seasons and years

Most of us have little idea of how we arrived at the doorstep of the year we call 2015. I spent a few hours last Sunday night trying to figure it out, got carried away and missed much of the Steeler game. Sorry dad. And I still don't have a good handle on it. 

It would make sense if our 24-hour days divided up neatly into 28 days per month and 12 months per year. But of course we had to invent the idea of leap year to make up for our 365-day imposition on the sun. Did you know that the earth does not move at constant speed in its elliptical orbit? In the norther hemisphere, spring and summer are longer than fall and winter by about 3 to 4 days. Even our precious 60-minute hours and 24-hour days are in flux. Because of the gravitational forces of the moon and other planets, twenty four hours is only the average duration for the earth to complete a full rotation. We simply don't notice the routine occurrences when a day swings up to 8 minutes shorter or longer than a "day."

The Gregorian calendar was proposed to number our years from the day Jesus was born. Wouldn't it be nice if the year 1 actually occurred on the year Jesus was born? Speaking of Christmas, wouldn't it make sense if the pagan feasts on which it was piggybacked also took place on the first day of winter when the days start getting longer? Why wasn't the winter solstice, the longest night in the norther hemisphere, marked as the last day of the "old" year?

Sunrise at Stone Henge on the winter solstice.
Yes, I'm proposing that the winter solstice and Christmas and the first day of the new year should line up. But then again, the day of the solstice occurs in cycles between what we know as December 20th and the 24th. Still, I say we move January 1st to December 22nd and celebrate Christmas, winter festivals, and New Years day at the same time. That would make sense and save us the holiday fatigue.

Side note: Some scholars say that Christmas was assigned to December 25th a few hundred years AD, when some church leaders started teaching that Jesus resurrection and conception necessarily occurred on the same day (March 25th). From there they arrived at December 25th (9 months after conception) as his birthday.

At any rate, our years are labeled imprecisely from the year that Jesus was born, which itself has been imprecisely layered upon imprecise winter solstice festivals which are based upon the actual winter solstice, which varies by the day and hour. What does this have to do with my theme here at Mental Reps? It's a bit of a leap, but I'd like for you to consider the imprecision of our bodies.

What makes a formal exercise beneficial and unique to other types of formal exercise? In what ways is informal movement better? What is the best diet for fat loss or muscle gain? How many days per week should you train and allot to recovery? What's aerobic or anaerobic training? (Where, for example, does a typical Crossfit WOD or a hard set of 20 squats with high resistance fit into all this?) What's the correct movement tempo, rep, set, and resistance scheme to maximize health versus physical power, strength, or size?

The answers are definitely far less clear-cut and precise than we think. God is apparently no respecter of our man-made divisions, categories and labels. Neither are our bodies.

But I do know that we need to be paying attention to what we eat and how we feel and function. We need exercise and rest. We desperately need rhythm to our days far more than a precise measure of the time and many of things that we do desire.

Please question your sets, reps, timed splits and macros. Be critical of the health and wellness industry (my forte), with it's man-made categories and assumptions set in stone. The 7-minute abs, the 14-day detox, the organic kale flax diet. Some of these are fine and well, but they never exist in isolation. Quick fixes and one-size-fits-all formulas don't exist at all.

Drinking two Red Bulls in order to drag yourself to the gym or ball field is going to catch up with you. Trying to accomplish too many things at once is an easy recipe for failure. One way or another, those sharp abs will come at a cost. And they won't be worth it (or sustainable) when you're arthritic knees can't raise you from the couch. Is the control freak diet and exercise schedule really necessary? Will it be destroyed under the weight of a life that demands more than focusing on yourself? It should.

Us mortals need our categories, divisions, and labels. They're convenient, if not entirely accurate. Anything we do to the extreme is sooner or later going to cause the pendulum to swing back with force. You are not likely the exception. I'm preaching to myself as much as anyone reading.

However imprecise we understand and make use of it, we are given this blessing of time. May 2015 be a year you take inventory of what's important to you. May you move well, rest well, and serve others in honesty and humility. And have some fun!


Rotational Training for Baseball (Part 3).

Part One of this series included general observations and commentary on sport-specific training, with a brief introduction to the three planes of motion. 

Part Two highlighted 5 key points regarding strength training for baseball.

