Jan 29, 2015Home Run Power
Explosive lifts breed explosive hits. That’s why Olympic lift variations are a major component of the University of Georgia softball team’s strength and conditioning program.
By Tyler Jorgensen
Tyler Jorgensen, MS, SCCC, is Strength and Conditioning Coach for Olympic Sports at the University of Georgia. He can be reached at: [email protected].
When I took over the University of Georgia softball team’s strength and conditioning program in the fall of 2008, the squad had already built a history of success. The Lady Bulldogs had qualified for the NCAA Division I playoffs every year since 2000, and all signs pointed to the athletes wanting to take the program to the next level–the Women’s College World Series.
Since then, the squad has reached the WCWS semifinals each of the past two seasons and is poised for a big season this spring with all of its starters returning and a top-five preseason national ranking. The team is confident and unafraid of the expectations and challenges that await them on the field. And most importantly for me, the players understand it’s the hard work we put in during the fall that will make the difference.
Besides the physical work demanded of our players, I believe there are two other critical aspects to our success. One is the buy-in I have received from the entire squad. When everyone is on the same page in regard to what we are trying to achieve in the weightroom, we are poised for optimal success.
The other key is motivation. It can be tough to find specific ways to motivate a team, but one of the methods that has worked well here is using inspirational quotes that connect with the players. Two favorites that have essentially become team mottos in the weightroom are, “Nobody Outworks Us” and “Do Whatever It Takes, No Excuses.” To keep the players hungry, I tell them to never be satisfied and approach each day as another opportunity to improve even more.
I developed the team’s strength and conditioning program with four goals in mind: to maximize athletic performance, increase the rate of force development, increase mobility and movement efficiency, and minimize injuries. The last three concepts are vital to the first goal of developing overall athleticism on the field. We can’t improve our athletic performance without all of these goals working in concert.
When addressing the ability to produce power at a high rate, I keep in mind that most plays in softball happen in a matter of seconds. Making a diving catch, hitting at the plate, stealing a base, or driving off the plate when pitching all require the ability to produce power quickly.
Also important is the ability to move efficiently and be athletic in space. I want our players to be able to react to a play in any given direction at any given moment in an efficient and effective manner. However, that doesn’t mean we do a lot of sport-specific training in the weightroom.
I believe players perfect their sport-specific movement during their daily practices that last two to three hours, so in the weightroom we do just a few supplemental exercises to elicit some specific movement patterns. Manipulating an exercise so that it conforms to a specific movement sometimes puts an athlete at a biomechanical disadvantage, so instead I utilize exercises that enhance entire muscle groups and exercises that utilize similar motor recruitment patterns that are specific to the sport of softball. For example, I use Olympic lift variations that create a powerful triple extension with the hips and legs, which transfers to our pitchers finishing their pitches and our hitters finishing their swings in a very explosive, but controlled manner.
Finally, I keep the health of our athletes’ bodies in mind. Contrary to what some people think about softball, the sport can be very physically demanding. Games typically last between two and three hours with short bursts of energy required and short rest periods between pitches, plus here in the South, we have the added element of grueling heat. I also keep in mind that the most common injuries in softball are associated with the shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.
And because pitching injuries need to be avoided at all costs, some exercises we do are for non-pitchers only. The hang snatch, for instance, is a very safe exercise, but since it involves more of the elbow and shoulder joints, our pitchers don’t do it.
One of the first things we do when the players report back to campus in August is take them through a Functional Movement Screen. It’s a great tool because we are able to see right away if incoming freshmen have any muscular or joint immobilities. At the same time, re-screening our upperclassmen shows us if they developed any problems since the end of the previous season. By starting with the screening test, we are able to attack any issues right away before problems worsen. In throwing sports like softball we often see T-spine immobilities, so we address that by incorporating exercises like face pulls and wall slides for scapular strengthening and mobility.
After I examine the team’s screening results, I assess individual, team, and position-specific needs. Prior to preseason, I will have already reviewed game film and notes that I took during the previous season. This helps me identify areas we need to improve on as a team. I also look at individuals to find what each particular athlete needs to improve on.
When watching games, I look at why our errors occur. Most times it’s a mental error or miscalculation, but sometimes it’s athletically related. Maybe a player is slow on their first step to a fly or ground ball or a hitter isn’t getting very powerful hip extension while at the plate.
