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Developing Baseball Power: What the Latest Research Says

Posted Aug 14 2012 10:51am
Back in my What I Learned in 2010 feature, I made the following observation:

Babe Ruth hit a ton of homeruns in spite of being a seemingly out-of-shape fat guy. I've seen more than dozen pitchers throw well above 90 mph without even being able to vertical jump 23 inches.

What gives? Well, these athletes are just incredibly efficient – and powerful – in the transverse and frontal planes. Would being an elite sprinter make one a successful hitter or pitcher? Of course not, yet most strength and conditioning coaches train their rotational sport athletes as if they were trying to elevate them to elite status in a sagittal-plane dominant sport. They assume that general exercises like squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts will simply carry over once an athlete starts throwing or hitting.

And, to some degree, they do carry over because of the involved structures and systemic training effect, but I think that there's a way to tighten up the learning loop.

People think I'm crazy when I say that we don't Olympic lift our baseball players. We also don't do much vertical jumping. At the end of the day, jumping high doesn't really matter that much. Rotating fast and moving laterally quickly does, though, so we focus our power-oriented work on rotational medicine ball drills and lots of laterally-directed jumping/landing, and supplement it with lifting and sprinting.

I reiterated these thoughts a few weeks ago with my post, Why Baseball Players Shouldn't Olympic Lift .  This kicked off some heated debates, so I thought I'd contact Graeme Lehman for an interview on the topic.  As a brief background, back in 2010 - just a few months after I had the aforementioned article published - Graeme informed me that he was actually in the process of researching this very topic for his master's thesis.  Today, we're fortunate to have him here to discuss his findings and their practical applications.

EC: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Graeme. Can you start off by telling me a bit about both your baseball and educational backgrounds?

GL: First of all, thank you for asking me to do this interview; it is an honor to be a guest on your site, which I have used as an educational resource for years.

Baseball has always been my sport of choice despite growing up in Edmonton, Alberta during the 80s with the best hockey team ever assembled playing in my back yard (five Stanley Cups in seven years). I was fortunate enough to secure a scholarship to play baseball in North Dakota, but the school I attended didn’t have a kinesiology program, so I chose the major that I thought would afford me the best chance of getting a job, a degree in business administration. Ironically, and perhaps fatefully, my business degree got me a job as the manager of a small personal training studio. One day a trainer didn’t show up and I was thrown into the fire.

This first experience in a strength coach setting fueled a new found desire to educate myself about the world of exercise science. I read everything I could get my hands on including all of the articles that guys like you, Mike Robertson, Chad Waterbury, Mike Boyle wrote for T-Nation. I was hooked, and in 2006, I became a CSCS, and just one year later I was enrolled in a graduate school at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Dr. David Behm’s Kinesiology program.

Since my collegiate days in ND, I have been both a baseball coach and strength coach for various individuals and teams including two years as the S&C for the UBC Thunderbirds. I have also continued playing in various men’s leagues in order to test out my own theories and keep chasing the dream hoping to become the next Jim Morris.

In case you’re trying to follow along with the various places I lived, they were:

1- Edmonton, Alberta (cold)
2- Jamestown, North Dakota (cold & windy)
3- St. John’s, Newfoundland (cold, windy and wet)
4- Vancouver, British Columbia (wet)

Living in these less than ideal climates has really made me excited about the work you do and the results you get in snowy Hudson, Massachusetts.

EC: How did you wind up deciding to pursue this research study, and what was the hypothesis that you were testing?

GL: My initial reasoning was quite simple: I wanted to help baseball players throw harder. As a strength coach, I thought that improving lower body power would be one of the best ways to achieve this goal. This led me to question: “what kind of lower body power can be improved in order to have a better chance of carrying over from the weight room to the baseball diamond?”

In the past, scores from traditional tests like vertical jump, broad jump and 60-yard dash times have not had any significant correlation to throwing velocity (Spaniol 1997). This made some sense because I have known some guys that I wouldn’t call “athletic” but could still throw gas. Mechanics obviously play a huge roll, but there is some research that stress’ the importance of lower body power in creating throwing velocity.

MacWilllams et al. (1998) showed that higher levels of force production by the back leg in the direction towards the plate led to higher wrist/ball velocity. While Matsuo et al. (2001) showed that what happens to a pitchers front knee between the time the front foot hits the ground and the time the ball is released is the key differentiator between “low” and “high” velocity throwing groups. Those that had the ability to extend their knee rather than going into further flexion threw harder.

So, it’s pretty easy to see that each leg is performing independent actions in a number of planes which don’t carry over to traditional bi-lateral sagittal. Thus, the principal of specificity was not taken into account and I know from your research, Eric, that you hate it when this principal is ignored.

It became obvious that we should be including tests which look at independent leg action, different planes of motion along with different kinds of strength (concentric, isometric, isometric).

EC: What kind of subjects did you have participating in the study, and what challenges did you face in dealing with them?

