Today, I'm going to tackle one of my biggest pet peeves in the baseball world: people saying that throwing builds arm "strength." Sorry, but it doesn't.
What I'm going to write below might seem like wordplay, but truthfully, it's a very important differentiation to make. If young athletes believe that throwing builds arm strength, they'll quickly convince themselves that year-round throwing is safe and acceptable, when it's actually one of the worst things they can do for long-term health and development. Here's what you need to know:
1. Throwing builds arm speed - which is power. Power is heavily reliant on muscular strength. If you can't apply much force, you can't apply much force quickly.
2. Throwing also builds muscular endurance in the arm. Muscular endurance, too, is heavily reliant on muscular strength. If you don't have strength you can't have strength endurance.
If you enhance muscular strength, power and endurance will generally improve. That's been shown time and time again in the research, both in throwers and other athletic situations. However, if you train power and endurance, strength almost never goes up. Otherwise, we'd see loads of athletes stronger at the end of seasons than they were at the beginning. In reality, if you check rotator cuff strength and scapular stabilizer proficiency at season's end, it's generally much lower. As physical therapist Mike Reinold describes it, managing arm strength during the season is a "controlled fall."
This underscores the importance of using the off-season (including a period with no throwing whatsoever) to improve rotator cuff strength and optimize scapular control. Simultaneously, athletes gain passive stability at the shoulder as the acquired anterior instability (secondary to increased external rotation from throwing) reduces.
Now, we need more research to see if it's the case, but I think that one of the hidden benefits of throwing weighted baseball is that doing so essentially helps us blur the line between arm strength and speed, as I outlined in this presentation a while back:
Of course, it depends heavily on the volume, frequency, load, and type of weighted ball drills utilized, as well as the time of year at which they're utilized. However, as I mentioned, it is somewhat of a noteworthy exception to the rule of throwing a 5oz baseball. Weighted balls surely still take a toll on arm strength over the course of time, but that might be a "slower fall."
Regardless, when you're talking about a throwing program, feel free to say that you're building "arm speed" or "arm endurance," but let's all appreciate that you definitely aren't building "arm strength."
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Back in the summer of 2013, a good friend of mine attended the a well-known national showcase with one of his athletes. It was an invitation-only event for the best rising senior baseball players in the country. At the end of the event, he texted me to comment on just how crazy it was that it seemed like dozens of kids were hitting 95mph on the radar gun at this event. And, sure enough, in the post-event write-up, they commented on how over 100 kids topped the 90mph mark.
That is a huge deal.
You see, if you backtracked just 10 years, 90mph was a huge feather in your cap - and it essentially meant that you'd be getting drafted out of high school. Now, on a regular basis, we have dozens of kids nationwide consistently throwing 95mph+ even when there were only 35 major league pitchers in 2011 whose average fastball velocity was higher than 95mph! As I've mentioned before, average fastball velocity is higher in Low-A than it is in the big leagues.
The question, then, becomes, "Where are all these power arms coming from - particularly at the younger levels?" That's a question I'll answer today.
1. More specialization.
It goes without saying that early sports specialization across all sports is, unfortunately, at an all-time high.
However, baseball is particularly interesting because there is an extremely high likelihood of arm injury along the way. In fact, according to a 2008 study from Oullette et al., 57% of pitchers suffer some form of shoulder injury over the course of a season. And, that doesn't even take into account elbow, neck, core, and lower extremity injuries/conditions. It goes without saying that just about every player will have an issue or two (or 30) pop up over his four years of high school - and it's one reason why we don't see any more "clean" MRIs during post-draft physicals for high round picks. They're all damaged; it's just that some are worse than others, and we need to figure out which of the chips in the paint and rust on the hubcabs are clinically significant.
When kids specialize in one sport at an early age and try to play it year-round, it's like betting your life savings on the roulette wheel - except your chances of winning are even smaller. And, even if it works out and the kid manages to be the next star, you dodged a bullet - and he very well may just be waiting for problems down the road, as a lot of the early specialization kids actually have very "old arms" even if they aren't symptomatic.
Not surprisingly, the rise in specialization (as evidenced by the growth in popularity of fall ball teams, showcases, and opportunities to play for multiple teams during the "normal" baseball season) has paralleled the rise in velocity and injuries. Can long-term baseball development be successful without specialization? In my opinion, absolutely - but you have to tie up all the loose ends, and that's what my next few points will all be about.
2. Video analysis
If you want your velocity to increase immediately, there is no quicker avenue to doing so than reviewing pitching mechanics on video. Our pitching coordinator, Matt Blake, uses the RightView Pro set-up extensively at Cressey Sports Performance for this very reason. Many pitchers are visual learners, so this approach to coaching helps them to learn what needs to be corrected much more efficiently - and it's also of benefit to the pitching coach, as many movements in the pitching delivery occur so quickly that they really can't be spotted by the naked eye.
Surprisingly, there are still a ton of college and minor league teams who don't have video available to their players. Access to video can be a huge game-changer, and it's one reason that a lot of high school kids are throwing harder and harder.
Ask any coach what one of the best ways to motivate male athletes is, and he'll tell you competition. Most teenage guys thrive on trying to beat their buddies, opponents, or records that are in place. Nowadays, there are more opportunities to compete (and less preparation), and any player in the country can hop online and see how his velocity compared to other guys' at the last showcase. Although commonly overlooked, these competitive opportunities are big motivating factors to players.
