Jan 29, 2015Off & Running
Boston University’s strength and conditioning program for women’s softball has the team off and running toward newfound success.
By Victor Brown III
Victor Brown III, MS, ATC, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, is the Associate Strength and Conditioning Coach at Boston University. He can be reached at: [email protected].
The game of softball is characterized by quick reactions and repeated high-power-output movements. With only 60 feet separating each base and 40 feet between the pitcher’s plate and home plate, softball players need powerful acceleration in the batting box, on the base paths, and on defense.
At Boston University, our softball strength and conditioning program stresses the development of linear and lateral speed and acceleration, rotational strength and power, power endurance, and improved batted ball velocity. For reducing injuries, we emphasize training the posterior chain and a full-body warmup.
This philosophy resulted in team single-season records for stolen bases and home runs in 2006, and helped the Terriers lead the America East Conference in stolen base percentage, with four players contributing 10 or more steals. Additionally, our strength and conditioning program has helped produce the school’s top two career, and top three single-season home run leaders.
STRENGTH TO PLAY
In order to be successful at the NCAA Division I level, softball players need to train for power. They need power to hit the ball, make strong throws, and to run and jump on defense and on the basepaths. Here at BU, beginning in late October, our players spend four days a week in our off-season strength and conditioning program.
Research has shown three factors contribute to batted ball velocity: lean body mass, lower body power, and grip strength. To develop lean body mass and lower body power, players are put through an initial four-week hypertrophy phase using loads between 60 and 75 percent of their individual 1-RM. That is followed by six weeks of basic strength and power training using approximately 70 to 90 percent of their 1-RM. We then start our preseason training, which lasts three to four weeks, with a goal of attaining peak strength and power.
Our staple lifts during these periods include squats, lunges, straight-leg deadlifts, cleans, snatches, glute-ham and partner-ham raises, and sequential/diagonal chops. We also emphasize pulling movements for the scapular-thoracic joint, such as dumbbell rows, cable-rope rows, bent-over rows, and inverted rows, as well as chin-ups and pull-ups. Other exercises include the bench press, incline bench press, close-grip bench press, and alternating dumbbell incline bench press.
The use of overhead lifts by overhead throwing athletes has long been a controversial topic among strength coaches. Athletes who play baseball and softball perform countless sport-specific repetitions during play and practice, using shoulder and arm movements above 90 degrees horizontal abduction. Therefore, I believe it is essential for the athletes to strengthen this plane of movement. However, it is important to determine when is the most appropriate time during the training year to perform overhead movements because of the susceptibility of the shoulder complex to sustain injury.
The key is frequent communication with the sport coach to accurately gauge the amount of overhead stress your athletes are putting on their shoulders and arms outside the weightroom. We train using a high volume of overhead movements during the off-season, when the athlete is performing the least amount of throwing. As the team begins preseason practices, the volume of overhead strength training decreases and combination lifts and complexes are incorporated into their workouts. Once the season starts, overhead lifts are eliminated.
Various forms of grip strengthening and prehab for the hand, wrist, and forearms are done twice a week during both off-season and preseason training. When a bat makes contact with a ball, a significant amount of compression occurs to the ball, and much of the initial kinetic energy of the ball is lost. Our goal is to limit the significance of dampening forces. Some of our favorite exercises to do this include dumbbell wrist throws, dumbbell farmer’s holds, and plate gripping, as well as towel-grip holds performing chin-ups and inverted rows. We also do a rice bucket forearm/hand circuit (open-close, hammer, open-the-jar, close-the-jar), which is performed 20 times. And we wrap a towel around the handle for many of the dumbbell exercises, such as dumbbell rows, dumbbell split squats, and walking lunges, allowing players to grasp as a method of incorporating functional grip-strength work.
Ballistic-resistance training has been shown to increase throwing and base running performance, and thus it is an integral part of our program. Players begin plyometric training as a group and pitchers and position players are later separated to build strength and power for their position-specific movements. Split jumps are used to improve lower-body power in pitchers while rotational and lateral plyometrics are used to teach hitters and position players how to generate power in a rotational and lateral manner. Three of our favorites are 90-degree box jumps, 180-degree hurdle hops, and lateral drop jumps. Weighted jump squats are also used occasionally.
Medicine ball exercises are implemented to tax the entire kinetic chain in a sequential manner. To work the shoulder complex, players perform overhead wall dribbles and single-arm wall dribbles incorporating a variety of stances based on position- specific needs.
Twist throws are also used to develop power for position-specific movements. Pitchers perform twist throws in a split stance and progress to using a lunge step—this teaches them to produce force in a sagittal and transverse plane simultaneously. Position players either utilize a stride step or simply lift the front foot up and down depending on their individual hitting style. Slap hitters perform twist throws in a split stance parallel to the wall. We will progress to performing twist throws on a slide board to teach all players to produce force in a frontal plane while simultaneously generating force along a transverse plane, which occurs when players swing a bat.
