Weight Training- Early Off-Season Development

Next up in the series of strength and conditioning articles on proper yearly phases is the EARLY OFF-SEASON phase.  Coming off of a FOUNDATIONAL phase (discussed here), which should ideally fall the furthest away from the season, the athletes are now ready to start increasing the load and volume of their movements in the next phase.

Remember, the athletes are still very far away from the season, so it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves.  Continue grooving movement patterns and blend the exercises into a natural progression from the previous phase.  If the FOUNDATIONAL phase lasted 6 weeks and fell into the first available training time following the season, we’re still looking at another 16 weeks at the very minimum before the season gets rolling.

As a quick side note, the easiest way to calculate the length of time spent during each phase is to work backward from the start of the season.  Coming into the first game, the athletes should be at their strongest and most powerful with a relatively low amount of volume (the PEAK phase, which will be discussed in a later post).  4-6 weeks is a good length for the PEAK phase, so working backward, set your LATE, then EARLY OFF-SEASON phases, then your FOUNDATIONAL phase.  While 4-6 weeks is a good starting point for the length of a phase, factors need to be considered such as finals weeks, semester breaks, etc.  The last thing you want is to introduce new exercises or drastically change things in the middle of a break where the athletes aren’t on campus, and you’re unable to explain important cues and points.  There is also no rule saying you have to have 4 or 5 phases, it is all about doing what you think is best.  In fact, immediately after the long winter break, we transition into a quick 2-week LATE LATE OFF-SEASON phase (I won’t include in this series of posts), which essentially just quickly re-solidifies what the athletes have been doing over break.  I feel this is important before moving into the PEAK phase, which is arguably the most important (assuming the previous phases have gone well and according to plan, so that the athletes are surely ready to go).  In my mind, it’s worth taking a simple 2 weeks to make sure the athletes are doing things correctly after they’ve been gone from school for so long.

Before jumping into the details, remember the point of having phases: to lower risk of injury and develop a faster learning curve through exercise progressions, volume/intensity progressions, and intertwining it all into a solid plan leading up to the first game (the IN-SEASON phase will be an eventual post as well).

In case you missed it from the previous FOUNDATIONAL phase post, here is a quick run down of definitions.

ME = Max Effort– Compound, big lifts that require practically the entire body, even if using primarily upper or lower (deadlifts, bench, squats, etc.)

DE = Dynamic Effort– In other words, speed effort (which implies light weight).  Can be used through either body weight or lightly loaded plyometrics (e.g. med ball throws), but also can be used with a particular lifting movement pattern (bench, deadlift, etc.).  To keep speed, stick to 40-80% of Total Intensity, and inversely use 1-5 reps (so 40% for 5, 50% for 4…up to 80% for 1).  Bands can be used for DE either to help accelerate the pattern (e.g. speed band rows on the eccentric component) or resist part of it (meaning toward the end of the motion it will be tougher, but the beginning is light/more of a dynamic effort where momentum can be attained).

SE = Submaximal Effort– Compound lifts, but not possible to achieve the maximum effort exerted in ME.  E.g. Chest Supported Rows, Standing Military Press, Walking Lunges, etc..  Remember that exercises are not exclusive to a particular group.  You can have ME exercises that also act as SE depending on the load or reps.

RE = Repetition Effort– An effort where fatigue is not necessarily the goal, or if it is, many repetitions are needed.  Usually accessory/postural/injury prevention exercises (e.g. face pulls, side-lying shoulder external rotations for the rotator cuff, etc.)

Now that the definitions are out of the way, here’s the What, When and Why of an EARLY OFF-SEASON phase.

What: This phase is devoted to setting up the athlete for the next phase, which will be focused much more on heavy lifting (imperative for strength gains and decreased risk of injury).  It is the “bridge” between body weight/movement exercises and heavy compound exercises.  Volume is kept high (as it should have been increasing throughout your FOUNDATIONAL phase, because remember, you can’t progress with much weight/resistance in the FOUNDATIONAL phase), and toward the end of this phase, the athletes should be ready (or even starting) to lift heavy.

-The exercise selection should contain mostly SE, can progress to some ME, and you can start to introduce DE exercises as well (*note: all phases should contain some type of RE).  This phase is a great time to add eccentrics or isometrics, which have been shown to really increase strength, and can be extremely tough.

-If there is a phase that will cause soreness and lots of fatigue, this is it.  Don’t be overzealous by over training anyone (more on that below), but overreaching becomes necessary.

