It’s mid-March and baseball season has officially begun. The college season is well underway, most high-school tryouts have completed, and spring-training games, along with the World Baseball Classic, have all kicked off as well. It’s one of the best times of the year and one of those times that gives both strength coaches and athletes alike a bit of trouble when it comes to figuring out what to do about their training. And it’s not always an easy task to know what to do.
On one hand, athletes have just put in (hopefully) a lot of quality offseason work and made big strides in their development. Obviously, we want to maintain and, if possible, continue to develop throughout the season. However, on the other hand, you’re also usually dumping a ton of more sport-specific work on top of your athletes by adding the rigors of practice to their schedule.
Let’s be honest, we all know the coach who loves to have the four-hour practice, or the classic “mental toughness” hell week on the first week back. So, how do we program for this, and can we even lift during season and make strides?
The answer is a resounding “yes.” We can lift during the season, but there are considerations we need to make. The first, and in my mind most important, is fatigue. We need to be cognizant about the amount of fatigue placed upon our athletes and how that fatigue is actually accumulated in the weight room.
In general, athletes are competing anywhere from three to seven times a week. That takes a toll on your body and there’s no way you’re going to be able to maintain the program you were doing in the offseason while continuing to perform at optimal levels on the field.
Volume vs Intensity
The first instinct for most athletes is to go lighter in the weight room. That is, they cut the weight down and bang out more sets with more reps but at a lighter weight. This seems legit. Lighter weight is obviously less fatiguing, right? Maybe— then again maybe not.
If I squat 275lbs for 3 sets of 10, and I work up to that weight in a progression of 135×10, 225×10, 275 3×10, I perform a total work volume of 11,850lbs.
If I perform higher-intensity squats, but lower reps, say 365 for 3×3, and work up in a progression of 135×5, 225×5, 275×3, 315×3, 365×3, I get a total work volume of 6,135lbs.
That’s almost half the volume of work performed even though I completed four more sets and I’m working with a load almost 100lbs heavier. Performing half the volume of work, even at a higher intensity, is obviously far less fatiguing than performing a greater volume with lighter weight.
This also carries over to the amount of exercises you perform. Performing one-to-two compound lifts and three-to-four accessory exercises is fine for the offseason, but that volume may be a bit excessive when the athlete is also standing for three hours at practice and making additional throws and sprints that they weren’t making a month ago when they were training aggressively.
With that said though, when it comes to the intensity of a lift, I prefer to have our athletes keep two-to-four reps in the tank. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when you need to struggle to complete that last rep, and there are times when you need to dial it back just a smidge.
A lot of athletes don’t like doing this. They’re super intense every time they’re in the gym, and they’re pushing their bodies to the absolute limits, whether they’re in-season or out of season, because they’ve been conditioned that this is the only way to make gains.
But the research suggests that training this way every time you’re in the gym accumulates a ton of fatigue pretty quickly. Not only is pushing that last rep to failure taxing the body far more than saving two reps in the tank, but also, maybe a bit surprisingly, is the fact that you don’t accumulate that much, if any, extra strength gains by going that extra mile regularly.
The other question to tackle is when to lift and the amount of days to do so. For the most part, athletes lift one-to-three days in-season, regardless of being a starter, reliever, or position player. This is inevitably going to be fluid with the competition schedule since we’re not looking to train three times a week when you’re a reliever and your team’s playing five games that week.
The same goes for the polar opposite when you train once that week when you have only two games that weekend. The key is to be smart about your programming and adjust the days you lift accordingly.
Manage Your Fatigue
So now that we’ve covered the basic nitty-gritty weight-room stuff, let’s talk about the actual key to lifting in season. Don’t be an dummy. Whether you’re a starting pitcher, position player, or reliever, this is the most important factor in determining an athlete’s success.
For example, maybe you’re a reliever who had a big conference weekend and pitched Friday and Sunday, throwing four more innings and fifty pitches more than normal and still need to be recovered for a mid-week game on Wednesday. Drop a set or two from your workout, and give your body additional time to recover.
Maybe Johnny Baseball got caught breaking a team rule mid-week and coach set the tone for the entire team by having you run poles for an hour after practice, but there’s a lift the next day and a three-game weekend series one day after that. Bang some sets out from that workout and let your body recover.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not trying to give athletes an excuse to be buttery soft and skip out on a workout, but what I am detailing is that to be able to lift in-season, maintain a high level of performance, and still seek some gains, you need to make smart choices and manage your fatigue appropriately.
Don’t be the athlete who mismanages their fatigue, has wild 8 mph velocity swings from one appearance to the next, and spends half of practice complaining about his mechanics being off and doing the towel drill to try and fix it all because his velocity is down.
Lastly, get some sleep. There are stressors that affect each of us daily, and sleep often takes a back seat when it comes to training, practice, travel, and school. Get as much of it as you can. You’d be surprised how much better you feel and how much better your performance in the weight room and on the field is when you get to bed early and grab nine hours of shut-eye instead of spending an evening with Johnny Baseball and only getting six.
This article was written by Driveline Strength Trainer Sam Briend