness. We start with low heights and speeds and progress as form improves.
Jump rope (patterns)
- Side to side
Front to back
Table Three: Conditioning Calendar
Here’s a sample two-week schedule for preseason conditioning:
- Day 1: Upper extremity plyos
Day 2: Cardio
Day 3: Lower extremity plyos
Day 4: Cardio and upper extremity lifting
Day 5: Off
Day 6: Core work
Day 7: Cardio and lower extremity lifting
Day 8: Upper extremity plyos
Day 9: Cardio
Day 10: Cardio and upper extremity lifting
Day 11: Lower extremity plyos
Day 12: Cardio
Day 13: Lower extremity lifting
Day 14: Core work
Due to the high intensity and fatiguing nature of plyometrics, we utilize a 48-hour rule when scheduling plyometric sessions. For example, lower extremity plyometrics and lifting are done at least 48 hours apart. The same principle applies for the upper extremity. On the off days we train for cardiovascular fitness or target core strength.
With the science in place, our next step is figuring out a schedule that works with our facilities. Because we share facilities with other sports and activities at the school, we can’t have a consistent weekly schedule as most larger schools do, which requires us to improvise a bit. (See: Conditioning Calendar.) However, as long as we adhere to the basic training principles, we can still obtain gains in strength, power, and flexibility.
We aim to limit all strength and conditioning sessions to no more than 30 minutes, six days per week during the preseason. During weight lifting, core training, and plyometric sessions, athletes can choose three to four exercises from the list. Then, each day, additional exercises can be added if time allows and the athletic trainer feels they would be helpful. For example, during core training days, agility exercises such as a box drill or jumping rope can be added, or sprinting drills can supplement plyo, core, or cardio workouts.
Putting all the pieces together also entails educating athletes about the program. We introduce the players to this program and review the goals at the beginning of each season. The following four points are discussed thoroughly with the players: