5 Training Tips for the High School Baseball/Football Athlete (Guest Post by Noel Piepgrass)

Note from the editor: We are very fortunate to have a great guest poster today. Coach Noel Piepgrass has a wealth of knowledge built through years of strength and conditioning experience, both at the high school and collegiate level. I’m very thankful that Coach Piepgrass is willing to share with us on this topic: training tips for the high school student-athlete that plays and trains for both baseball and football. As a football, baseball, and strength coach himself, Coach Piepgrass certainly has the pertinent experience to back all of the advice given. I certainly learned a lot just from reading this piece, not to mention our prior phone conversations on all things strength & conditioning.

For more info (including contact information) on Coach Piepgrass, check out his bio at the conclusion of the post. Hope you enjoy!

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I’m a huge fan of the multi-sport athlete for many reasons.  Playing multiple sports helps the young athlete develop well-rounded athleticism and personal balance, plus as a guy who’s coached at small schools, getting the best athletes to play multiple sports is the only way to compete with the bigger schools in our league and division (without resorting to the “frowned upon” practice of recruiting blue-chippers!).  However, one of the tricks for me is creating programs that meet the needs of the multi-sport athlete.

For two major reasons one of the most important balances in this regard is working with the football-baseball athlete.  First of all, most high school strength and conditioning is football driven because it’s often a football coach teaching the class or running the after school program.  Secondly, playing baseball (as well as other overhead sports like volleyball, softball, tennis, and swimming) places unique demands on the needs of the student-athlete because of the prevalence of injuries to the elbow and shoulder.  Put differently, the traditional high school football training program may well place unnecessary and undesirable stresses on the body (especially the shoulder and elbow) of the football-baseball athlete.

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However, despite this tricky dynamic, the football-baseball combination provides the student-athlete with a few advantages.  During the fall he gets away from the diamond and devotes himself to football.  It’s a great marriage because football is an anaerobic sport that cultivates physical toughness, mental discipline, and areas of athleticism that are important, but less developed in baseball (which places an emphasis on lateral movement, change of direction, and work capacity).  It’s also a great fit because the seasons of play match up so well.  The fall is the perfect time for a baseball player to take some time away from the game, allowing his arm to recover from the stresses of throwing, and his posture to re-set from the asymmetric, unilateral nature of baseball, while still allowing him enough off-season to train and prepare for the baseball season.

The point of this article is to talk about how the football-baseball player can strength train in a way that “keeps their football coach happy” while protecting, and in fact developing, their throwing arm.

*For the most part, this article assumes that your coach is using the typical football-training program (heavily focused on the Clean, Bench, and Back Squat).  It’s possible that it’s better (or worse) than that.  Just keep in mind this article is not intended to be an attack on your High School Football Coach, but a means to enhance their program to your benefit.

Before we get to the suggestions, please note the following caveats:     

3 Caveats:

1. Respect your Football Coach

The average high school football coach puts in boatloads of time and energy, with little to be gained in terms of monetary compensation. As a high school athlete, it’s important that you learn to respect the authority of your coach.  He’s in charge, not you.  Treat your coach with respect.

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2. Work Hard

In my experience, the high school students who ask for the most, tend to be the ones who put out the least.  Do the opposite.  Earn the respect of your coaches and teammates by being the hardest working player in the weight room.  Do what you’re told as best you can, every single day.  Show up over and over and over again so that a training session without you is like a cow-pie without a fly.  If you’re not training hard you don’t deserve to spare your throwing arm and honestly, your football coach’s training program is the least of your concerns when it comes to arm health.

In the same vein, train well.  If you are not a detailed technician on every lift and exercise, then a change in exercise selection is unlikely to be what you need most.  Doing a non-shoulder friendly exercise like the bench press well makes it a whole lot more shoulder friendly than bastardizing a set of “shoulder-friendly” push ups.  When it becomes necessary to ask your football coach for some shoulder friendly exercise mods, it will go a long way to have earned his respect and trust through your hard work.

3. Ask for Permission to Make Modifications:

Key first word, “ask”.  This goes along with the idea of respecting your coach.  Remember who’s in charge.  If you ask your coach and you do so respectfully, I’m willing to bet your conversation will go a lot better.

With those caveats in mind, here are some suggestions for modifying the “typical” football training program to accommodate the goals of a football-baseball student-athlete.

5 Suggestions to Save Your Arm While Training for Football

1. Avoid Anterior Humeral Glide

Put simply, Anterior Humeral Glide (AHG) is a motion that happens when the arm bone slides forward in the shoulder socket while the elbow drifts back behind the body. It’s something to be avoided (especially for the baseball player) because it puts stress on the structures of the anterior capsule (labrum, and capsular ligaments).  If we’re trying to mitigate injuries through training, we’ve got to do everything we can to avoid causing them in training.