-Obviously continue progressing off of previous exercises and keep balance…upper body pushes, lower body pushes, upper body pulls, and lower body pulls.  Or, more specifically, a push-up pattern, hip hinge pattern, squat/lunge pattern, and scapular retraction pattern (which are most upper body pulls).  Make the functional core work more difficult (e.g. progress from simple planks to planks with feet elevated, weight on back, limbs moving, or even more advanced core work toward the end such as rollout variations).

When: This phase is still far away from the season, the furthest away besides the previous FOUNDATIONAL.  It is becoming a tad more “sport specific,” but that is still not the goal of this phase.  The athletes get enough specificity from practice at this point, and the main goal is to have them ready to lift heavy weight (the next 2-3 phases) and keep their work capacity from dropping much, if at all.

Why: Since the season is still very far away, you have some leeway to be aggressive in programming.  The high volume and eventual high intensity combination toward the end of this phase shouldn’t be continued for too long because of possible overtraining, but planned overreaches are a big part of what can make this phase a success.

Additionally, and probably the most important point, the athletes will be done with fall ball at this time of year and will be spending less time hitting/throwing/running.  This makes for the perfect opportunity to keep volume high, continue to increase it, and bring up the intensity toward the end of the phase.  At the end of this phase, the athletes should have great work capacity because of the volume, should be starting to lift heavy, and their bodies should be adapting to the soreness that accompanies high volume training, eccentrics, or whatever else is added into this phase (again, this is the time to do it).

That wraps up the EARLY OFF-SEASON phase.  In the next post, we will cover the final developmental phase before moving onto the best of them all, the PEAK phase!

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Weight Training- Foundational Phase

When putting together a solid strength and conditioning program, one needs to know the big-picture approach before being able to focus in on details such as exercise selection, sets/reps, load, and so forth.  This write-up on the FOUNDATIONAL phase will be the first of a series of posts describing important phases in a strength and conditioning program.

First, remember that failing to plan is planning to fail.  All too often I see people (sadly, even some strength coaches) put together programs without very much planning- thinking that essentially randomly performing exercises, even if sets/reps are progressed, will yield good results.  Athletes are probably the worst when it comes to understanding this, because they see it as too simplistic, thinking that just “lifting” or “working hard” will get them good results.  Sure, hard work pays off, but smart work yields a competitive edge.  And the athletes who are following a more organized plan and progression will adapt and learn much quicker.  This both sets them up for achieving great form on every exercise, and lowers their risk of injury in the weight room (and arguably outside of the weight room), since they won’t be performing random movements that will invariably lead to poor technique and faulty movement patterns.  Building strength on top of dysfunctional movement is one of the best ways to either get injured, or get less than average results from the program.

Before getting into the details of a FOUNDATIONAL phase, it’s important to first understand a few key terms and definitions:

ME = Max Effort– Compound, big lifts that require practically the entire body, even if using primarily upper or lower (deadlifts, bench, squats, etc.)

DE = Dynamic Effort– In other words, speed effort (which implies light weight).  Can be used through either body weight or lightly loaded plyometrics (e.g. med ball throws), but also can be used with a particular lifting movement pattern (bench, deadlift, etc.).  To keep speed, stick to 40-80% of Total Intensity, and inversely use 1-5 reps (so 40% for 5, 50% for 4…up to 80% for 1).  Bands can be used for DE either to help accelerate the pattern (e.g. speed band rows on the eccentric component) or resist part of it (meaning toward the end of the motion it will be tougher, but the beginning is light/more of a dynamic effort where momentum can be attained).

SE = Submaximal Effort– Compound lifts, but not possible to achieve the maximum effort exerted in ME.  E.g. Chest Supported Rows, Standing Military Press, Walking Lunges, etc..  Remember that exercises are not exclusive to a particular group.  You can have ME exercises that also act as SE depending on the load or reps.

RE = Repetition Effort– An effort where fatigue is not necessarily the goal, or if it is, many repetitions are needed.  Usually accessory/postural/injury prevention exercises (e.g. face pulls, side-lying shoulder external rotations for the rotator cuff, etc.)

Now that the definitions are out of the way, lets get into the nitty-gritty of a FOUNDATIONAL phase- What, When and Why.

What:  This phase is devoted to “laying a foundation” of perfect form & technique of different movements that the athletes will be learning in upcoming phases.  Since repeating and grooving perfect form is the goal here, overload with volume (sets & reps), don’t emphasize weight, and use eccentrics & isometrics at areas where the athletes may have trouble (e.g. isometric holds at the halfway point of a push-up).  Make sure (as always) to hit every main category…upper body pushes, lower body pushes, upper body pulls, and lower body pulls.  Or, more specifically, a push-up pattern, hip hinge pattern, squat/lunge pattern, and scapular retraction pattern (which are most upper body pulls).  This is also a great time to hit functional core work hard.  For example, neutral spine work and other core exercises where the core is working with other muscles to keep form, such as basic planks, side planks, push-up “negatives” and so forth.

