With only one day to spare, here's the July edition of "Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training."
1. One of the things I really heavily emphasize to our staff is that we should always be assessing. Obviously, during an initial assessment, we're going to review injury history, evaluate movement quality, and work to build rapport with the new client. However, I'm a huge believer that the initial evaluation should also include an actual training component. This is for three reasons:
a. I want the client to feel like they've actually started working toward their goals, as opposed to just hearing about all the things they need to work on.
b. We have many clients who come from out of town for short-term consultations, so we need to make the most of every training session.
c. I want to actually get a feel for what their work capacity is before I actually write a program for them.
You can measure resting heart rate, ask about training history, and take a whole bunch of other indirect measures of work capacity, but there is no substitute for seeing it first-hand. I've seen pro athletes in the early off-season who are completely deconditioned and struggle to get through incredibly abbreviated, basic sessions with lengthy rest periods. You really have to be able to take a step back and separate yourself from what you are expecting to see on the work capacity front so that you can observe what's really going on. If they are too deconditioned to put in the work you need to optimally effect positive changes with their performance, then your programming better reflect it.
2. I often talk with my baseball guys about how every throwing session either makes you tighter or looser. This sadly hasn't been recognized very well when it comes to individualizing recovery modalities to players' arms.
If you've got a lot of joint hypermobility (collagen deficiency), you'll get looser. If you're a naturally "tight" individual, you'll get tighter and tighter.
If you're loose-jointed, you'll respond well to low-level stabilization drills that essentially "remind" your nervous system of how to create good stiffness and optimal movement at joints (particularly the shoulder).
These looser-jointed athletes also seem to respond better to mild compression (arm sleeves, not aggressive compression). Even a cut-off tube sock works just fine.
Conversely, "tighter" throwers will generally do better with manual therapy and mobility drills. Static stretching after throwing is definitely appropriate, whereas you can skip it with the hypermobile crowd.
Regardless, these two "camps" share a lot in common. They both need great nutrition and hydration and optimal sleep quality and quantity, and they respond well to foam rolling and positional breathing drills. And, keep in mind that most pitchers don't fall to one extreme; they're usually somewhere in the middle, and can therefore benefit from a bit of everything. This is why recovery from throwing is an individualized topic; we have our theories on what works, but always have to get feedback from the athletes on what has yielded the best results for them.
3. Building on point #2, I never quite understood why some pitchers insist on doing their band work after starting pitching outings. It doesn't match up with either the "loose" or "tight" scenarios from my previous point, as fatigue changes everything. Fatigue is the enemy of motor learning - or re-learning, in this case. In my opinion, post-game band work is pretty silly.
If you're tight, get right to your manual therapy and mobility/stretching work. If you're loose, throw on a compressive arm sleeve and do your low-key band work the next day as part of that "stabilization re-education" I outlined earlier.
4. Good coaching isn't just about making clients and athletes move well; it's about doing so efficiently.
To me, there is a hierarchy in play in the coaching progression. First, a coach must know what an exercise is, and then understand how to coach that exercise. The third step is to learn to assess so that one knows when to include the exercise in a program. This last step is key, because to do an accurate assessment, one must understand what quality movement really looks like, how relative stiffness impacts things, and which compensation patterns an individual might resort to during that exercise. If you appreciate and follow this hierarchy, you continue to refine your ability to make technique perfect - but you can do so far more efficiently.
Once you get to this point, it's all about coaching as many individuals as possible so that you have a giant sample size of incorrect patterns from which to draw. How do hypermobile folks compensate differently than those who don't have as much laxity? Why do individuals with long femurs struggle with an exercise, while those with "normal" anthropometry do just fine? Eventually, answering questions like these becomes second-nature, and that's where the efficient coaching happens, particularly when you learn about internal/external focus cues, and kinesthetic/visual/auditory learning styles.