Strengthening the hips and groin is also critical. We use the slide board, the mini-band, and lateral resistor work for these areas. Additionally, players perform lunge movements in various planes to prepare for on-the-field demands. Infielders move predominately from side-to-side, thus we use the cross-over step lunge, 45-degree lunge and reach, reverse lunge, and lateral lunge. Outfielders must turn and run to a spot for a driven ball, so for them we use open-step lunges to develop their first-step. Pitchers perform forward lunges and split squats to assist in developing the leg drive that is crucial for their push off. And everyone does walking lunges to develop the propulsive strength needed for running.
QUICK & EFFICIENT
Most actions in sports take fewer than five to 10 seconds to complete, often even quicker in softball, and rarely does an athlete reach maximum speed during play. Thus, acceleration and quick reactions are required for movements like exploding out of the batters box, getting a good jump on the ball defensively, and running the base paths either during a hit-and-run or a straight steal. In response, acceleration and movement efficiency drills are performed on a daily basis in the off-season.
During the first phase of training, various pillar and arm-swing drills are executed along with a variety of acceleration drills like lateral starts and split-stance accelerations. In the next phase of training, we progress the difficulty of our movement efficiency drills and begin to incorporate objects for reaction training. We have found ball drops are an excellent drill for improving acceleration. Both infielders and outfielders can execute the drill from either a defensive ready position or a stealing start position. Towel drops provide another advanced option. The towel is thrown from behind the shoulder of the player, who must sprint to the spot beneath the towel as it comes into sight, the same way they sprint to a spot for a fly ball.
During the latter phases of training, movement efficiency drills become even more advanced by adding visual tracking and cognitive training. For example, we use number ball drops, in which various numbers are written on the six sides of a tennis ball. Players accelerate upon release of the ball. Immediately prior to catching it, the player is required to call out the last number on the ball they see. Colored ball drops are another option. Execute the drill by using two different colored balls. Upon release, call out the color of the ball the athlete is to grab as they accelerate toward it. These drills foster quick thinking and precise reactions.
We also incorporate resisted sprinting and complex training to improve acceleration during this final stage of training. Hill sprints and towing sleds are used for resisted sprinting. We perform a heavy squat movement followed by a plyometric exercise or maximum effort sprint during our complex training.
ADDING IN CONDITIONING
Conditioning the softball athlete is important for many reasons. The first reason is for improving speed. I believe to become faster, we must train the body to fire and move at a greater speed than it is accustomed to. So, even though the athletes may never get to their top speed during competition, I want to see them achieve it during workouts.
We use short intervals when doing speed work. The majority of our maximum speed sprint training takes less than 10 seconds. In addition, a 1:12 work-to-rest ratio is used for ATP-PC recovery.
Power endurance must also be considered for softball performance. The game is characterized by repeated high-power output movements, and the ability to maintain power throughout a long at-bat or a double-header is critical. We begin training using work-to-rest ratios of 1:3, then progress to 1:2. We use various modes of conditioning including slide boards and bike sprints. Maximum speed and metabolic conditioning days are alternated to allow for energy system recovery.
In competition, our base runners are called upon to steal and hit-and-run at various times. There are times when the base runner is on the move and the batter hits a ball into foul territory. The base runner must return to the base and get ready to sprint maximally again on the next play with a short amount of rest. During the preseason, we begin to incorporate active recovery into our metabolic conditioning to simulate the demands of this type of base running. To make it more sport-specific, we use a variety of starts and signals for our sprints, like signs for a delayed steal, straight steal, and a simulated windmill pitch.
During the season, the players get into a daily routine of performing conditioning drills after our on-field warm-ups, but volume and intensity change weekly based on such variables as number of games in a week or day, how many innings a position player was active, and number of innings pitched. Our speed and acceleration training is primarily performed on game days, and is short in duration, long in recovery. Interval training is carried out on practice days and includes a day of active recovery work. Tempo conditioning is performed at 90-percent effort and administered the day prior to doubleheaders and on Sundays for pitchers and position players who played more than three innings during the previous day’s game(s).
Research has shown that the majority of injuries a softball pitcher encounters are due to overuse, and they primarily involve the shoulder. Understanding the biomechanical movements and what muscles are active during the various phases of the windmill pitching motion is imperative to properly condition a pitcher.
The windmill motion consists of three phases: preparatory, force, and follow-through. The preparatory phase varies from pitcher to pitcher, with some bringing the arm back to 90 degrees of extension and others using no extension, but all pitchers bring the ball to the six o’clock position to initiate the pitch. The force phase is most important and is comprised of four subdivisions:
- 1. The arm is elevated from a six o’clock to a three o’clock position. The supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and deltoid are all active in this position.
2. When the arm moves from three o’clock to 12 o’clock, the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and posterior deltoid are functioning.
