By Darren Fenster / For USA Baseball Online Education Center
Over the past couple decades, baseball-specific strength and conditioning has taken on a number of different looks. What started in the local gym with bench presses and bicep curls has morphed into training designed to help develop the very specific athletic skills that are unique to baseball players.
Years ago, just the thought of lifting weights for baseball players was met with ridicule and scorn, with the sentiment that it was something that would have a negative impact on the diamond by creating bulked-up and stiffed-out bodies unable to move and play the game. Today, the thought of players NOT working out is met with a similar ridicule and scorn, but only for the missed opportunity that a well-thought strength and conditioning program can add to a baseball player’s ability on the field.
For older players, high school age and above, there are countless facilities, trainers, and programs that can truly help take the player’s individual ability on the diamond to another level of great. But it’s not just plans written by strength and conditioning professionals that can create better athletes for the diamond. On a very simplistic level, just playing sports outside of baseball - at any age, but especially prior to high school- offers incredible benefits when it comes time to return to the ballpark.
We live in an era of sport specialization, with kids choosing to play just one sport before they have even reached middle school. Nearly extinct is the three-sport athlete, while those who play two are quickly becoming an endangered species.
Different sports each require a different type of athleticism, which, when all combined, create better overall athletes. In the fall, the dexterity with the feet needed to play soccer will directly help on the baseball field with so many parts of the game built from the ground up with proper footwork. On the football field, skill positions like quarterback, tight end, wide receiver, defensive back, or safety call for the ability to be quick and agile on their feet either to chase or evade, with the athleticism baseball players can use to play defense or steal bases. Come winter, the basketball court provides a means to become yet another different type of an athlete, explosive when shooting or going after rebounds. Throwing and hitting are both explosive actions in nature, so when the body becomes explosive to do one thing, it can easily become explosive when doing something else.
Play long enough, develop well enough, and there will be plenty of time for a kid to spend all of their days dedicated to one sport. But before that time comes – which shouldn’t be until high school - few things can benefit one sport more than competing in another.
When it comes to training for baseball, in a similar manner that the athleticism of one sport crosses over to the others, the specifics of a strength and conditioning programs will reap the most benefits when built specifically for the position played on the baseball field. But before we get on the diamond, to understand the need and benefits of unique training with an end goal in mind, let’s take a look into two “old school” methods of strength and conditioning: heavy lifting and distance running.
A lineman in football is required to block for their quarterback and running back, so the bigger they are, they better they will be at their respective jobs. Their workouts are a reflection of what they need to be able to do at that specific positon, so their programs may have a focus on maximum strength and size gains by throwing up as much weight as humanly possible. Have you ever seen a professional baseball player with a body that looks like that of an NFL lineman? Neither have we. So maybe lifting the heaviest weights possible for the sake of lifting heavy weights might not translate very well onto the diamond.
For a marathon runner, long distances are the staple of them being able to successfully and rapidly run 26.2 miles. Yes, there is definitely value to being in great physical shape in any sport, but have you ever seen a professional baseball player with a body like that of a marathon winner? Neither have we. So maybe running cross-country like Forrest Gump might not translate very well on the baseball field.
A lineman’s end goal is to block with massive size and strength. A runner’s end goal is to go for hours on end at the quickest pace possible. A baseball player’s end goal? To become a good baseball player who can hit the ball harder, get to the ball quicker, throw the ball firmer, and run the bases faster.
The individuality that each position and each player on the baseball field carries calls for individualized programs. One size does not fit all. A catcher is in a squat all game, so building up the lower half with exercises like squats and deadlifts will enable them to get through the long season, while lunges can help them keep the flexibility needed to move as athletically as the position requires. Pitchers naturally have to take care of their arms, but have to do it carefully, more so with band work and light dumbbells than maxed out shoulder presses above the head, all while building a strong foundation with their lower half, the true base from which velocity comes. A speedy infielder’s focus should be on gaining strength while improving quickness and agility, and a bigger bodied power hitting outfielder can design workouts with more of a power element than an emphasis on speed.
Instead of putting everyone under the same umbrella, determine which guys need what based on who they are as players. Do that, and enjoy the results that will follow from catering to their individual needs. Don´t do it, and progress will be much slower since many specific needs of the individual won’t be met. But no matter what you decide to do, ask yourself if you are creating a workout program that is just going to make you look good, or one that is going to make you a better baseball player. Remember with that end goal in mind, you are not working out to look good on the beach, but rather working out to look good as a player on the baseball field.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Online Education, and is currently the Manager of the Boston Red Sox Class A Affiliate Greenville Drive. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.