5. Earlier this week, we had a 6-7 athlete doing stability ball rollouts - and the exercise was (unsurprisingly) pretty challenging for him. The combination of long arms and a long spine put him at a very mechanically disadvantageous position. It got me to thinking about how everyone seems to think about how tall guys have it tough when they squat and deadlift, but nobody seems to carry this thinking over to most core exercises. Imagine being seven-feet tall and trying to perform a stir the pot, where the forearms are a great distance from the feet:
Even on cable chops and lifts, the center of mass on a tall athlete is considerably further up from the base of support. The external loading that can be used is going to have to be lower if you don't want compensations to kick in.
One thing that can actually help a bit in this regard is athletes putting muscle mass on in the lower half of the body. It has a "grounding" effect as the center of mass is shifted slightly lower on the body.
Regardless, though, core stability exercises may need to be modified for taller athletes, especially initially. This might be in terms of regressing (e.g., going to prone bridges instead of rollouts), limiting range of motion (e.g., shortening the excursion on a rollout), or reducing the external loading relative to your "typical" expectations of where an athlete can start.
6. Speaking of core stability exercises, have you checked out Mike Reinold and my Functional Stability Training? These resources have been our most popular collaborations, and we have modules covering our approach to rehab and training of the upper body, lower body, and core. It’s essentially a snapshot of how we think when designing our programs. You can learn more and purchase HERE.
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I hope everyone's week is off to a great start. And, just in case it isn't, I've got some good news for you: Mike Reinold and I have put our Functional Stability Training products on sale for 20% off this week. These resources have been our most popular collaborations, and we have modules covering our approach to rehab and training of the upper body, lower body, and core. It’s essentially a snapshot of how we think when designing our programs.
You can get any (or all!) of the FST products for 20% off this week only as a special sale to our readers. No coupon code is needed; the discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s under $80 for each of the modules or under $240 for the whole bundle! Click here for more information.
Just about every fitness business coach out there will vehemently assert that one-on-one training is "dead," and that you have to go with semi-private (small group) training to stay relevant and profitable. Obviously, we work with almost exclusively semi-private training at Cressey Sports Performance, so I think there is some merit to this assertion.
The rationale for both the business and client is sound. The business can see more clients in a given amount of time, which is a deviation from popular trainers being limited to the number of hours they can train. The client gets more affordable training, allowing them to participate more frequently and do so with a more flexible schedule. Plus, there is added camaraderie from training alongside others in a motivating environment. Win/win, right?
With that said, there are still some very profitable fitness facilities doing extremely well with one-on-one training thanks to their geography. Usually, these facilities are in affluent cities like New York where rent is very expensive and higher training prices can be charged. It's also common with celebrity trainers who may have clients who seek out privacy during training sessions. My last three true one-on-one clients have all been MLB All-Stars who had short time-frames with which to work, significant injury histories, and challenging family schedules that didn't make our semi-private "pro group" hours feasible for them.
Taking this a step further, though, I've always said:
Your business model should never dictate your training model.
Business rationale aside, though, I'm of the belief that one-on-one training is vital to the long-term success of the coaches, not just the business in question. One-on-one training is where you hone your craft, learning to get more efficient with your cueing. It's where you learn how to be conversational with clients without interfering with the flow of the session. It's when you learn how to "read" clients: do they learn best with visual, auditory, or kinesthetic cues? It's when you learn to manage a schedule, and build rapport with clients who are new to the "gym scene."
Every single one of our coaches at both the Massachusetts and Florida facilities were successful personal trainers before they were successful semi-private coaches. And, each of our interns needs to demonstrate proficiency in a one-on-one context before we'd ever consider letting them handle scenarios with multiple athletes simultaneously. We hire exclusively from our internship program, so nobody works at CSP unless they've thrived in one-on-one training already; I feel like it's that important.