– Mainly SE and RE.  No max effort work, and little to no dynamic effort work unless you feel absolutely necessary.

– Anyone that says this stuff is too easy is simply not being creative enough.  Try doing just 5-10 push-ups with a :05 negative on the way down, and a pause at midpoint, and then tell me  that a foundational phase is too easy.

When: This phase is the furthest away from the season, since it is the least relevant to the actual sport (unless your sport requires slow, body weight movements, and requires no power, explosiveness, or strength).  In the college world, be careful about including this phase in the summer, since it’s important to be there as a coach to refine form & technique.

So for example, a spring sport would ideally have their foundational phase in the fall at the start of the school year.  For a fall sport, this would be as soon as the season is concluded.  This would also depend in part on their hours/regulations in collegiate strength and conditioning.  Another reason it’s important to be present as a coach, is because the athletes can easily cheat the movements (nothing against them, it’s the body’s natural response) by following the path of least resistance, not achieving a full range of motion, or going too fast/using momentum.

Why: To get repetition after repetition of perfect form before loading these movements in the subsequent phases.  Again, strength on top of dysfunctional movement does no good.  The more an athlete does something incorrectly, the harder it gets to break that pattern.  This phase focuses on mainly body weight movements, perfect form & technique, with eccentric emphasis or isometric holding at areas where necessary (especially where the athlete has a tendency to cheat, or is biomechanically disadvantaged).

The season is the furthest away at this time of year, so there’s no need to rush into anything.  At this point, it’s worth taking one step back if that means losing a tad of strength (by not lifting heavy) to take two forward later on, especially since the previous season will have just concluded, and the athletes are both beat up and will have some imbalances due to the amount of time that goes into their sport’s movement patterns (for example, swinging on one side over and over again, or kicking with mainly one leg over and over again).

That’s about it for the big overview of the FOUNDATIONAL phase.  In the next post, I’ll discuss developmental phases- when it’s important and necessary to use higher volume lifting, higher load/intensity, and the accompanying exercise selection to go along with it.

Is the Risk-Reward Worth It (Program Design)?

In talking to an athletic trainer yesterday, he seemed to be under the impression that there are blanket great and blanket terrible exercises.  While there are some exercises that would benefit almost any sports team, and some that probably wouldn’t, there are no inherently good or bad exercises. It’s easy to think things are black and white, but everything depends on two main points- 1) the goals of the program, and 2) whether or not the pros of an exercise outweigh the cons for your situation.

Any type of training is going to have a risk of injury involved, just like any type of practice or game will as well.  However, in a controlled environment, with coaches present and the athletes “aware” of their form and movement, the risk in training should be practically zero.  This risk depends on the program’s exercise progressions, whether the athlete is ready for an exercise or training method, and the athlete’s current state (mobility, fatigue, tightness, “athleticism,” etc.).  The risk of training should never be significantly high, because if athletes are constantly getting injured while training, it doesn’t matter how strong they are!

Lets take the deadlift for example.  The risk-reward all depends on how ready the players are (see the article, Deadlifts for Softball Players?).  We don’t start deadlifting until a large amount of time is devoted to hip mobility, core strength with a neutral spine (so not just crunches and sit-ups), and correct hip hinging patterns.  Once the athletes have sufficient movement to perform a deadlift, the risk significantly drops and you’re left with the reward of a much stronger core, legs/hips, and posterior chain from lifting heavy weight over time (arguably the heaviest possible weight to lift is through a proper hip hinging deadlift pattern).  Deadlifts from the floor on the first day of training are probably not worth it if you have a team with immobile hips (in which case this should be one of the main focuses); instead it may be “worth it” to perform mobility exercises and reinforce that mobility with less aggressive hip strengthening exercises.  What’s the rush?  Is it worth the higher risk of injury?

Remember that trade-offs can also simply include “time.”  Is an exercise worth teaching if it takes the majority of the athletes’ time to learn in the weight room?  Could an athlete get the same benefit from a different exercise, but get twice as much productivity from it because they’re able to perform it right away?  Again, this all depends on the progressions of the program and the athletes’ readiness to handle the exercise.  Throwing them into cleans and snatches on the first day of lifting isn’t necessary “wrong,” but know that a) it is going to take quite a bit of time to get them sufficient, b)  they’re deriving very little benefit from it until they do have sufficient form, and c) your risk of injury with a complex exercise is relatively high if the athletes aren’t ready for it (which most are not on the first day).  If they’re substituting hip extension with lumbar extension, you may be doing more harm than good!  Instead, using hip extension progressions can give them a large training benefit while making the exercise easier when they do arrive to it down the road, if that is part of your goal.  However for softball/baseball/overhead athletes, I agree with Cressey amongst others that cleans & snatches are not worth it from an injury perspective.

