A Strong Swing

Michigan State shares how it reduces injuries and develops explosive power among its softball athletes.

By Tim Wakeham

Tim Wakeham, MS, CSCC, is an Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach at Michigan State University.

Training & Conditioning, 13.9, December 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1309/strongswing.htm

It is a beautiful day in East Lansing, Mich., and softball is finishing up a weightroom workout. Jessica Beech, our All-America pitcher, is beginning to grimace from the burning in her shoulders as she works through her seventh rotation of the upper-body dumbbell shoulder matrix.

“Do you have desire or determination?” I ask.

“Determination!” she replies.

“If you bring it every day, that shoulder will stay healthy,” I proclaim before moving on to Brittney Green.

Brittney plays third base and is about to start her last pull of the weighted pulley shuffle. “Jump from the line and be explosive!” I challenge. The 130-pound weight stack accelerates with each of her steps. “Welcome to greatness—you’re going to surprise people,” I say with a wink.

I’m proud of our softball team because they are training with the confidence and courage needed to accomplish our goals of injury prevention and enhanced explosiveness. We achieve both of these goals through a purposeful strength and conditioning program.

At Michigan State, we start our softball programming with a focus on increasing strength via weight training. We prescribe a full-body strengthening program addressing the top injury sites for softball players, which are the shoulder, knee, and ankle. The underpinnings of our weight room program include multi-directional, single- and multi-joint exercises using multiple modes (body weight, medicine balls, Swiss balls, bands, dumbbells, barbells, balance equipment, and machines). Table One (below) shows our most commonly prescribed exercises. We’re confident these exercises decrease injuries and enhance explosiveness.

The specific exercises we use to target the power zone (torso and legs) include the front lunge, weighted pulley circuit, and ground-based torso (band) rotation. Exercises we use for shoulder strengthening focus on the anterior, posterior, medial, and intrinsic rotator cuff musculature. This is accomplished with a variety of forward, lateral, and posterior arm raises, along with external cuff rotations. Seated and sometimes standing shoulder presses are also performed, unless the athlete has joint pain.

We prevent major knee and ankle injury through balance training. Our softball athletes perform an assortment of single-leg balancing drills that last between 15 and 60 seconds per exercise. As an example, we perform an exercise called tri-planar balancing. In this exercise the weighted leg is stationary while the other leg is suspended for 15 seconds in front of the body, laterally, then with the hip rotated (open like a swinging gate) to the side. Difficulty is progressively increased by changing to a more unstable surface (such as a wobble board), adding work time, closing one or both eyes, and turning the head to the right or left.

Our general preseason strength training framework consists of an average of three sets each for the hips and upper back, two sets each for the chest, shoulders, and hamstrings, four sets for the torso and one set for the forearms and calves each workout. Athletes lift two to three non-consecutive days per week, depending on their ability to recover and continue progressing.

All athletes are inspired to systematically work their muscles harder over time. Specifically, Spartan softball players are instructed to increase their weight load as much as possible every time they accomplish the assigned repetition target for a set or exercise. If the repetition target isn’t achieved, softball players are asked to gradually add repetitions until they reach the target.

During our 12-week preseason phase, our repetition targets for most areas start at an average of 13 and decrease by four repetitions every four weeks down to five. The exception is the torso, where most exercises start and stay at a 20 rep target. To ensure purposeful training, athletes chart their progress on workout cards every time they lift.

Based on our thorough review of the literature, we do not believe there are any magical weight room exercises that create optimal explosiveness in softball athletes. Simply put, there are too many differences between all weightroom exercises and softball performance. Instead, our primary focus is on specific action training—exact sport movements performed at sport speeds under sport conditions. Most of this training is done as part of our agility work.

Prior to our agility training, athletes perform a dynamic warm up. It is during this time that we teach body conrol and awareness in order to prevent major knee injury. Specifically, we instruct our athletes to:

• Initiate movement from the gluteals and hamstrings.

• Keep their knees between their first and second toes when bending during cutting and decelerating.

• Use several small steps when decelerating from sprinting.

We also warn them about high-risk sport-specific positions, postures, and movements and suggest safe reactionary countermeasures. Some of these high-risk positions include playing with straight legs and twisting the body with the knee aligned inside the big toe.

Our explosive agility work consists of sport movements such as multi-directional starts, sprints, and cuts performed at maximum speed and with precise technique. Specifically, our softball players perform interval base running, shuffle and sprint, turn and sprint, and multi-directional bursts. We emphasize precise and coordinated acceleration, deceleration, and stabilization.

In addition, we vary the starting positions and first steps. Michigan State softball players perform starts from their abdominals, backs, knees, and feet. You never know when your players will have to be explosive off the ground. Furthermore, we vary the first steps taken between an open, crossover, and pivot foot position.