You see, we might be predominantly semi-private training, but all of our clients receive a lot of one-on-one attention, particularly in the first 1-2 months of training. We created the baseball strength and conditioning "niche," and a big differentiating factor is that we meticulously coach arm care drills in ways that are slightly different for each athlete, depending on their presentation. Can you imagine teaching a prone 1-arm trap raise to 5-6 people at the same time?
One of the "concessions" you make with larger group training is that you are going to let some less-than-perfect reps "go." I've watched large hands-on sessions at conferences with fitness professionals as the participants, and there are bad reps all the time - and this is in a population that should know exercise technique better than anyone! It's just reality. For me, though, I don't want a single bad rep performed with any of our arm care work. The baseball shoulder has so little margin for error that anything less than perfection with technique is unacceptable.
If we teach it meticulously up-front, we not only create a great movement foundation that will make it easier for the individual to thrive in a semi-private environment, but also clearly establish in the client's eyes that we are still taking into account their unique needs. We can do all this because we have sufficient staffing to make this work.
Conversely, if you're a single trainer and insist on billing in a semi-private environment and don't want shoddy exercise technique under your roof, you better carve out some time in your schedule for individual instruction. You have to move well before you move a lot.
What does this mean for the original assertion that "one-on-one is dead" (with a few notable exceptions)? Well, I'd argue that it should read:
One-on-one training is dead from a billing standpoint. It's still vitally important from a coaching standpoint - particularly in facilities that don't want to just deliver a "vanilla" product.
The same coaches who tell you to go to semi-private training will usually encourage you to go to watered down, one-size-fits-all programming templates. That might work okay if you're just doing general fitness training, but it fails miserably if you're working with clients who want to be absolutely awesome at what they do.
One-on-one training takes place every single day at Cressey Sports Performance, a "semi-private" facility that has done double-digit growth in every year since it opened in 2007. And, I know of loads of other facilities that incorporate it extensively under the semi-private umbrella.
One-on-one training isn't dead. It's just being called something else.
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We're very excited to announce that on Sunday, September 13, we’ll be hosting our fourth annual fall seminar at Cressey Sports Performance. As was the case with our extremely popular fall event over the past three years, this event will showcase the great staff we're fortunate to have as part of our team. Also like last year, we want to make this an affordable event for everyone and create a great forum for industry professionals and fitness enthusiasts alike to interact, exchange ideas, and learn.
Here are the presentation topics:
Pete Dupuis -- Empowering Your Fitness Team
This presentation will serve as an introduction to the Cressey Sports Performance method for leveraging each coach's unique skill-set in an effort to create a superior training experience. In this presentation, Pete will discuss the importance of cultivating distinctive assessment skills, personal brand development, and the importance of employing a broad spectrum of personality types on your fitness team.
Greg Robins -- What Matters Most
One of the characteristics that makes the fitness industry special is the variety of approaches. However, it can also be a bit noisy. Constant access to new ideas and the plethora of free information may leave trainers, coaches and clients a bit confused. In this presentation, Greg will reflect on what he has found to matter most, both in getting you and your clients where you want to be.
Chris Howard -- Referred Pain: What is it and what does it tell us?
Practically every fitness professional has encountered an athlete or client dealing with referred pain whether they knew it or not. In this presentation, Chris will discuss what referred pain is, what it tells us about our clients, and training modifications to alleviate our client’s pain. Whether you are a strength coach, personal trainer, physical therapist or athletic trainer, this presentation will provide a new perspective on your client’s pain.
Tony Bonvechio -- Creating Context for More Efficient Coaching
Coaches put endless focus into what they say, but this presentation will illustrate the importance of how they say it. Creating context with your clients goes beyond internal and external cueing, and the ability to create "sticky" teaching moments will get your athletes moving better and more efficiently. Tony will discuss different cueing approaches, how they resonate with different learning styles, and how to say more with less to help your clients learn new movements with ease.