GL: My subjects were all male college level baseball players from two different teams. In total, I had 42 subjects who were approximately 19.8 years old and 183.3 cm tall and weighed 83.1 kg.

The biggest challenge was to create a list of tests which covered a wide spectrum of lower body power qualities to complement traditional running and jumping tests, which I also included. Each test also had to be easily reproduced by any strength or baseball coach in order to make this information user-friendly.

EC: Please describe your methods and the results you attained.

GL: We split up the athletes into left and right handed subjects and we measured throwing velocity was in two ways
(1) Stationary throwing - similar to a pitcher throwing from the stretch.
(2) Shuffle approach - similar to a third basemen making a strong throw across the diamond.

This gave us four different groups. The throwing velocities from each group were correlated against the results of each lower body power test along with height and weight, looking for any significance. While there were was some correlation to body weight and med ball throws in one or two of the groups, only one test batted 1.000: the lateral to medial jump. This was the only test that was performed in the frontal plane.

Here is what this test looks likes. Stand on one leg then jump towards your midline in the frontal plane. Land with both feet together at the same time and take the measurement from the closest body part (lateral edge of the inside foot) to the starting line.

Since the lateral to medial jump score of the same side leg to the throwing arm (right leg for righties) went 4 for 4 in showing a positive correlation in each group, we made the conclusion that power is plane specific.

This was one of these “duh” moments because it makes obvious sense. If I can have more energy going towards my target, I have a better chance to transferring more energy up the kinetic chain to my throwing arm. If the rules didn’t stop me I would crow hop every time I pitched (like a Trevor Bauer warm-up) pitch trying to get as much as energy as I can going towards my target.

The pitching coach in me wants to warn against the young pitcher reading this and going out and trying jump towards the plate in order to boost their fastball. While it is important to initiate energy towards your target you need to be strong enough to capture and transfer that energy towards. If you aren’t strong enough on the front side you will exhibit what we in the business call an energy leak, just like the “low throwing velocity group from Matsuo’s study.

[Note from EC: for more reading on this front, check out my series, Increasing Pitching Velocity: What Stride Length Means and How to Improve It - Part 1 , Part 2 , and Part 3 .]

EC: Okay, these are all well and good, but let’s talk practical applications. What can coaches take away from your research to immediately make their baseball strength and conditioning programs better?

GL: I think this helps us make smarter decisions in what we need to add/emphasize in our programs, and what we can subtract/deemphasize. Basically, we need to add more exercises that will improve frontal plane power and subtract some of the exercises that don’t. For example, hang cleans and drop jumps might help increase vertical jumping ability, but if goal is to throw 90mph these might not be the best use of our limited amount of time and energy.

The hard part about training the frontal plane is that your options are limited by traditional weight training. We need to think outside of the box like Bret Contreras did with his hip thrust in trying to improve running speed. Exercises that I would say to add or emphasis would be band resisted lateral jumps and lateral sled dragging since they are both performed in the frontal plane.

On the flip side, if we spend time working on creating more energy, we also have to think about how we can absorb it and ultimately transfer it to the baseball. This makes me think that single-leg training is very important, so we need to emphasize qualities like concentric strength for the back leg and eccentric strength for the lead leg.

EC: How about future research? What do we need to study next in order to build on these findings to continue to improve our understanding of long-term management of overhead throwing athletes, particularly pitchers?

GL: The next step would be to create a long-term study where a group of experienced baseball players train for 4-8 weeks. One group would include some frontal plane movements and the other wouldn’t. Test both pre and post throwing velocity and you’ve got another study. I wish I had the resources to do this, but I also don’t feel very ethical having some young baseball players not using these any frontal plane movements.

I think that these results also point to the fact that throwing a baseball is a full body movement. If we can get our pitchers throwing more like athletes and harness the power created by the lower body, we can eliminate some stress from the throwing arm keeping more baseball players in the game.

EC: Thank you very much for your great insights. Where can my readers find more from you?

GL: Thank you again for having me. I have a blog where I translate some of the geeky exercise science research related to baseball into Layman’s terms (cheesy use of my last name but it works). My goal there is to cover the gaps between the research lab, weight room and baseball field so that more players and coaches can benefit from all the information that is available.

You can also find me at Inside Performance , which is an awesome indoor baseball training facility in North Vancouver (possibly the rainiest place in the world) where I work as a S&C coach.

References

MacWilliams, B, Choi, T, Perezous, M, Chao, E, and McFarland, E. Characteristic ground reaction forces in baseball pitches. Am J Sports Med 26: 66-71, 1998.

Matsuo, T, Escamilla, R, Fleisig, G, Barrentine, S, and Andrews, J. Comparison of kinematic and temporal parameters between different pitch velocity groups. J Appl Biomech 17: 1-13, 2001.

Spaniol, FJ. Predicting throwing velocity in college baseball players. J Strength Cond Res 11: 286, 1997.

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