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.

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