By its nature, softball is a very powerful and explosive sport, so I incorporate as many powerful and explosive exercises as I can. I utilize many different Olympic lifting variations with both barbells and dumbbells, including power cleans from the floor, hang cleans from the knees, hang cleans from the box, hang snatches from the knees, hang snatches from the box, and DB snatches.
Some strength and conditioning coaches may be skeptical of doing Olympic variations with softball players, but I believe if the exercises are taught properly, technique is enforced, and proper progressions are used, the benefits outweigh any risks. Olympic variations like the power clean and hang snatch increase the rate of force development and improve power in the triple extension phase–which is essential to developing speed and first-step acceleration for runners on the bases and in the field, hitters when they hip shift, and pitchers when they drive toward the plate.
In addition to creating total-body awareness, Olympic lifts utilize similar joint and muscular recruitment patterns used during play. They develop leg and hip power, load the spine, and force the athlete to keep her core and posterior chain strong. To maximize the benefits of Olympic lifts, I constantly emphasize the importance of bar speed and teach our athletes to be explosive by applying as much force to the ground as possible throughout the full range of motion.
Lower-body strength development is an integral part of our power development, and we build lower extremity lean mass largely through front and back squats. Max strength is an important quality of this work, though explosive strength is the main goal. This means we not only incorporate exercises to increase strength, but we want the strength exercises to move with speed and authority to increase our explosive strength.
Single-leg strength and power variations supplement our main lower-body work, so we use sled pulls for time and single-leg jumps for explosiveness. Single-leg clean grip forward and backward lunges, DB single-leg lifts, and single-leg squats all help to develop not only strength but leg stability, which aids in prevention of knee, hip, and ankle injuries.
A big part of the coaching staff’s philosophy is to move base runners into scoring position as often as possible, so it is crucial that our players have the ability to explode off the bases. During the fall, we set aside two days a week to work on speed, acceleration, and agility. The first day is acceleration-based with most of the work covering five to 10 yards. The second day is speed-focused, and we work in a range of 15 to 30 yards.
On the days we do our acceleration or speed work, we start with running mechanic drills to help assist in the efficiency of running or more accurately, sprinting form. We often do this work on the softball field and incorporate drills where we can use the bases. Keeping our goals of movement efficiency and agility in mind, both days include agility drills. (See “Quick Feet” below for an example of the team’s speed and acceleration training days.)
As I develop our workout plans, I base everything on a year-round periodization model. This allows me to stimulate strength and power gains, prevents overtraining, and helps us peak at the right time. Here’s how we break it all down.
When our athletes report for classes in August, we have approximately two weeks before the start of fall ball, which runs for four weeks in September. I essentially use those first two weeks as an introductory or general physical preparedness (GPP) phase where we re-introduce lifting techniques and movements to help prepare the players for the following weeks, which will be more intense and demanding on their body.
We train through the fall season with a three-week basic strength phase following our GPP phase. This phase allows us to build a base but not overload the body during fall ball when the practices that precede lifting sessions can last two to three hours and there are games every weekend.
The six weeks following our fall season include all of October and the first two weeks in November. This time frame encompasses our max strength and max power phases, which end with our test week before Thanksgiving break. This is the most crucial time for our players to develop strength and power.
We break the fall semester program down into three total-body lifting days per week, with each day having a different emphasis. I develop two versions of each workout–one for position players and another for pitchers.
Many of the exercises are done by both groups, but I always include two exercises to target the specific movements and muscle groups used by each of the two units. I do this with two exercises that are specific to each position in regard to movement and muscle groups used. For our pitchers, for example, we have them go through their pitching motion with a resistance band. They’re trying to be explosive against the resistance, which elicits a very specific motor recruitment pattern. They’re utilizing the same muscle groups in the exercise as when they’re on the field.
Monday is typically a power day when we emphasize a clean from the floor and a squat variation. Our second day in the weightroom usually falls on Wednesday. This is our speed day when we emphasize speed of movement with a variation of a hang, DB snatch, or a box clean.
On day three, we emphasize strength. For moderate upper-body work, we use a bench press variation and include a heavy pull. We also work on single-leg strength by doing a single-leg squat variation, lunge, or step-up.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday is our typical schedule, but obviously these three days can be moved to accommodate practice and travel schedules. I also keep an eye on how the players are responding to workouts–both physically and mentally.