Finally, the risk-reward of program design isn’t just about exercise selection, but also volume, intensity, frequency, and other stresses that the athletes are receiving.  Are you having them condition hard 3x per week, practice hard 6x per week, and lift 4x per week?  Then you might want to consider backing “something” off.  What is most important for your sport?  Sometimes fresh practices are the most important, sometimes making huge strength gains are the most important, sometimes it’s a little of both…it all depends on the time of year.  Think about the risk-reward.  Is it your goal to run them into the ground every day? Even if so, where do you draw the line?

You can only “keep adding” so much before risk of injury will increase too.  The goal is to find that line where the players are being overreached and stressed (at appropriate times in the year, of course), but never to the point of training injuries/overtraining.  That is your responsibility as a coach, and that “line” is not very black and white, hence why so little is known about overreaching/overtraining.  The amount of factors that go into this is also very large- nutrition, sleep, recovery, other “stresses,” training experience, and more.  So it’s not just strength and conditioning.

There is definitely a time and place for everything.  Is high volume, heavy training worth it in-season, or even during the start of the year for a spring sport?  Why not progress up to higher volume or heavy training so the athletes are ready for it?  We perform our high volume lifting in the early off-season when the players are only getting a few hours per week of actual practice time (plus whatever practicing they do on their own).  High volume and eccentric training means you’ll be a bit more fatigued and sore, and won’t be 100% physically fresh every day.  However we are willing to make those sacrifices to develop great strength and work capacity, and once the pre-season hits, our volume and frequency drops (only 2-3 lifts per week) and exercise selection changes to accommodate the extra sprinting, throwing, and swinging they will get at practice- since now we’ll be practicing more than 4x per week at a few hours.  Again, it all comes down to whether or not something is “worth it.”

One thing I love about program design and training efficiency is that it helps question other things in our life.  Are things that you do on a regular basis “worth it” to you?  Maybe so on some, and maybe not on others.  Each present moment is the only resource in which we have to act- in designing programs, in practicing, and in our daily habits to improve, so always question, “is this worth it?”

Frontal Plane Depth Jumps

Inspired by a guest post by Graeme Lehman on Eric Cressey’s blog about frontal plane work, I have been wanting to write a quick article that coaches can use for frontal plane power, which is especially important for pitchers.  It was encouraging to see some alternatives that I’ve been using echoed by some of the top coaches in the field, and even by a bit of research to back the theories.

Obviously medicine ball plyometrics are a great transverse plane movement, and a no-brainer in any program.  However Lehmen mentions in his post the importance of frontal plane power in predicting throwing velocity in baseball players (see research in Lehman’s article).  The research showed this to be the most significant factor related to velocity.  And while there are some differences between baseball and softball, the throwing and swinging motions use the exact same rotational movements/muscles.  Additionally, both baseball and softball pitching require staying closed in the frontal plane for as long as possible (flying open in both can lead to control problems, arm problems, and power loss).  Strength and power in the frontal plane are obviously very important, and as this research touches on, the main power sources are (not surprisingly) the legs, hips, and core.

Even more specifically, pitching requires: the single-leg concentric push off and opposite leg eccentric deceleration with the core serving to minimize any energy leaks in the process, occurring primarily in the frontal plane.  Sounds an awful lot like lateral broad jumping!  If you haven’t given Cressey’s above article a read, I suggest at least watching the :07 second video of single-leg lateral jumps.  Even more relevant for power production, depth jumps have been shown over and over to really increase lower body power.  Progressing up to a lateral depth jump could be a very valuable tool for training frontal plane power- arguably one of the most important factors for softball players.

Keep in mind though, that just like any intense plyometric (intense meaning, on the tendons especially), depth jumps can plateau easily and the athlete needs to be ready for them.  So 1) they shouldn’t be overused, and 2) progressions are very important.  The athlete needs to be ready to depth jump before you start them with it immediately.  Remember that even though the athlete is progressing, they are still getting a good training effect from the exercises leading up to the outcome- such as the video above of single-leg lateral broad jumps.  A 16-week progression could look something like:

2 Weeks-  Lateral box drops onto 2 feet
2 Weeks- Lateral box drops onto inside foot (which they will push off once they progress up to the single-leg jumps)
4 Weeks- Single-leg lateral broad jumps landing on 2 feet
4 Weeks- Single-leg lateral broad jumps landing on 1 foot
4 Weeks- SL lateral depth jumps

During the depth jump phase, if performing just 1-2 times per week, you may be able to stretch it up to 8 weeks depending on what else is in the programming.  However 4-6 weeks is a good way to avoid plateauing but still get benefits.  We progress up to depth jumps and milk them mostly during our “Peak” pre-season phase 4-6 weeks before the season starts.  Obviously the late off-season period could be a great time too, and may actually be a better time since the players’ practice volume will still be lower than in the following pre-season practices.  However I still like keeping the depth jumps during the Peak phase and using this time to simultaneously decrease our lifting volume in the process.

