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Preseason Training for College Baseball

Hammer, Eric MA, CSCS, USAW

Strength & Conditioning Journal: April 2009 - Volume 31 - Issue 2 - p 79-85
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31819d6c31


University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

Eric Hammer is the assistant director of Olympic Sports Performance at the University of Louisville.



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With the speed and the nature of the game, it is no surprise that collegiate baseball players need to be trained annually in a manner that will improve their quickness, strength, power, and speed in all planes of movement (15). With pitchers throwing between 86 and 90+ mph and position players routinely running home to first in 3.9-4.4 seconds, movements require great power, efficiency, and rate of force development (RFD) to compete at the collegiate level. From a short-stop to a closing pitcher, strength, power, and RFD play a crucial role in an athlete's ability to be competitive (14).

When evaluating the game of baseball, 3 general physical characteristics come to mind. First, baseball is a sport that is ground based, meaning all movements that are produced are done so with 1 or 2 feet applying force to the ground. The more force an athlete can apply against the ground, the faster they will accelerate, the higher they will jump, and the more effective they will be at the game. Strength training exercises should be chosen to enhance this ability to generate force. Squatting, single leg and double leg, as well as plyometric and sport-specific agility drills are effective in achieving these means.

Another physical characteristic of the game of baseball is that movements are multiplane movements. An infielder can move in the sagittal plane (charging for a ground ball) while also moving in the transverse/frontal plane (rotating his shoulders and throwing to first base). Resistance training should incorporate exercises and movement patterns that develop strength and efficiency in each plane. Movement training should emphasize acceleration (force production), deceleration (force reduction), and agility (change of direction skills) because these have the greatest impact on sports performance.

A third physical characteristic is that all movements are multijoint movements. No single body part works in isolation during movement. The muscles, joints, and proprioceptors work synergistically to produce complex movements. Running, jumping, and throwing all require multiple joint actions timed in synchronized neuromuscular recruitment patterns. Because the goal is to maximize function and overall performance of the collegiate baseball players, integrated movements, not individual muscles, should be trained.

On further investigation into the demands of the game, linear speed, first-step acceleration, and rotational power are 3 other important specific characteristics that baseball players must possess (2, 13). Linear speed is simply what scouts and coaches are looking for when they recruit. Speed is the product of stride length and stride frequency. In other words, coaches want to know how explosive and efficient a player can move in a straight line is (13). Coaches are looking for times of 3.9-4.3 seconds from home to first base and 3.1-3.3 seconds in a steal attempt of second base. Speed has so many advantages both offensively and defensively for teams (15).

First-step acceleration is an attribute that separates the good players from the rest and can be defined as a rapid reaction to a given stimulus. It determines if an outfielder will track down a ball hit in the gap, whether or not a short-stop will make a diving play up the middle, or if a third basemen will make the play on a bunt hit down the line. Last, rotational power, more specifically transverse plane movement, utilizing multiple joints as efficiently and explosively as possible is an element of the game that all players need to be able to produce to throw and hit well (14).

In addition to the above-mentioned physical attributes of players in today's game, there are 3 specific strength qualities baseball players need. They are speed-strength, starting strength, and reactive strength (elasticity). Speed-strength can be defined as the ability to apply force with speed or the ability of the neuromuscular system to produce the greatest possible impulse in the shortest possible time (7). Speed-strength is power (p = fd/t). Examples include hitting, throwing, and running.

Starting strength, according to Hatfield (7), is associated with speed-strength and can be defined as your ability to instantaneously excite muscle fibers or the ability of the muscles to develop force before external movement (12). Starting strength is developing the greatest possible force in the shortest possible time. A prime example of starting strength is a pitcher throwing a fastball.

A third strength quality a baseball player must have is reactive strength or elasticity, which is the ability to change quickly from an eccentric action to a concentric action. An example of this would be a short-stop going into the hole toward third base for a ground ball, coming up with a backhanded stop, stopping all his momentum, planting his right leg, and throwing to first base. The objective throughout training is to train the central nervous system (CNS) in the context of the variables described above to minimize injury, improve the physical attributes of each player, and in the end, train the brain and the body to produce movements more efficiently, effectively, and explosively.