4. Strength Training
I often tell athletes that "If you don't run fast, you won't pull your hamstrings." In other words, strength training can be a player's biggest asset, but also his greatest downfall if he doesn't approach it correctly. You see, if strength training isn't approached correctly, it can do a world of harm - both acutely and chronically. Obviously, the likelihood of getting hurt increases if you move with poor technique under external loading. However, taking it a step further, strength training "solidifies" movement patterns. This can be great in a rehabilitation context if you free up some new mobility and then want to create stability within that range of motion (or just maintain what you've got). However, if you lift like a moron, you'll mostly just teach yourself to be better at moving like crap - and that's when chronic injuries kick in.
Unfortunately, casual observers to exercise physiology don't get that there is a huge difference between appropriate and inappropriate strength training for baseball players. And, this is why there are quite a few "old school" folks in the baseball world who attribute some of the high injury rates these days to lifting. What they should be attributing the injury to (in part) is inappropriate strength training exercise selection, volume, and technique. After all, there are just as many guys get hurt late in the season because they cut out lifting and lose strength!
Simply stated, strength training is helping guys throw harder; there's no doubt about it. It's how that strength training is programmed and what's done to complement it that determines if the increased velocity will lead to an injury. Nothing happens in isolation.
5. More aggressive throwing programs
A decade ago, throwing programs were far from what they are today. Nowadays, up-and-coming throwers are using weighted baseballs and long toss more than ever before. No two pitchers are alike in how they respond to these modalities, but having them as tools at our disposal has certainly helped us to increase pitching velocity with countless throwers.
6. Less distance running
One of our minor league pitchers stopped in to check in with me over his all-star break a few weeks ago, and he came bearing great news. He'd hit 98mph on the radar gun four times in a single inning a few nights earlier - after never having been above 94mph before this season.
Sure, we did a lot of things differently with his programming this off-season, from strength training, to throwing programs, to mobility and soft tissue work. However, the single biggest change he made (in my eyes, at least) was that he started sprinting between outings instead of distance running. I have seen this time and time again, and I'm happy to report that more and more coaches at all levels are starting to pick up on it, too.
Everybody ran long distances back in previous decades. Yet, we throw harder nowadays. And, everybody seems to run long distances in baseball in east Asia. Pitchers throw harder in the U.S. Sure, there are a lot more factors that contribute to pitching success than velocity alone, but these observations are impossible to ignore.
7. More objective ways to quantify velocity
Have you ever wondered if pitching velocity has increased simply because technology has improved, and we therefore have more accessible means of measuring it? The price of radar guns isn't as high. Every stadium has a radar gun. They make pocket radar guns, and there are even iPad apps to measure velocity.
Basic accessibility to this technology has likely contributed to kids pushing the envelope of what they would otherwise think they were able to do.
8. More peaks, fewer valleys
Remember when Justin Verlander hit 101mph on the radar gun in the 9th inning of his no-hitter in 2011? You could call that a "peak" velocity moment. In short, it's a lot easier when the stakes are higher, people are watching you, and the adrenaline is pumping. Major League pitchers don't have as many of these because their professional seasons are a long grind: possibly 200 games in 230 days, if you include spring training and playoffs.
Younger pitchers, however, are more "excitable." With shorter seasons, there are more "big games." With showcases and tournaments each weekend, the stakes are higher. Heck, they get excited if a girlfriend comes to watch them pitch. In the lifting world, we call it the difference between a training max and a competition max. A competition max may be as much as 10% higher because a lifter is deloaded from training stress and put into a higher pressure competitive situation. In young pitchers, everything seems to be a competition max. It's great for demonstrating big velocity numbers, but may interfere with long-term health and development.
Clearly, there are a ton of factors that have contributed to guys throwing harder at younger ages in today's baseball world. They don't all apply to each thrower, as different athletes will generate velocity in different ways. While this increase in average velocity has definitely made pitchers more dominant, it has, unfortunately, been accompanied by a greater frequency of injuries. Understanding the factors that contribute to these velocity increases is the first step in determining how to keep kids performing at a high level while minimizing their risk of injury.
This week marks the start of the summer baseball travel season for a lot of the travel baseball programs up here in the Northeast. This is a really important experience for the majority of players up in this neck of the woods, as it's when they get in front of the most college coaches for the sake of recruiting, and they often head south to face more talented opponents. There are more college camps taking place, as well as tryouts for the East Coast Pro and Area Code teams. In short, summer ball is important, and you don't want to screw up in how you approach it, as doing so can mean that you'll miss out on both skill development and opportunites to get "seen" by a coach who'll have you playing at the next level.
Unfortunately, though, this is also a time of year when a lot of things change for young baseball players. Instead of five minute drive to school for practice and games, they're hopping on 15-hour bus rides to get to a weekend tournament. Instead sleeping in their own beds and eating Mom's home cooking, they're staying in hotels and stopping for fast food. Instead of having a predictable weekly schedule of MoWeFr games, they might play five in three days. Instead of enjoying moderate Northeast spring weather of 50 degrees in the morning and evening and 75 degrees in the afternoon, they get East Cobb in July, when it's 95 degree weather with 95% humidity. In short, they get a taste of what minor league baseball will be like if they make it that far in their careers!
