Pitching Strength Training

By Mike Griffin, former K.C. Royals strength coach

Baseball is a power sport consisting of many short powerful bursts of energy. As more research is continually being done to develop and increase these powerful burst of energy, strength training has never been more important in the game of baseball. Nearly every major league baseball team has a full time strength and conditioning coach and many of these organizations have a strength and conditioning coach for each of their minor league affiliates. Most major college baseball programs have a strength and conditioning coach. But how does this affect you and why is strength training more important to you than it ever has been before? It’s more important because your opponents are getting stronger and faster. Is there a better reason than that?

But what actually happens when you start strength training? Your body will make several adaptations at the cellular level when you begin your strength training program. Your nervous system and your actual muscles will both adapt in different ways.

Your nervous system undergoes the first change. At the beginning of a strength program, you will see rapid strength gains but you won’t see much change in your muscles size. In an untrained person, the nervous system only recruits as many muscle cells as it needs. When you body is pushed farther than it has been pushed before, your nervous system realizes that more muscle cells are needed to complete the activity so it will recruit more muscle cells. This process will occur until all the muscle cells have been recruited.

After all the muscle cells have been recruited, the muscle cells have to adapt. They adapt by growing larger in diameter. No new muscle cells are made but your existing cells grow larger. This is the process that your body goes through as you get stronger.

But how does this help you? Your goal isn’t to get bulky. The goal in this process isn’t to get bigger or look better. The bottom line is this: baseball players need to be faster, more powerful, be in better condition, and to reduce injuries. Strength gains will help each of these aspects of baseball.

Many people talk about speed in baseball, but what type of speed are they really looking for? Speed in baseball is a bunch of relatively short sprints and the most important part of short sprints is the initial acceleration. In physics, acceleration is defined as “acceleration = Force/mass.” The key to strength training for speed is to increase the force that the body can use. The more force applied to the ground will increase your acceleration, meaning you get to that ball in the hole.

What about power, is baseball really a power sport? If you don’t think it is, you tell me some important moves in baseball that aren’t powerful. The two most important movements in baseball are the throwing motion and the swing. Even if you aren’t throwing a ball as maximum velocity, you are still hurling a ball at 60, 70, even 80 miles per hour. That takes a lot of power. The same physics equation can be applied to these powerful movements. You are trying to maximize your bat speed or throwing velocity. In each case you are trying to accelerate the bat or ball. To increase the velocity of either of those, you have to increase the force. (The equation for power is slightly different than the equation for acceleration but has the same basic principle.)

It makes sense that speed and power can be helped by strength training but how can being stronger help conditioning. We should define conditioning in terms of baseball. Many people think conditioning means you should be able to run farther or longer, but how does that help a baseball player? Rarely does a baseball player need to run farther than 90 feet or throw a baseball many times in a row with no rest. A baseball player needs to be able to do these movements powerfully and then recover so they can do them again without a decrease in the power. If a player is stronger, his bat will feel lighter, which not only allows him to increase his bat speed but it also means that it is easier for him to swing. If it is easier to swing then he’ll have more energy to swing at the next pitch. Sure it’s only a tiny difference but tell me what the difference is between hitting a ground ball and a line drive. We’re talking centimeters and millimeters.

Here is another illustration: “Joe” can squat 200 pounds only one time. He goes to the weight room and works out hard for 8 weeks. No running at all. He keeps working hard and getting stronger and after 8 weeks he tries to see how much he can do. Now he can squat 200 pounds 7 times. Is he stronger or in better condition? He increased the amount of times he could do it which sounds like many people’s description of getting into shape. Or is he stronger so now it is easier to do it and he can now do it many more times? Baseball players need to perform powerful movements, like a squat, and repeat them many times. That is what baseball conditioning is about.

If none of the previous aspects of strength training appeal to you, this one should. A well designed strength program will reduce the chance of injury. Many injuries occur when someone has a muscle imbalance so another part of the body has to compensate. When it compensates for something, another body part has to compensate for the initial compensation. It’s a long cycle that many times ends in an injury. Some examples of muscle imbalances are quadriceps/hamstrings and chest/back. A well designed strength program should address that type of imbalance and make sure the body is balanced and aligned correctly. Your body being in balance will not only reduce the risk of injury but it will also improve performance. Increased performance while reducing risk of injury is the most important thing any strength program can do.

Not all strength programs are the same. While a well designed program can reduce the risk of injury, a poorly designed program can increase the risk of injury. When you are looking for someone to be a strength coach or to design a program, several things should be considered. Look at the person’s experience. Degrees and certifications are great but see what type of experience the person has. Has he/she worked with a collegiate or professional team? Has he/she played sports, specifically baseball or softball? Who else have they coached? Just because a coach lifts weights does not qualify him or her as a strength and conditioning coach. Take your time to find a qualified professional. Don’t settle for less.


 

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