First of all, I am really sorry about the length of delay between articles but I’ve got a couple of really good excuses that I will be sharing soon. Unlike most excuses, these ones are legit and have made me even more motivated to keep studying and writing about baseball performance. I am hoping that it turns into more writing!!
For now, let’s get back to this series that I call “Customized Mechanics” where I am working my way through this idea of building mechanics and training around each athlete and their physical profile like we see here.
Today’s focus is going to be on “Strength-Speed” which is a type of strength that is described as moving a moderately heavy load at a moderate speed. This is really important because when we initiate the pitching delivery we are in fact moving a moderate load, in the form of your own body weight, at a moderate speed, before moving faster and faster as we climb the kinetic chain and let go of the baseball.
To put some numbers with the term moderate we can think of the load as being about 75-85% of 1RM while the speed is in the 0.75-1.0 m/s range. The intent on moving the load, however, should not be moderate since you should be moving at max speed but due to the load the speed then slows down to this “moderate” range.
Looking at the chart below we can see some of the exercises that are associated with this part of the force-velocity curve. These types of exercises can help us both measure how much “strength-speed” an athlete has as well as providing a means to train and improve this area if this particular athlete needs to spend time and energy improving this athletic quality.
The two types of exercises that we see on either side of “Strength-Speed” are Olympic Lifting and Weighted jumps which I will dedicate an entire article for each one. But before we move onto the controversial topic of Olympic Lifting for baseball players I do want to mention that traditional lifts like deadlifts, bench press, or squats can also be performed in this range of moderate load and speed. But its harder to use them as an assessment tool since approximately 34% of each lift is spent accelerating while the remaining 66% is spent decelerating the weight.
Olympic Lifting – The Controversy
Olympic lifting for baseball is a controversial topic but controversy gets people’s attention. In fact, there is a good chance that you are reading this site due to the fact that I did an interview with Eric Cressey discussing my research since it helped him justify why he doesn’t use Olympic lifting with his baseball players, in particular pitchers. Eric wanted to talk with me because he was receiving a lot of criticism when he wrote that he doesn’t use Olympic lifts and for some strength and conditioning professionals this was blasphemous since Olympic lifts are held in such high regard for some coaches. But like any exercise or drill, we must weigh the risks vs the rewards to see if it is the right tool for the job. In my opinion, traditional Olympic lifts like the clean and snatch do not provide enough rewards to outweigh the risks which could be an injury to the wrist’s and elbows which was Eric’s biggest concern not to mention the fact that it isn’t a great predictor of throwing velocity since it isn’t specific enough to the movement.
Now I don’t like to work with absolutes nor do I want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here because the lower body power that can be attained from moving a moderate load at a moderate speed can definitely help out when you’re on the mound. This is especially true of weaker players. So instead of dismissing them all together, I suggest we go all Bruce Lee on them by “absorbing what is useful” and “discard what is useless”
We want to absorb from Olympic lifting the ability to train the lower body with the right mix of resistance and velocity. What we want to discard however is the catching of the weight which increases the chance of injury. Learning how to properly catch the weight takes a long time which is another con in using this form of training. Could this time and energy be spent elsewhere? This is a question that you have to ask yourself. Even if you are proficient at catching the barbell it only takes one bad one to ruin your meal ticket (aka your throwing arm). Plus there’s a good chance as a pitcher you have long forearms which are great for throwing a baseball but are bad when it comes to catching a barbell in the proper position.
So let’s look for a “Win-Win” situation so can work on producing this type of force with the lower body without having to catch a heavy barbell on our shoulders and wrists. Movements like jump shrugs or high pulls allow for us to “reject what is useless and accept what is useful”. These are known in the S&C world as Olympic Lifting derivatives.
In fact, there are research papers like this one or this one out there that shows that Olympic weightlifting derivatives that don’t include the catch phase like a high pull or jump shrug produce just as much benefit. If that isn’t enough here’s some research that demonstrates that the derivatives without the catch were even better. Finally here is one last research article that is specific to baseball. Hopefully, that’s enough academic proof to keep the Olympic lift traditionalists from calling me out and if they want some “real life in the trenches proof” we can look at Eric Cressey again who still doesn’t use them much, as far as I know, and he has both the NL and AL Cy Young award winners in his gym!!!
If we are going to use these types of lifts then we need to find a way to quantify them and the best way to do this is to measure bar speed. Radar guns don’t pick up barbell velocity very well so if you want to use Olympic lifting derivatives to assess how much “strength-speed” a particular athlete has then you need to get your hands on a device like the tendo unit, bar sensi or push device.
The reason that you need to quantify the speed is that if we only use the weight on the bar as a guide the Olympic lifts tend to be too slow in order to get the benefits we want from training in the strength-speed zone. I’ve mentioned this idea before here when I read an article by Dr. Bryan Mann who is an expert in the field of velocity-based training. He recounts a story about how he measured the velocity of the Olympic lifts with his football team when the weight on the bar was the primary focus. When he measured the speeds they were in the 0.6 to 0.8m/s range when his guys were performing hang cleans so it was only the fastest guys that were just barely in this “strength-speed” range of 0.75 to 1.0 m/s. The proof that it was too slow came when they tested vertical jumps and didn’t see any improvements. But when the speed of the bar became the focus the jump heights went up. Jump height is a far better indicator of on-field football performance which is the reason we don’t see Olympic lifting at the NFL combine.
Remember that we are using the weight room as a means to increase our performance on the mound. The fact that we aren’t lifting the weight with one leg in the frontal plane like we see on the mound still means that the benefits that a pitcher gets from using Olympic lifts, even if they are performed fast enough and safe enough, might not be the right choice for each athlete.
But I do really like how they can be used to help an athlete initiate power from a complete standstill. This is an area that I feel a lot of players with lots of mobility, elasticity, and limb length could use since they can’t get enough FORCE in the first place in order to take advantage of these qualities which help produce SPEED. Remember that FORCE x SPEED = POWER.
So if a player is generally weak like we talked about in the absolute strength article it is pretty safe to assume that their strength-speed isn’t very good either. Personally, I like to use some traditional lifts like squats and deadlifts with an emphasis on speed to help increase this quality while also making them stronger overall. Even if the bar spends more than half the time slowing down I still take it over trying to catch the weight.
Even guys that have lots of absolute strength can benefit from this type of training if they can’t move 75-85% of their 1RM in that speed range that we are looking for meaning that this player is strong but slow which doesn’t allow for max power when we are talking about a 50z baseball.
To sum things up here I think that in most cases Olympic lifts don’t provide baseball players the biggest bang for their buck but if you are going use them I suggest:
- not catching the weight
- starting from a standstill
- measure bar velocity
The next part of this series will talk about weight jumps as we make our way towards “speed-strength”. This one should be fun to put together since I have some examples of guys that can throw 95mph+ doing some weighted jumps.
Until then stay strong but stay fast
Graeme Lehman, MSc, CSCS