The Importance Of In-Season Strength Training For Pitchers

Sorensen Disrupts The Current Pitching Model

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Dana Sorensen graduated from Stanford as a three-time All-American, four-time All Pac 10 player who led the Cardinals to two Women’s College World Series. She pursued a Master’s Degree in Exercise Sport Science at the University of North Carolina. During that time was named to the USA National Team and was a member of the Gold medal team. Sorensen spent several years coaching at the collegiate level at UC Davis and Oregon State. She is certified in Strength & Conditioning, Kettlebell, Functional Movement Screen, and Functional Movement Systems. Sorensen and Jono Green have teamed up to open Symbiotic Training to amatuer and professional athletes. 


In the softball community, there seems to be some confusion about both the value of strength training and the value of strength training in season. For me, it’s very clear: DO BOTH. Every softball player, especially EVERY PITCHER, should be strength training (which should also include mobility and myofascial work) and every softball pitcher should strength train during season. Here are some things to consider when looking at an in-season training program. 

Longevity

Softball seasons are very lengthy. For college athletes, they are almost 5 months and 56+ games, for high school age athletes they are 10+ months when you combine travel ball and high school seasons. Given how long seasons are if an athlete doesn’t train during the season it means they are not training for at least half the year if not the majority of the year.  

Playing softball, i.e. pitching a softball, hitting a softball, throwing a softball DOES NOT make you stronger. You cannot gain strength and power by simply playing your sport. Natural gains in mass and strength as young athletes get older and bigger can often time result in improved performance.  We need to understand that improved performance on the field does not always mean it was a result of more practice, it simply could be the athlete weighed 100lbs and now weighs 120 lbs. 

Increase in Strength = Progressive Overload

In order to gain strength, all athletes need to be exposed to loads that progress as strength progresses. In simple terms, the weight being lifted needs to increase as the muscle adapts to the weight, once its adapted load needs to be increased. 


Throwing a softball at max intensity never allows for changing loads to stress the body in a healthy way. In actuality throwing a softball and pitching a softball repetitively stresses the tissue (muscle, ligament, tendon, fascia) in an extreme fashion, which can tip in the negative direction quite easily. 

Strength vs Speed 

Pitching a softball is a very fast and dynamic movement. To increase velocity in a pitcher they need to get stronger to allow the body to produce more ground force, create good deceleration strategies, have good lumbo-pelvic and knee stability to handle single leg movements, and have good motor control of their joints. 

A good strength program can address all of these points, and a good training program can address them in a decently concise manner. Pitching drills, bullpen practice, long toss, etc. are not going to address all of the elements to building a better stronger pitcher.

Strength Speed Continuum

Eric Cressey, probably the top sports performance trainer for MLB players, has talked in great detail about a fluid continuum of strength and speed. I think it help makes a lot of sense on where an athlete can reap the greatest rewards, I am going to summarize it as best as possible, but if you have time check out his whole 8 min talk on the continuum.



Side note, Eric Cressey is a phenomenal resource for all things training especially overhead athlete training, check out his site http://www.ericcressey.com and his company Cressey Sports Performance, http://www.cresseyperformance.com.

Absolute Strength sits at one end of the continuum and absolute is speed at the other. In the middle, there is strength speed and speed strength. Think of strength as a traditional heavy and slow lift, strength speed as slightly lighter loads but with the intent to move the bar or weight faster.  Speed strength falls more into the weighted balls and vest weighted jumping category, with throwing, sprinting, and plyometrics sitting all the way at the speed end. 

During a season, the act of pitching and playing is going to bias an athlete almost entirely to speed. Speed can be directly related to power and strength, as power is the ability to overcome resistance in the shortest amount of time, and strength is the ability to overcome resistance. 

To create more power, we need more strength. All athletes, especially pitchers, can gain a lot from spending time off the field working on absolute strength and strength speed, with some time in speed strength also being included in the weight room and bullpen.  

The greater strength they have the greater capacity they have to create power. For hypermobile pitchers, which we see often (age, gender, and genetics all factoring in), can really benefit from more time training absolute strength, as stability is a game changer for increasing velocity.  



Simply put a body that uses the appropriate muscles to handle gravity and can decelerate, is a body that can, in turn, accelerate and use their effort toward producing power instead of toward fighting gravity.  Stability will not improve by only training in absolute speed and speed strength, eventually, their fastest movements, i.e. pitching, are going to suffer if stability is not improved. 

Movement Variety

Pitching a softball is a repetitive predictable pattern. Unfortunately, there are very few random unpredictable movement patterns for a pitcher, essentially limited to reacting to a ground ball. All humans, especially athletes need movement variety, the more ways the body moves the better the neurological response is to movement overall and the more efficient an athlete can be in their repetitive predicted pattern. 

Think of movement patterns in the same way you think of vocabulary, the more you read the greater your vocabulary becomes. The first book you read in school might be challenging to understand, but if you continue on to read a hundred more books, that first book and will now be significantly easier to understand because you effectively increase your vocabulary. Movement patterns work in a similar fashion, the more you are exposed to the more efficient all movements are. 

