This article is going to focus on the type of strength that most people associate with the weight room or use when describing someone as being “strong”. In the previous article, we learned about the different types of strength and where they sit on a force-velocity curve.
Lifting heavy weights has always been controversial in baseball. Years ago everyone was warned not to lift weights in fear of getting too big and bulky which would cause a restriction in mobility. Then the steroid era shed some light on how stronger muscles created an obvious advantage that a baseball player can use to produce the kind of power needed to launch a baseball out of a hand or off a bat.
So being strong is a good thing, but exactly how strong do you need to be? What kind of numbers should you be aiming for in the gym? The answer to this question is that it depends. We have to look at all the other parts of that athlete’s physical profile to see how this piece of the puzzle fits. The guy that’s super long and lanky doesn’t need to impress you in the weight room and keep up with his teammate’s squat totals in order to light up a radar gun which means that the answer of how strong YOU need to fall within a range.
Can you be too strong?
The reason why I want to place a limit on getting stronger is that as you start to climb higher and higher you begin to experience what’s known as diminishing rates of returns on your investment. This means that if you worked in the gym to get your squat to go up from 100 lbs to 200 lbs you would see a rise in your fastball velocity of let’s say 10 mph. That’s a good investment. If you went from 200 lbs to 300 lbs you might get another 5 mph which is still a good investment but not as good. If you then tried to go from 300 lbs to 400 lbs you might only see your velocity go up just a little if any. This is a diminished rate of return on your investment.
What are you investing in? The two most valuable resources that you have as an athlete; time and energy.
These resources are both limited meaning that each athlete needs to think hard about how they should spend these valuable commodities. If you’re already strong enough then maybe you should focus on getting faster with other types of strength which are more at the velocity end of the spectrum. Or how about learning to throw your change-up in a fastball count, I hear that’s important.
The diminished rate of return is a result of the fact that moving a heavyweight really slowly is so far away from where throwing a baseball is when you look at them on the force-velocity curve. This means that they aren’t very specific to one another. This is what Dr. Mann discovered when he tried to use heavy Olympic lifts to increase vertical jump which isn’t that far apart on the curve but far enough that he needed to make a change in their training. It was only when he lighted the load and stressed speed that he saw positive returns on his investment. Read the details here about 3/4 of the way through the article.
My last argument about getting too strong is probably the most important which is the risk of injury. Even if you are performing these lifts correctly they’re stressful on the body and from what I’ve seen in my professional career and on various social media sites the cases of bad technique highly outnumber the good ones.
Why Absolute Strength is a Good Thing
Before we go any further I want to state for the record that I am a big fan of making guys stronger, after all, I am a strength & conditioning coach. Most players don’t have to worry about being too strong anytime soon because it takes a lot of time and effort to reach these levels. But for the mature athlete that has a solid history in the weight room attaining this status of being “strong enough” for baseball is within reach.
Reasons why you Absolutely need to train absolute/max strength:
- A great tool to add lean muscle mass that is needed to throw hard. Mass=Gas
- Teaches proper movement – every athlete needs to be able to perform movements like squats, hinges (deadlift) and lunges in order to help teach stability for the long and loose players while increasing mobility for the tight individuals.
- Due to the nature of baseball, it gets its fair share of athletes that aren’t “gym strong” due to long and loose limbs. This type of strength is exactly what these kinds of athletes need.
- This type of strength is thought to be the foundation that other types of strength are built upon. An analogy is that this type of strength is the size of the cup that you can fill with faster types of strength which means that it is your limiting factor.
- It can help avoid injury by being able to help absorb the high amounts of stress to the body caused by the very fast and sometimes violent act of pitching.
- The fact that the pitching motion begins from a dead standstill off of one leg means that this specific limb and portion of the delivery does need a healthy amount of good old fashion strength.
How to To Assess Absolute/Max Strength
Now that we have covered the pros and con’s let’s talk about the specific exercises that we can use to assess this type of strength. Below is another force-velocity curve but this time it has some of the common types of strength training used to focus on each portion of the curve that we can use to put some objective numbers on each type of strength.
Powerlifting is the type of training that is associated with max strength and the speed’s we see here are typically from 0.15 to 0.3 m/s. In the sport powerlifting, you combine your 1 rep max totals from the big 3 exercises which are the squat, bench press and deadlift. Whoever has the highest total wins!!
As a baseball player, you don’t need to compete in the sport of powerlifting in order to get some of the benefits that come with performing the big 3. We can adapt these lifts to suit your body type and aim for a couple of extra reps (2-5) at the faster end of the spectrum so that you don’t have to stress your body to the max.
We always have to remember that we are exercising in the weight room to get better on the mound. This is important because it will direct us to use versions of the big 3 which will help minimize the risk while still allowing you to reap the rewards.
Let’s check out the big 3 and how we can use them to help throw harder and stay healthy.
In powerlifting, the back squat is used because it is the method that allows you to lift the most weight which isn’t always a good thing. What if I told said you still get the benefits of developing strong legs and hips while lifting less weight which would place you at a lower risk of hurting your back. Would you be interested? If your end goal is producing results on the mound then your answer should be yes.
But if you are going to back squat remember to take your anthropometrics into account like we see here comparing how leg length plays a role in “how” you squat.
Here are a couple of my favorite options that are very challenging and can still be loaded up with lots of weight. But the chances of turning it into something like the picture we saw earlier are reduced.
- Front Squat
- Double KB Front Squat
- Safety Squat
- Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Here is an example of how strong you can get with the rear foot elevated split squat with two time Olympian Meghan Duggan. Remember that the pitching delivery is initiated with just one leg on the ground which makes this exercise more specific.
This is one that gets thrown out the most in regards to the big 3. Read this from a much smarter & experienced Eric Cressey to see why he’s doesn’t use the traditional bench press with most of his baseball players.