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Here we tackle the fun stuff - sport-specific power training for baseball.

Power training for baseball should bridge the gap between (relatively) heavy load, controlled movements and actually throwing, hitting, and running like a beast. The perfect strength training program for any given individual is worth little in terms of performance if it doesn't translate to demonstrating high amounts of rotational force (Torque) QUICKLY.

How exactly do you develop power in the transverse plane? Are traditional plyometric power exercises safe and warranted for baseball players? Is power development plane-specific? Here are a few key points regarding power training for baseball.

1.Traditional plyos are warranted for baseball players.

"Why are you training a baseball player to jump? This isn't high jump or basketball." 

I will admit that I'm biased toward traditional power training with leaps, bounds, tuck jumps, hurdle jumps, depth jumps etc for a very bad reason. (I'm a good leaper, well, for an old man). Also, there are only a handful of lower body, transverse plane specific plyometric exercises to choose from. I think Eric Cressey would agree that lateral hops are a great baseball specific exercise, but they can only take you so far.

Although traditional plyos are predominately sagittal plane movements, they remain a great way to supercharge the nervous system. They are total body efforts that require the athlete to develop body control and optimize ground reaction force. They are by all means the best way to reach and develop fast twitch muscle fibers.

You could achieve much of the same effect with triple the injury risk and time invested by doing the Olympic Lifts. This backhanded compliment about Olympic lifting comes courtesy of this entry where I lay out why O-lifts are not the best choice for most athletes.

Plyo push-up variations...sure.
Traditional plyos should not receive the same emphasis as they would for, say, a long jumper. But there is definitely room for them. Plus, most athletes benefit greatly from leaping and bounding off one leg, and baseball players are no exception. Single leg launching and landing does require great transverse plane strength and stability.

2. A word of caution.

Please be aware that knees and feet are at risk for those who throw caution to the wind. The type of impact, total number of repetitions, form, and fatigue should be monitored and progressed gently. My clinic records prove that even strong athletes may suffer injuries from careless application of plyos.

Awesome-making, shin-eating machine.
Build up the impact gradually. Don't perform high power movements when in a state of extreme fatigue. Variations of single leg plyos are great, but don't perform repeated single leg bounds across cement or hardwood. Control the deceleration while landing your jumps. Only jump as far and as many times as you can land well. There are a handful of tricks to the trade that many trainers are apparently unaware of.

3. The total body whip.

I would argue that the most baseball-specific exercises are power/plyometric exercises that 1) incorporate the transverse plane, and 2) use everything between the ground and the hands. While traditional lower extremity plyos have their place in a baseball training program, the majority of plyometric training for baseball players should incorporate these two criteria. Our options are quite limited here. There are really only a handful of exercises to do and I think about 60% are worth the time.
Or stomach the thought of swinging an actual ax.

Baseball players should be on a steady diet of throwing the med ball, clubbing a tire (or something), and hitting with an over-weighted bat. "Battling ropes" may serve some purpose as well. How heavy should those items be? They should be heavy enough that the exercise is not replicating the exact mechanics of throwing and hitting. Baseball players take enough stress and strain with their repetitive tasks. On the other hand, the objects should not be so heavy as to hinder the athletes peak power production (i.e. the athlete can still move relatively quickly).

4. Intent precedes content.

Maybe it's just me, but it's irritating to see athletes doing 20-rep wall balls and box jumps with 60% effort. Using plyometric power exercises to hit your lactate threshold and determine your willingness to suffer is a great way to test the integrity of your connective tissue. This is not the time to drone through the motions as if the training effect you desire is magically going to happen. Instead, do what it takes to throw the med ball like you're trying to knock the wall down. Hit the tire like you're battling for your life. Feel the impulse, energy generated between your feet and dead earth, traveling through your hips, torso, shoulders and out of your hands.

There's something very satisfying about the thump of a tire or brick wall.

5. Work smarter and harder. 

Progress isn't always measures in duration and impacts. Just because you have 20 good jumps, throws, or tire hits in you now doesn't mean the goals should be 60 or 100. Hit it with more force. Tuck jump the hurdle, measure vertical- and long jump distances, and time the short sprints/agilities. Radar some med ball throws or measure the distance covered. The younger crowd at GoWags swings a standard (relatively) heavy wooden bat at pitched balls. Measuring ball exit speed gives good incentive for and objective measurement of full effort.