When Do You Stop Assessing?

To piggyback this article off of the previous one, “Is the FMS Accurate for Rotational Athletes,” I’ve been led to the question:  should we just skip the FMS altogether?  Won’t there be things that you miss if you eliminate it?  When do you stop assessing?  Let me answer this quickly: the FMS is great- use it or use a similar screen that works for you, but NEVER stop assessing!  I firmly believe that if you never stop assessing, it doesn’t matter what screen you use.

This does not mean using the FMS weekly, but what it does mean is that you’re always aware and making mental notes on how players move.  I would argue that following this protocol would actually be more beneficial than any screen or formal assessment anyway.  Sure there may be some things initially missed, but each and every workout adds to your assessment.  Observing areas of tightness, weakness, and dysfunctional movement of your athletes is a screen in and of itself.  Obviously the dysfunctional movement pattern has the possibility of changing immediately on the spot (if it’s simply an incorrectly grooved pattern), but it may also be due to tightness/weakness issues.  This is why if an athlete can perform the “screen” correctly even if it means a few coaching cues, I am fine with it….because if the workout is part of your assessment*, you’ll be coaching them anyway!  Not to mention that when they come back to the screen for post-testing, they’ll have been coached on many of these movements already.  If they can perform it correctly, you know that it’s not a tightness/weakness issue, but simply a dysfunctional movement pattern.   Now we just need to reinforce that correct movement every single time.  If that’s the case, make note of it and include it in this player’s corrective work or group work.

*It goes without saying here that we’re being smart and not jumping right into deadlifts or power cleans on the first day.  Even if the screen is informal, stick to bodyweight or light weight workouts.  This shouldn’t be a problem since your season is still half a year away.

Watch players’ foot positions, watch their running form every day (do they get little to no scap involvement?  Do they have a large anterior pelvic tilt?), watch their movement patterns in the weight room, and you are getting more valuable information than one day of just screening.  I am not downplaying the importance of formal assessments- again I am a big proponent of having a plan.  But we all know there is no golden standard, so as long as you’re assessing correctly, you can get the majority of your information from watching the players move, and use this to drive your programming/corrective work.

 

Is the FMS Accurate for Rotational Athletes?

When do you stop assessing, and is the FMS accurate for rotational athletes?

First let me say that I am a huge Gray Cook fan (who in their right strength & conditioning mind isn’t?)  I have also been totally on board with the Functional Movement Screen since I had heard about it years ago.  I’ve taken athletes through screens, helped them with their corrective work, and the theory makes absolute sense that movement issues and asymmetries can lead to a higher possibility of injury.

However what happens when you’re a one-sided rotational athlete and you’ve gone through years and years of swinging/throwing repetition on one side of the body?  You are completely destined to have a bit of an asymmetry- especially (and almost always) on the shoulder mobility test.  The next obvious question then becomes, is it beneficial to correct this asymmetry?  Even if it were, is it even possible to correct with the amount of throwing/hitting they will continually perform almost year-round?

I may be wrong here, but my answer is no it’s not worth correcting.  In fact, I don’t think it’s realistically possible unless you really hammered on it.  And if you did somehow correct it, you may hinder the athletes’ performance anyway.  There is, however, a big difference between correcting and managing.  Correcting may not be possible or desirable, “managing” in this context is still a huge gray area…at least for me.

I was recently inquiring a contact at a great DI college sports performance program about this same issue, and when mentioning opposite side medicine ball throws to help “manage” imbalances, she brought up some valid points.  How much do you do?  For how long and at what intensity?  At what time of the year?  I do not have an in-depth answer to these questions (nor will I in any near future), but I do believe that having some kind of plan is possible and is better than doing nothing.

I recall reading a study that college softball players’ injuries are actually the highest during pre-season training (not in-season).  This does make some sense in that they are really ramping up their practice volume.  More throwing, more swinging, more sprinting, plus all of the other physical (and mental) stress they’re getting in the weight room and in school.  Do their asymmetries become exaggerated a bit more during such an increase of rotating volume?  Even if you haven’t done any opposite side rotating work with your team up to this point, I think this becomes necessary from a cost-benefit standpoint.  In other words, it’s worth taking some time to try to “manage” their asymmetries.  How much volume?  How much intensity?  How often?  Those are yet to be answered, but at least we are being proactive and doing something instead of nothing.  Keep in mind the athletes will still get some training benefit anyway by doing the med ball throws, even if they’re opposite-side throws.  In the recent past I’ve scratched (or really limited) the same-side throws in favor of opposite-side throws during the pre-season phase.

