Peaking for the Postseason

A meticulously planned, year-long strength program helped Arizona State finish third in the College World Series last spring.

By Rich Wenner

Rich Wenner, CSCS, is Head Strength Coach for Olympic Sports at Arizona State University. He is one of only 32 strength coaches to be inducted into the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Coach Practitioner Distinction Program.

Training & Conditioning, 15.7, October 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1507/postseason.htm

Thanks to the Arizona State baseball team’s history of success, we receive numerous requests for our strength training program. While it would be easy to simply respond with some sample workouts of sets and reps, that wouldn’t provide the true picture of how we prepare our baseball players for competition. Just as students are often asked to “show their work” when solving math problems, we think the process we use to develop our strength schemes is at least as important as the final result.

We start by dividing the year into stages. Within each stage we employ multiple programs, each emphasizing a different aspect of training. The stages and programs are coordinated to bring the athletes to a peak at the end of the regular season and last through the playoffs.

Using this structure, which is common to most of our sports teams, we have developed a strength program that accomplishes our goals for this squad. Our primary goal is to keep players healthy by strengthening any weak areas and keeping their bodies in balance so they can last an entire 60-plus game season without breaking down. The secondary goal is to increase performance. Some may question this approach, but we firmly believe that if a player is hurt or beaten up, it won’t matter how strong he is because that strength can’t be used.

ANNUAL PLAN
The first step in developing our sports performance program is establishing the annual plan. Starting with the Sunday following the final game of the season, we list each of the next 52 weeks and pencil in the important milestone dates that the strength program is scheduled around.

These dates include the obvious ones such as the beginning of practice and our competition schedule, but it also includes “uncontrollable factor” dates. These are dates outside of athletics that will affect the training schedule, such as holidays, exams, and semester starts. We also include our testing dates, which occur at the beginning and end of the fall season.

All these dates are taken into account when we determine the length of the training cycles and the workload for specific weeks. For example, we typically use two- or four-week cycles because we find that gives athletes enough time to get used to exercises without physical and mental adaptation setting in. But we occasionally have to use three- or five-week cycles if we lose workout time to final exams or holidays. On the plus side, certain weeks such as Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July serve as natural downtime in a periodized plan.

During the season, competition dates will determine the content for each training week. A week with one or two home games, for example, will have much more lifting than a week with four or more road games.

STAGE COACHING
Once we’ve established our milestone dates, we start filling in our program calendar. We first divide the year into three stages: rejuvenation, developmental, and competitive. Each stage is then divided into lifting cycles.

The rejuvenation stage is the shortest stage, lasting from three to six weeks, depending on how far we go into the NCAA playoffs. The rejuvenation stage serves as a buffer between the end of the playing season and the beginning of our strength-development phase.

We start with a short (one or two week) postseason program, which varies by player. Starters who are run down by the demands of a full season may be given some time off while backup players may do simple active recovery work. Players needing extra or specialized work will lift three times a week. This group includes players in injury rehab or those needing to add extra strength and bulk for the following season.

This is followed by two to four weeks of off-season work. Except for players already following a specialized plan, we use our General Conditioning cycle designed to prepare the players for the strenuous workouts they will encounter in the development stage.

Since we gear the Gen-c cycle toward the individual athlete, it has several different looks. For most of our returning athletes, we use a high-volume circuit-type workout. Typically, this would consist of three or four sets of eight reps of seven to 10 exercises, alternating upper and lower body exercises along with conditioning work.

However, if the player is in serious need of strength or size gain, then we emphasize hypertrophy. In this case we would use more weight and do sets of 12 reps. (See “General Conditioning” below for a sample workout.)

The developmental stage is where most of the strength and power gains will be produced. It typically lasts 20 to 25 weeks, beginning four weeks after the start of the rejuvenation stage and continuing until the official start of practice.

During the developmental stage, most players will do strength work three times a week. Players in need of extra strength work or those rehabbing a injury may do one or two extra 20- to 30-minute workouts each week.

We start the developmental stage with several weeks of the Strength cycle. Several different training methods may be used depending on the strength-training background of the athlete and the sequencing of the program in the developmental stage. For players experienced in weight training, we’ll use max-effort lifting. For less-trained players, we’ll stick with traditional strength-training sets. (See “Strength” below for a sample workout.)