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In order for athletes to gain the size, strength, and power, it is necessary to design a baseball-specific annual training program that encompasses the entire year (11). In general, the annual plan for a college baseball player begins in June or July depending on how far the team goes in postseason play and how much time is allowed off from training at the end of the long season. The first phase in the annual plan is the postseason phase. Active rest followed by general strength training and conditioning usually characterizes this phase, which can last for 4-8 weeks (4,11).

The true off-season phase of training begins on their arrival back to campus from active rest and can last up to 14 weeks and leads us up to NCAA Discretionary Period and academic finals in December. Off-season training is composed of 2 mesocycles, the first of which consists of two 4-week microcycles taking players through fall ball. During this time, players should be focusing on developing strength and work capacity. Work capacity can be thought of as general physical preparedness. The second mesocycle, post fall ball, consists of two 3-week microcycles, where sports performance is the main priority. Because players are not involved in team practice, the emphasis shifts and now focuses on power, speed, and strength development.

Preseason begins during academic finals and extends through mid-February. It is a 10-week mesocycle comprising one 4-week microcycle and one 6-week microcycle. Training priorities remain power, speed, and strength in that order for the preseason. Finally, in-season mesocycles last from mid-February through May or June depending on the team's performance. Emphasis for training during the 56+ game schedule is to maintain strength and power gains made in the off-season and preseason and to peak for postseason play.

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My philosophy in regard to training our baseball players is directed toward gaining size, strength, and power utilizing a concurrent conjugated method of periodization. Conjugated periodization simply means to combine. Combining different methods of deadlifting, squatting, bench pressing, medicine ball throwing, plyometrics, and linear and lateral movement mechanics and drills during the same program to produce strength, speed, and power can assist in injury prevention and strength, power, and speed gains from August through June (14). I used 3 methods of training including maximal effort (ME), dynamic effort (DE), and repetition effort (RE). Table 1 shows a weekly rotation of methods and movement patterns.

Table 1

Table 1

It should be noted that my philosophy does not include weightlifting. It is my opinion that weightlifting and associated lifts do not have a place in the training of the college baseball player, although researchers such as Garhammer (6) and Baker (1) have stated that power production during weightlifting is significantly higher than that with traditional squatting, deadlifting, or bench pressing. If one of the best players is injured, there is most likely not another player on the bench of the same talent who could replace him. Due to the limitations of scholarships in collegiate baseball, the number of highly talented players on 1 team is scarce. Therefore, the ability to increase power through weightlifting is outweighed by the risk of potential injury. Plyometrics and medicine ball movements, which elicit power and are less risky than weightlifting (without the catching of the bar), can be safely implemented with baseball players. Some other reasons for excluding weightlifting into a baseball-specific program include (a) the majority of all movements within the game of baseball are done in an explosive manner in multiple planes, where the weightlifting and associated lifts are done in the sagittal plane. Power development exercises performed with medicine balls or the player's own bodyweight can utilize multiple planes of motion and produce a more sport-specific movement pattern. (b) Another precaution with training the baseball athlete is that the shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints are very important in regard to anything within the sport of baseball, and any lack of flexibility, mobility, or stability in those joints can hinder an athletes' ability to properly rack a clean or snatch and could injure any one of those joints. (c) Most baseball players come into college with a low training age and to work them through a weightlifting progression is too time consuming and not sport specific. Whereas taking an athlete through a progression of plyometric and medicine ball exercises is less time consuming, their learning curve is much faster, and they can apply those movement patterns and mechanics to the game of baseball.

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As stated earlier, our preseason is 10 weeks long and consists of 2 mesocycles, preseason A and preseason B. Preseason A is 4 weeks in duration and takes place during the student-athletes' Christmas vacation. It primarily consists of a conjugated design that emphasizes strength-speed (55-90% loads). Using a conjugated method of training allows me to “surf” up and down the force-velocity curve within the daily and weekly training, which provides ample variety to the program, rather than training for 1 variable at a time. Total body lifts are performed on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday lift schedule with a Tuesday/Thursday speed and agility plan.

Priorities in the weight room consist of strength-power, whereas my on-field training focus is on starting speed and short intervals that tax the anaerobic ATP-PC system that lasts 0-6 seconds. This phase of training follows a traditional cycle of 3-week progressive overload and 1-week deload as stated and used by Kenn (9) and Plisk and Stone (11). The first 3 weeks are progressed in volume, load, and relative intensity (effort) usually by 3-6% each week. In the fourth week of training, the volume is decreased by 40-50%, but the load and relative intensities are still increased by 3-6% from the previous week (Table 2).