Additionally, the postural restoration institute has some interesting breathing and active stretching resources for baseball players, who of course have the same asymmetries as softball players.  This could be one way to “manage” the asymmetry as well (again, I highly doubt it would correct it, but remember that’s a good thing).  I have messed around with some PRI stuff just for the heck of it, but didn’t measure anything.

Finally, if you’re really ambitious, I suppose one way to see what might work and what might not is data collection.  Get their shoulder mobility measurement (who cares about the score for this comparison, just get the inches between each fist) and see if or how it changes during pre-season, in-season, and during your “management.”  You could even split the team in half for a control group.  Maybe that will be a goal of mine this next year, however there is so much more to learn in this context that again, I’d rather stay proactive instead of just leaving things up to chance.

See my next article of this “two-part-series,” When Do You Stop Assessing?

 

Front Squats or Back Squats for Softball Players?

As has been shown over and over, strength is a big component for decreased risk of injury, a necessary base for power, and optimal sports performance (instead of citing studies here, a quick and easy search will give you study after study showing correlations).  So what better to strengthen the legs and core than squats, right?  Squats are an important foundational movement pattern that can be loaded with a solid amount of weight, but what type of squat is best for softball players?

First off, as I touched on briefly in my post about why I Don’t Olympic Lift with softball Players, shoulder instability issues are common, and some players may not even be symptomatic until later on in their careers.  Shoulder instability (especially scapular) coupled with the abduction and external rotation of the humerus on a back squat grip can be a messy combination for softball players.  This position is very similar to that of bringing a ball back in preparation to throw, and being excessively mobile at the shoulder joint (an acquisition softball players will naturally make over thousands of throws in their career) means much less stability.  As I’ve mentioned before, with all of the great tools in a training toolbox, why go with the ones that have some risk?  There are other ways to load a squat pattern besides a back squat grip.

Additionally, Mike Boyle makes a great point in his functional strength coach DVD on back squats.  What happens when an athlete is lowering themselves, and starts to struggle on the way up?  Inevitably they will try to lift their hips faster than their torso, lean forward and turn it into a variation of a good morning/back squat.

(A good morning with the weight of a heavy back squat = not a good combination for the back)

 

Now, imagine on the other hand that an athlete is holding the bar on the front of the shoulder girdle with a front squat grip.  If they start leaning forward too much as they come out of the hole (like the above picture- a common tendency on heavy back squats- though maybe not that exaggerated), they will simply lose the bar as it drops out in front of them on the ground.  This really forces athletes to keep their chest up and drive backwards, recruiting more of the hips and glutes-  important especially in quad dominant females.  However as I’ve also mentioned previously, I don’t always like placing a heavily loaded bar on the front of a softball player’s shoulder girdle (another reason I don’t do Olympic Lifting with them).  With unilateral lifts, such as step-ups, back foot elevated single leg squats (“Bulgarian”) where the athlete can’t load the bar with too much weight, a front squat grip seems perfectly fine, again assuming the load isn’t bothersome.  But what about heavily loading a squat pattern?  We all know the importance of heavy lifting for strength development.

 

ENTER THE GOBLET SQUAT

We’ve had players goblet squat to a box with up to 90 lb dumbbells, so they can definitely be used for a heavy load particularly when considering variations like slow eccentric lifts and isometric pauses.  Similar to a front squat, if an athlete leans forward too much, they will lose the dumbbell, however I have never really seen this happen.  What’s more likely to happen is that they become forced to “sit back” and use more hip and glute recruitment.

(The dumbbell goblet squat grip = great way to get the benefits of a front squat without placing a bar across the shoulder girdle.  Please keep shirt on when attempting! )

 

After nailing down the goblet squat, several variations can be used (single-leg to a box, back foot elevated, etc.) to progress this and keep the athlete’s squat pattern fine-tuned.  Finally, while this may sound like blasphemy, who says squats are vital to a program anyway?  Sure, a squat pattern is an important thing to keep, but it’s not the end of the world if you’re getting most of your lower body strength work through deadlifts and other hip dominant exercises.

