Jan 29, 2015Twofold Approach
An off-season training program focused on injury prevention and position-specific workouts has helped the University of South Carolina baseball team win two national championships in the past four years.
By Billy Anderson
Billy Anderson, MSCC, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Olympic sports at the University of South Carolina and the Head Strength Coach for its baseball team. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Today’s baseball coaches know that a team can’t afford to rest on its laurels. Here at the University of South Carolina, our program has enjoyed a great deal of success, but every year we step up our efforts in the off-season, designing and implementing more effective training programs. Our players are typically involved in competition from February to August. As a result, the fall is a critical time for them to build the strength, both overall and baseball-specific, that can help set them apart during the spring season. Our fall training begins in mid to late August and runs through November. Though we do some strength training in the summer and winter, the fall is when it becomes a major part of the players’ routine. To maximize our time, we train through the entire period, despite a busy practice and scrimmage schedule. The success of the baseball program is a testament to the year-round hard work and dedication of the players and coaches. During my 12 years working with the team, the Gamecocks have won two NCAA Division I national championships, reached the College World Series six times, and claimed three Southeastern Conference titles. The team has also set NCAA postseason records for consecutive tournament wins (22) and consecutive wins in the College World Series (12).
As the team’s strength and conditioning coach, I’m able to do my part thanks to the support I receive from the sport coaching staff. I have a great relationship with them, and they have an unconditional faith in our strength and conditioning program. They strongly believe in its importance and will even end practice early sometimes rather than cut into the players’ training time. My programs have evolved considerably over the years. I’ve come to understand that a successful baseball strength and conditioning routine must be tailored to each player’s fitness levels, physical abilities, injury history, and role on the team, and it needs to revolve around improving the strength, mobility, and flexibility of the athletes. I believe in variety, and my exercises are drawn from a number of different disciplines, but I’ve also learned the value of simple, well-thought-out routines. I use some form of periodization throughout the year, whether it be linear, progressive, or undulating, as well as some power lifting and strongman work. I also incorporate prehab, mobility, agility, and speed routines, and a few fun bodybuilding exercises.
First and foremost, I subscribe to the philosophy that a good baseball strength and conditioning program is a good injury-prevention program. There’s a great deal of research that points to overuse and long-term sport-specific training as frequent causes of injury in baseball. Many players struggle with hip, torso, shoulder, or elbow problems, which may have developed when they were in high school, or even earlier. For that reason, we take a low-risk approach to training. We assess injury history before starting any strength work and build up carefully, staying away from exercises that could cause or re-aggravate injuries. When a freshman baseball player arrives at South Carolina, he undergoes a very thorough exam by our doctors and athletic trainer, which includes discussions on any injuries he has suffered. If there have been prior injuries, we make sure his training protocol will help prevent a recurrence, while still helping him gain strength. For example, if a player has had back problems, we may remove full squats from his workout and replace them with squat variations such as single-leg squats and Bulgarian-split squats, lunges, or even leg presses. If an athlete has had shoulder issues, we may opt for push-up or dumbbell bench-press variations instead of bench presses because those exercises tend to put less stress on the shoulders while still building sufficient strength in the chest. In other cases, we omit an exercise from a workout based on position. For example, we don’t include the straight bar bench in pitchers’ workouts because the player can build too much muscle mass if the exercise isn’t carefully regulated. This can lead to restrictions in the flexibility, mobility, and range of motion–especially in the throwing arm–that are key to pitchers’ success. Instead, we’ll use dumbbell presses or push-up variations because they’re less likely to restrict range of motion. During the fall, we’ll sometimes drop squats from a catcher’s workout depending on the number of innings he’s caught or how his legs are feeling. We’ve also excluded certain types of weight training from our program entirely, such as Olympic lifting. While Olympic lifting is an effective way to build athletes’ explosiveness, the lifts are very technical and require proper form at all times to reduce the risk of serious injury. Since most of our players have little or no prior Olympic-lifting experience, it isn’t worth the time it would take to get them fully proficient in these lifts when there are other ways to build explosiveness. Instead, we use box jumps, dumbbell jump squats, sprints, split squat jumps, and hurdle hops. Like Olympic lifts, these exercises all incorporate explosive movement. As a result, they can just as easily help a player achieve his training goals, but in a much safer manner.
For our fall work in the weightroom, we split pitchers and position players apart and develop different workouts for each group. For our pitchers, we focus on arm endurance, shoulder stability, single-leg balance, and torso rotation. The training for our position players emphasizes strength in the chest, arms, and hips. However, the two workouts have some common themes, such as building foundational strength and maintaining flexibility. Both also aim to strengthen the lower body and core. As in many sports, most power movements in baseball, regardless of player position, begin with the legs, so it’s crucial that our strength training develops the lower body. As another source of power, the core is also involved in many of the same movements, so we do med ball work with both groups to build and maintain core strength. It’s in the approach to upper-body training that the two workouts differ significantly. To avoid excess bulk in pitchers, we maintain at least a 1:2-3 ratio of push-to-pull exercises in their routines–using rowing variations, pull-downs, pull-ups, and chin-ups–and focus on keeping their backs as strong as possible to help with shoulder function and stability. For our position players, we use a 1:2 ratio in the same push-to-pull exercises because a little extra bulk doesn’t adversely affect their performance, and the extra strength often helps. We rarely do traditional conditioning work with our position players because our coaching staff believes the best way to get in shape for baseball is to play baseball. These players are expected to fully exert themselves during practice, hustling after fly balls and grounders, running hard on the bases, and getting on and off the field quickly between innings. If the coaches feel the team has put forth enough effort, the players don’t do any extra running afterward. If the effort doesn’t meet the coaches’ standards, we’ll throw in a quick sprint workout at the end. We may also do some sprint work at the end of a short practice. On the other hand, our pitchers do little in the way of conditioning work while practicing so we try to run them through two to three days of sprint and agility work per week, depending on our scrimmage schedule. The first day will feature “long” sprints of 30 to 120 yards, the second will include three to four agility exercises of four to six sets each, and if we opt for a third day we’ll focus on short sprints of five to 30 yards. We’ll also head over to the football stadium to run sprints up the stadium stairs periodically.
POSITION PLAYERS’ WORKOUT In the fall, our position players work out four days per week. Mondays and Thursdays are dedicated to lower-body workouts and Tuesdays and Fridays are devoted to the upper body, though individual workouts vary depending on a player’s injury history, physical attributes, conditioning levels, or position-specific requirements. We use dynamic warm-ups to help prevent injury, and the sets and reps of our exercises vary depending on our practice and scrimmage schedule.
Monday is a lower-body day, with an emphasis on squats. A typical workout will start with some foam-rolling work, followed by a dynamic warm-up focusing on the hips and ankles. The squats are always the first weight exercise we do because they work the largest muscle group and we want the players to be at their best when they do them. We generally follow the squats with an explosive exercise–usually a box jump–and superset this with some type of lunge variation (forward, reverse, or from a deficit). We also include a hamstring exercise such as an RDL or variation, as well as a leg curl with a Bulgarian split squat. We use a linear periodization method with all of our assistance exercises, usually performing three sets of anywhere from six to 12 reps. Tuesday is an upper-body day, and the primary lift is the bench press. We also incorporate shoulder work into both our warm-up and main workout. In addition, we work with med balls, choosing two exercises–one rotational and one overhead throw–and doing two to three sets each after our warm-up and before the bench press. We often use a band-pull series as our shoulder exercise. This is a simple routine of three light resistance-band exercises, which are most effective if done at a slow and controlled pace. The first exercise in the band-pull series is a band pull-apart. The player begins by holding the band with his arms straight out in front. From there, he pulls the band apart until his arms are positioned directly out from his sides, holding the position for a full second before returning to the starting position. We do two eight-rep sets of this exercise, one with palms facing up, and a second with palms down. The second exercise is often referred to as “No Money” because of the arm positions and movements. The player starts with his upper arms hanging down next to his body, with the lower arms in front at a 90-degree angle. Keeping the elbows at his side, he pulls the band apart, pausing for a full second when the lower arms are straight out from his sides. We do two sets of eight reps, one palms-up and another palms-down. The last exercise is a band pull-down. Beginning with his arms directly overhead, the player pulls the band down behind his neck just as he would do a pull-down weight exercise.
Along with the band-pull series, med-ball throws, and bench press exercises, the players perform several other lifts focused on the shoulder. These include front lat pull-downs, Band pinch W’s, push ups with feet on the bench, DB rear delt supersets with DB external rotation, DB rows, and tricep exercise supersets coupled with bicep exercises. Thursday is a lower-body and back day. We mainly utilize deadlifts and a variety of pulls in this routine. We also do additional upper-back work to ensure we’re keeping our upper-body push-to-pull ratio on track for the week. The day’s workout includes a dynamic warm-up, deadlifts, DB split squat jumps, single-leg squats, three-way leg curls using a stability ball, glute-ham raises, cable low rows, TRX rows, and sandbag flips to work the forearms. Friday is an upper-body day, which we try to make as much fun as possible because the workout often follows a scrimmage. We begin with the band pull-down series, but after that we sometimes allow the players to determine the exercises, with an upperclassman often choosing the day’s routine. We call Friday our “bodybuilding” day because the workouts usually end up centering on the “mirror muscles”–biceps, triceps, pecs, and abs–that guys are often so proud of.
PITCHERS’ WORKOUT Our pitchers go through full-body workouts three days a week–Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays–although this may be altered once scrimmages begin. Like the position players, we put the pitchers through a dynamic warm-up before each workout, along with some foam-roll exercises and mobility work. In addition, we have them do shoulder exercises at the beginning of the routine and a static stretch at the end. Monday features band-pull exercises, which are great for pitchers because they help stretch and strengthen the arm and target the reactive muscles used in throwing. They also strengthen the scapulas and upper back, stretch the pecs, and improve shoulder stability. We use the same series that we do with the position players.