Table 2

Table 2

For all phases of training, Prilepin's chart (Table 3) is used to determine volume. The chart takes into consideration both ME and DE lifts. For each range of training percentage, you are given the number of repetitions (reps) per set, and the total volume either a low, optimal, or high variation (3). Preseason A: in week 1, low volume will be used compared with week 3 where high volume is utilized. The fourth week will be set at low volume once again.

Table 3

Table 3

When designing programs for sports like baseball, a modified version of Kenn's tier system (9) in that a 3 × 4+ training program is implemented. This means that we will workout 3 times per week and we will have 4 tiers or blocks plus postwork. On the same line as the tier system, block A is the foundational movement pattern that is emphasized on that day. Block B is used as a DE or RFD block, and blocks C and D are major and minor assistance work blocks (9). With off-season phases, workouts always start with a foundational strength movement such as a lower-body push or pull (front squat or Romanian dead lift) or a upper-body push or pull (bench press or pull-up) variation and then move to an explosive movement pattern in block B that utilizes different movement patterns and muscles in contrast with block A. For example, if block A is a lower-body push variation (front squat), block B will be a dynamic upper-body push or pull variation (DB bench or barbell row). For this preseason A phase, I will keep that same program design, only I will pair an explosive movement pattern with a foundational strength movement in block A. Examples of blocks A and B would be a depth jump to vertical jump paired with a squat variation in block A and explosive pause floor press in block B. According to Newton and Kraemer (10), if we are to optimize training in regard to power, then we have to incorporate exercises that train both strength and explosiveness of our athletes.

Jans et al. (8) stated that complex and contrast training offers several benefits when implemented into training including variety and stimuli needed for progression. In contrast to the tier system, blocks C and D are supersets of 3 exercises that make up major and minor assistance exercises for the phase. In the off-season, there is more of a focus on gaining size and strength using the RE and modified ME methods of training. This is where single-leg and/or single-arm push-pull movement patterns are generally implemented.

Within preseason A, however, DE is added to RE and modified ME methods to continue a quest to gain size, strength, and now power within this cycle. This also specifically prepares the athletes for the heavy demands of strength training they will incur when they arrive back to campus. See Table 4 for the exercise selections for this phase of training. Objectives with preseason A are adherence, strength, power, and speed maintenance. This is a critical time of the overall annual plan when the team is away from campus for a long period and can take 5 steps forward or backward depending on how much effort each athlete puts into training on their own. Coming back to campus after the Christmas holiday, we begin preseason B.

Table 4

Table 4

In this period, we award our Iron Cardinal award based off of a performance index and our battery of testing that we perform during the last week of preseason. Points are awarded for weights lifted, heights jumped, and speeds ran on a 10-point scale. Recognition is then given to the top 10% of the team; once awarded, the names go on a recognition board in our weight room for 1 year and they receive an award shirt. Since implementing this award, our motivation and drive to get better have increased, not only for our baseball team but also for the other sports our staff trains.

Preseason B focuses on speed-strength (35-75% loads) and modified maximum effort movements at or above 90%. Even though the focus is mainly on speed-strength in this phase, this is the time of year when baseball players need to be prepared for competition. Preseason is the time for our athletes to be their strongest and most explosive. Preseason B microcycles are similar to those of preseason A for the first 4 weeks. A pretest is incorporated in week 5, which allows the athletes to acclimatize to heavy weights to prepare them for our test week in week 6. Volume in week 5 is higher than that in week 4 but is lower than that in week 3 of this cycle (Table 5). For the foundational exercises, cluster training is implemented; this method can be thought of as interval training with weights.

Table 5

Table 5

Utilizing a rest-pause routine, the athlete performs a prescribed number of reps and then rests for a short interval after which he performs another prescribed number of reps. This is continued 2-4 times in each set. Cluster training prepares the CNS and the muscles to set and brace against heavy loads in a repeated manner. Other notables in week 5 are that blocks C and D are shortened to 3 and 2 sets of work, respectively, and all postwork is taken out. Week 6, our testing week, uses a Monday through Thursday training schedule to get all our testing done with our players. The rest of the week is used as a reload week preparing them to start in-season training that following Tuesday.