3. The arm shifts beyond the 12 o’clock position to nine o’clock and the subscapularis, teres minor, serratus anterior, and posterior deltoid are operating.
4. These same muscles remain activated during the final portion of the force phase and also during the follow-through phase.
Conditioning just the rotator cuff muscles, however, is insufficient when preparing a windmill pitcher for the demands of a softball season. Training the entire kinetic chain along with the shoulder complex is key. In addition, the posterior deltoid, pectoralis major, and serratus anterior all play critical roles during the windmill pitching motion. Work must be done both above 90 degrees horizontal abduction and in neutral.
Our pitchers perform a shoulder complex twice a week during the off-season using both tubing and light dumbbells. To relieve the volume placed on the shoulder region during the spring season, a shoulder complex is performed once a week for maintenance. Here is a sample routine (each exercise is performed 10 times):
- Horizontal Abduction to 90/90 External Rotation
- Triceps Extension
- Biceps Curl
- Full Cans
- Forward Diagonals
- Backward Diagonals
- Serratus Punch w/Internal Rotation
- Neutral Internal Rotation
- Neutral External Rotation
- 90/90 Internal Rotation
- 90/90 External Rotation
- Glenohumeral Extension w/External Rotation
The wrist and elbow are also areas of concern and thus we incorporate various modes of training to increase hand, wrist, and forearm strength. Pronation, supination, ulnar and radial deviation, flexion, and extension work are all done, as well as wrist throws and gripping exercises. Much of our grip work is “hidden” in the workout as part of a tri-set or functional-based lifts using towels, ropes, or dumbbells. Adequate lower back strength and endurance are also incorporated to properly prepare for the demands of pitching over the course of the season.
THE NORTHEAST GAME
A final important element of our strength-training program deals with our geographic location. Research shows that softball players in the colder regions of the Midwest and Northeast sustain more injuries than those in the warmer regions of the South and West. Therefore, we construct our warmup routine very carefully.
Our on-field prep work is active, dynamic, and encompasses movements specific to the throwing, running, and fielding requirement for the game of softball. Traditionally, softball players have started warming up by throwing the ball. But we take a completely different approach using dynamic exercises for the shoulder complex before a single ball is thrown. We warm up to throw, not throw to warm up.
By thinking carefully about the dynamics of the game and considering the injuries its athletes sustain, we have been able to develop a functional, sport-specific program for our softball players. They are looking forward to using it with even more success this spring.
Table One: On-Field Warmup
The following is the warmup routine our softball players use before a practice. The movement exercises are done for 20 yards.
- Jog to Poles x2
- Arm Circles w/Pronation x10
- Arm Circles w/External Rotation x10
- Field Goals x10
- Full Cans x10
- Diagonals x10
- Bear Hugs x10
- High-Knee Lunge Walk
- Heel-to-Butt w/Lean
- Cross-Over Toe Touch (R+L)
- Inverted Hamstring w/External Rotation
- Backward Lunge + Twist
- Lateral Slide Thru (R+L)
- High-Knee Skip
- Cross-Over Skip
- High Knees x2
- Butt Kicks x2
- Carioca (R+L)
- Delayed Steal x75%, x90%, x100%
Table Two: Sample Week
The following is an example of one week of conditioning during fall off-season training. All off-season weightroom sessions start with either a dynamic warmup or an agility ladder and conclude with foam rolling and stretching.
Seated Arm Swing: 1×20
Standing Arm Swing :1×20
Walking Arm Swing: 2×20
Pillar March: 2×5
Split Stance Acceleration 2×10 meters
Standing Arm 1×20
Walking Arm Swing 1×20
Jogging Arm Swing 2×20
Pillar Knee-Ups 2×5
Ball Drops x2 (split stance)
Walk-to-Jog Arm Swing 2x20m
Pillar Single Exchange 2×5
1-Leg High-Knee Walk 1x20m
Alternating 1-Leg High-Knee Walk 1x20m
Lateral Starts x2
1-Leg High-Knee Skip 2x20m
High-Knee Skip 2x20m
Defensive 1-2 Stick x2
Cross-Over to Base-Position x2
Number Ball Drops x2 (with lateral start)
Jump Squats 4×6 @ 30%
Pitchers: Split Jumps 2×5
Others: Lateral Box Jumps 2×5
90-Degree Box Jumps: 2×4
90-Degree Hurdle Jumps: 2×4
Same as Tuesday
Rope Reverse Crunch 2×20
Off-Bench Obliques 2×10
|Medicine Ball Routine:
Close Overhead Throw 3×8
Chest Pass 3×8
Front Facing R/L Twist Throw 3×8
(Pitcher in split stance)
Side Facing R/L Twist Throw 3×8
(Hitters in stride step; slappers in split stance)
Same as Monday
|Medicine Ball Routine:
Same as Tuesday
Hill Sprints (1:12)
4×0:30/0:60 Bike Sprints: