Jan 29, 2015Swinging for the Fences
The University of North Carolina’s recent resurgence on the diamond has been fueled by a progressive multi-phase conditioning plan that addresses baseball’s specific speed, power, and agility needs.
By Greg Gatz
Greg Gatz, CSCS, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at the University of North Carolina. He can be reached at: [email protected].
There was a time when strength and conditioning for the University of North Carolina baseball team could be described as somewhere between haphazard and non-existent. Players weren’t required to strength train or complete conditioning workouts under any organized program, so most trained on their own with little guidance. The few team conditioning sessions that were held consisted of long-distance running that disregarded the specific needs of baseball. And most years, the team’s on-field performance was good but not great.
Ten years ago, however, that all changed. New Head Coach Mike Fox brought a serious emphasis on strength and conditioning, and my staff and I designed a sport-specific program that would address all the key areas of development for optimum baseball performance.
Today, our team trains with a purpose throughout the entire academic year. Coach Fox is adamant about players completing workouts and making consistent progress in their conditioning, and the players accept that being in great shape is part of being a Tar Heel. And it’s no coincidence that we have ended two of the last three seasons playing in the NCAA Division I College World Series championship games.
I believe in breaking down the training calendar into several distinct phases. We begin with general conditioning and strength building, and as we get closer to opening day, our focus shifts to the specific skills and types of power needed to excel on the diamond.
PHILOSOPHY & BASICS
Our training philosophy isn’t complicated: We want to develop all the athletic qualities important to baseball success, and create players who are fully prepared for every situation that might occur in a game. That simple approach guides every decision we make in our strength and conditioning program.
Baseball is primarily a power sport. Each pitch is an exercise in acceleration and strength. Each swing of the bat combines generated power with skill in an attempt to put the ball in play, and most swings attempt to generate maximum force. The infield and outfield players anticipate and react explosively in order to field hits, make throws, and prevent runners from advancing. Everything involves short bursts of intense effort, as the ball is rarely in play for more than a few seconds at one time.
Taking these specific needs into account, our program focuses on improving strength and power, speed and agility, and flexibility. While doing so, we need to beware of overtraining, since the NCAA Division I baseball season typically exceeds 60 games, and most players follow that up with summer league play for another two months. Although the game has a slow pace with frequent “downtime,” this grueling competition schedule takes its toll on players both physically and mentally. For that reason, we always strive for maximum efficiency in our workouts.
Most players enter our program with some general knowledge of foundational exercises–they might have played high school baseball for a coach who prioritized conditioning, or played a second sport that required strength training. But we leave nothing to chance and always assume we’re working with a blank slate when we welcome a player to our program. Every responsible strength coach knows that improper technique in the weightroom is an easy way for an athlete to end up injured, so we begin each year with an emphasis on evaluation and teaching good form.
When we perform initial evaluations, we look for any movement flaws or functional weaknesses, then work with athletes individually to correct them before increasing resistance or load. For example, the majority of our incoming players suffer from tight hamstrings and back muscles and overdeveloped front-side muscles in the chest, anterior shoulders, and biceps. We test for total-body mobility by having them perform an overhead squat using a wooden stick. As the athlete moves through a full range of motion, we can observe movement flaws in all major joints, and this helps us pinpoint specific areas to address through individualized training protocols.
Our program follows the basic principles of overload, progression, and specificity. We rely heavily on multi-joint, multi-directional, and ground-based exercises along with core training, because we know these activities transfer to the field and help us accomplish several training goals at once.
The structure of the college baseball calendar makes steady improvement a challenge, so we have to plan our schedule very deliberately. In the fall we have 12 weeks, but must work around the fall baseball practice season (five to six weeks), fall break, and Thanksgiving break. To promote reliable progress despite these interruptions, we break our fall training into specific cycles, each with its own primary goal.
The first three weeks consist of general physical preparation. Whether they’re freshmen who took the summer off from baseball, or returning players who spent June and July in a summer league, we assume that most players arrive for the fall semester needing to make a gradual transition back to serious conditioning.
Each workout at this time of year begins with a dynamic warmup that includes some form of flexibility work, such as hurdle walks using adjustable hurdles. This allows players to perform various step-over and step-under maneuvers at different heights, putting the legs and hips through a full range of motion. We also use medicine balls for rotations, swings, chops, and throwing movements to develop flexibility from top to bottom. We like medicine ball work because it develops the linkage between the upper body, core, and lower body. Coordinated strength in these areas is essential for many baseball-specific movements that weíll be developing later on.
Workouts during this phase combine basic movement patterns to challenge total-body parameters. For instance, we might combine a light-weight squat with a lunge and a squat jump–typically in two to three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions each. Combinations like these increase the bodyís overall conditioning level, which will help the athletes perform more intense work later on. Rest intervals are kept short to further enhance the conditioning benefit, and weight loads remain fairly light (50 to 70 percent of one rep max).
In addition, at this time we begin to introduce acceleration training and starting mechanics, since short bursts of speed are important to successful fielding and base running. We emphasize maintaining proper body position to apply force to the ground quickly and explosively, using hill running, ramps, stair climbing, 50-yard sprints, and shuttle sprints. We pay little attention to prolonged top-speed running, since baseball players don’t run long distances at a single stretch. Our typical distance for intervals does not exceed 60 yards. (See “Acceleration/Speed Session” below for a sample workout.)
Once fall practice begins, we reduce training volume to accommodate daily practices and scrimmages, and our focus shifts from general conditioning to developing strength and power. For instance, to build leg strength that translates into swinging power, running acceleration, and throwing force, we use squatting, stepping, and lunging exercises. We also use jumping as a training mechanism for functional leg development, performing exercises such as single-leg and double-leg jumps and hops with various bounding challenges to mimic the demands of explosive starting speed. (See “Strength Session” below for a complete sample workout.)
For the upper body, we take a somewhat unique approach–each pressing movement is matched with two pulling movements. As mentioned earlier, many baseball players tend to be front-side dominant, because most of their upper-body strength training experience has involved pressing movements, such as push-ups and bench presses. The underdeveloped posterior musculature, particularly in the back and shoulders (posterior deltoids and rhomboids), results in increased injury risk because the accelerating muscles of the front side produce throwing forces that are difficult for the back-side muscles to absorb during arm deceleration.
We correct this imbalance with exercises for the posterior musculature using dumbbells, barbells, and medicine balls, augmenting them with pulling movements using cables and stretch bands. We want all of our players–pitchers and fielders alike–to exhibit a proper throwing motion with support from primary muscle groups and stabilizers, all the way from acceleration to follow-through.
The core muscles are also a focus during this strengthening phase. We use a combination of crunches, rotations, and twists with exercise bands, cables, and medicine balls to create overload. A typical core workout segment might include standing rotations, multiple sets of hanging knee raises, and medicine ball pull-over sit-ups.
As fall practice winds down, we take the last three weeks of the semester–roughly between Thanksgiving break and winter break–to optimize “specialized” strength, or the types of power most important for baseball. At this time, the main goal for the lower body is to generate speed strength with the hips and legs in a way that will transfer to game-like movements.
Acceleration training continues during this phase with a focus on base stealing starts, infield/outfield runs that mimic field play, and high-speed curve running around the bases. Running a curve at full speed places different stresses on the hamstrings and foot muscles than straight-ahead running, so we want players to train for speed under sport-specific conditions. One of our favorite drills involves repetitive sets of rounding one, two, or three bases at sprinting speed to develop muscle memory and maximum efficiency.
For the upper body, we build specialized strength using dumbbells. Dumbbell exercises allow for greater freedom of movement, rather than locking athletes into a single plane of motion. This in turn forces the hands, wrists, and forearms to stabilize the weight while also developing grip strength, something all baseball players love to work on.
We combine the specialized strength work during this phase with more speed and agility training, consisting of hill sprints, starting drills, footwork drills, and reactive agility drills, along with interval training and shuttle runs. (See “Agility Session” below for a sample workout.) These exercises challenge the athletic qualities needed for key baseball-specific movements.
Over winter break, we put the onus on our players to continue training on their own. I prescribe workouts for each player as an extension of the specialized strength phase, focusing on any areas where they need improvement. We also ask all players to condition themselves through interval sprints, shuttle runs, and hill running, using whatever facilities are available to them during the holidays.
SPRING & THE SEASON
In mid-January, when our athletes return to campus for the spring semester, we immediately transition into a preseason phase aimed at building game readiness. This lasts until the season begins in February.
Preseason is an ideal time to perform baseball-specific drills that don’t heavily tax the body, so we implement things like coach- or partner-assisted reactive drills using tennis balls to develop hand-eye coordination in a fast-paced environment. Our movement drills at this time of year deal largely with lateral and angular movements, so players can fine-tune the agility patterns developed in the fall and prepare to implement them in game situations. Agility sessions consist of drills incorporating agility ladders and mini-hurdles, rope jumping, and footwork drills on a mat. These are short in duration, with an emphasis on quality and intensity.
During preseason, we continue to strength train three times a week, but the sessions are reduced to 45 minutes because field practice is now the top priority. Each workout contains some form of conditioning, acceleration, or agility movements. After warmup, a typical workout involves 10- to 15-yard starting drills and fast-footwork drills, followed by strength and power exercises. We finish up with shuttle sprints, hill or stadium stair intervals, or three-minute runs.