Tony Gentilcore -- Spinal Flexion: A Time and Place
Spinal flexion is a polarizing topic in the fitness world. Spine experts have illuminated the risks associated with loaded spinal flexion, leading to crunches and sit-ups getting labeled as taboo. In this presentation, Tony will discuss when encouraging spinal flexion - specifically on the gym floor - can address pain and dysfunction in our athletes and clients while also improving performance.
Miguel Aragoncillo – Cardio Confusion: A Deeper Look at Current Trends
Designing the cardiovascular aspect of a comprehensive exercise program often leaves us with more questions than answers: Is it helpful for body composition or performance? Should you run or should you sprint? Are there other ways to improve cardiovascular fitness? In this presentation, Miguel will discuss the trends and evaluate existing research of various conditioning methods. Finally, he’ll offer practical strategies for immediate application with your Monday morning clients.
Eric Cressey – Bogus Biomechanics and Asinine Anatomy
The strength and conditioning and rehabilitation fields are riddled with movement myths that just never seem to die. Drawing heavily on case studies, scholarly journals, and what functional anatomy tells us, Eric will “bust” some of the common fallacies you’ll encounter in the strength and conditioning field today. Most importantly, he’ll offer drills and strategies that can be utilized immediately with clients and athletes in place of these antiquated approaches.
**Bonus 2:30PM Saturday Session**
George Kalantzis and Andrew Zomberg-- The Method Behind CSP Strength Camp Madness
Group training is rapidly overtaking one-on-one training as the most profitable fitness service. However, an effective group fitness system is often difficult to create and sustain. In this session, George and Andrew will take participants through an actual CSP strength camp. The training session will be accompanied by a brief presentation and handouts that dive into the components of programming, coaching and marketing strategies to drive new business and client retention within a group training model.
Cressey Sports Performance
577 Main St.
Hudson, MA 01749
We’re really excited about this event, and would love to have you join us! However, space is limited and each seminar we’ve hosted in the past has sold out quickly, so don’t delay on signing up!
If you have additional questions, please direct them to email@example.com. Looking forward to seeing you there!
PS - If you're looking for hotel information, The Extended Stay America in Marlborough, MA offers our clients a heavily discounted nightly rate of just under $63.00. Just mention "Cressey" during the booking process in order to secure the discount. Their booking phone number is 508-490-9911.
It's been a while since I posted a new "Exercise of the Week" feature, but to atone for the wait, I've got a great one for you. I actually came up with this one myself while brainstorming a bit during my own warm-up a few weeks ago.
Serratus anterior is an incredibly important muscle for shoulder health, as it is really the big player in making sure there is a "rotation" component to scapular upward rotation (watch this video first if you need more information on that). Long story short, as you can tell from the picture below that depicts its positioning and line of pull, serratus anterior is hugely important for healthy shoulder function. This is particularly true in movement patterns involving reaching, whether it's out in front or overhead.
Loss of serratus anterior function is incredibly common in those with shoulder pathology, but we also see it really commonly in those who are pain-free but don't move well. To that end, we like to include specific serratus anterior targeted drills in our warm-ups and as low-key "fillers" between heavier compound lifts during our training sessions.
The research has demonstrated that serratus anterior recruitment is highest when you have more than 90 degrees of shoulder flexion, and this assertion really recognizes that this muscle does far more than just protract the shoulder blade; it is a key upward rotator. As such, we train it to assist that function:
1. Make sure the athlete is not in a heavily extended (arched lower back) posture, and don't allow forward head posture.
2. If range of motion allows, reach behind the back with the opposite hand to monitor the position of the inferomedial (inside/bottom) border of the scapula. It should stay "snug" to the rib cage, not wing off.
3. Think of "wrapping" the scapula to the armpit as the arm goes up. I'll usually manually guide the shoulder blade with my hands as I'm first instructing this. You can usually see if the movement is sufficient through an athlete's shirt.
4. Actively push the medicine ball into the wall the entire time. In addition to training the protraction function of serratus anterior, you'll also likely get some reflexive rotator cuff recruitment. This is a 4-pound med ball, but you can really work anywhere from one pound to six pounds.