After athletes demonstrate competent movement efficiency, we stress skillful explosiveness—agility at game speeds. Eventually, our objective is to have the athletes perform the movement patterns as purposeful, conditioned explosive reflexes rather than skills that must be thought about before execution.

Most drills have a three- to 10-second duration and long recovery periods (5:1 rest-to-work ratio). To see optimal gains in movement efficiency and absolute explosiveness, athletes need to train in a non-fatigued state. This teaches the athletes to consistently demonstrate maximal efforts and coordinate their movements efficiently at high speeds.

During these workouts, we take as much time as needed to identify and correct biomechanical errors as well as teach efficient sport-specific movements. Even though most practitioners share a general consensus regarding what constitutes efficient sprinting and agility movement mechanics, technique may be different from athlete to athlete in small but significant ways depending on their physiological characteristics. This being said, all technical refinements should be instituted on a trial-and-error basis to see how the athlete responds.

We have put together a 15-page nutrition packet for all of our softball players. The objectives of the packet are to assist in the development of favorable body compositions for optimal explosiveness and to ensure optimal recovery so players have the energy needed for consistent explosive performance.

Some of our players want to reduce body fat, some want to increase muscle mass, and others simply want to stay energized for each practice. The booklet provides general information regarding what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat each day in order to accomplish the player’s specific performance goals. It also covers hydration, eating on the road, supplements, stress fractures, alcohol consumption, and the rest needs of elite athletes.

If a player’s needs are more complex, we have her consult with a registered dietician who can provide a body composition analysis, evaluation of current diet, determination of optimal and realistic body composition expectations, and diet modification strategies.

The best strength and conditioning programs take each athlete’s individual qualities into account—something we try to do as much as our resources allow. Some of our general strength training prescriptions for softball are adapted based on position needs and physical training status. For example, if an athlete has adequate strength but a poor body composition profile, we decrease the volume of the weight-training workout and increase her number of explosive agility and conditioning exercises.

Pitchers are a unique group on every team, but they are not treated much differently than our position players at Michigan State. The small changes that are made to our pitchers’ workouts include the addition of exercises for the serratus anterior, which plays a role in the windmill softball pitch (along with the shoulder exercises mentioned previously). An example exercise is the walk-out position while on a Swiss ball (legs on ball, hands on floor) with the shoulder blades protracted and body straight.

Other changes made for pitchers include reductions to the frequency, volume, and/or resistance used by the pitching arm. These reductions are made because of the high volume of throwing performed during the preseason. Recovery may be the most significant way to keep pitchers healthy.

In addition to stating what we do, it may be important to state what we do not do. We have stopped prescribing certain exercises and modified others in an attempt to reduce the chance of exacerbating or causing tendonitis, impingement, and lesions.

For example, we do not allow our softball players to go through more than 90 degrees of flexion at the elbows during upper body pressing movements or allow players’ elbows behind their body. Specifically, we do not prescribe behind the neck shoulder presses, behind the neck pull-downs, dips, upright rows, deep (large range of motion) dumbbell flyes, and wide-grip bench presses. We’ve made these changes based not on specific scientific evidence, but on our experience working with our players.

We have listed our general philosophy and methods for training our athletes from the neck down. To achieve championship success, you must also coach your players from the neck up. Instruct, inspire, and listen to your athletes day in and day out. Engage and respond to them and they will do what is hard and achieve what is great.

References for this article can be found at: www.athleticsearch.com/msusoftball.

Table One: The Basics
The following are the exercises we prescribe most often for our softball athletes:

Upper Body Dumbbell Matrix (a series of tri-planar presses, raises and rotations)
PNF Pattern Posterior Shoulder Raises
Pulley Horizontal Shoulder Abductions
Shoulder Presses (in front of body and only down to 90 degree at elbows)
Lateral Raises

Barbell Squat
Leg Press
Lateral Lunge
Forward and Lateral Step-Up
Leg Curl
Swiss Ball Bridge
Straight Leg Deadlift
Weighted Pulley Circuit (movements include lateral shuffle, forward and backward sprints and slower marches)

Straight-leg toe raises
Bent-knee toe raises
Single-leg balancing
Band skaters
Sport-specific agility conditioning

Band figure eights
Prone ‘j’ strokes
Ground-based band rotations
Sky touches
Lying side crunch w/rotation
Lying alternating hip flexions

Table Two: Warmup
In our warmup drills we focus on body-control and awareness. Softball players run 40 yards total, while performing the listed movements. If the movement has an asterisk after it, players run 20 yards forward and 20 yards backward.

Lower body matrix hop x 2 rotations
Shuffles with 180-degree turns
Backwards run (with high foot lift and long strides)
Crossovers (feet crossover the midline of the body)*
High knee carioca
Straight-leg kick/toe touch
360-degree skip/run.
High knee skipping
Diagonal bounding*
One leg lateral hop*
Quickstep carioca (short/choppy steps with a lot of hip rotation)
Acceleration build-ups