For preseason B, I continue to follow a modified 3 × 4+ tier system program with a few changes. First, this is a speed-strength emphasized training block, for which Prilepin's chart (Table 3) is followed. Prilepin rep schemes are based on having explosive speed on every rep in every set. Increasing the reps at a specific load (%) will have a negative effect on power production (2). Second, blocks A and B are rearranged to put more emphasis on speed-strength. Monday becomes a DE squat variation in block A, whereas in the past (off-season), it was a modified ME deadlift variation or a single-leg push variation. Wednesday is now a DE upper-body pull variation compared with an ME upper-body push variation. Friday is the only day of training where a DE movement is not used in block A. The ME squat variation is continued as a foundational movement and paired with an explosive movement similar to preseason A. Third, it is in this phase that accommodating resistance, in the form of chains and bands, are added to the DE lifts such as squat and bench press to optimize our RFD.

Rest intervals are shortened from 60-45 seconds in the off-season to 45-30 seconds in the preseason during DE lifts to challenge the athletes' CNS recovery and power production as long as they are achieving their goals for each rep. Block B now becomes a strength-based block rather than a RFD block during this phase on Monday and Wednesday and are paired with a ballistic specific movement pattern with medicine ball resistance that will be used on the field. For example, our hitters will perform a hitter stance rotational chest pass after each set of ME bench press block. This allows the integration of the legs, core, and arms into an explosive movement pattern. Our pitchers perform medicine ball rotational chest passes out of a pitcher's stretch position before performing a push-up circuit. Like the hitters, this allows them to transfer power from their legs through their core and into their arms.

Preseason B focuses on speed-strength (power) training. Both 1 repetition maximum power and elasticity are trained by performing traditional exercises along with plyometric and medicine ball exercises. For example, performing 6 sets of 2 box squats with 3 × 3 reps of a standing long jump to chest pass with a 12- to 16-pound medicine ball and 3 × 10 each side reps of hitter stance rotational side throw against the wall with a 2- to 6-pound ball. This paired block utilizes both power and elasticity (Table 6).

Table 6

Table 6

To optimize RFD in our final preseason phase, I believe that the athlete should have immediate feedback during the DE lifts. The addition of the TENDO Fitrodyne Powerlyzer (Fitro-Dyne; Fitronic, Bratislava, Slovakia) to our facility has allowed us to measure bar velocity and power output immediately with our athletes. The device attaches to the bar and records power output and velocities. After each concentric rep is completed, the device provides the athlete/coach feedback as to how fast or powerful that rep was performed. After using the device with our athletes and tracking working sets during off-season training and speaking with other strength coaching professionals, athletes are provided with individual goals to meet with average velocity during DE lifts (0.7-0.82 m/s) and during modified ME lifts (0.3-0.45 m/s) depending on the individual.

With peak velocity, goals are assigned based on baseline data collection on both DE and ME methods for week 1 and then each following week based on the previous week. For example, if we are performing 8 × 2 during week 1, our athletes are asked to achieve or surpass their peak velocity goal for 4 of the 8 sets. In week 2, the goal velocity increases by 1-3%, also with an increase in the number of reps needed to be at or above their goal. The same adjustments are made for week 3. In week 4, we will still have goals to meet, except our volume will be lowered by 40-50%. During week 5, our pretest week, goals are not assigned, rather all sets are recorded and compared with our testing the following week. This helps determine how effective our training was and to see if they were peaked a week early.

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The goal of the college preseason training program is to transition from the maximal strength building off-season, peak the player's power and strength development, and prepare them for the “power maintenance” phase of the competition season (5). The focus of the preseason phases is to have the players perform exercises that develop strength-speed and then speed-strength. With so much emphasis placed on winning in today's sports world, strength and conditioning coaches must be wise in their program design.

If the best player on the team gets hurt while strength training, for example, this may affect the team's overall winning record because that player is not on the field contributing in a positive way. If this occurs, there is the real threat to losing a job due to unwise exercise selection that could potentially injure players.

It is recommended that exercises performed during the preseason be selected based on 2 variables. One is for sport-specific power and the other is that the exercise will not place the athlete in any position that may be too risky or dangerous and possibly cause injury (14). Players need to be healthy and powerful to have an opportunity to be successful. Exercises performed during the preseason should be progressions from the off-season exercises where the focus is on the RFD (explosiveness) during the concentric muscle action. This can be achieved through the use of this concurrent conjugated periodization program where both power and strength training are implemented.

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preseason; baseball training; strength; power; program design

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