The end result, unfortunately, is that many players wind up coasting into July and August on fumes because they've lost weight, strength, throwing velocity, bat speed, ninja skills, and overall manliness. They expected their biggest challenge to be "simply" pitching against a 5-tool hitter or hitting a 95mph fastball, but instead, they get absolutely dominated by the lifestyle off the field.
Guys who don't handle the summer season well are the ones who stumble back in to Cressey Performance at the end of August, making their first appearance since February. And, in spite of the great off-season of training they put in before the high school season began, they usually look like they've never trained before, and they're often asking me to help them bounce back from some injury. Sound familiar? If so, read on.
Below, I've listed seven tips for avoiding this common summer baseball deterioriation. You'll notice that many of them are completely to do with maintaining body weight; as I've written before, weight loss is a big reason why performance drops in baseball players both acutely (dehydration) and chronically (loss of muscle mass). Also worthy of note is the fact that the majority of these tips could also apply to professional baseball. Anyway, let's get to it.
1. Make breakfast big.
When traveling, breakfast is the only meal over which you have complete control. You can wake up earlier to make sure that you have a big and complete one, or you can sleep in and grab a stale bagel on the way out the door. When I travel to give seminars, I intentionally pick hotels that have all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets and I absolutely crush them. Basically, I'll eat omelets (with veggies), scrambled eggs, and fresh fruit until I'm so full that I contemplate renting a fork lift to get me back to my room.
This is because things always get hectic at mid-day. Seminar attendees want to ask questions, get assessed, or just "pick my brain" during the lunch hour. So, if I get something, it's usually quick and not really that big. Does this sound similar to how you eat prior to games? You don't want to eat too much, but know you've got to have something or else you'll be dragging by the 7th inning.
If I've packed away a big breakfast, I can power through the day pretty well regardless of what lunch looks like. Traveling baseball players with day games can do the exact same thing.
As an interesting aside to this, I'm always amazed at how many young baseball players talk about how nobody outworks them, and how they're always in "beast mode." Yet, across the board, very few players will be "beastly" enough to wake up a few minutes earlier to eat a quality breakfast, always complaining that they don't like to get up early, or that they aren't hungry at that time of day. Well, just because your stomach doesn't like food at that time of day doesn't mean that it won't benefit from having it. You think your shoulder and elbow like throwing a baseball? Nope...but they do it.
Working hard isn't just about the hitting cage or weight room; it's also about the kitchen.
I'll get off my soap box now.
2. Appreciate convenient calories.
Remember that in the quest to keep your weight up, your body doesn't really care if you're sitting down for an "official" meal. Rather, you might be better off grazing all day. Mixed nuts, shakes, bars, and fruit will be your best friends when it comes to convenience foods out on the field - or on a long bus ride when you have no idea when you'll be stopping for food.
3. Make the most of hotel gyms.
Let's face it: most hotel gyms are woefully under-equipped. You've usually got dumbbells up to 40 pounds and a treadmill, if you're lucky. That should be plenty, though, as you're not trying to make a ton of progress in these training sessions; you're just trying to create a training stimulus to maintain what you already have. Here's an easy example of a hotel gym workout you can use in a pinch:
A1) DB Bulgarian Split Squat from Deficit: 3x8/side
A2) Prone 1-arm Trap Raise: 3x8/side (can do this bent-over if no table is available, or do it off the edge of your hotel room bed)
B1) 1-leg DB RDL: 3x8/side
B2) 1-arm KB (or DB) Turkish Get-up: 3x3/side
C1) Yoga Push-up: 3x10
C1) 1-arm DB Row: 3x10/side
D1) Prone Bridge Arm March: 3x8/side
D2) Standing External Rotation to Wall: 3x5 (five second hold on each rep)
Another option, obviously, is to try to find a gym near your hotel while you're on the road. That can obviously be tough if you don't have a car handy, though, so it's always good to have these "back-up" minimalist equipment options at your fingertips. And, of course, you can always rock body weight only exercises.
4. Have portable training equipment.
You aren't allowed to complain about the lack of equipment in the typical hotel gym if you haven't put any thought into what training implements you can bring on the road with you. Things like bands, a foam roller, a TRX, and a number of other implements can make your life easier. I've brought my TRX on numerous vacations with me and it always proves useful. The scenery usually isn't bad, either.
5. Pack quality training into short bursts.
If you know you're going to be on the road for week-long trips here and there throughout the summer, it's important to get your quality training in when you're at home in your "consistent" environment. Think of it as managing a bank account. You make deposits when you're at home with good equipment and quality nutrition, and you're taking withdrawals when you're on the road and the circumstances are less than stellar.
6. Bring noise-canceling headphones.
There's nothing better than when you're dreading a long flight or bus/train ride, and then you fall asleep the second the trip begins, and you wake up to find out that you're at your destination. That's awesome.
What's not awesome is that every single team in the history of baseball has at least one schmuck who likes to blare music, yell, and dance around at 6AM when everyone else is trying to sleep. Dropping him off and leaving him for dead in the middle of nowhere isn't an option, so you're better off rocking some noise-canceling headphones.
7. Bring a neck pillow.
Falling asleep on a plane or bus and then waking up with a stiff neck is no fun. Doing so and then having to go out and throw 90 pitches the next day will be absolutely miserable. And, this cool article about research at Vanderbilt University on the negative effects of fatigue on strike zone management over the course of a baseball season should get hitters' attention, too! A neck pillow will cost you less than $20. It's an absolute no brainer. Besides, you probably spent double that amount on the 15 silly Power Balance bracelets you own.*
*And while you're at it, take the stupid sticker off your hat. You look like a clown.
