Sep 25, 2017Armed and Ready
With an offseason strength and conditioning program split into four unique training blocks, Texas Tech University baseball players are primed for the first pitch in the spring.
This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
In the mid-1990s, my allotted offseason hours with the Texas Tech University baseball team were used-as instructed by the head coach-to do one thing: run. When we finished our conditioning for the day, players could do a voluntary 10-minute circuit, but few chose to participate. Lifting weights was viewed as something only football players did. Fast-forward 20 years, and implementing that philosophy today would make it extremely difficult to compete, not to mention keep athletes healthy.
In the college game now, 100-mph fastballs and 450-foot home runs are regular occurrences, so players have to be year-round weightlifters. Having a structured and all-encompassing offseason strength and conditioning program is not a luxury anymore-it’s a necessity.
At Texas Tech, our offseason plan is built from research-based adaptations that account for the rotational and overhead demands of the sport, while developing the components of a complete baseball player: strength, speed, power, and explosiveness. It is 24 weeks long, and we break it up into four different training blocks, using different periodization methods and tempos according to our goal for each one.
Following this plan, competing hasn’t been an issue. On the contrary, the squad has thrived. In 2016 and 2017, we won back-to-back Big 12 Conference titles. And in 2014 and 2016, we were fortunate to play on college baseball’s biggest stage-the College World Series-fulfilling a team goal we set every year.
Through the years, I have adopted many of my core values for offseason training from Kelvin Clark, MSCC, the now-retired former Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Vanderbilt University and Texas Tech, Hall of Fame strength coach Al Vermeil, and many others. Based on their teachings, I believe the most important aspect of offseason programming is having an effective plan and executing it. There should be no surprises or misconceptions about what you are doing or why you are doing it, and every coach and athlete must be all-in with the plan.
That being said, any successful offseason program must change when necessary to add physical stress to the athlete. For this reason, it’s important to be flexible and adapt along with the athletes.
Using these two principles as guides, I’ve created our offseason plan. The baseball team is in the weightroom three days a week for three of our four training blocks. For us, three-day programs are ideal for many reasons. First, we are able to incorporate full-body training each session knowing we do not lift the next day. This is important since baseball is played using the entire body.
Another reason the three-day program works for us is because it provides the opportunity to train each of our core movements (squat, bench, and dead lift) three times per week. Four-day plans typically have upper/lower splits or push/pull splits, which only work the core movements twice per week with an off day in the middle.
Our offseason volumes and intensities in the weightroom coincide with our practice and intra-squad schedules during the week. For example, Fridays are usually reserved for scrimmaging, live bullpens, or simulated games. It’s very important for players to showcase their skills on these days, so the coaches can evaluate their performance in pressure-packed situations. I want players feeling recovered to perform their best on Fridays, so these are our least intensive days in the weightroom.
The first offseason training block begins when our athletes return to campus in late August and lasts five weeks until the beginning of October. When the players first report, we put them through our program orientation. This involves our Sports Dietitian, Dayna McCutchin, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, completing her initial individual evaluations and education on all nutrition-related items. In addition, we explain our yearly plan so every guy is all-in on what we are doing and why, and we teach our mobility, stability, and movement prep routines.
Orientation is also when we cover our arm care protocols. It doesn’t matter how talented or strong a baseball player is, if his arm isn’t healthy, he will not see the field-whether he’s a position player or a pitcher. We dedicate a lot of time and attention to making sure the arm functions the way it is meant to, and our arm care routine takes up the first 15 to 20 minutes of each daily offseason workout. The routine consists of exercises that address T-spine mobility, lumbar stability, rotator cuff strength, serratus anterior and scapula activation, soft-tissue mashing, and stretching.
After orientation, we spend the rest of the first week on testing the vertical jump, pro-agility drill, and stance-start 30- and 60-yard dashes using laser timers for consistency and accuracy. In addition, I use a half-gasser test that I adopted from Raychelle Ellsworth, MSCC, CSCS, Associate Director of Sports Performance at Texas A&M University. I use times that are suitable for baseball players, meaning they must run 18 out of 20 half gassers in less than 16 seconds with a one-minute rest in between each one. The team also gets a two-minute timeout when all the players agree to take it.