Apply these principles and there you have a comprehensive baseball - specific training program. Certainly comment if there are any additional considerations that you have found beneficial. I hope to unpack many of the ideas presented here into a series of short videos. Let us know if you have any questions that you would like to be addressed.


Rotational Training for Baseball (Part 2)

One of my favorite transverse plane weather systems
Part one of this series mentioned that throwing and hitting are total body movements that take place primarily in the transverse plane. Developing rotational power in this plane is essential to any training program that claims to be "sport specific" for baseball. Here are a few key points related to strength training for baseball.

1. Many traditional weight training exercises DO have their place in a baseball specific program.
Most athletes benefit greatly from doing time in some variation of the fundamental movement patterns. As power athletes, baseball players are no exception. We're talking about squat, dead lift, pressing and pulling variations. While the standard barbell lifts are not particularly transverse plane movements, they do offer many benefits.

Keep in mind that much of what we see in gained strength is neurological in nature. Here we will not get into the details of muscle unit synchronization, rate coding, and antagonist muscle disinhibition. Suffice to say that the brain learns to move the body more efficiently on macro- and microscopic levels. Well-renowned trainer Mike Robertson suggests that athletes master sagittal plane movements first because they are easier to learn and control but still provide the general benefits of loaded movement. 
NOT effective for gaining size
The traditional lifts are also critical for an athlete that desires to put on quality size. Obliqe crunches, cable "chops," and shoulder rotation against tubing are not going to cut it. The best way to gain muscle is to focus on the "big" multi-joint movements that demand high amounts of force output and a stable core. The idea of gaining muscle mass leads to the next point.

2. Thickness is uniquely important to the transverse plane.

Part one of the series also described how the structural differences between a fit basketball player and a fit baseball player are obvious, and this reflects different qualities of power (transverse- versus sagittal plane). The thickness of an individual joint, and of the athletes body as a whole, are of relatively little importance for sagittal- and frontal plane movements. But that's not the case when you analyze rotational movement in the transverse plane. It's a simple matter of physics that more muscle mass generating force further from the axis of rotation is going to produce more torque. 

3. The transverse plane hides out in unilateral exercise. 

Hopefully I have established that while traditional weight training exercises are not particularly transverse plane movements, they should be included in a baseball training program because they are a great way to engrain sound movement patterns and to gain efficiency, strength, and size. But now you may be wondering where the transverse plane strength exercises come in. What do they look like? Spinning with weights? Swinging around a barbell by one end? 

THE key for training the transverse plane is undoubtedly unilateral movements. Pushing, pulling, squatting, and lunging with one arm or leg at a time demands a lot of rotational force at the moving segment as well as rotational stability at the spine and other non-moving segments. The transverse plane demand is obvious in rotational movements like med ball throws and tubing work. But most of those are better classified as power exercises.  Examples of appropriate strength training exercises that make the transverse plane obvious include tubing twists, cable chops, and side lunges. But there is much more! The (relatively) heavy unilateral lifts should be the meat and potatoes of developing strength in the transverse plane. 

A poorly executed barbell lunge: making obvious the demands of frontal and transverse plane stability.

Try to perform a simple hip hinge on one leg. Touch both hands to the floor without rounding your spine or excessively flexing at the knee. Or try to maintain an upright torso and lunge while holding a modest weight at or above shoulder level. Try push-ups with one foot on the floor instead of two. Viola! You're training the transverse plane.

These three exercises are great examples, simple and effective, of training the transverse plane. You truly don't need the ridiculous theatrics on a BOSU ball to train stability and balance. You would be surprised at how many athletes cannot control even a light load. The knee and pelvis quiver or collapse, or the spine twists, folds, or side bends.

Training on machines with cables and columns that guide the movement steals all the transverse plane benefit. So get off the machines and control some iron where it's just the athlete v. gravity. Movements like lunges, split squats, step ups, "lawn mower" rows, and land mine presses truly should be a prime area of focus for most baseball players. Do not think of these as light accessory movements. When taken seriously and worked consistently, these unilateral exercises can also be good for stimulating more muscle mass.