You know the old saying about how if you sense thirst, you're already dehydrated? It's especially true when you're out on the field at 1PM in the middle of July in Florida. So, drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. We know that dehydration reduces strength and power - so you can bet that fastball velocity and bat speed will dip - but did you know that it also negatively affects cognitive performance? In a 2012 review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Adan wrote, "Being dehydrated by just 2% impairs performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills." So, if you're a guy who is always missing signs, ignoring your cutoff man, or forgetting how many outs there are, it might be wise to evaluate your hydration status.
These are just eight tips to guide you as you approach this important summer season, and there are surely many more strategies athletes have employed to make it as productive a time of year as it should be. That said, I'd encourage you to monitor your body weight on a regular basis to make sure that it's not dropping. If it is, it's time to get in more calories, hydrate better, and hit the gym. Good luck!
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This past weekend, I spoke at a baseball conference that featured an outstanding lineup. Sharing the stage were:
Lloyd McClendon (former MLB player and current Detroit Tigers hitting coach)
Jerry Weinstein (Colorado Rockies catching coach)
Gary Gilmore (Coastal Carolina head Coach)
Rich Maloney (Ball State head coach)
Shaun Cole (University of Arizona pitching coach)
Gary Picone (former Lewis & Clark head coach)
I picked up some great insights over the weekend, but the two themes that seemed to resound with me over and over again were that all of these guys emphasized simplicity and individualization.
On the simplicity side of things, all of these coaches emphasized not making things more elaborate than they needed to be. Paraphrasing Hall-of-Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, Coach Maloney hammered home "making the routine play routinely." This really hit home with me, as many baseball players I encounter are looking for the latest and greatest throwing program, supplement, or training gadget to take them to the next level. Meanwhile, the simple answer is just that they need train a little harder, eat a little better, and be a little more patient and attentive.
On the individualization side of things, McClendon, for instance, emphasized that while all great hitters get to the same important positions, many of them start at different positions. And, they each require different drills to "get right," and different players do better with shorter sessions in the cage than others.
In one way or another, every single speaker touched on - and, in most cases, specifically mentioned - keeping things simple and individualized. To that end, I thought I'd post five random thoughts on both of these factors:
Simplifying Baseball Strength and Conditioning Programs
1. Magical things happen when you get stronger. Learn to put more force into the ground and you will throw harder, swing faster, jump higher, and run faster.
2. Don't miss sessions. The off-season is never as long as you want it to be, and it's your time to "put money in the bank" from a training adaptation standpoint. And, in-season, it's easy to put things off until tomorrow - but that doesn't mean that you should, as there is a tomorrow for tomorrow, too, and that's a slippery slope.
3. Do what you need, not just what you're good at doing. If you throw hard, but can't throw strikes, do more bullpen work. If you throw strikes, but can't throw hard, do more velocity drills: long toss, weighted ball work, etc.
4. Don't add more volume without taking something away. You can't do high volume strength training, high volume medicine ball work, high volume throwing, high volume hitting, and high volume sprint work all at once. If you add something new, take something away.
5. Don't power through bad technique or pain. If you can't do something with good technique, slow it down and practice it at an easier pace. If that still doesn't work, regress the drill/exercise.
Individualizing Baseball Strength and Conditioning Programs
1. Coach the same exercises differently. Different players respond to different cues, but they often mandate different cues as well. For instance, a wall slide with overhead shrug would be cued differently for someone with scapular depression and anterior tilt than in someone with scapular elevation and adduction. The goal is to make the movement look right, but there are different roads to get to this point.
2. Assess for congenital laxity. If someone has crazy loose joints, don't stretch them. If they're stiff as a board, include more mobility drills and static stretching.
3. Inquire about innings pitched. The more innings a pitcher has thrown, the more down-time he'll need and the longer it'll take to get his rotator cuff and scapular control back to a suitable level in the off-season.
4. Master the sagittal plane first. If you can't do a body weight squat or lunge, then you probably aren't going to have the rotary stability necessary to do aggressive rotational medicine ball throws or plyos in the frontal plane.
5. Appreciate each player's injury history and find out where they usually get soreness/pain. Simply asking these questions and reviewing a health history can tell you a lot about where a player might break down moving forward. If you aren't asking or assessing, you're just guessing.
These five thoughts on individualization might seem obvious, but it never ceases to amaze me just how many people in the industry simply throw a one-size-fits-all program up on the dry erase board and expect everyone to do it exactly the same. Some folks might thrive, but others might wind up injured or regressing in their fitness levels in some capacity. This is where we begin to appreciate the incredibly essential interaction between individualization and simplicity. Nothing is more simple than this:
Determine an athlete's unique needs, and then write a program and provide coaching cues to address them.
There is nothing more basic and simple than a needs evaluation. You can't determine that something is too complex if you have no idea where an athlete stands in the first place!
Why then, do we have entire teams doing the same program with the same coaching cues? Usually, it's because it makes someone's job easier, or it allows them to get more athletes through the babysitting service to make more money. That's not how you keep athletes healthy, win games, or educate athletes about how their bodies are unique.
So with all that in mind, remember to keep things simple - and that begins with an assessment so that you can create an individualized training experience.
