Go to just about any baseball field in the country and you are bound to hear the term “Sport Specific” a handful of times in reference to strength training. Whether it be players, coaches, or parents, they all want the same thing: performance training that adequately matches the demands of the game of baseball.
This rings true at every level, and not at the exclusion of the high school. I can personally attest to this: I don’t believe I have experienced many conversations on the topic of training with a player, coach, or parent at the high school level where the phrase, “baseball specific” wasn’t thrown out at least once, if not multiple times.
Certainly, this is for completely understandable reasons. Every player deserves the best training available to them, and this includes training that matches the demands of their sport. But, great training takes into consideration more than just the sport in which the athlete competes. We must also consider the individual as well; their biological and training ages, their capabilities and limitations.
What most parents, ball coaches, and players are seeking, as they often will directly reference, is methods that most likely lay beyond their current abilities or necessities as a novice athlete; they mostly speak of the highly specific and specialized movements that they seen on the internet.
But, this doesn’t mean that “sport specific” isn’t an appropriate goal at this level. It is simply used in the wrong context: the novice trainee – i.e. the majority of all high school baseball players – needs predominantly general strength-training.
The sport specific context that we should be after at this level is the one which accommodates training to avoid contraindications for the overhead throwing athlete. In more simple terms, we are looking for training protocols and exercises that do not put the baseball player at risk of getting hurt, or at risk for accentuating any chronic pathologies – both symptomatic and asymptomatic.
This leads me to two goals that sit at the core of my high school baseball program design:
- Provide age and capability appropriate training
- Do not turn asymptomatic into symptomatic
Let’s take a closer look at each goal
AGE APPROPRIATE TRAINING
This specific topic has been discussed at length in its own right on this blog as well as my own blog, so we won’t spend too long reiterating the points here. But, a couple things should be noted:
As stated above, most high school level athletes simply need generalized strength-training. This isn’t necessarily because they can’t handle any more than this – although this is the case for many – but more so because, to do anything hyper-specialized would be a gross misuse of time, at least initially.
In reality, almost anything can work to get a novice athlete stronger. Of course, we don’t want to give them just anything, but we also don’t wan’t to risk injury, nor do we want to inefficiently use our time selecting exercises and methods that just aren’t necessary, and may be above our athletes capabilities.
General strength-training exercises that are complex (meaning they use multiple muscle groups and joints) using free-weights (e.g. the loaded barbell) should be incorporated early and often in the novice’s program. You certainly can never go wrong with Squat, Deadlift, Rowing, and Reaching/Pressing variations. These exercises will challenge and stress many muscle groups at once, and thus will need massive neuromuscular recruitment and force production. Adaptions can be seen relatively quickly for both in this way, especially in terms of the nervous system. Don’t be surprised to see your new trainees adding strength exponentially while gaining very little body weight initially.
As the athlete progresses, grows, develops, and gains experience in training, more advanced protocols can more safely be used. Specialized movements will not only become more appropriate, but also more necessary to see positive development.
So, in what context can we actually implement baseball specific training so that our athletes get the best training that we can possibly provide them?
BASEBALL SPECIFIC TRAINING AT THE HIGH SCHOOL LEVEL
What we can provide, in terms of sport-specific training at the high school level, is exercise selection and programming that avoids placing stress onto areas that don’t need additional stress. We are looking to avoid contraindications; exercises that should not be used due to either limitations of the individual or tendencies/trends seen in a specific population.
For our particular population – the overhead throwing athlete – this means accommodating exercises for the baseball player to avoid shoulder, elbow, hand, hip, and back pathologies. Ballplayers create and transfer significant forces across many segments in the body, resulting in adaptations both good (for performance) and bad (for health). Some of these adaptations can present pathological symptoms. Others may not present any symptoms despite still posing an underlying risk.
Thus, exercises that place unnecessary stress on these segments, in addition to that in which they experience in competition, have no place in the program – at least, not in their contraindicatory state.
For example, the squat. The Back Squat is a great exercise for developing lower body strength and power. In fact, it is one of the kings of the metaphorical training jungle. That being said, it happens to place the athlete’s shoulder in an externally rotated state, while also allowing very little ability to control what is happening at that joint. The low-bar Back Squat accentuates the position. One slip of the bar, especially with a heavy load, or too much exposure to the position could risk irritating even a seemingly healthy shoulder.
This is not to say that we should remove the Squat. Accommodation is the key word, and we can accommodate the needs of the baseball player and their shoulder by utilizing the other squatting variations. Specifically, the Squat with a Safety Bar (if you’re so lucky to have one) or the Front Squat would allow for nearly equal loading capabilities, without the external rotation torque at the shoulder. Even the Front Squat itself could be accommodated with straps to remove any discomfort caused by the front rack position,
Also consider the overhead press (e.g. the Military Press, Barbell Press, etc.). This thought is more widely accepted: opting out of the overhead press. For me, personally, it isn’t just about the weight directly. It is more about the indirect influencers on the movement further down the chain, i.e. the shoulders and lower back/trunk. Most young athletes do not possess the requisite mobility of the shoulder (or they may actually possess pathology at the shoulder) or proper trunk stability to execute the movement correctly or safely.
Thus, we opt to accommodate the movement: we still work overhead, but with lighter loads (less likely to amplify symptoms) and with exercises that put the athlete in a position to successfully complete the lift. For example, there are Wall Slide variations, which require that the athlete work through the overhead range of motion, yet can more easily control for lumbo-pelvic positioning. We could also use a Kneeling or Standing Landmine Press, which does the same, and also restricts full shoulder flexion.
Now, is this to say that I have never and will never Back Squat a baseball player? Does it mean that I have stopped every baseball player from pressing overhead? No, not necessarily. But, if there are more appropriate and effective methods/means at my disposal, I will generally opt to use those.
Again, the goal is not to disbar any exercises or movement; rather we are seeking to accommodate exercises to enable and foster safe and effective movement that meets the demands of the athlete and their sport.
If anything is gleaned from this discussion, I hope it is that “sport specific” training is context-dependent; it means many different things depending on the caliber and experience of the athlete. When planning the training program for high school ballplayers, we should certainly view the program through a sport-specific lens – the lens of age-appropriate and non-contraindicatory exercises and protocols. As the athlete progresses and develops, they can then start to paint their exercises in a sport specific hue that reflects better transfer to training.
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