Sep 21, 2016Swing for the Fences
A fall offseason strength and conditioning program centered on developing team culture, whole-body power, and speed has Texas A&M University baseball players ready to knock it out of the park come spring.
This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Since Head Coach Rob Childress took over in 2006, Texas A&M University baseball has been one of the top-tier programs in the country. During his tenure, the squad has made the NCAA tournament for 10 straight years, including five Super Regional appearances and a College World Series trip in 2011.
The foundation for all this success is laid during the fall offseason. For us, this period is all about competition, winning, and learning to hate losing. Everything we do is a contest, and players battle fiercely to come out on top.
From a strength and conditioning standpoint, my job in the offseason is to put players in the best position to win in the spring. As such, our offseason strength and conditioning program is built to create faster, more explosive, and more powerful athletes on the baseball field. By planning individualized workouts, we aim to improve players’ movement efficiency, strength, and power, while ensuring all their gains transfer from the weightroom to the diamond. And because we can’t win if players are sidelined on the DL, we also focus on injury prevention through athlete assessment and implementation of corrective measures.
Throughout our program, it’s common to hear the phrase, “Pays to be a winner” in the fall. With our dedicated offseason plan, we can make sure all the players’ hard work pays off on the field.
THE RIGHT MINDSET
The overarching goal for the offseason is to teach players how to embody what the Texas A&M baseball program is all about. The strength staff plays a huge role in reinforcing Coach Childress’ messages. Since we spend a tremendous amount of time around the athletes, we have many opportunities to emphasize the team’s identity. For this reason, I don’t focus on physical training right off the bat. To me, the physical part is merely potential that can’t be realized without first building a mental foundation.
Therefore, I use our initial training sessions to teach athletes about being disciplined, accountable, detail oriented, team oriented, and driven. We let go of individuality and immerse ourselves in being a team. To set the tone, players are required to shave every morning until fall ball is over and dress as a team for training and practice. We explain our strength and conditioning approach, the mindset athletes must bring into the weightroom, the enthusiasm and energy they are expected to bring during workouts, and every detail about our lifting technique and process.
Then, the discussion shifts to our program’s core values. The players describe what the core values mean to them and the role they play in the team’s success. Our core values are:
Selfless: Our primary concerns are for our brothers and Texas A&M baseball.
Accountable: We hold our brothers and ourselves to our covenant and our standards and understand the difference between teammates and friends.
Relentless: We are physically and mentally stronger than all others, at all times, even in the midst of adversity. You will always get our best shot.
Passionate: We are committed to playing at the highest level with the highest level of enthusiasm day in and day out.
Once athletes have a clear understanding of the team’s core values, we have them come up with their own values and goals for the offseason. Our staff adjusts their goals as needed and lays out a strategy to meet them. The players also brainstorm aspirations for the upcoming season, as well as a process-oriented plan for how we will achieve them. The players’ present their objectives to the coaching staff as the “bar” that they will attempt to reach every day.
Finally, we teach our players to have a competitive spirit in everything they do-from lifting weights to a weekend pingpong game with their teammates. We call this attribute “Attitude:” a supreme confidence or belief that they will win in any and every situation. To further promote this characteristic, we mix individual competitions into our daily training sessions, even if it’s something as simple as seeing who can drink their Gatorade the fastest after a workout.
Establishing the right mindset for our athletes in the offseason is important because baseball is an extremely humbling game of failure. The team that plays together, competes without the fear of consequence, moves on after a mistake, and stays in the moment is usually the team that will have consistent success. If we can maintain this mentality regardless of who occupies the other dugout, I like our chances.
TALE OF THE TEST
Once the players are dialed in mentally, we shift to building an offseason physical training regimen for each of them. Our programming begins with an athlete questionnaire, movement screens, and body composition testing.
The questionnaire asks about each athlete’s training background, previous or current injuries, eating and sleeping habits, and what sports they played growing up. We use this information to identify where athletes are coming from as they enter our program and any areas that may need improvement.
Baseball is a unilateral, one-directional sport, so players often develop asymmetrical adaptations. Combined with the fact that many of our athletes play year-round, it’s the perfect recipe for overuse injuries.
To get ahead of the issue in the offseason, the athletic training and strength staffs test athletes’ mobility, stability, and range of motion in various movement patterns and joints using elements of the Functional Movement Screen, as well as other baseball-specific screens. These help us identify any imbalances, deficiencies, and red flags for injury. Specifically, we use tests that look at internal/external range of motion at the shoulder and the hip, flexion/extension at the elbow, scapular dyskinesia, hip extension, and humeral torsion.
If a player reports pain during any of the movement screens, he is sent to the athletic trainer and physical therapist for further assessment. Should an athlete score poorly or show flawed movement quality without pain, we add corrective exercises to his program. For example, if an athlete gets a low score because his hip flexors are tight, we add passive and active stretching, distraction, and soft-tissue work to his training program to lengthen those muscles. I might also keep certain exercises out of his workouts until the limitation improves.
The last step of our offseason information-gathering period is body composition testing via DEXA scanning. This is conducted by Blair Hitchcock, RD, LD, our Assistant Director of Performance Nutrition. If any athletes need to gain or lose weight, Blair will work with them to create a meal plan specific to their needs.