As our players start fall classes, we return to General Conditioning cycle workouts. If a player has been training hard all summer, this serves as a new stimulus of training. For players new to the program or who have been training sporadically, such as those who were unable to lift consistently while playing in a summer league, it serves as a way to get into training shape.

Three weeks of the General Conditioning cycle is followed by four weeks of the Strength cycle. We then switch to our Explosive Power cycle for four weeks. Once again, several different training methods will be used. Athletes with several years of strength training in their background will employ dynamic-type training using bands and chains. Complex-type training will be used for the athletes who have had less strength-training experience. (See “Explosive Power” below for a sample workout.)

All players also do a standard plyometric set, which usually consists of Vertimax work, tuck jumps, split jumps, and skater jumps. We alternate the Strength and Explosive Power cycles through the fall before going into a maintenance mode with lesser loads in December to avoid overworking the players.

The competitive stage begins the day of our first official practice and runs through the end of the playoffs. We split this stage into three programs: preseason, in-season, and championship season. In all three programs, we use both Strength and Explosive Power cycles, but with work loads and exercises designed to maintain strength and power rather than increase it.

During the preseason, players will generally lift three times per week if they are not too broken down from practice. Since the strength workouts are conducted following practice, we often alter the planned workouts to compensate for fatigue.

In-season, we generally lift twice per week, but depending on the game and travel schedule we may get to perform three workouts in some weeks and only one in others. During the championship season, we try to complete two workouts per week, but that depends on whether we host any playoff rounds or if we travel. We are less concerned about volume during the championship season because we often end up playing more games in a shorter amount of time than the regular season, and we don’t want to overwork the players.

CYCLING THROUGH
As strength and explosive power cycles are repeated, the exercises, sets, and reps schemes are changed to avoid adaptation. We try to avoid making these changes during any week that contains a lengthy road trip, transition from preseason to in-season or from in-season to championship season play, or any big games. During the season, there may be no good time to change workouts, so we often just choose the least bad time to change.

Although we schedule in advance what cycles will be used for the entire season, we do not choose the exact exercises for that cycle until we write the workouts about a week before starting a new one. This way, we can base our selection on what kind of group we have and what has and has not worked before. For example, if the players have been doing great on their single-leg lifts in one cycle, we’ll move on to something else in the next. But if they’ve struggled with the single-leg lifts in one cycle, we’ll carry some over into the next cycle with some variations in sets and reps.

Ideally, our cycles are four weeks in length with three medium-heavy to heavy weeks and one light week. That way we can accommodate a week with a lot of road games with a light week, or we can use the light week as recovery time.

DAY PLANNER
Generally, the weekly plan consists of three full-body workouts per week performed on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Each session will have three main exercises. We do five to eight sets of the primary exercise for each, which we also call our foundational exercise. We do three to six sets of our supplemental exercise, and two to four sets of our major assistant exercise. Assuming an ideal week of three lifting days, we rotate total body, lower body, and upper body training through the foundational, supplemental, and major assistant positions. (See “Exercise Rotation” below.)

Each exercise is also assigned to one of three rotating categories: volume, strength, or power. When done for volume, we use more reps per set and lower weight loads. For strength, we use fewer reps and greater weight loads. Weights and reps for the power exercises fall between those used for strength and volume with an emphasis on performing the exercise as explosively as possible.

To determine each day’s workout, we follow a common template, no matter what cycle we’re in. The format is pre-work, foundational exercise, supplemental exercise, major assistant exercise, auxiliary circuit, and post-work. (See “Daily Workout” below for a full sample workout.)

The pre-work consists of mobility drills for the ankle, hip, and shoulder, along with exercises to get the abdominals, lower back, and glutes warmed up. These include partner ankle-mobility exercises, staggered-stance shoulder presses to open up the hip flexors and shoulder joint, supine leg-lowering exercises, hip bridges, single-leg Romanian dead lifts, and various crunches, with holds being our mainstays. Other exercises we occasionally rotate in are overhead squats, hurdle mobility drills, Supermans, back extensions, band good-mornings, and a lunge matrix.