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Earlier this week, Cressey Performance athlete Ryan Flaherty was named to the Baltimore Orioles opening day roster for today. Ryan and I share a common trait in that we were both born and raised in Southern Maine, so we've had some good conversations about what it takes to compete on a national scale when you start out from what isn't exactly known as a baseball capital of the world. When I heard the great news about Ryan, the logical first choice for reading about it was our hometown newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, in this article.
One of the things that stood out for me about this article was the quote about how Orioles manager Buck Showalter still got so excited to tell guys they made the big league roster - because, unfortunately, it's a conversation he gets to have much less often than the "You're cut" interaction.
Being successful - and, even moreso, world-class - is very difficult.
Only 3% of guys ever drafted into professional baseball ever make it to the big leagues. When you factor in free agent signings, it's likely a 1 in 50 success rate. Taking it a step further, if you look at the 118 first-round draft picks between 2004 and 2007 who actually signed, only 84 (71%) of them ever made it to the big leagues. In other words, even if you are among the most coveted 30 prospects in all of the U.S. and Canada, you still have a long way to go, and a lot of time to fall flat on your face.
I hear it all the time from kids:
I want to make varsity.I want to play in college.I want to get drafted.I want to make it to the big leagues.
While the goals are certainly incremental and far apart, the response needs to be the same: "It won't be easy, and you need to be willing to work for it - not talk about it."
Ryan was no exception. He was one of the best athletes - football, basketball, and baseball - in the history of the State of Maine. Then, he was a three-year standout at Vanderbilt, one of the best college baseball programs in the country, before being drafted in 2008. Three years of hard work in the minor leagues later, he's getting his shot in "the show" today. Tim Collins was a great example from last year - and Tim had to work his butt off to keep his roster spot in the big leagues going in to 2012.
It would have been very easy to be one of the 98% who failed, though. There are thousands of ways in which kids go astray from their goals today, whether it's due to apathy, poor coaching, overassertive parents, drug use, behavioral issues, or simply not being honest with themselves about how much they need to improve. And, it's getting worse with every participation trophy that's handed out, and every time that a parent races in to school to contest a grade on a report card.
In the former case, the rewards should be the excitement of competition, the outstanding feeling that comes from being part of a team, the physical activity that comes with participating, and the character development that comes from dedicating oneself to a goal and working toward improvements to make it a reality. What are we saying to a kid when he busts his butt and looks the coach in the eye every time they talk, yet we hand him the same participation trophy that we gave to the kid that shows up late to practice, refuses to pick up equipment, gets in the coach's face, and dogs it through drills?
In the latter case, the parent has missed a valuable opportunity to teach a valuable, yet dwindling characteristic in today's young kids: accountability. When parent could be teaching a kid that "you reap what you sow," instead, he/she instead chooses to show that you can cut corners in life because there will always be someone around to clean up your mess. I'm all for standing up to your kids - but I think a lot of people today need to stand up TO their kids, too.
It isn't just about showing up. It's about genuinely caring about what you do, honestly evaluating where your abilities are, having a passion to become a better person and make the the world a better place, and acting accordingly - while being humble, punctual, diligent, and respectful.
Don't get me wrong; we absolutely, positively need to encourage all kids, not just athletes - and overbearing parents absolutely crush kids' confidence. However, there is a happy medium between the two; I think we do them a disservice when we aren't realistic with them about what it actually takes to be successful. Only then can they appreciate the day-t0-day behaviors and practice they'll need to be successful: the process for their ultimate destination.
Along these lines, over the years, I've had dozens of parents come up to me and say that one of the reasons they love Cressey Performance so much is that young athletes get to interact with and train alongside professional athletes so much. The hard work they see from the pro guys does a better job of demonstrating what level of commitment it takes to succeed better than anything a parent could ever put into words.
I love seeing college and professional athletes involved with clinics for younger athletes, as well as charitable endeavors. It doesn't just help the kids and charities, but also the athletes themselves. It gives them not only a chance to give back and an opportunity to reflect on how far they've come and the hard work it took to get to where they are.
It's important to not just discuss the drive and character it takes to succeed, but give kids visual examples of it. What better day than opening day, when dreams are coming true all over Major League Baseball? It's a great starter to a conversation you ought to have with your kids and the players you coach; why not today?
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For this week's exercise of the week, I had some help from Miami Marlins pitcher and Cressey Performance client Steve Cishek, as well as Stack.com and New Balance Baseball. Check it out:
A lot of folks do lower-level single-leg plyos and bilateral jumping/landing variations, but many folks never get around to combining the two. This is a great option for those looking to take things to the next level. Just make sure you're conservative with box height, for safety sake.
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With football season now officially over, loads of sports fans are now turning their attention to the fact that pitchers and catchers "reported" this week, signifying the start of spring training and a new Major League Baseball season. Truth be told, most college programs will have already started their seasons - and many high school programs will be playing official games - before the big leaguers start having regular season contests.
Unfortunately, with the start of a new season comes injuries...and lots of them. In fact, according to researchers who examined MLB injury statistics from 2002 through 2008, professional baseball players are 10.6 times more likely to get injured in April than they are in September. In other words, they are far more likely to get hurt because they haven't prepared adequately for specificity than because they've had too much specificity.
Think about that for a second. By the time September rolls around, most MLB players have logged 150 games between spring training and regular season play. On a regular basis, they've fouled balls off their feet, gotten hit by pitches, made 100 slides, attempted dozens of diving catches, and sprinted full-tilt when they aren't warmed-up thoroughly after standing around doing nothing for a few innings. Pitchers have logged hundreds of innings, in some cases, and catchers are sick of squatting for hours on end. Yet, guys are dropping like flies in April, when they're supposed to be the most fresh.