PUTTING IN THE WORK
When it comes to our offseason strength training program, we aspire to teach athletes how to move more efficiently, improve their strength levels and power output, and reduce their incidence of injuries. To meet these goals, we use a system based on vertical integration and partial concurrent training. We work many areas simultaneously, and all qualities are varied in volume and intensity throughout the offseason cycle.
This approach allows us to organize our training into “high-low sequencing,” which is scheduling high central nervous system (CNS) days and low CNS days in a specific order so that the CNS has time to recover and function at an optimal level. We perform our more taxing movements on high days and then use tempo, mobility, stability, arm care, core, and hurdle work on low days to help the CNS recover more efficiently.
Generally, we’re in the weightroom on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays during the offseason. Lower-body training occurs on Tuesdays and Fridays, while upper-body work is done on Mondays and Thursdays. We primarily use ground-based, multi-joint exercises, and we emphasize balance within the training program. This way, our athletes develop properly and avoid muscle imbalances, keeping them injury free and playing at a consistent high level.
A strong lower half is essential for power production in baseball, so strengthening and training this region to move in coordinated and efficient patterns enhances players’ explosiveness. Our program blends lower-body pushing, hinging, and single-leg work, while also developing the anterior and posterior chains. Main lower-body lifts include the back squat, front squat, Romanian dead lift, trap bar dead lift, and numerous single leg exercises in multiple planes, such as a single-leg reverse lunge.
Our upper-body programming consists of two or three pulling exercises for each pressing exercise. All players do a variety of horizontal and vertical pulling exercises, with horizontal rows and pull-up variations comprising most of the work. In addition, we focus on a number of external rotation exercises. From there, the regimen differs for position players and pitchers.
Position players will do barbell and dumbbell pressing variations, while pitchers focus more on push-up variations, with some dumbbell pressing. The reason for the differing exercises is the higher throwing demands of pitchers. Dumbbell presses and push-up exercises result in less potential rotation about the shoulder joint, require more shoulder and total body stability, and strengthen the core, which are all critical for pitchers. In addition, the serratus anterior activation that push-ups create is paramount to proper movement of the scapula in overhead throwing athletes.
Besides upper- and lower-body work, core training is a daily part of our offseason program. The core is the link that connects the upper- and lower-body movements together to display power in an efficient and effective capacity on the field. Lack of proper mobility and range of motion in the core can cause compensation patterns that make the lumbar spine more susceptible to injury.
You will not find traditional exercises like sit-ups and crunches in our training program, however. Instead, we use movements that develop appropriate mobility in the hips and thoracic spine and create stability in the lumbar spine. We progress players from basic hip mobility and thoracic spine mobility drills to anti-extension drills, such as bridge work or back-to-wall shoulder flexion. Then, we move through anti-rotation drills, including cable pallofs, cable lifts, and cable chops; anti-lateral flexion drills, such as single-arm dumbbell farmers’ carries and bottoms-up kettlebell carries; rotational drills with a strength emphasis, like cable rotations; and rotational drills with a speed component, such as cable speed rotations or medicine ball throws.
As much as we want players to have a team-first mindset, our training program is not one-size-fits-all. We individualize each player’s workout as much as possible.
For example, auto regulation metrics, such as bar speed and relative intensity, provide feedback to better specify an athlete’s strength program. We use Tendo units to look at their bar speed and identify optimal training loads for power development. We also jump test athletes at least once a week to evaluate their power output on repeated jumps. With both methods, we watch for changes in performance that could indicate fatigue. The results allow us to make adjustments to athletes’ volume and/or intensity based on their current training state.
Note that we do not employ fatigue and Tendo unit testing with all of our athletes. Instead, it is reserved for our top-tier lifters who have demonstrated the readiness to use such technology.
Further individualization comes from placing open sets throughout our offseason program. This gives athletes the freedom to push themselves if they are having an “on” day, and their CNS is primed and ready to go.
TRAIN FAST TO GET FAST
Speed and power training is an offseason priority for us. In the beginning of fall, our focus is on developing proper body control, coordination, and optimal alignment. To build these traits, we teach our athletes the “power position,” which requires knees bent, hips back, and the chest out over the knees.
Athletes use the power position for almost every athletic movement, both inside and outside the weightroom. It is required to get into a jump, change direction, decelerate, and create movement effectively. For example, when the ball is hit back toward a pitcher, the first thing he does is gather himself into the power position so he can react with the most power and speed. We repeatedly teach the power position in warm-ups and workouts until it becomes second nature.
Once players have it down, we go over proper landing and change-of-direction mechanics, including linear deceleration. The deceleration component is crucial for keeping players healthy because it teaches them to land and slow down using proper technique, muscle recruitment, and firing patterns. It also enables them to fully utilize the speeds and velocities they are capable of creating. Together, these skills build the foundation for our lateral speed, linear speed, and plyometric training, which allows players to turn the strength and power they are developing in the weightroom into athletic ability on the field.