5. The athlete should only feel this along the scapula near arm pit (reference the anatomy picture above for a frame of reference). There should be no anterior shoulder discomfort. If there is, it's a sign of one of two things:
a. Pectoralis minor taking over to protract with anterior scapular tilt
b. Excessive movement of the humerus (upper arm) without sufficient scapular movement
5. Don't force upward range of motion. The arm really shouldn't get above 140-150 degrees, and most people don't even need to go this far. Note that the medicine ball doesn't say in the hand the entire time; it rolls to the elbow. This is a great ROM "check" that tells you how far up you should go.
6. Control things down slowly; don't yank to the bottom.
7. For added benefit, you can add a full exhale at the top of each rep to help solidify the pattern.
I'll generally program this for sets of 6-8 reps on each side.
If you're looking for some more serratus anterior programming options and detailed coaching cues, check out this video:
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I hope everyone had a great weekend. For some reason, there was a ton of great content around the 'Net in the past week, so I actually had my work cut out for me in paring this down to my top three choices. Check them out:
When You Know it's Time to Get Out - This was an absolutely fantastic post from Dave Tate that appealed to me on multiple levels: small business success rates, retirement from strength sports, and the need for experienced coaches to "give back" to the strength and conditioning community.
Today, I've got a somewhat personal story to share with you - and there are several great lessons at the end, so be patient as you read through!
As many of you know, the fall/winter of 2014-15 was a crazy time period for the Cressey family. First, in early September, my wife and I moved to Florida to prepare for the opening of our new Cressey Sports Performance facility in Jupiter, FL. After months of planning, the facility finally opened up in early November.
It wasn't very easy to just open up shop in another state without regular trips back to Massachusetts to check in on the facility and our house. This took place on top of my normal responsibilities both in the gym and in managing my online presence and consulting business. And, I continued to train hard in the gym myself.
To make things a bit more complex, this move took place while my wife was pregnant...with twins. Their original due date was December 17, but they decided to arrive about three weeks early on November 28. They're both doing great, but early on, there was some time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for supplemental oxygen and feeding tubes.
Needless to say, there were a lot of long hours over the fall and winter. While I'm accustomed to long hours, I was not accustomed to doing these long hours with only 2-3 hours of sleep per night thanks to newborn twins.
I often tell our athletes that with programming and training, you can't just keep adding. If you put something new in, you usually have to take something else away. And, if you absolutely insist on adding without taking something away, then you better be ready to really dedicate yourself to recovery modalities, whether it's massage, naps, or a host of other options. There was no time for any of that stuff, though. What was there time for?
Caffeine - and a lot of it.
Each morning, I'd drink a pot of coffee. As I recall, the half-life of caffeine is about eight hours if you don't exercise - and it held pretty true, in my case. My morning caffeine would usually wear off in the early afternoon after I was done training our pro crowd. Stubbornly, I refused to pare back on my training volume, so 4-5 days a week, I'd also crush an energy drink around 3pm to get ready to lift. The pick-me-up would often work. I'd have a good training session here and there that would remind me that I "still had it."
Not surprisingly, I'd crash and burn and have a horrible 4-5 days of training after a session like this. The "ups" were still pretty "up," but the "downs" were a lot longer and harder to bounce back from. You can't display your work capacity if you can't leverage your recovery capacity, and I had none.
Early in the spring, things started catching up to me. I was down about 10 pounds since the girls had been born, and wasn't any leaner. My strength had started to fall off pretty quickly, and I wasn feeling pretty banged up in the gym. Most significantly, I was starting to get sick pretty regularly - and I almost NEVER get sick.
In early May, I gave a weekend seminar that also included a 5-6 hour Friday presentation, so I was on my feet talking for about 30 hours over the course of three days. On the way home, my flight was delayed, and I didn't get back to my house until about 3am. I woke up the next morning feeling horrible, and actually wound up going home sick from work the next day. It was right then that I knew I needed to fix things.