The strength and power work during these sessions focuses on explosive movements like dumbbell hang cleans into split jerks, which use the hips and legs in a combined effort. We also use dumbbell squats combined with jumps (squat jump, tuck jump, ice skater, or split jump), along with resisted multi-directional lunges and step-ups using dumbbells or weighted vests.
The players also continue to perform upper-body exercises that support anterior and posterior shoulder stability, mainly using dumbbells, exercise bands, and cables. Pressing, pulling, reaching, and rotating movements keep the upper body and core muscles conditioned for the rapid movements required on the diamond.
Once the season begins, we shift into maintenance mode, typically using just two short training sessions per week. Workout planning at this time is largely dictated by our game schedule and travel.
During a stretch of home games, Monday is our heavier training day. This session has a strength theme, and typically includes a squat movement (DB squat, leg press, or weighted vest squat) combined with a lunge series in three directions (front, side, and rotational), pressing and pulling exercises, and two or three core exercises. The second session, usually held on Thursday, is more explosive in nature with a power theme, using speed ladder drills, total-body power throws, plyometrics, and core training.
If we are traveling for a weekend series, weíll still do our typical Monday workout, but the second session will be combined with a team practice–we’ll usually conduct it on the field immediately beforehand. At these sessions, the players perform power exercises and core work with weighted vests, bands, and medicine balls.
Even with specialized phases of the year, there are certain areas in which we’re trying to improve all year long. Total-body fitness is the best example–even though baseball players rarely run long distances, we know that a conditioned athlete has a better chance of avoiding overuse injuries caused by a breakdown in mechanics due to muscle fatigue. General fitness work also trains our players to be mentally ready, disciplined, and tough enough to push through any difficult situation.
A full conditioning workout for our team, which we’ll implement throughout the year as needed, typically consists of sprint intervals from 20 to 60 yards, 100- and 300-yard shuttles, and three-minute intervals that alternate 30 seconds of running at 80 percent of max effort with 30 seconds of jogging at 50 percent effort.
We use a modified version of this conditioning workout to test the players in the fall when they arrive on campus, and again at the start of the spring semester to see how hard they worked during winter break. Itís our way of validating each athlete’s commitment to fitness, and showing that we expect them to take that commitment seriously all year long.
At North Carolina, our baseball team has recently ascended to a level of consistent performance that’s allowing us to build a tradition of success. Our players realize that maintaining this level takes dedication and lots of hard work. Putting the necessary effort into training for strength, skill, and fitness prepares our team to perform at its best, and hopefully, with a little luck, to realize our dream of winning an NCAA championship.
Sidebar: STRENGTH SESSION
This is a sample workout that we use in the fall to develop the types of strength and power most essential to baseball success.
Warmup: Jump rope (3-4 sets of 50 jumps): two feet, one foot, shuffle, high knee, or crossover steps.
Hurdle walks (five hurdles set at 30 inches high, three feet apart): two sets each forward, backward, and sideways.
Medicine ball rotations (3-4 kg. ball, 10 reps each):
• Standing twist • Vertical chop • Diagonal chop • Figure-8 pattern • Full circle swing
Dumbbell hang clean and split jerk combination: 4 x 5 each
Back squat: 4 x 5
Dumbbell lunge forward step: 2 x 8 each leg
Dumbbell lunge side step: 1 x 8 each leg
Dumbbell single-leg RDL: 2 x 8 each leg
Squat jump: 3 x 10, 1 min. rest between sets
Dumbbell bench press: 3 x 8
Lat pull-down: 3 x 8
Shoulder combination: Dumbbell side raise, cross in front, upper cut, and front raise, 2 x 6 each way
Dumbbell row: 3 x 8
Bar reverse curl: 3 x 10
Stretch band standing rotation: 2 x 10 each side
Hanging knee raise: 2 x 15
Medicine ball (3 kg.) pull-over sit-up: 2 x 20
Sidebar: AGILITY & ACCELERATION
Agility and acceleration are two major focuses of our fall workouts, as we train athletes in the key sport-specific skills needed for both fielding and base running. Below are sample workouts for these two areas of emphasis.
Dynamic warmup Speed ladder drills: 6 footwork patterns x 2 repetitions each Lateral starts: 5 x each side Base stealing starts: 8 x each side Pro agility shuttle: 6 x 20 yards Ball reaction drill (right or left): x 2 Cooldown
Dynamic warmup Active speed drills: skipping, speed bounding, fast-leg drills (25 yards each) Forward, lateral, and base stealing position: 10-yard starts x 6 Hill runs (walk down for recovery): 6 x 30 yards Sprints (walk back for recovery): 3 x 60 yards @ 85 percent of max effort Cooldown