4. You can't be a powerhouse in any plane if you're imbalanced or injured. 
Overhead squats not advised

Another reason why unilateral lifts should be emphasized in a baseball training program has to do with staying efficient and injury free. Hitting and throwing are both high intensity, asymmetrical efforts that baseball players routinely subject their bodies to. It should be no surprise that mobility and strength imbalances develop after hundreds and thousands of repetitions. Unilateral strength training will often reveal strength and stability imbalance and help as a corrective measure to offset the asymmetrical strain.

Lastly, baseball players do need to give special consideration to arm health. Over the years, most throwers acquire some degree of anterior shoulder capsular laxity, posterior stiffness, and a literal twisting of the humerus. There are typical changes at the thoracic spine and pelvis as well. There is very little room for some exercises such as overhead barbell presses and overhead squats in this population of athletes. Other exercises like traditional back squats and bench press are generally safe for most baseball players, but should be used with some caution. This is highly specific to the individual, but in all exercises, special attention should be given to the position and movement of the thoracic spine, humerus and the scapula.

5. A word on the Olympic Lifts.

Can you see why power cleans, clean and jerk, and snatch grip anything are probably not a good choice for baseball players? The olympic lifts are very powerful moves. But they're not great mass builders because they require very little time under tension. They make relatively little demand for mobility or stability in the transverse plane. Getting to intense but safe training with these requires a lot of time to learn them as a skill. Some strength coaches and trainers may say otherwise, but it is my opinion that they are just not worth it. I believe that power training can be accomplished more safely and effectively in other ways.

Power training for baseball will be the last installment in this overview of baseball-specific training. I do hope to unpack some of the ideas with a series of short video clips. Certainly let us know if you have anything in mind that we can address.


To Long Toss or Not To Long Toss

The debate continues as to whether or not a pitcher should be doing long toss. Each side has both sports medicine and coaches claiming how wonderful or terrible it is to throw on a high arc for maximal distance as apposed to direct line throws of shorter distance.

In my opinion it's a debate in minutia when there are other considerations of greater importance. As I mentioned here, we should consider the number of months of rest from throwing per year, total throws per game, innings pitched per year, and about 20 other factors. Intelligent training of the entire body is the best way to spare the throwing arm.

That being said, with 6 out of 10 pitchers sustaining a significant shoulder or elbow injury, giving attention to minutia is completely justified.

This study is still cited as pure and clean evidence against long toss. The study does show that mechanics of long tossing are different than throwing for shorter distances, and that long toss throws cause greater torque at the shoulder and elbow.

  [Different intent, different toss.]

From this I conclude, "Oh really? Long tossing, like, where the athlete takes a skip and a crow hop and reaches way back, orients his chest to the heavens, grits his teeth, and launches the ball out and up..." 
The real surprise is that egg heads like me need data proving that this is different than throwing down hill off a mound. Any T-baller could tell you that. Any Little Leaguer with 5-minutes of exposure to a radar gun will determine that velocity (and therefore arm speed and kinematic variables like torque) is greater when you are free to move your body as much as you want just prior to a throw.

In the context of rehab after an injury, it's pretty clear that you do need to be careful. This study did affirm that long toss is probably not a wise choice for rehab or early return to throwing. But lets talk about someone with a relatively healthy arm who wants to gain velocity and the total body rhythm that actually helps decrease strain on the arm.

The differences between long toss and pitching from a mound are exactly why long toss is a valuable component of training. Why don't we simply think of long toss as a form of over-speed training? It's a great way to create some sport specific strain that's a slight variation from the forces and trauma of actual pitching.

Also, throwing is a total body effort that should occur in three planes of motion {rotation, front to back, and side to side), not just linearly (front to back). I would think that long toss is a good way to "fix" pitchers who are constipated in their delivery, "arming" the ball with a linear pattern or with poor transfer of energy from their legs.

So I'm pro long toss. But now the word of caution because I'm sure it can be overdone and used inappropriately.

The common sense that you would apply to pretty much every other situation should cover it. When beginning a long toss program, plan to gradually and systematically build the intensity and number of efforts. You can't just add stress indefinitely. With pitching, even in the best case scenario, micro-trauma occurs throughout the entire upper extremity. The risk of injury certainly goes up if pitchers simply add any type of maximal effort throwing.

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Do share your opinion on long toss!