There are four legitimate reasons that this is happening.
First, rosters expand in September, so teams can easily keep a guy with a minor injury on the roster without putting him on the disabled list, which would make him "officially" hurt. However, this doesn't explain why August injury rates are still dramatically higher than April's.
Second, the weather is colder - which means it's tougher for guys to stay warm and loose during early season games. This doesn't explain the high injury rates we see in spring training, though, as all games take place in Arizona and Florida.
Third, guys may be ramped up too quickly. Too many swings or throws in a short period of time may be the problem - but this really isn't something that can be changed, as guys need to become game ready, getting their timing, coordination, and mechanics down cold while they've got proper coaching at hand.
Fourth (and this is the main message of this article), guys simply aren't preparing correctly in the off-season with their baseball strength and conditioning programs. They may not be showing up with the right mobility and stability in the right places, or they may simply be waiting too long to start throwing, hitting, or sprinting. This happens all the time at the high school, college, and professional levels.
In the high school ranks, kids may be winter sports athletes, and not pick up a ball until a week or two before tryouts. Or, they may have just lifted weights all winter, but not done enough sprinting or mobility work.
In the college ranks, some athletes will skip throwing and hitting altogether over winter break - and then wind up with issues when they return to campus and ramp up quickly to prepare for the start of the season.
Finally, in the professional ranks, many players simply wait too long to start baseball activities. You can lift all the weights you want, throw medicine balls, sprint, take yoga classes, and participate in any of a number of other general training modalities, but nothing prepares you for being in baseball cleats and hitting, throwing, taking ground balls, or shagging fly balls for hours on end - and doing so every day of the week. It's why I encourage our professional baseball crew to always get started on these things well in advance. Guys might start playing catch as early as Thanksgiving, start hitting off a tee in early December, and start working on defensive drills when January rolls around. And, we'll do movement training - sprinting, change of direction drills, ploys - throughout the off-season. We don't add everything at once; instead, we gradually introduce a more and more baseball-specific stimulus as the off-season progresses so that nobody gets surprised when they show up to spring training; it should feel like a breeze.
So, with anywhere from a few weeks to a few months of your off-season remaining, make sure you're not just getting bogged down in the weight room. Keep in mind that you lift weights to stay healthy on the field and improve performance, not just for the sake of lifting weights. Look for more and more specificity in your programming with increased participation in baseball activities - but not so much that it becomes a "too much, too soon" scenario. And, keep an eye out for the media reporting on loads of hamstrings, hip flexor, adductor, and oblique strains in the months to come, as it's a sign of the season!
1. Regaining lost mobility - This is an incredibly loaded topic that goes far beyond the scope of any blog or article, as it's an entire two-day seminar or book! You see, losses in mobility - the ability to reach a desired position or posture - can be caused by a number of issues - and usually a combination of several of them. Tissues can actually lose sarcomeres and become short after immobilization or significant eccentric stress (as with the deceleration component of throwing). They can become stiff because of inadequate stability at adjacent joints (learn more HERE), protective tension (e.g., "tight" hamstrings in someone with crazy anterior pelvic tilt), or neural tension from an injury (e.g., disc herniation causing "tight" hamstrings).
The "Short vs. Stiff" issue is why you need to have a variety of tools in your "mobility toolbox." You need focal modalities like Active Release, Graston, and ASTYM techniques to assist with dealing with short tissues, whereas you need more diffuse modalities like traditional massage and foam rolling for dealing with stiffness (although both modalities can certainly help in the other regards, this is how I prefer to use them).
You need to understand retraining breathing appropriately and how posture affects respiratory function. If you live in extension, you'll have a poor zone of apposition in which the diaphragm can function. The average human takes over 20,000 breaths per day. If you don't use your diaphragm properly, more of the stress is placed on the supplemental respiratory muscles: sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, pec major and minor, upper trapezius, and latissimus dorsi (to only name a few). What are some insanely common sites of trigger points in just about everyone - especially thrower? Sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, pec major and minor, upper trapezius, and latissimus dorsi. Improving respiratory function can be a complete game changer when it comes to enhancing mobility. If you see a baseball player with a low right shoulder, prominent anterior left ribs, adducted right hip, huge anterior pelvic tilt, and limited right shoulder internal rotation, it's almost always a slam dunk.
You may need low-load, long-duration static stretches to improve length in tissues that have lost sarcomeres. This research has been around in the post-surgery community for decades (1984 research example here), but it's actually not used all that much in strength and conditioning programs - presumably because of time constraints or the fact that most coaches simply don't know how well it can work in the right people.
Finally, as we noted in our Assess and Correct DVD set, you also need dynamic flexibility drills in your warm-ups to reduce tissue and joint stiffness, and subsequent strength exercises in your strength and conditioning program to create adequate stability at adjacent joints to "hold" that new range of motion in place.
Many physical therapist employ heat early in a session to decrease stiffness prior to strengthening exercises, too. The point is that there may be many different ways to skin a cat - but there are also a lot different types and sizes of cat. And, for the record, I don't condone skinning cats; it's just a really gruesome analogy that has somehow "stuck" in our normally very politically correct society. Weird...but let's move on.