The long arms really play against you here. Great bench pressers have short arms and a big barrel chest which means that the bar doesn’t have to travel as far they to touch the chest like the rules of powerlifting state.
The long arms with a narrower chest means that you have to move a lot further which is a disadvantage but it also puts you at risk of injury. This longer path means that your elbow has to go a lot further past the level of the bench which pushes the humerus really far forward in the socket which isn’t a good thing. So don’t worry the next time the guy that act’s as the “gym police” comes by and tells you that the bar has to touch your chest.
I realize that the guy in the second picture is using DB’s rather than a straight bar but you should get the idea of how we can restrict the depth.
Floor presses are a favorite of mine since it automatically restricts the depth. Other than using this you just have to be aware of how far down you’re going. Don’t go for that “deep stretch” feel.
Deadlifting is the one time it helps to have long limbs as can be seen in the picture below because you don’t have to go down as far as grab the barbell and your hips are in a more mechanically strong position. In fact, rumor has it that Lamar Grant, the first human to deadlift 5x his body weight, could scratch his knees while standing without having to bend over. Go ahead, stand up and give that a try.
But just because you might have a physical advantage with the deadlift doesn’t mean that you should try to push the upper limits just to impress other people in the weight room. Remember the goal is to impress people on the mound.
Here is a video that I put together for a team that I consulted with about how to Deadlift for baseball with some modifications and restrictions so that they could reduce the risk while maximizing the rewards of this great lift. As far as alternatives go check out this awesome single-leg version demonstrated by a “Strong” Marcus Stroman.
This is a wonderful movement because it has such a high level of skill which makes it a self-limiting exercise. This means that your technique will fail and you won’t be able to lift more than you should. These types of exercises are great for the young male population since we have been known to load up the bar with too much weight trying to impress other people.
So How Strong?
Great question. Here are some numbers that I’ve come across in my research on track and field throwing. These are just guidelines that these coaches have put in place to help them determine the amount of time and energy they spend on these lifts – guys that have met these standards focus on the faster end of the spectrum and technique to turn that force into more power.
Javelin – 800g/1.8lbs/29 oz (almost 6 times heavier than a baseball)
- Squat – 2x Body Weight
Discus – 2kg/4.4lbs/70 oz (14 times heavier than a baseball)
- Bench Press – 400lbs
- Back squat: 450 lbs
Shot Put – 8kg/17.6lbs/280 oz (56 times heavier than a baseball)
- Bench Press – 350lbs
- Squat – 450lbs
These types of athletes rely a lot more heavily on absolute strength so we can just look at these numbers as a reference but I don’t see why we would need more than this just based on the fact we only use a 5 oz baseball. Plus we have to spend a lot more time and energy working on the other components of the game like developing pitches, holding runners and fielding our position.
So here are some number’s that I think we can shoot for as minimum’s by the time the athlete is roughly 18-20 years old, both chronologically and biologically. If you aren’t at this level remember to take your time and don’t rush. One of the best things about this type of strength is that it can be developed for a long time as you get older. Meaning that as athletes get older they may loose little “spring in their step” but they can continue to get stronger which may be able to help compensate for the reduction of “springiness”. Check out my article on elasticity to learn what “springiness” means.
If you watch the World’s Strong Man you don’t see some young phenom in his early 20’s killing it like you do in other sports. That’s because strength takes time to build so even if you are “naturally” strong it is a process to build world-class strength that we see these athletes produce.
I like to use checklists because they let you know if you are ready or not for the next level. Ideally, you have a qualified S&C coach sign off on whether or not you had good enough technique (quality) to deserve going in load (quantity). I would look for 4-8 reps GOOD reps on each where you have to make it look easy before moving to the next one – this goes for both the bench pressing and deadlifting checklist’s seen below.
- Body Weight Squat with Good Technique (quality first!!!)
- Goblet Squat w/ 50 lbs
- Goblet Squat w/ 85 lbs
- Front Squat w/ 135 lbs
- Anderson Front Squat w/ 135 lbs
Repeat number’s 4 & 5 in increments of 10 lbs all the way to 225 lbs & beyond!! Remember to add in some rear foot elevated split squat’s – see if you can build up to match Meghan Duggan’s total of 160 lbs x 10 reps.
Remember that you won’t impress anybody with your bench press if you were born to throw plus it isn’t the greatest for your shoulder joint. So here is my simple checklist.
- Pushup (quality first!!!)
- 1 arm Floor Press – feet wide (check out the picture earlier)
- 1 arm Floor Press – feet narrow
- Alt DB Press
repeat number’s 2-4 in increments of 5 lbs DB’s all the way to 70 lbs and beyond!! But don’t abandon the pushup which can be loaded and progressed.
- Dowel Hinge (quality first!!!)
- Kettlebell Deadlift up to 32 kg
- Elevated Deadlift
- Deadlift from the Ground -see video
repeat number’s 3 & 4 in increments of 10 lbs all the way to 275 lbs & beyond!!! Be sure to add in some of those single-leg deadlifts too. They can also add strength while making sure that your body is balanced. Can you be as strong and smooth as Marcus Stroman and his 106 lbs in each hand?
The number’s that you build yourself up will differ from athlete to athlete their is no doubt that everyone needs some form of the big 3 in their program. But the intensity, type, and frequency will depend on so many things like:
- limb length
- injury history
- training age
- movement skill
- time of year
- ability to produce elastic energy
- role on the team
There are more but this gives you an idea of why the prescription of “getting stronger” will be different for everyone. If you want some help in trying to figure out what fits you then contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next, we will check out the next portion of the force-velocity curve and the controversial use of Olympic Weight-lifting.
Graeme Lehman, MSC, CSCS