For our lifting in Block 1, we follow a traditional linear periodization model that focuses on hypertrophy and building work capacity. Many of our incoming freshman and junior college players lack a foundation of strength and power, so we spend the first block establishing (newcomers) or re-establishing (vets) a good strength base. That way, we can progress to training power, velocity, and explosiveness in our later blocks.
Baseball requires players to throw a five-ounce baseball or swing a 30- or 31-ounce bat. In order for athletes to do those tasks efficiently, we can’t simply replicate those same loads and movements and expect to increase power, acceleration, and force production. Instead, we use our core lifts with heavy loads and a wide range of velocities, along with Olympic lifts and their variations.
Speaking of loads, I do not use a max out testing day in the weightroom during Block 1. Rather, players start every offseason with a blank max. To determine loads, we use “training maxes,” which are 90 percent of their calculated one-repetition maximums. These maxes are obtained utilizing daily record keeping to compute their theoretical maxes from the workouts each week. Athletes pencil in the weights they use every set and then go off the previous week’s weight to determine their load for the next workout.
For instance, players are assigned reps per max and will use the most weight they can complete for those assigned reps. Looking back on the previous week’s workouts, they will have a good idea of what their set weight should be. If they can’t finish the prescribed reps, they will take 10 to 15 pounds off for the next set. They’ll add up to 15 pounds if they achieve the prescribed reps. This scheme is used until we establish their three-repetition maximum (3RM) training max on core lifts in week five, which then determines percentages and intensity ranges in Block 2.
Beyond strength and power, our other focuses in Block 1 are speed, reactiveness, and conditioning. During this phase, we build a firm aerobic base for the rest of the offseason, and it’s when our conditioning volumes are the highest. With our newcomers, the emphasis is on teaching proper sprint mechanics, building work capacity, and increasing conditioning levels. Returning vets spend this phase re-establishing their conditioning base.
Most of our conditioning exercises during Block 1 include linear speed/acceleration work, agility drills, change-of-direction drills, and resisted runs. Some common drills we use are 10-yard stance start variations, flying 20’s and 30’s, heavy sled tows to mimic the acceleration posture, and mini-hurdle wicket runs to mimic and teach top-end speed posture.
Here’s a week-by-week breakdown of our programming in Block 1:
Week 1: Orientation and testing.
Week 2: 3×10 on core lifts, 3×5 on Olympic lifts and variations.
Week 3: 3×8 on core lifts, 4×3 on Olympic lifts and variations.
Week 4: 4×5 on core lifts, 5×3 on Olympic lifts and variations.
Week 5: 5×3 on core lifts, 6×2 on Olympic lifts and variations. Establish 3RM training max on core lifts.
This second phase lasts seven weeks from October to mid-November. During this block, we endorse the triphasic training philosophy that Cal Dietz, MEd, CSCS, Head Olympic Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Minnesota, and Ben Peterson, PhD, CSCS, Director of Sports Science for the Philadelphia Flyers, authored in the book Triphasic Training: A Systematic Approach to Elite Speed and Explosive Strength Performance.
Triphasic training allows us to slow lifts down tempo-wise and give instant coaching feedback on exercise techniques. Many of our athletes play summer ball and don’t lift much during that time, so we must develop base strength first in Block 1 before we incorporate tempo in triphasic training.
We use triphasic principles on only one core lift per day in Block 2. Two weeks each are spent focusing on the eccentric, isometric, and concentric phases of the movement. The intensities and percentages used are based on week five theoretical 3RM from Block 1. At this point, it is very important to have training maxes in place because Blocks 2, 3, and 4 are all written off of assigned training max percentages.
The compound exercises not following the triphasic pattern in Block 2 undulate between repetitions of eight and repetitions of three to five. This repeats every two weeks when a new triphasic muscle contraction is started. The Olympic lifts follow simple linear progression during Block 2, and the secondary exercises use high reps.