Anterior Glide

One way to prevent AHG is by paying special attention to lift technique.  For horizontal pulling and pressing exercises (rows and bench press), be sure to retract the scapulae into neutral with each rep and avoid allowing the elbows to travel behind the body, stopping them at neutral instead (See Figure 1).  Even seemingly innocuous exercises like bicep curls can cause an athlete to drift into AHG if they’re not careful.

Despite all your efforts at maintaining technical proficiency, certain exercises make it impossible to avoid AHG no matter how much attention you pay to shoulder position.  I recommend making the following substitutions:

  • Bench Press –-> DB Bench or Push Up
  • Back Squat –-> Front Squat with arms crossed or Safety Bar Squat 
  • Dips –-> Push Ups or Rows (count these in your push to pull ratio)

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2. Olympic Lift Variations

Variations of the clean and snatch are used in almost every football training program I’ve ever come across.  These exercises are great for developing power, but for the baseball player, they tend to place undue stress on the shoulders, elbows, and wrists.  For this reason, I prefer to swap them out in favor of some safer alternatives.  Here are the substitutions I recommend you make:

  • Clean –> High Pull
  • Push Jerk/Press or Snatch – DB/KB Swing

*If your program does not contain Rotational Medicine Ball Throws, I highly recommend you add them.  Power development is directionally dependent.  Rotational Power training with a Medicine Ball helps to develop the twisting power needed to excel in throwing and hitting.

3. “Reverse Imbalance” Push to Pull Ratios

The term “reverse imbalance” (credit: Eric Cressey) refers to the concept of executing pulling exercises for more sets and reps than pushing exercises as to reverse the front side imbalance that tends to exist as a result of too much sitting with hunched posture, and training plans dominated by front side exercises (e.g. bench and curls)  In the presence of this front side imbalance, one must create a “reverse imbalance” in order to overcome these issues or you’ll leave yourself at risk for shoulder injury.

Therefore, aim to pull more than you press (in a traditional training program for football, the ratio is typically skewed heavily towards presses like Bench Press, Incline Press, and Military Press).  In programs that I write, we press 3 times/week, for 3-5 sets during an off-season training phase, so I make sure we pull 4 times/week for 3-5 sets in that same phase.  I also focus on horizontal pulling so that we get at least as many sets and reps with horizontal pulling (row variations) as we get with vertical pulling (chin ups, pull downs, etc.). If your football coach’s program is heavy on the pressing, ask if you can substitute a rowing variation for a press, i.e. 1 Arm DB Row instead of Incline Press.

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4. Substitute Crunching and Twisting for Stabilizing the Core

Advances in Core Training have begun to saturate the training industry and it’s possible your football coach has even caught on.  That being said, it’s amazing how often I still see sit-up and crunch variations programmed.  Despite the research that shows the dangers of high volume crunching and our knowledge of the core’s role in stabilizing the spine, many coaches just can’t resist.

Most baseball players recognize that the core plays a valuable role in the transfer of force from the legs to the arms.  However, a training plan built around sit-ups and crunches isn’t going to do the trick. The Baseball player must have a plan for addressing stability in three directions. I recommend making sure to complete one exercise per week in each of these categories for 2-4 sets.

5. Arm Care, NOT “Gun Show”

In the Football training programs I write, I almost always include some direct arm work to help my guys put on mass and to give them that psychological edge that comes from feeling “swole”.  In fact, nearly every football player that I’ve ever been around is figuring out a way to mix in some time at the “gun club” whether it’s in the program or not!  That being said, as a baseball player, I highly recommend you say no.  The direct arm work will not add significantly to your play on the football field and it may end up irritating the precarious forearm/elbow flexor mass or biceps tendon of an overhead athlete.  When the rest of the guys are doing the mirror lifts, I suggest you take the time to get in a good arm care program focusing on T-Spine Mobility, Scapular Stability, and Rotator Cuff Timing.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Noel Piepgrass is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS) and Certified Sports Nutritionist (CiSSN) with a Master’s degree in Kinesiology.  After coaching in weight rooms at Boston University and Fresno State University, he has spent the last decade coaching Football, Baseball, and Track & Field at the High School level.  While at Central Valley Christian, Noel was credited with developing one of Central California’s leading high school strength and conditioning programs.  His unique approach to writing is aimed toward the high school student-athlete and coach who operate within a school setting.  In 2015, Noel created OMNISTRONG: The Complete System for Team-Based Training.  His digital training system is a resource designed to empower the Team Sport Coach/Athlete with all the tools necessary for delivering an elite level training program.  

Follow Noel on Twitter and Instagram (@noelpiepgrass and @OmniStrong) or visit his website at www.omnistrong.net.  If you have questions, send them directly to noel@omnistrong.net

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