A typical Monday workout for a pitcher includes a dynamic warm-up, foam rolls, med-ball work (one rotational exercise and one overhead throw), squats, box jumps to one leg, band pinch W’s, DB RDL’s, Bulgarian split squats, Paloff press holds, face-pulls, push ups and scap push ups, three-way leg curls, and wrist curls. Wednesday features our YTWL exercises, which strengthen the shoulders while increasing their range of motion (see “Shoulder Strength” below). A sample workout on Wednesday includes a dynamic warm-up, foam rolls, mobility work, YTWL exercises, a med-ball exercise (backward overhead throw), goblet squats, seated one-arm cable rows, leg curls, skaters, single-arm pull-downs and DB bench presses, DB lateral raises, and scapular wall slides. Friday features some shoulder prehab, which is usually a three-way routine of lateral and front raises, in addition to a rear delt exercise. A Friday workout usually features a dynamic warm-up, foam rolls, mobility work, shoulder prehab, BB reverse lunges, hurdle hops, standing single-arm cable rows, glute-ham raises, band external rotations, chin-ups, DB step-ups, cable crossover rows, a plank series, and wrist curls and rotations. The fall season includes approximately 21 scrimmages–usually on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and a few Tuesdays–from mid-September to the first weekend of November. During this time, the primary goal is to have pitchers fresh and in top shape for their next outing. To avoid overuse injuries, we usually only run our pitchers through two strength workouts between appearances, and determine the routine based on number of innings pitched and pitches thrown. We’re especially careful with freshmen because they’re often unaccustomed to the heavy workload of a college pitcher. Here’s a sample workout schedule for a pitcher who’s taking the mound for consecutive Friday scrimmages: Friday: Light conditioning of 15 minutes on the stationary bike, treadmill, or elliptical after the game. Saturday: Light conditioning of an easy 10 to 12 minute run followed by heavy lifting focused on the lower body and core to allow the pitcher’s arm and shoulder to recover fully. We still do our shoulder prehab work to maintain stability in the shoulder. Sunday: Off
Monday: Conditioning of eight to 15 medium-paced sprints of 60 to 120 yards.
Tuesday: Usually a bullpen session day, which we follow with moderate lifting geared toward the upper body, keeping the weights a bit lighter so the pitchers stay fresh for their next outing. Wednesday: Conditioning work consisting of 12 to 20 reps of short sprints of five to 30 yards.
Thursday: Light conditioning and/or shoulder work. We have to make additional variations in the workouts for relief pitchers during scrimmage season. For example, if a reliever throws 25 pitches or less on a Friday, there’s a possibility that he could be used again the next day, so we would only put him through some brief mobility work and shoulder-stability exercises after the scrimmage. If a pitcher throws 26 to 50 pitches on a Friday, it’s unlikely he’d be used the next day, but the coaches would expect him to be ready to go again on Sunday. Therefore, his weight training on Friday night would be a little more extensive, but on Saturday we’d only have him do some light conditioning and mobility work. I have a great situation here with the South Carolina baseball team. The sport coaches value my contribution to the program and rarely question my workouts. Plus, they take pride in running a program that challenges the athletes, both mentally and physically, without running them into the ground. The success of the strength program comes down to the commitment of our players, and they take pride in the hard work they put in. They also hold each other accountable, and this immediately rubs off on new players. Working hard in practice and training doesn’t guarantee success, but in combination with great players and coaches, it gives you a much better chance of coming out on top.
Sidebar: SHOULDER STRENGTH
To strengthen our pitchers’ shoulders and increase their range of motion, we use YTWL exercises, so named because a person’s arms and body form each letter during different sections of the routine. We do three sets of the routine, lying face down on a bench or on a physioball, either with or without light dumbbells. During each exercise, the arms move from the down position–hanging towards the floor–to the highest position that can be reached without changing the angle of the torso. The end position is held for three seconds, with the thumbs pointing at the ceiling. After each exercise, the arms are slowly rotated down to the starting position. To strengthen the back of the shoulders and help with stabilization, before each exercise in the routine we have the players pinch their shoulder blades together while keeping their arms straight.
Y: Raise the arms to a 45-degree angle, forming a “Y.” Keep the body and arms straight, with palms facing one another. This exercise targets the anterior deltoids.
T: Extend the arms straight out to the side, palms up, to form a “T.” This variation hits the trapezius, medial, and posterior deltoids, balancing the anterior work from the “Y” movement.
W: Bend the elbows to a 90-degree angle and perform the same arm movement as the “T.” This exercise works the posterior deltoids.
L: With elbows bent at a 90-degree angle, rotate the arms up until the forearms are perpendicular to the ground. This hits the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids, and the traps, while moving the shoulders through their full range of motion.
L to external rotation: At the end of the “L” movement and before returning to the starting position, rotate the hands up with the palms facing the floor. L to external rotation to press: At the end of the “L to external rotation” movement and before returning to the starting position, press the hands directly out in front as in a shoulder press.
Skiers: Pinching the shoulder blades and keeping the arms straight, move one arm forward over the head and the other toward the hips. Hold and alternate movement, doing three full reps.
Posterior Fly: Same as the “T” exercise except done with palms facing down.