All of our conditioning in Block 2 is speed- and power-based. We aim to target the adenosine triphosphate-phosphocreatine energy system with high-quality sprints lasting 10 seconds or less and allowing full recovery after each rep. Acceleration, drive phase, and top-end speed mechanics with high intensity/low volume are worked on Mondays. Reaction, change of direction, and short shuttles are done on Wednesdays, and resisted sprinting with sleds, a ramp, stairs, or hills finishes our week on Fridays. We continue to follow this conditioning structure, adjusting intensities and volumes around fall practices and scrimmages as needed, through Block 3 until Block 4 begins.
Here’s a week-by-week breakdown of our programming in Block 2:
Week 6: Eccentric, 60 to 70 percent load at five-second descent, up fast. 4×3 on major core lift, 3×8 on compound lifts, 3×5 on Olympic lifts.
Week 7: Eccentric, 70 to 80 percent load at five-second descent, up fast. 5×2 on major core lift, 4×5 on compound lifts, 3×5 on Olympic lifts.
Week 8: Isometric, 60 to 70 percent load with three-second hold at bottom of movement, up fast. 4×3 on major core lift, 3×8 on compound lifts, 4×3 on Olympic lifts.
Week 9: Isometric, 70 to 80 percent load with three-second hold at bottom of movement, up fast. 5×2 on major core lift, 4×4 on compound lifts, 4×3 on Olympic lifts.
Week 10: Concentric, 60 to 70 percent load, as fast as possible down and up. 4×3 on major core lift, 3×8 on compound lifts, 5×2 on Olympic lifts.
Week 11: Concentric, 70 to 80 percent load, as fast as possible down and up. 5×2 on major core lift, 5×3 on compound lifts, 5×2 on Olympic lifts.
Before we start Block 3, we deload for about a week (Week 12). This allows us to back off the intensity and overall volume of training to give players’ bodies a much-needed break. I plan this deload to coincide with our Fall World Series, where two captains draft teams and play against each other in a best-of-seven series.
Once we have established base strength and hypertrophy in Block 1 and covered all three muscle contractions with our Block 2 triphasic training, we dive into our eight-week Block 3, which runs from mid-November to mid-January. Block 3 is the phase our players look forward to the most because our high volume of throwing and practices from the fall mini season are over, and the bulk of this block is done during winter break. For that reason, the workouts are very simple. I’ve learned that if you give players a lengthy or intimidating workout to do at home on their own, they either won’t do it or they will do their own thing-neither of which are good options.
Block 3 is when we establish the majority of our raw strength and power. I use the “5-3-1 Method” for our core lifts, created by strength coach and power lifter Jim Wendler. Athletes do a week of three sets of five, then a week of three sets of three, and the third week is a set of five, a set of three, and a set of one. In the last set, athletes always strive to perform as many reps as possible. Then, they deload for a week with three sets of five using lighter weight. I really like the 5-3-1 because of its simplicity, the amount of raw strength it produces, and the mental toughness it creates with the “reps plus” sets.
In Block 3, we switch to a four-day-a-week program because our baseball volume is low. The four-day split also allows us to work the 5-3-1 Method effectively. Three days are spent on the three core lifts-Monday is squat, Tuesday is bench or a variation, and Thursday is dead lift-and Friday is for full-body volume with four exercise supersets. We do not perform Olympic lifts during this period to keep things simple and safe for players at home.
After the core exercise of the day, the athletes can choose how many accessory lifts to do. Getting the multi-jointed base lifts in develops raw strength without spending a lot of time in the weightroom, so I leave the extra work up to the players. Some athletes spend several additional hours in the gym, while others may be there only 30 to 45 minutes for the core lifts. The accessory lifts we offer during Block 3 include: stiff leg dead lift, anterior loaded split squat, landmine press, chest-supported single-arm rear delt raise, chin-ups or underhand grip lat pulldowns, and an ab circuit, among others.
As for the schedule, we follow the 5-3-1 Method for three weeks, then deload for a week, and repeat the pattern with newly established maxes. All percentages assigned are based off of players’ training maxes.
Here’s a week-by-week breakdown of our programming in Block 3:
Week 13: Warm-up sets, then 5×65 percent, 5×75 percent, 5+x85 percent on core lifts, accessory exercises of athlete’s choice.