So, to summarize:

–          Use front squats sparingly, or use lighter weight with tougher variations (e.g. single-leg back foot elevated) to alleviate some of the load on the anterior shoulder girdle

–          Use heavy goblet squats for your “heavy squat” exercise

–          Make hip dominant lifts like deadlifts and variations, romanian deadlifts, and goblet box squats your primary bilateral lower body strength exercises, especially with female athletes (who tend to be more quad dominant, which may be part of the explanation of their 4-6 fold increase in ACL tears over males).  Knock on wood, but we haven’t had one ACL tear in my time with the team so far.

Softball Weight Training Template

While there are no one-size-fits-all training programs, most good programs will have similar basics.  The basics aren’t in the sets, reps, load, or rest periods, but rather are in the movements.  Balance between muscle groups and performing movements correctly is a good foundation for any weight training program.

Of course, every phase of ours will be different.  Pre-season and in-season lifts will be different from off-season developmental lifts, and agility-focused and plyometric-focused days will be different from strength days.

However the following is a good basic strength template to use for softball players (in order of importance), with these movements spread out between 2-4 sessions per week.

MAJOR

-Hip hinge pattern* (usually a deadlift variation)

-Horizontal pull (Row)

-Single-leg variation

-Push-up variation* (we will not do actual push-ups until I know the athletes can do them perfectly, to actually get some benefit from them)

-Squat pattern

-Vertical pull* (e.g. pull-up variation)

-Pressing variation (usually lower volume since push-ups are also a “press.” I like progressing to dumbbell floor presses since it limits excessive humeral extension that softball players can get with traditional bench pressing)

 

ACCESSORY

-Core work (and I’m not talking sit-ups and crunches- this will be another post)

-Cuff work**

-An extra posterior chain and/or horizontal pull if you’d like

*these exercises especially are where progressions are very important.  For example, if you jump directly into push-ups with an athlete who doesn’t have a good foundation, the exercise will be ugly- no question about it.  And likely very little benefit.  No amount of coaching will cover up an actual physical weakness.  So no matter how much you tell them to keep their elbows and chin tucked on the push-up, they will flare their elbows and reach their neck toward the ground as compensation.  This could be an entire post in itself, however we must be smart and make the athlete successful by giving them something they can perform correctly at first (e.g. push-ups on a raised barbell with perfect form, or eccentric push-ups only- “negatives”).  We don’t progress to actual push-ups until at least 4-6 weeks of working on progressions, sometimes longer.

**during times where we’re throwing/practicing almost every day, we will only do direct cuff work in the weight room maybe twice a week (three at the most).  Remember that throwing IS cuff work!  The rotator cuff’s job is to stabilize the humerus in the ball-and-socket joint, so every throw is working the rotator cuff with a 7 oz ball.  Doing direct work every single day before practice on a group of 5 tiny muscles (the rotator cuff) seems like the overuse risk would override any possible reward…who ever came with this idea and why has it been traditionally accepted without question?

ADDITIONAL NOTES

During some weeks I will just scratch the squat pattern and focus more on the hips, and as throwing increases and the season approaches we will swap the vertical pull for another horizontal pull (row).  Additionally we will scratch the pressing as throwing increases (we’ll keep the push-ups though).

Notice how we don’t have wrist extensions, bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, and other relatively useless exercises in our lift.  Of course, if an athlete has some postural issues, excessive weakness, or excessive stiffness, I will have an individualized pre-warm-up routine for them, and we do get a lot of good mobility and activation in our warm-ups as well.  Otherwise we spend our time doing exercises that will give you the best bang for your buck and get the athletes strong, healthy, and powerful.

Hopefully this post was useful, and if you have other categories that you use in your lifts, feel free to post in the comments below!

Olympic Lifting and Softball Players

Olympic lifts have been shown to be great for athletic development.  Force production, speed, and power can be increased using Olympic lifts.  However what is so special about Olympic lifts?  Are there other modalities that can yield the same type of results?  One main component of Olympic lifting is the benefit athletes get from triple extension- full extension of the hips, knees, and ankles (ideally…if performed correctly).  Additionally, the powerful movement is more associated with the speed/acceleration variable in force = mass x acceleration.  So a high amount of force can be exerted with full lower body extension, specifically of the ever-important hip joint.

I know everyone has different opinions, and I respect those if they have put a lot of thought/studying into those opinions, so mine is just one among many. And that is as follows: there are so many tools in the toolbox, why choose the ones that may have some risk for a certain population of athletes (i.e. softball/baseball players)? Why not choose the ones that have virtually no risk, but still get damn close to the same benefit? What are those risks you say?

THE UPRIGHT ROW

First, the upright row is not something I want to mess around with softball players, primarily because it excessively internally rotates the humerus into the classic “empty can” position traditionally used in rehab settings but becoming a popular contraindicated exercise because of the impinged position of the rotator cuff.  The upright row is obviously a necessary component of cleans.

