Physical qualities required to be a baseball player are anaerobic power, anaerobic capacity, and to a lesser degree, aerobic capacity. Baseball training should consist of methods to improve these qualities (9). According to the principle of specificity, muscles must be used in similar patterns and ways that they are needed in order to make specific gains. It would make sense then that the methods used for conditioning baseball players should be similar to the demands of the sport, and focus on developing the anaerobic energy systems.
However, the lack of adherence to specific scientific information has led to a variety of conventional and innovative techniques being used for the improvement and maintenance of the physical conditioning of baseball players with many programs not including an anaerobic emphasis.
Traditional Training Methods
Traditional methods of training baseball players focus on building a large aerobic base. Pitchers need an adequate aerobic capacity to fully recover between their intensive bouts of anaerobic power (e.g., pitching) and position players need it between their anaerobic bouts of power (e.g., sprinting the field, running the bases, and swinging the bat).
These anaerobic bouts are divided by extended times of inactivity (9). The aerobic base was traditionally developed using long-distance, continuous running. However, research has shown that endurance exercise lasting longer than 30 min has detrimental effects on power output (7,8). According to a study published by Rhea and colleagues, endurance training and power training are not compatible and should not be trained at the same time for baseball players.
Endurance vs. High-Intensity Interval Training
Endurance training has also been shown to decrease muscle fiber size, muscle strength, and muscle power, all of which are detrimental to a baseball athlete (4). So how do baseball athletes build an aerobic base while still maintaining power and strength? A study by Burgomaster et al. showed that aerobic capacity can be increased via high-intensity interval training rather than through steady state, long aerobic training (2). A study by Bulbulian et al. also showed that repeated sprints with minimal rest intervals could increase VO2max (3).
An increase in VO2max correlates to an increase in aerobic capacity. Current baseball conditioning activities should be directed away from traditional extended aerobic endurance exercise and switched to interval-type, repeated sprint conditioning. Tempo runs/tempo throws are a great example of this type of training.
The Power Equation
Power is defined as P=(force x displacement)/time. Increases in power can occur in two ways: increase the ability to exert force (get stronger) or decrease the amount of time it takes to exert the force (rate of force development) (4,6). However, there is limitation to this equation. The velocity of movement slows down as the weight increases. Therefore, it is important to work in the correct range of percent repetition maximum (RM) that allows maximum power production to be utilized.
Due to the weight of a baseball ball (5 oz) and bat (32 – 36 oz), the velocity of the movement is of greater importance than force due to their lighter weights (6). According to research by McEvoy et al., the optimal range for this movement velocity while power training is 30 – 50% of one’s 1RM for a given exercise. Moving weights in this range has been shown to maximize power development for the given exercise (6). A safe alternative is adding resistance bands to the barbell in order to prevent the slowing down and concurrent muscle deactivation near the end of the movement. Adding resistance bands in this manner allows for greater use of the stretch shortening cycle.
The stretch shortening cycle is an important component in all running and throwing activities. As a muscle is rapidly stretched, elastic energy is stored in the muscle. This stored elastic energy can be used to produce a more powerful concentric contraction, which results in a more powerful muscular contraction overall. Based on this finding, it can be concluded that the use of this method of training may contribute to increases in throwing and running speed.
The use of accommodated resistance shortens the time in which the bar decelerates as well as increases the amount of time spent near peak velocity, therefore increasing the rate of force development. It has been shown that using resistance bands attached to a barbell significantly increases one’s peak power and peak force (4,6,9).
Pitchers and position players must train for both strength and power, and throw the baseball maximally with proper mechanics. Research suggests that most professional pitchers have some degree of shoulder instability (5). Therefore, adding heavy chest and overhead lifts could increase shoulder instability and increase the risk of posterior impingement syndrome.
Furthermore, the addition of extra pressing exercises could cause further asymmetries and imbalances due to the high volume of throwing performed (9). To help avoid shoulder instability while training, shoulder exercises should be performed after exhausting the major muscle groups, or after a throwing practice. This allows for concentration on the small muscles of the rotator cuff when lifting and helps avoid rotator cuff fatigue prior to throwing or lifting (1).
Due to the high volume of practices/games, that nearly all players deal with, and the countless repetitions that are needed to ingrain proper movement mechanics of technical skills like pitching and batting, overuse injuries are common among baseball players. Although much can be done to combat the onset of these types of injuries, such as prehabilitation work for the rotator cuff and elbow as well as scapular mobilization drills, to keep baseball players healthy and properly rested from game to game, the introduction of soft tissue work from a trained professional is very important.
The physical capacities that should be trained for baseball are outlined in this article. Improving anaerobic power and anaerobic capacity will greatly improve sport performance. Baseball players and coaches should stray away from the traditional methods and adapt the methods outlined here to maximize their performance on the field.
About the Author:
Matthew DiLallo, MA, CSCS, USAW-1
Matthew DiLallo graduated from the University of Colorado in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Integrative Physiology. DiLallo also played five years of collegiate football, four as the starting punter on the University of Colorado football team. He graduated from the University of South Florida with a Master of Arts degree in Exercise Science in 2011. DiLallo is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist®, and Level 1 USA Weightlifting certified. He recently completed an internship with the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, FL and is currently working at Athletic Edge Sports in Lakewood Ranch, FL training high school athletes.