Our foundational total body exercises are based off of a pull movement (shrug pull, power pull, etc.) during the developmental stage, and the Hammer Jammer during the competitive stage. We avoid power cleans due to the stress they place on the wrist. Our supplemental and major assistance exercises for the total body usually involve a resisted jump-type movement.

The foundational lifts for the lower body are the squat in the developmental stage and step-ups or lunges in the competitive stage. We have found step-ups and lunges to be a little safer during the season, although some advanced players, especially catchers, will squat all season long. Supplemental lifts for the lower body are speed squats and front squats in the developmental stage and walking lunges or single-leg squats in the competitive stage. Major assistant lifts for the lower body are unilateral leg exercises such as single-leg squats, walking lunges, lunges, or step-ups in the developmental stage and unilateral multi-directional exercises in the competitive stage.

Upper body foundational exercises will be some type of lat/upper back exercise, such as pull-ups during the competitive stage and pressing movements, such as bench presses, in the developmental stage. The supplemental exercises will be a pressing movement in the competitive stage and an upper back/lat movement during the developmental stage. The major assistance exercise will be a unilateral pressing movement during the developmental stage and a unilateral upper back/lat movement during the competitive stage.

The auxiliary circuit generally consists of a unilateral leg exercise, an upper back exercise, a glute/ham exercise, and a shoulder exercise, but will vary greatly from player to player based on specific weaknesses that need to be addressed. The post work generally consists of abdominal and posterior chain exercises, rotator cuff work, partner stretching, and arm care.

During most workouts, we split our players into two groups: those who have substantial strength-training experience and those who don’t. We can then challenge the experienced lifters a little more without putting less experienced lifters at risk. We do adjust the workouts slightly by position, with pitchers generally doing a little less upper body work and more explosive leg work and unilateral work. But we have found that differences between experienced and inexperienced lifters are far greater than the differing needs of position players and pitchers.

This program probably won’t work everywhere, but it works for us. What can work anywhere, though, is the system we use to create our program. By splitting the year into stages and fitting the proper group of exercises into each stage, you can create a program that will work for your team.



Table One
General Conditioning
This shows a typical week’s worth of strength exercises for the General Conditioning cycle.
. . . . . . .Monday . . . . . . . . Wednesday . . . . . . . . Friday
Volume.....Db comple......Walking lunge...Stability ball Db bench
Strength....Leg press............Db bench.....................Vertimax
Power....Med ball chest pass....Db squat jumps........Step-up


Table Two
Strength
This shows a typical week’s worth of strength exercises for the Strength cycle.
. . . . . . . . . . . Monday . . . . . . . Wednesday . . . . . . . . . Friday
Strength.........Power pull.............Back squat.............Bench press
Power............Speed squat...........Chain bench.............Shrug pull
Volume...........Db bench..............Db complex...............Step-up


Table Three
Explosive Power
This shows a typical week’s worth of strength exercises for the Explosive Power cycle.
. . . . . . . . . . . .Monday . . . . . . . Wednesday . . . . . . . . .Friday
Power.............Vertimax...........Speed squat....Med ball chest pass
Strength........Back squat..........Bench press...............Power pull
Volume..........Db bench..........Db squat jumps..............Step-up


Table Four
Exercise Rotation
Here’s an example of how exercises are rotated through foundational, supplemental, and major assistant emphasis in a typical training week.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Monday . . . . . . Wednesday . . . . . .Friday
Foundational............Total Body...........Lower Body....Upper Body
(5-8 sets)
Supplemental..........Lower Body..........Upper Body......Total Body
(3-6 sets)
Major Assistant.......Upper Body...........Total Body.....Lower Body
(2-4 sets)


Table Five
Daily Workout
This an example of a daily workout in the Strength cycle.
Prework.........Partner ankle stretches
.....................Shoulder press
.....................Crunch and hold
.....................Strength-led heel touch
.....................Single-leg Romanian dead lift

Foundational.............Power pull

Supplemental............Speed squat

Major Assistant..........Db bench

Auxiliary Circuit.........Walking lunge
..................................Db row
.................................Glute ham raise
.................................Arnold press

Post Work..................V-ups
.................................Reverse hypers
.................................Internal/external rotations
.................................Arm care program
.................................Ham, pec, rotator stretches