2.Improving dynamic stabilization of the scapula - I say "dynamic stabilization" because you don't just want scapular stability; you want a scapula with appropriate tissue length, stiffness, and density to allow for the desired movement. A scapula that doesn't move might be "stable," but that's not actually a good thing!
Truth be told, the scapular stabilizers generally fatigue before the rotator cuff does. And, when the scapula isn't positioned appropriately, the rotator cuff is at a mechanical disadvantage, anyway. Additionally, poor scapular control can present as an internal rotation deficit at the shoulder, as you'll just protract the shoulder excessively in place of internally rotating. In other words, you can do all the rotator cuff exercises you want, but you don't increase strength of the periscapular muscles, you'll be spinning your wheels. There are loads of drills that we use, but forearm wall slide variations are among our favorites:
3. Enhancing global strength while minimizing reactive training - As I've already noted in this series, we're certainly spending a lot of time addressing specific areas of weakness like the rotator cuff, scapular stabilizers, and anterior core. However, I should be very clear that we're still using "money" strength exercises like variations of the deadlift, single-leg exercises, squatting (in some of our guys), pull-ups, rows, push-ups, and dumbbell bench presses to get strong. That said, the volume and intensity come down a ton on the reactive training side of things. We'll give our guys a few weeks off altogether from sprinting, as they've usually done a lot of that all season. Plus, nixing all the sprinting and jumping for a few weeks ensures that they won't tweak anything, given the soreness they'll be working with from the strength training program - and it allows us to increase strength faster.
4. Putting guys in the right footwear - One thing that many folks don't appreciate about playing baseball every day from February to October is the sheer amount of time one spends standing around in cleats, which will never be as comfortable as sneakers or going barefoot. As such, one of the first things we do with most of our guys is get them into a good pair of minimalist shoes for training, as it gets them away from the rigidity, separation from the ground, and ankle mobility deficits that come with wearing cleats. As I wrote previously, I'm a big fan of the New Balance Minimus.
Keep in mind that we ease guys into these minimalist shoe options, rather than throwing them in the footwear 24/7 right away. They'll start out just wearing them during training, and increase from there, assuming all goes well.
5. Normalizing sleep schedules - Professional baseball players (and really all professional athletes) have terrible sleep schedules. Because most games are night games, they generally go to bed around 1-2AM and wake up anywhere from 7AM to 11AM. The early risers I know will usually take a nap before going to the park, whereas the guys who sleep in roll out of bed and go straight to the park. Additionally, much of this sleeping comes on planes and buses, which aren't exactly comfortable places to get quality sleep. I'm a firm believer that one hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight - but this simply isn't an option for professional baseball players.
That said, we try to normalize things as much as possible in the off-season. All our athletes are encouraged to try to go to bed and wake up at the same time - and to hit the hay before 11pm every night. Any naps they can get during the day are a bonus, too!
While I've outlined ten things we address in the early off-season, these are really just the tip of the iceberg, as every player is unique and needs an individual approach. That said, the one general theme that applies to all of them is that we're shifting paradigms - meaning that some things about our philosophy may differ from what they've experienced. Some guys may be accustomed to just "football workouts." Others may have been coddled with foo-foo training programs where they didn't work hard. Some guys ran distances. Some guys crushed the rotator cuffs every day while ignoring the rest of the body.
The point is that it's not just our job to find what we feel is the best fit for these athletes, but also to educate them on why the unique program we've designed for them is a better approach than they can get anywhere else.
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With our professional baseball off-season training crew at Cressey Performance starting to pick up steam, I'm taking today off for a last chance to enjoy summer. I'm taking my grandmother and great aunt to Fenway Park this afternoon. Let's just say that the love of baseball is in my gene pool - so it should be a fun game!
Speaking of off-season training, I wanted to quickly give you a heads-up that Dan Huff and Joe Meglio just released Real Deal Baseball Training, an off-season strength and conditioning program specifically for baseball players, and it's on sale for a very affordable $17.95 through this Friday night.
I'll be honest: I get emails literally every day from people asking me to create a baseball product. While I intend to do so, I want it to be perfect - so I'm constantly tinkering with how I plan to approach it as we make subtle modifications to how we train baseball players of a wide variety of ages and ability levels. Unfortunately, while I've been contemplating things, a lot of baseball players and coaches out there have been using horrendous strength and conditioning programs and techniques. These approaches aren't making them durable and high-performing; rather, they're breaking them down and killing off the athleticism they need.
Dan and Joe can really help in this regard. While this program is considerably different than our approaches at Cressey Performance, that's one reason why I liked it. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and I, for example, actually picked up some new movement training drills that I'll implement with our guys.
The product is completely online, so you can access it immediately. It gives you four months of comprehensive strength and conditioning programs - and includes a handy video database that shows you technique for all the drills in the program. The program also includes a 30-day money back guarantee, in case it's not a good fit for you.
For more information, check out the Real Deal Baseball Training page, where Dan Huff has a video describing it in more detail for you.
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Yesterday was a busy (but fun) day at Cressey Performance, and when I got home around 7pm, I was beat. Luckily, it doesn’t take much energy to check emails, so that’s what I did. This one made my night:
Hey Eric, Just wanted to thank you for helping me out this summer. I've weighed in at 197 the last few days, a 19 pound increase in about 3 months. My fastball has gone up 7-8 mph and I still feel like I haven't thrown the ball near my best yet. Because of the work I put in this summer I now have a legitimate shot to pitch a lot this year after not seeing an inning and getting redshirted last season.Thanks again,John
Pretty cool, huh? These are the kind of emails that make the long days all worthwhile and remind me why I have the coolest job in the world. It gets better, though – as there is a lot to be learned from this specific story.