Rotational Training for Baseball (1)

What I've seen of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries have been excellent, but I especially liked Jordan Rides the Bus. This episode details Michael Jordan's first retirement from professional basketball and foray into pro baseball.

Watching this, I thought about the fact that Jordon was arguably the greatest athlete in the world at that time. He had access to every resource imaginable and plenty of time to train and practice. He had experience, drive, athleticism, and loads of visibility. And yet he failed at high level baseball.

Lebron is jacked, but not for the transverse plane.
I admire Jordon for giving it an honest effort. At the same time it's laughable that he truly thought he could pull it off. The documentary didn't say this, but...

Jordan clearly didn't understand motor control theory and human development. He didn't understand that the mind and body are one and both adapt in stages over years not months. He had plenty of what we call "God-given" talent. But one look could tell you that he wasn't equipped as a baseball player.

The typical rotational powerhouse.
Even today, the typical high level basketball player is super muscular and fit, but they simply don't appear like the typical high level baseball player. The difference in structure that we readily see has everything to do with qualities of sport-specific power. Basketball players are powerhouses in the sagittal (front to back) plane but not the transverse (rotational) plane. Some baseball players are average sprinters and leapers but rotate like a tornado.

Don't get me wrong. You'll be hard pressed to find a high level athlete that's horrible in any one aspect. I'm sure Lebron, for example, can likely apply rotational force far better than the average Joe, but not the average baseball player.

So this brings me to the point of what a baseball player can do to develop rotational power. Throwing and hitting are short, powerful, asymmetrical, rotational movements, and THIS is the heart of sport-specific training for baseball.

Is sprinting and plyometric jump training in the sagittal plane justified for baseball players? You bet. But there needs to be more. Where do the traditional resistance training methods fit in, and how exactly do we train the transverse plane for strength and power?

Part 2 coming soon.


A Problem with Protocols

Rehabilitation protocols are an important part of physical therapy. They provide guidelines and standards of care to assure appropriate progression after injury or surgery. Protocols communicate expected time-frames for recovery and facilitate the most efficient, high quality healthcare. 

Reading a protocol gives me a sinking feeling. At such and such time, restore this and stop that, this is contraindicated and ensure that you get to that. It sounds so helpful and simple. In practice, protocols are a weight that one person, a mere physical therapist, cannot carry. It feels like juggling 5 bowling pins when your limit is 3.

I understand that "feeling it out" and "let's see how it goes" doesn't cut it when you want to standardize stress applied to surgically repaired tissue. It's no way to define and justify evidence-based practice. But during my 14-year PT career, there have been no ACL or rotator cuff tears or re-tears. There were no broken pins or loose screws. Zero joints have dislocated under my watch. And my offices have thrived as privately owned, independent businesses.

Protocols easily become mindless dictators. Don't answer. Don't ask. Don't try to make sense.

"Okay. Got it. Follow the protocol."

These days, protocol power comes not from surgeons or medical advisory panels, but from accounting departments. Calculated patient encounters, reimbursement rates, and discharge dates drive services rendered. Woe to the patient (and healthcare provider) who doesn't achieve the standard goals within the defined parameters. Protocols give the least credit for the resources invested in people who need care the most.

Protocols are no respecter of persons. There's no formula for our entire system and being. Protocols coldly march forward, day by day, paying no mind to unique body structure and function much less motivation and perspective on what it means to live well. Protocols don't care about your fibromyalgia, stressful workplace, leg length discrepancy, or recently deceased spouse.

And yet protocols are simply one small instance of the health care tail wagging the dog. It's happening everywhere and has effected you already.

As much as I hate what the Affordable Care Act is doing to health care and especially to small businesses, I will resist blaming protocols on President Obama. I know so little, just enough to be aware that the big picture is not so cut-and-dried.

Imagine a time when the patient and provider decide if, when, and how they can be treated. -Sigh-

Nah. That would never work. That would require honesty, transparency, and mass selflessness on behalf of all parties. It would require hope and change from the achievers, the lazy, and everyone in between. This country needs Jesus. No, really.

So this holiday season, encourage your diabetic uncle to find the time and support for an appropriate diet and exercise program. Tell your wayward niece that she really should get out of the house and get a job. And then wish them "Happy Holidays." I'm kidding, of course. Well, kind-a. 

Now where were we? I mean, according to the protocol...