Our lateral speed work consists of short cone drills covering five to 20 yards each and 100 to 200 total yards per session. These drills focus on shuffling, backpedaling, crossover steps, sprinting, or a combination of movements. Cuts consist of tight turns, wide turns, lateral cuts, and jump cuts.
We start our lateral work with planned movement in one direction. So an athlete might shuffle to the right for five yards and then sprint to the right for another 10 yards. Next, we add a change-of-direction element. In this stage, an athlete might crossover run for five yards, plant into the power position, and then crossover run or sprint back the other direction. We finish with unplanned movements-an athlete might shuffle back and forth between two cones 10 yards apart depending on which way a coach points or partner moves.
During the last few weeks of offseason training, we make our unplanned lateral work as baseball-specific as possible by having players mimic fielding or running the bases. For example, one drill involves a pitcher running five yards to a cone on his right to simulate fielding a ball, then shuffling one or two strides toward first base, and finishing with a sprint through first base as if he was beating the runner to the bag.
Our linear speed work is aimed at teaching athletes to sustain acceleration through every foot contact. We want to teach them to apply large amounts of force in a short period of time.
To do this, we use three phases of acceleration training. Stage one is early in the offseason. We utilize distances from 10 to 30 yards per drill, totaling 150 to 350 yards per session, and mix in an array of starting positions, including lunge starts, drop starts, crossover starts, and shuffle starts.
As we progress into the second phase of acceleration in weeks seven through nine, we have players pull sleds for the same distances used in stage one. To manage the weight on the sled, we use speed coach Charlie Francis’ rule of 10 percent: If the athlete’s time over a given distance increases by more than 10 percent once the sled is incorporated, then the weight is too high. We also add contrast sprints and stadium stair sprints during this phase.
The last stage of linear speed training is the top-speed phase. This is usually done in weeks 10 to 12 of the offseason. During this time, we complete 30- to 60-yard runs where the athletes build up to full speed and maintain it for a given distance, staying at or below three seconds of work at full speed. All of our speed training is done at greater than 95 percent intensity, and we schedule full rest periods between runs to ensure high CNS quality.
Although baseball players rarely reach their max speeds on the field, the benefits of top-speed training have a positive effect on their strength and power. For instance, speed can improve athletes’ inter- and intramuscular coordination, rate coding, rate of force development, and stretch-shortening cycle.
Our plyometric training teaches athletes how to use the strength they are developing in the weightroom in an explosive and powerful manner. We focus mostly on jump training, progressing from teaching athletes to apply force through large ranges of motion and long ground contact times to smaller ranges of motion and quicker ground contact times. Our jumps advance from no counter movement, to counter movement, to double tap, to continuous jumps, and we utilize all planes and both unilateral and bilateral jumps. Toward the end of the offseason, we sometimes add resistance to our training with vests, medicine balls, dumbbells, and bands.
By following our offseason plan, we hope to start each season with faster, more explosive, and more powerful athletes than we had the previous year. When we reach this goal, our team is more prepared to succeed on the field and continue the winning tradition of Texas A&M baseball.
PREPARING FOR OMAHA
During the fall offseason period, we split the Texas A&M University baseball players into two groups: the Farmers and the Plowboys. These two squads compete throughout the fall to win the “Omaha Cup Challenge,” named for the site of the NCAA Division I College World Series. Points are awarded or deducted in the areas of academics, strength and conditioning, team competitions, practice, and fall intersquad scrimmages.
The weightroom portion of the Omaha Cup Challenge consists of naming a Lifter of the Week, Lifting Team of the Week, Newcomer of the Year, and Lifter of the Year. When choosing winners, we look at whether athletes performed at their ability level daily, whether they went above and beyond what was asked, and if they made their teammates better.
The athletes also compete in weekly team challenges, where each squad competes to earn points toward the Omaha Cup. For example, we might do a sandbag relay race or team medicine ball workout.
I think of the strength and conditioning profession as a mix of science and art-both being important to the development of a sound program. The Omaha Cup Challenge fits on the art side of the equation. We adjust where necessary to make it fit into our broader offseason program because it’s an important piece of building a championship-caliber team.
DAY IN THE WEIGHTROOM
Below is a sample workout from the Texas A&M University baseball team’s offseason program.
Dynamic hip mobility……….6 drillsx7 yards each side
Linear running mechanics
Linear marches with band……….x10 yards
Linear skips with band……….x10 yards
Linear 1-2 quick holds with band……….x15 yards each side
Linear single-leg A-skip with band……….x15 yards each side
Linear 12-inch hurdle hops……….3×5 at double tap
Linear 6-inch single-leg hurdle hops……….3×5 each side at double tap
Power skips……….3×5 each side
20-yard sprints at 100%, plus 20 yards at 80%……….x6 at 90 seconds rest
Front squat……….1×5 at 35% 1RM, 1×3 at 50%, 1×2 at 65%, 3×4 at 74%
Rear foot elevated split-squat……….3×6 each side
Split-stance cable lift……….3×6 each side
Romanian dead lift……….3×6
Banded side iso hold……….3×20 seconds each side
Back-to-wall shoulder flexion……….3×6
Band hip flexor stretch……….3×20 seconds
Foam roll/band stretch routine