The next morning, I went to 50/50 regular/decaf coffee, and cut out all caffeine for the rest of the day. What happened next absolutely stunned me.
For about 3-4 weeks, I felt absolutely horrendous. I've heard of caffeine withdrawals coming in the form of a headache (and I certainly had one), but that was just the tip of the iceberg for me. Every joint in my body hurt. I was waking up with cold sweats - and going through 2-3 shirts - every single night. I was so exhausted by the end of the day that I was going to bed by 8pm on 2-3 days per week. It was literally like I had the flu for an entire month. As a final kicker, I was waking up every morning around 4am with a raging headache that would only go away 10-15 minutes after my first sip of coffee - so it wasn't possible to just "sleep it off."
Not surprisingly, my training was terrible during this month. I pared back to 3x/week lifting, and my only "off-day" activity was walking with my wife and daughters.
Caffeine might not be heroin, cocaine, or even
nicotine, but it is absolutely, positively a drug.
I can only imagine what serious, long-term drug abusers go through when they try to kick a habit - because I've got a high pain tolerance and a lot of patience, and those four weeks sucked!
Fortunately for you, though, there are some invaluable lessons to be learned from my story.
1. Short-term gain often equates to long-term pain.
I mustered up "fake energy" to have average training sessions for 2-3 months - and in the process, put myself in a position where I had terrible sessions for a month on the tail end. It's better to be "consistently good" throughout the year.
2. This is what a lot of young athletes do!
I see a lot of diet logs from teenage athletes, and they usually leave a lot to be desired. Most kids drink too many sports drinks and sodas, and consume too little water. Fruits and vegetables are sorely lacking, and there are enough processed carbs to sink a battleship - and certainly no healthy fats to keep things afloat.
In spite of all these shortcomings, a lot of young athletes are on a constant search to find a "better pre-workout." Maybe, just maybe, the pre-workout wouldn't be necessary if these athletes were eating right and sleeping sufficiently.
It's one thing for a stressed-out 34-year-old entrepreneur with newborn twins at home to go down this path. It's another thing altogether for a resilient, untrained 16-year-old to think that he needs stimulants to be able to perform in the weight room or on the field.
3. Coffee is a slippery slope.
Ever have that friend who set out with good dietary intentions, but found ways to justify bad food choices?
"Well, you said sweet potatoes were a good carb source for me. So, I figured regular potatoes were just as good. And, if potatoes are okay, then I can make homemade french fries. And, if homemade french fries are okay, then the ones I have at my favorite fast food restaurant have to be okay, too, right?"
You can justify absolutely anything you want. With coffee, we know there are potential health benefits with respect to type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cardiovascular health, certain types of cancer, and many other facets of health. Of course, this assumes moderation. Drinking a gallon of caffeinated coffee per day isn't going to give you extra protection against problems in these areas. Furthermore, don't expect the same health benefits of coffee to extend to crushing an energy drink or Mountain Dew to get a quick pick-me-up.
4. We need to be very careful about glorifying caffeine, regardless of form.
For some reason, in the fitness industry, caffeine gets a lot of love because it's been proven to improve performance in a number of physical challenges, from strength and power events to endurance sports. Some of those benefits can be reduced when an athlete has become desensitized to caffeine from habitual use, though.
Not surprisingly, though, we're seeing more and more athletes - and fitness professionals, too - who are crushing energy drinks throughout the day. They're always firing up their sympathetic nervous systems and staying in perpetual "perform" mode when they should be able to tone it down and switch to recovery mode.
I find it interesting that a simple cup of coffee can be viewed as a morning routine, ergogenic aid, and social beverage - and that probably explains why so many people consume caffeine to excess. They want it for all three of these things every single day.
Keep in mind that I'm preaching moderation in caffeine consumption, not complete abstinence. I'm still drinking coffee every morning and have no plans to eliminate it.