Week 14: Warm-up sets, then 3×80 percent, 3×85 percent, 3+x90 percent on core lifts, accessory exercises of athlete’s choice.
Week 15: Warm-up sets, then 5×75 percent, 3×85 percent, 1+x95 percent on core lifts, accessory exercises of athlete’s choice. Establish new max here.
Week 16: Deload. 5×40 percent, 5×50 percent, 5×60 percent on core lifts, accessory exercises of athlete’s choice. No plus sets this week. Insert 90 percent of the new maxes into the routine and repeat the cycle again for weeks 17 to 20.
The last block of our offseason starts as soon as the players return from winter break in mid-January and lasts three to four weeks until mid- to late February. In some ways, this block doubles as our preseason because it lasts until our season begins.
During this phase, we go back to the three-day-a-week plan. We incorporate post-activation potentiation (PAP) at this time through force/velocity contrast to produce the most amount of power possible. I have learned a great deal about this method from Charlie Melton, MS, MSCC, CSCS, USAW, Director of Men’s Basketball Athletic Performance at Baylor University.
PAP is a method where a near-maximal activity increases the performance of a subsequent activity. You can see this theory in action when hitters swing a weighted bat while on deck so they can produce more bat speed when they step to the plate with a regular bat.
When applying this concept to the weightroom, some pairings we use are: a heavy 3RM squat followed by a bodyweight squat jump, a heavy step-up followed by bounding, a heavy 3RM bench press followed by a light medicine ball shot put, and a resisted sled run followed by a stance-start sprint. This method of training requires athletes to have a very good strength base to reap the benefits, so we save it for our last phase.
For conditioning, max sprinting volume is kept low in Block 4 so it doesn’t affect the energy of our lifts. We do our Monday linear speed development conditioning prior to our lift, and change-of-direction and short shuttle work is done pre-lift every Wednesday, which serves as a great nervous system recruiter for that day’s strength training. The only day we run after our weightroom session is on Fridays. This is because I tax the lower body with sled pushes and incline running that day, and I would rather the players condition in energy reserve than when performing squats or dead lifts.
Here’s a week-by-week breakdown of our programming in Block 4:
Week 21: Warm-up sets, then 3×3 at 75 to 80 percent of max, x3 of high velocity on supplemental exercises.
Week 22: Warm-up sets, then 4×2 at 80 to 85 percent of max, x3 of high velocity on supplemental exercises.
Week 23: Warm-up sets, then 5×1-2 at 88 to 90 percent of max, x3 of high velocity on supplemental exercises.
Week 24: Deload and play ball! Only potentiate heavy to light medicine balls, resisted to non-resisted sprints, and weighted to bodyweight-only jumps.
There you have it-our 24-week plan for the offseason. Of course, we modify it occasionally as the fall progresses depending on how the players are adapting, recovering, and performing, but overall, this is the programming that has worked for us.
To read more about triphasic training, search “Balance of Power” at: Training-Conditioning.com.
YES, PITCHERS LIFT TOO
In our offseason strength and conditioning program for Texas Tech University baseball, pitchers do about 85 percent of the exercises that position players do. After all, they are athletes and need to train athletically-but there are exceptions.
For example, I give our pitchers the option of using dumbbells in all upper-body exercises that a barbell is listed for, or they can use a varied/neutral grip for pushing and pulling movements. Dumbbells improve grip strength and brachialis strength, which can prevent the bicep tendonitis many pitchers get. However, when lifting heavy, the loading and unloading of dumbbells can be risky when dealing with the shoulders and hands, so we don’t usually go into max effort reps and sets with dumbbells.
In addition, I shy away from most “high-five” overhead positions with pitchers, such as overhand pull-ups, shoulder presses, barbell push presses, or barbell jerks, especially when throwing volume is high during practice. Instead, I program push-up or dumbbell variations.
That being said, each pitcher is different, depending on his athletic background and arm history. I give a lot of ownership to the player to determine the stresses he can handle in the weightroom. We eventually want every player doing every exercise prescribed, but until that happens, specific modifications are made for each player.