DIRECT OVERHEAD WORK

Think of a big, stiff, powerlifter, who is built like a house and can throw just about anything over his or her head with rock solid shoulders…that stiffness in the shoulder joint is usually the exact opposite of what softball players develop throughout their lives.  As we know, more mobility usually means less stability, and vice versa. The trick is to find a good balance of both. Additionally, usually college players have a) played their entire life, which can lead to bony growth changes around the shoulder socket to allow for better mobility to throw a ball hundreds and hundreds of times every summer, b) are very congenitally lax (especially females), and c) one of the rate limiting strength factors in females, generally, is upper body strength. So it may not be the safest to throw heavy weight over the heads of softball players. Here is a great Cressey talk on overhead athletes and overhead pressing:

Snatches & Jerks = direct overhead approximation stress.  Traction stresses, on the other hand…pull-up variations, med ball overhead throws, etc. are great.

 

ANTERIOR SHOULDER INSTABILITY

This one is a no brainer that is obvious from the above examples.  While I love front squats, and we will do them at times during the year, the bar is pushing directly down on a bit of an already unstable shoulder.  Usually I prefer doing dumbbell goblet grip work instead of front squats, or I will just give the players the option: if front squat grip hurts their shoulders, grab a dumbbell and do a goblet grip (see my article Front Squats or Back Squats for Softball Players).  The catch on cleans results in an aggressive punch and landing on the anterior shoulder, which is great!  …That is, if you’re a football or basketball player with solid shoulder stability…

Football, soccer, basketball, track, etc. would be a perfect fit for Olympic lifts.  Relatively little risk and a great reward.  Softball and baseball players on the other hand have issues that lead me to perform movements very similar to Olympic lifts, only without the risks.  Kettlebell swings, jump shrugs, medicine ball “pull through” throws, squat jumps, speed deadlifts, and more, are all great alternatives to use for softball players.

Deadlifts for Softball Players?

Deadlifts often times scare coaches because a) to be performed correctly they require lots of coaching b) the athletes are picking up a bar off the ground that is very heavy (at least should be if you want to get benefits from the deadlift), and c) you always hear about people hurting their back doing deadlifts (most likely when performed incorrectly).  So, are they worth doing with softball players?  If an athlete has been progressing up to the deadlift via other exercises, is being coached on how to correctly perform the deadlift, and has sufficient hip mobility to avoid lumbar flexion, then I will answer this emphatically with two words: HELL YES! As Gray Cook (one of the most knowledgeable coaches in the world) says, it’s one of his favorite exercises for the core and hips…two vital areas for softball players.

Furthermore I’d rather find out down the road that I am wrong about something I’m being proactive with because I really believe in it, rather than avoiding it out of fear.  Now obviously with this statement, one has to use logic as well.  I don’t do traditional Olympic Lifts with my players, so one can rightfully ask: isn’t that “living in fear” instead of being proactive and trying something? My answer is, no- not if I already believe that it’s probably not worth it (see my philosophies on Olympic Lifting).  The deadlift does not fall under that category.

A junior and senior from our 2012 record setting team each pulled 295 lbs. on a 1 rep deadlift max.  “Unofficially” over the summer of 2011, one of those athletes pulled 315 lbs. (when she was really focusing on maximum strength).  This player, a second basemen slapper at a body weight probably somewhere near 130 lbs, led the conference in stolen bases and was near the top of the conference in batting average and runs scored.  The other player led our team in home runs.  A senior pitcher who pulled 240 lbs. was our ace and had her best year in college.

Now, do these kids pull heavy amounts of weight because they are great athletes, or does pulling heavy weight lead to becoming great athletes?  My answer is, if there’s a correlation between strength and performance*, then who cares?  Get them stronger either way.

When we are talking strength, we are not talking 10-12 reps of little pink dumbbells.  We are talking getting your butt over a bar loaded with a ton of weight, and picking it up off the ground with perfect form, using the glutes, hips, core, and even lats and lower traps.  Most people reading this will know, but correct technique is A MUST.  I hate hearing about herniated disks and strained lower backs due to terrible deadlift technique.  Players need to progress up to this point, and if you do start using deadlifts, and they still can’t straighten their back when getting down to the bar, then do something about it…for example raise the bar with bumper plates stacked underneath or do rack pulls.

 

*A quick and easy search shows numerous studies pointing toward yes, strength helps big time.  Here is just one on the effects of throwing velocity when increasing strength- Derenne C, Ho KW, Murphy JC. Effects of general, special, and specific resistance training on throwing velocity in baseball: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 2001 Feb;15(1):148-56.