5. Stress is stress, whether you "feel" it or not.
If you'd asked me how I felt in December and January, I would have said "surprisingly good." I'm a guy who never gets too up or down, so in spite of my Type A personality, I rarely actually feel "stressed." Interestingly, in what was one of the most physiologically stressful times of my life, I pretty much powered through it (with the help of way too much caffeine) without feeling too awful. Obviously, eventually it caught up to me. With our athletes, we need to recognize high levels of stress sooner so that we can tone down training and add in more recovery modalities.
6. It's very easy to forget what it's like to actually feel good.
I've been taking my training very seriously for about 15 years now, so I like to think that I'm pretty in tune with how my body is feeling.
Additionally, I work with a lot of high-level athletes, particularly baseball players. Most elite athletes have incredible kinesthetic awareness and can sense when little things are "off."
Interestingly, though, it's not uncommon for athletes to get into "funks." We see MLB pitchers struggle with repeating their mechanics in spite of the fact that they're in the top 0.001% of people who play the game of baseball worldwide. We also see athletes who have annoying injuries that linger for extended periods of time and really change the way that they move. Small hinges can swing big doors - and sometimes you don't even recognize when the door is wide open.
I felt pretty darn bad for 4-5 months, but was able to tune it out because there were parenting and work responsibilities that had to get done. And, there was no way I was missing training. So, I effectively convinced myself that I felt fine. What can I say? Otherwise intelligent people often make really bad decisions when it comes to managing their own health, as it's hard to emotionally separate yourself from the situation like you would with a client or friend.
It took a few days of feeling really awful to snap me out of it. Two months later, I'm feeling a heck of a lot better and am back to have great training sessions. It was a great learning experience - and something that will definitely impact the way I interact with our athletes - but certainly not an ordeal I'd wish on anyone!
Hopefully, next time you reach for that third cup of coffee or mid-afternoon energy drink, you'll think twice - and recognize that you're probably only doing so to mask a short-sighted decision in another aspect of your life.
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Technique Tuesday with Tony - We've started some new weekly features on the CSP-MA Facebook page, and on Tuesdays, Tony Bonvechio goes over some coaching cues with a 2-3 minute video. This week, he talks about how to keep your elbows under the bar while squatting.
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You might be surprised to know that I'm an "outsider" to baseball. I played up through 8th grade, but was actually a much better tennis player. Since they were both spring sports, the decision to go the tennis route was effectively made for me even though I loved baseball as both a player and fan.
Years later, in my first three years of strength and conditioning during graduate school at the University of Connecticut, I actually spent most of my time working with basketball and soccer players. I still loved baseball, but hadn't really been exposed to it "from the inside."
It just so happened that when I went to the private sector after graduate school, some of my first clients were high school baseball players. They had some good results and my phone started ringing off the hook. Now, almost ten years later, Cressey Sports Performance has facilities in both FL and MA, and we work with players from all 30 Major League Baseball organizations.
I'd argue that if I had been an "insider" from the get-go, we never would have been able to differentiate ourselves so quickly. Why? As an outsider, I had to do a lot of listening and observing. I had to ask a lot of questions. And, I was fortunate to NOT be married to personal biases of what baseball training programs should look like.
Distance running for pitchers didn't make sense to me. It was absurd to hear that players shouldn't lift because it'd make them "bulky and inflexible." The list goes on and on - but the point remains the same: good baseball strength and conditioning mandates logical thinking, not just reliance on tradition and personal biases.
This doesn't just apply to baseball insiders' perspectives on what players should look like, though. Rather, it also must apply to how strength and conditioning coaches - baseball outsiders like me - view what players should look like. And, my decade in baseball strength and conditioning has taught me that you have to emotionally separate yourself from what an athlete "should" look like, especially when dealing with pitchers.
While you might think that every athlete - regardless of sport - needs to be 7% body fat with a 500+ pound squat and 18-inch biceps, you have to throw that perception out the window when you're dealing with baseball players (and many other athletes, for that matter). The truth is that big leaguers come in all shapes and sizes.
