Cornerstones of Training
Force matters a lot for athletes. Many coaches know this. It’s one of the main cornerstones of the training I program for athletes. I am going to explain why it’s a cornerstone in my programming from my own experience as a coach, research and scientific literature, and give explanations of what it should look like in a program.
From my experience
- In the dozen or so athletes I’ve trained consistently, the ones who made the most progress in maximal strength over the years are the ones who also have seen the biggest jumps in higher velocity strength. It would seem that maximal force production is a basis for force production that could be potentially displayed at higher speeds.
- Novice and lower-level trainees see very rapid progress with strength training. They could jump 50–100 lbs in the Squat, Press and Deadlift in an off-season. Sure, you could partly chalk this up to neurological “beginner gains”. The reality is that teenagers are ready to grow like crazy, with higher levels of growth hormone and testosterone pumping through their bodies than any other time in their lives. Great gains in maximal strength is simply low-hanging fruit for them to make huge athletic progress.
- Kids typically love heavy strength training. So much so, that I’ve often had to curtail their focus towards baseball-specific progress as the end-goal. But regardless, they seem to love to compete and love knowing that they’re moving heavier weight than the previous weeks of training.
These are all trends I have noticed, nothing that can be 100% proven applicable for everyone.
What the research says…
- A main reason we see increases in maximal strength transfer to sport is because of an increase in voluntary activation of the muscle. When our brain sends a signal to the central nervous system for a part of our body to move, the CNS responds with an appropriate recruitment of motor units to activate the muscle. Lower threshold motor units are activated for lower-force activities such as picking up a ball. Higher threshold motor units are activated with more forceful activities such as throwing that ball as far as possible. We would likely want to train at higher and higher threshold motor unit recruitment to become more forceful overall with a movement.
- Increased measures of upper body strength are highly correlated with batting exit velocity. This makes sense, as the muscles found in the trunk and shoulders are in charge of effectively accelerating and decelerating the upper limbs (and ultimately, the bat).
- This study represented strength in the Squat was greatly correlated with swing speeds. This also makes sense, as the movement happens “proximal to distal”- meaning that it is a full body movement that entails force being applied from one end of the body, ultimately culminating and great levels of force at the other end of the body. Swinging and throwing both entail force to be put into the ground in the rear leg (good amount of force needed for the push off leg) and the front leg (a lot of force needed for the bracing leg). So it makes sense that increased leg strength is correlative with higher levels of bat speed.
- This study also confirms that greater force production from all areas of the body (grip strength, upper body pulling strength and torso strength) can help enhance rotational power.
- We can also see improvements in tendon stiffness in training. Tendons can become stiffer through heavy strength training and maximal effort isometric exercise. When looking at the Stretch-Shortening cycle, we see that tendons that are stiffer can transfer force more efficiently. This is because it allows the muscle to shorten at a similar speed to the muscle-tendon unit, and they therefore produce a ton of force. When tendons are less stiff, muscles shorten at a faster speed to the muscle-tendon unit, and are not able to produce as much force.
How can we apply this to training?
- We should look at the kinematics of baseball movement first when looking at what to program. Athletes must be able to hinge at the hips and extend them forcefully; sounds a bit like a Deadlift! They also must pull and extend the limbs forcefully; rows and presses are likely important to train as well! Starting to catch on to the trend here? The actions players perform on the field can likely be enhanced by loading similar muscular actions found in safe and effective strength training exercises.
- Make sure to consider a functional movement screening and overall injury history analysis of the athlete. Not all heavy strength training exercises are the best option for all athletes. The Reward:Risk ratio should always be very high Reward, low Risk!
- The Strength:Size ratio is also one that we would likely want to consider for athletes. When understanding that higher levels of mass are not always correlated with greater levels of velocity with a movement, we can see that we always want athletes to get bigger as a result of training for increased force production. Any time we shift the focus of training towards hypertrophy for a considerable period of time, we see that athletes will not be gaining force production at a proportionally high level.
- Follow a simple model of progressive overload. When looking to increase force production, we should see more weight on the bar than previous weeks of training.
- Lastly, always consider the Pay-off:Time ratio. Making progress takes time and energy spent in training. However, if that time spent is going to be very long (3 weeks or more) for a small increase in strength (5 lbs on a maximal effort lift), then perhaps the training should focus elsewhere to improve. So, for example, if the deadlift is stalled for weeks on end, consider switching the focus to a different exercise like a Split Squat or add resistance bands to the exercise to increase overall tension at the lockout portion.