 




 

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An often overlooked element of pitching is hip separation; learning to disassociate hips from torso is where power is found and most importantly what creates “whip” in the arm. ? Before we can own it fast we must first learn to control it slow. Adding a resistance band helps the athlete focus on concentric and eccentric control of hip internal rotation. Learning to move the joint under tension improves the brains ability to own and control range of motion without tension. Training for velocity isn’t just about growing muscle strength and size, it’s also about helping the brain find new and improved motor patterns. ? Shout out to @oliviagigante for putting excellent focus and effort into her training program!!!

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Additionally, we all are aware of muscle imbalances that lead to extreme asymmetries, especially in actions of pitching and throwing, adding more patterns of movement can help offset some of the highly biased muscle groups and help manage extreme asymmetries. The best way to increase movement variety is by playing multiple sports and a good training program. 

Understanding Eccentric vs Concentric Stress

Muscle contractions fall into three categories: concentric, eccentric, and isometric. A concentric contraction causes a muscle to shorten bringing the two connection points closer together. 

Eccentric contractions cause muscles to lengthen, increasing the length of the two connection points, and Isometric contractions don’t change the length of the muscle. Eccentric contraction can be thought of as the braking mechanism, as it controls the return to the resting length of the muscle. In a squat, the lowering down is eccentric contraction and the lifting upstanding back up is the concentric contraction. 

 




 

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Training Tip: With training softball and baseball athletes we want to make sure we are getting strength and power gains without comprising shoulder and back health. ? Back squatting is a great exercise for power and strength but Barbell back squat (either low or high position) isn’t a great set up for an overhead athlete. It requires a great deal of external rotation of the shoulder and thoracic extension of the spine, which if an athlete has any limitations in those areas the humerus can glide forward causing various shoulder problems. ? Additionally with the weight on the posterior side it can be very easy to slip into anterior pelvic tilt. The bar sitting on posterior side shifts center of gravity back and causes the athlete to find their center of gravity by flaring the rib cage anteriorly and superiorly. Excessive rib cage flare can cause low back muscles to go into overdrive to stabilize the spine. ? The Safety Squat Bar allows us to back squat our athletes while keeping ribs and pelvis in a neutral position. The bar’s set up of handles forward give the athlete weight in the front to offset the center of gravity shifting back from the bar on their back. We will only back squat are athletes with the Safety Squat Bar. If we don’t have a Safety Squat Bar we will stick to KB goblet and rack squats where the load is on the anterior side. ? You can use the Safety Squat Bar for squat, split squats, reverse lunges, forward lunges, Bulgarian split squat, and lateral lunges. Special thanks to @lanie33_ and @grx_baseball athlete @dtothewash for excellent demonstrations of back squat and Bulgarian split squat.

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Eccentric contractions can cause the most amount of soreness because they are opposing the most amount of force. Eccentric training is an important and necessary part of a good training program, but if you are in season, they need to be programmed properly to allow for enough recovery time before getting on the field for game or practice.  

If there are a couple of days between training and game day, eccentrics can be effectively programmed. Prowler sleds are great for concentric only training, as there is typically no eccentric component of pushing or pulling a sled. 


Exercises like Romanian deadlifts, lunges, squats are heavy on the eccentrics and will create some soreness and require more recovery time. Positive adaptations to stress can occur even when we stay in concentric and isometric muscle contractions. 

More Guidelines for In-Season Training

What to avoid:

  • Don’t train before a game on the same day as the game
  • Don’t train 1 rep max (100% + of max ability) stay in the 80% – 90%.
  • Don’t train high rep sets, keep sets and reps to 2 – 3 sets, and 3 – 5 reps. Sets of 8 – 10 on primary lifts are required too much recovery
  • Don’t train longer than absolutely necessary, keep training sessions to about 30 – 45 min
  • Don’t add more speed or speed strength unless there is a specific need for it. 
  • Don’t do heavy eccentric training the day before a game 
  • Don’t seek to be sore from training, lack of soreness doesn’t mean workout wasn’t productive

What is still on the table : 

  • Do train AFTER the game on same day
  • Do train heavy with low reps (2-4 reps), stay around 80 – 90% of max 
  • Do mobility work as a rest between primary lifts: i.e. squat, deadlift
  • Do train what is needed, don’t throw in extra stuff for the sake of doing extra 
  • Do mobility work where mobility is lost due to playing 
  • Do non-dominant side work 
  • Do spend a few extra minutes on myofascial work pre and post-training, as well as pre and post-game
  • Do make sure you are getting enough sleep; a training program should be adjusted for lack of sleep. 

At our facility, we have our high school athletes training year-round, in and out of seasons, and it has become obvious to us that pitching high volumes is a bigger indicator of injury more so than a strength program. We look at our programming as a way to help reduce the injury risk of playing by staying on top of muscle imbalances, mobility, tissues work, recovery strategies, muscle activation, and postural resets through breathing. 

Our training goal is to first help our athletes stay on the field for games and practices and secondly to improve performance. Continuing training through the season in the long run and really help an athlete maximize their long-term potential.

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