We begin each lifting workout with foam rolling and some form of a dynamic warmup that includes sport-specific movements, agility ladders, bikes, and jump ropes, and even bar warmups on some Olympic lift days. I do this to vary the workouts, and I like to pair specific warmups to correspond with each day’s emphasis in the weightroom. On a day we’re doing Olympic variations, for example, we’ll do a barbell complex to warm up. Or on a day we’re doing squats, we’ll do some hip mobility work to warm up.
After a dynamic warmup, we move into pre-hab work that includes emphasis on hip and ankle mobility, shoulder mobility and stabilization, and knee (specifically ACL) injury prevention work. This includes proprioceptive plyometrics with mini hurdles and the agility ladder. We get the players to consciously think about activating the knee joint and quad immediately before landing so the knee is ready to accept the force and stabilize itself before landing.
In addition to our lifts, we use supplemental exercises that include posterior chain work to aid in injury prevention and athletic performance, such as core rotational power exercises with medicine balls and Keiser machines. This work assists our hitters in developing the power and control needed for a powerful hip shift.
From the day our players arrive in August, up to the week before their first game in mid-February, they are on a three-day lifting program. Unfortunately, there is a time gap between semesters when they will be on their own, but we stress to each athlete that upon their return to campus, they will be expected to show continued strength and power gains.
When January arrives, we complete a three- to four-week cycle of lifting three times a week before dropping to two days a week during the season. Early in the season, Tuesday is usually our power and strength day when we continue to maintain power with variations of the clean and build upon our strength with a squat variation.
Thursdays are typically our speed day when we do a variation of a snatch and an explosive pull for speed or an explosive weighted jump. Once the team gets to conference play, we switch these two lifting days. We want to minimize any muscle soreness our players have as they get closer to game days.
Throughout the season, we continue to build upon our strength and power and complete a three-week wave cycle. In the third week, our athletes hit a moderate intensity of around 80 to 85 percent max before we decrease. Volume always stays low, and I believe that’s important to assist in injury prevention.
TIME FOR TESTING
I believe that tracking our players’ progress is a very important component to our program. Being able to monitor and see gains promotes motivation. Our players love to compete against each other and love to try to beat their old marks. Testing day here has a game day atmosphere and the players come in excited and focused.
During the third week of November, we test a one-rep max in the back squat and power clean, and a three-rep max in either a DB or BB bench press. We also test the players on pull-ups and chin-ups in all-out effort max to failure.
To test conditioning levels, we do a 150-yard shuttle run in which players run 25 yards down and back three times in 32 seconds or less, with 80 seconds of recovery. We do 10 sets of the shuttle run for our conditioning test. I like to condition in the range of 25 yards or less because this distance is specific to softball.
To track the players’ progress on their speed and acceleration work early in the school year, I test them in the 10- and 20-yard dash three times during the fall season. The first test gives me a baseline, and is usually set for two weeks after they report to campus. The second test day is held immediately after the fall season, and the third is right before the athletes leave campus for Thanksgiving break.
I have been blessed to work with an outstanding group of athletes and coaches in the UGA softball program over the past three years. Working with these athletes has definitely made my job as a strength and conditioning coach much more exciting and challenging. My hat goes off to them because I know it’s the attitude, hard work, and dedication that has helped make us successful. Nobody outworks us and we do whatever it takes, no excuses.
Sidebar: QUICK FEET
Here is an example of a typical week during the fall in which we are working on acceleration and speed. We always start with a dynamic warmup before progressing to the drills for that day. All exercises are in reps and yards.
Day One: Acceleration with full recovery
Dynamic warmup (speed mechanics):
One-leg pops (knee up, toe up, strike ground w/ ball of foot): 2×10 Wall runs: 3×3 Speed skips: 2×20 High-knee skips: 2×20 High knees: 2×20 Build-ups (gradually increase speed): 4×20
Tall-and-falls: 5×10 Get up-and-go’s (push-up start): 5×10 Tennis ball starts: 2×3-5
Day Two: Speed with full recovery
Dynamic warmup (speed mechanics):
Speed skips: 2×20 High-knee skips: 2×20 High-knees: 2×20 Build-ups: 4×4
Flying 20s (stride 20 yards, sprint 20 yards): 3×20 Base starts first to second base: x4-6