What is a “Big League Body?”
Written on July 8, 2015 at 11:24 am, by Eric Cressey
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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