I've seen pitchers with 16-inch vertical jumps who throw 95mph. I've seen guys at 25% body fat win Gold Gloves and hit over .300 in the big leagues. I'm not saying that you should just "allow" your athletes to be unathletic, but rather that you need to recognize the following:
Players are often successful because of traits and not just athleticism.
Maybe a hitter has tremendous sports vision. Maybe a pitcher was blessed with freaky congenital laxity (joint hypermobility) to contort his body into crazy positions to create better deception and get on top of hitters faster. Maybe a pitcher has really long fingers that enable him to throw a great change-up or splitter.
The point is that natural selection definitely plays a big role in success, and it's your job to make sure your training doesn't interfere. Bartolo Colon has pitched in parts of 21 years in the big leagues and won 213 games, and he's making $12.5 million this year. He throws more than 85% fastballs and walk less than one batter per nine innings.
He is also clinically obese and probably has about 50-60 pounds of body fat to lose. Conventional wisdom says that shedding that excess body weight would make him a better athlete, but as I wrote with respect to CC Sabathia, that's a very slippery slope. That extra body weight may help him with absolute power development, and he may also be so accustomed to that larger frame after all these years that his mechanics might negatively impacted if you took a lot of weight off him, especially in a short amount of time. I've actually seen this quite a bit over the years in athletes who have come our way to sort out their struggles: try to get a guy too lean, and you'll deliver a six-pack - and a poop arm to go with it. For Colon, fastball command (and velocity) is clearly more of a priority than flab (or lack thereof).
I'm not telling you that you should let your guys get fat. I'm not telling you that you shouldn't train them for strength. I'm not telling you that we should just assume that the freaks will make it and hard work won't take a non-freak to the big leagues. I'm just telling you that you need to take a step back and consider exactly what makes an athlete a) successful and b) durable.
Guys aren't getting hurt because they only deadlift 450 and not 500 pounds. And, they aren't stuck in Triple A instead of living the big league dream because they're 10% body fat and not 9%. There are such things as strong enough, lean enough, and flexible enough. If they don't meet the minimum standards and they aren't at the level at which they hope to compete, you need to improve these qualities. If they don't meet these minimum standards, but they're already competing at the highest level, then you have to be very careful about how you tinker with things. Subtle changes are the name of the game, and extremes should be avoided. And, you should look for easy gains first.
Improving a pitcher's cuff strength is a lot quicker and easier than adding 100 pounds to his deadlift. Adding 10 degrees of hip internal rotation or thoracic rotation can make a hitter feel far more confident at the plate. Getting 10 minutes of soft tissue work on a gritty shoulder or elbow can be absolutely game-changing for a pitcher who has thrown through chronic pain.
These aren't the sexy training exercises or boast-worthy gains that make for YouTube videos that go viral, but they're the ones that can take athletes to the next level - or keep them at the highest level. I'll take a good serratus anterior over a good six-pack, even if it makes for lame Instagram content. I'll take great end-range rotator cuff strength over big arms, even if it won't make the ladies go wild.
Our athletes are still going to lift heavy weights, sprint, throw med balls, do plyos and agility drills - but it's all part of a larger plan where we appreciate them as individuals with unique needs. If you try to fit baseball players into a physical mould that you've built in your mind, you'll waste training time as you study for the wrong test. And, more importantly, you'll miss out on key performance benefits and opportunities to keep them healthy.
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my 47-minute Presentation on Individualizing the Management of Overhead Athletes!
I'm back in Massachusetts after a week in North Carolina with USA Baseball. It'll take me a day or two to get my feet underneath me before I can type up a new blog, but luckily, I've got some great content for you from around the web.
Elite Training Mentorship - In this month's update, we've got some awesome content from the Cressey Sports Performance crew (myself included). We cover learning styles, coaching cues, core control, and lower extremity mobility.