John – a college pitcher coming off two surgeries in two years on his throwing shoulder, plus a few hamstrings pulls – drove seven hours for his one-time consultation/evaluation at Cressey Performance back in May and then took a program home with him. Then, he drove back to CP at the start of his June and July programs to learn the exercises and check in with us to make sure everything was progressing nicely. That’s some serious dedication (and gas money!).
Just as significant, though, was his ability to embrace change, as our programs were a huge deviation from his previous experiences. His original email to us included this line: “I run 6 days a week, one of my goals between the end of this season and the beginning of next one is to run 1,000 miles.” He didn’t do a single “run” over 50 yards in the entire three month program with us. He also did far more (and longer) long toss in his throwing program than he had previously. So, you could say that he not only embraced a change, but thrived with it.
Change is tough, though. Lots of people read my blogs, hear me speak at seminars, and interact with me on short-term observational visits to Cressey Performance – but only a small percentage of them actually put things into action. Loads of people acquire knowledge, but never act on it.
However, interestingly, when a new client starts up at CP, they stand a much better chance of succeeding with change. Starting (and staying consistent with) a strength and conditioning program is a big undertaking; in fact, for many, it’s as significant as taking on a new job, opening a new business, or learning to play a new sport or instrument. And, when that program is a complete deviation from what you’re expecting, it’s even tougher.
Why, then, do some people succeed with change more than others? I think it has to do with a lot of factors, but these five stand out the most to me:
1. They get those around them involved – John’s dad came along for the ride for his first day at CP – and this is often the case for the parents of our high school athletes. While you don’t want overbearing parents, you do want a support system that’s aware of new goals and can be there to help keep one accountable in the quest for change.
2. They find good training partners and a quality training environment – I had a quick video blog about this yesterday, but I’m convinced that training partners and environment are just as important as an effective program. There are always people to pick you up when you’re dragging, and the energy is contagious. It makes change fun while making it seem like it is actually a “norm,” as training partners are constantly reaffirming what you’re doing and providing encouragement and feedback.
3. They don’t get overwhelmed by changing everything – Sometimes, the easiest way to create massive change is to take baby steps and break the overhaul into smaller components. As I wrote recently, small hinges swing big doors. This has never been my “cup of tea,” but there have been times when we’ve had to slowly change around a program for a client that was accustomed to a completely different school of thought. “One of mine and one of yours” can work for the initial period and help you to gain an individual’s trust before a more thorough transition.
4. They incorporate this change into an existing schema – This is one I originally read in the bookSwitch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath.
To illustrate things, I’ll call upon my own personal experience. Back in 2006 or so, I didn’t think that there was any possible way that semi-private training could work. How could you have clients of all different ages, experience levels, and goals training at the same time without having chaos? My buddy, Alwyn Cosgrove (who, at the time, had just beaten stage 4 cancer for the second time), had some great advice:
Physical therapy is done in group settings. Cardiac and pulmonary rehab are done in group settings. I did pulmonary rehab post-chemo. Seventeen of us in the group and one nurse. That's called semi-private!Chemotherapy is done in a semi-private setting for most cancers, too. My first time through there were ten of us in a room with two nurses. Actually, when I was in the hospital getting chemo it was still semi-private. I had one nurse who covered six rooms.
Now I'm even more convinced. If life saving (and potentially deadly chemotherapy) is done in a small group setting, you're really stretching to tell me that an exercise program has to be one-on-one.
We now do almost exclusively semi-private training, and it’s amazing. Middle school athletes get to watch how the high school guys train. The pro guys get to mentor the high school guys. The adult clients get to know athletes they see on TV on a personal level. Experienced clients introduce themselves to new clients when they start training. Just the other day, one of our local families had two of out-of-town athletes (Colorado and Virginia) over for dinner on Saturday night, and then brought them to church with them on Sunday morning. There is insane camaraderie among folks from all different walks of life.
None of it would have been possible if I hadn’t been able to wrap my head around the idea of semi-private training – and it would have been tough to get to that point if Alwyn hadn’t put the concept into my existing schemas (physical therapy, cardiac/pulmonary rehab/chemotherapy) for me.
5. They spend money – Taking a leap of faith and increasing the stakes can sometimes motivate people to make change happen. Whether it’s a payment for training, or just a bet with friends about exercise consistency or some training goal, separating people from their money always seems to magically increase adherence. People don’t like getting ripped off – and it’s even worse when you rip yourself off because there is nobody else to blame except yourself!
In a recent example, Pat Rigsby, Mike Robertson, and I outline many assessment, training, and business strategies that one can effectively employ in a fitness business in The Fitness Business Blueprint. One of our primary goals in making it the way that we did was to make sure that we made it easier for buyers to apply the changes we recommended; we discussed how to incorporate our ideas seamlessly in their current business strategy. Still, none of these tactics will work is someone isn’t willing to change – and that means putting in some leg work to both set the stage for change and then follow through on it.
This resource is on sale for $100 off through Friday at midnight. If you’re looking to make positive changes in your fitness business – or get one off the ground in the first place – it’s an outstanding way to get the ball rolling. You can learn more about The Fitness Business BlueprintHERE.
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