Pitcher-Specific Strength Training | Is there a need at the high school level?

One of the most common questions that I field in terms of baseball training programs comes in the form of a high school coach, player, or parent requesting a “pitcher-specific” training program. While it is admirable to try to provide the best and most highly-applicable resources possible for young athletes, oftentimes the perception of “pitcher-specific workouts” appears to be slightly skewed due to the programs implemented at higher levels of baseball. In this article we will discuss the what a “pitcher-specific training program” really means for the high school pitcher and ways to tailor a more generalized program to the pitcher.

Disclaimer: the thoughts and opinions shared here do not reflect that of my current employer or those of my past employers. Thoughts and opinions are my own.

Why you shouldn’t write two separate programs:

When coaches or players reach out, they are typically looking for a program for the pitcher that is entirely different from the “traditional” program given to positions players, or the team as a whole. While it is certainly respectable to seek out and provide the best resources possible for the players, there are a number of reasons why creating a “pitcher-only” training program is not the most efficient use of time for the player or coach.

Preparation Time

For a high school coach who isn’t trained in the areas of strength and conditioning, and is already lacking confidence in dishing out a training program in the first place, the idea of creating or implementing an additional program for a select group of players is only going to pose greater challenges, both in terms of time and logistics. Instead of teaching one group of athletes one set of exercises each session/block/season, the coach is now tasked to instruct multiple groups of athletes multiple sets of exercises, and then manage the chaos that will probably ensue. Managing a room full of young kids and heavy weights is plenty challenging on its own, let alone with unnecessary complications thrown into the mix.

Even with the most seasoned, educated, and organized coaches, would the extra time needed to conceive and conduct a pitcher-specific program even be worth it at the high school level?

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Is it Worthwhile?

Maybe; but probably not.

First of all, many high school pitchers are two-way players. In this case, should we differentiate their program? Hell, some of them may even be multi-sport athletes; now what should we do? Ultimately, the training program that the athlete undertakes at that level of sport should be focused on developing the total athlete, not just the pitcher; let the highly-specialized program come further down the road when it is more needed and justified.

Additionally, most high school ballplayers have a very low training age (i.e. they have very little meaningful experience in the weight room). This means two things: they desperately need to be taught how to move efficiently and effectively, and just about anything can stimulate adaptations for them initially. Since nearly any form of training can elicit a training response early in an athlete’s training career, why spin our wheels with hyper-specialized programming, when we can accomplish so much more with much less by using more generalized programming targeted at developing the total athlete?

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High school coaches may be influenced to believe that their arms need a pitcher-specific program because these types of programs do exist at subsequent levels of baseball – in the college and professional ranks. But, not only are these athletes more experienced and trained (thus needing more specialized programming to yield adaptation) but they are also more likely to be specialized as a pitcher, and more importantly, their pitching volumes are  much higher, their outings more frequent, and their seasons progressively longer. At this point, a pitcher-specific program is absolutely warranted and justified, and for many reasons.

So, what is a pitcher-specific training program then at the high school level?

All of the above is not to say that a pitcher should not have a program addressing their unique set of needs; that is, a program that addresses their schedule and the demands imposed upon them by the act of pitching. Below are three ways to take the team/base training program and adapt it to the needs of the high school pitcher (without overhauling the entire program).

1. Adapting the Program to their Pitching Schedule

Regardless of level, pitchers and position players experience a different pattern of volume and intensitt in the sport.

Consider the position player who is a daily starter: each game he will expect to generally experience the same intensities and volumes of running, throwing, and swinging (practices tend to follow this trend as well), which could be considered to be at a near-constant level of moderate intensity and volume. Now consider a pitcher: whether a starter or a reliever, the pitcher experiences greater fluctuations of volumes and intensities. Some days they are pitching in games with great effort and with possibly very high volumes, other days they are down completely; some days are in between.

While the goals of a strength-training program are to reduce the likelihood of injury and improve performance, the overall directive is to adapt to the demands of the sport. Thus, a high school pitcher may not necessarily need a highly-specialized program itself, but they certainly may require a more specific training schedule, working around their in-game appearances, bullpens, etc. Still, I personally believe that, with the young but mature athlete, a simple conversation can be had about when the athlete feels most comfortable lifting. The schedule can then be easily determined with very little fuss.

2. Using Variations to Avoid Compromising Positions

The main movements – the squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull and carry – are vital to all athletes, pitcher or position player; as are the major athletic traits for which we are training (i.e. strength, power, resilience, etc.). Each of the above movements have hundreds of exercises that can be used not only to help develop the movement, but also to train for the athletic characteristics that we are seeking. Back Squat, Front Squat, Goblet Squat – no matter; we can pick the most conducive variation for each athlete or position.

For example, if you choose to Front Squat your athletes, you can make a very simple modification (should you choose to) for a pitcher who finds the front rack position uncomfortable. Simply utilize straps or the cross-over grip. In the same nature, Landmine Presses or Push-Ups can be inserted for Bench Press/DB Press, if desired. Olympic derivatives (such as the Clean Pull) can be used without catching, should you choose. A seemingly infinite number of variations can be used to avoid putting the hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, etc. in compromising positions. And, all of this can be done with simple substitution rather than developing an entirely separate training program.

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3. Addressing the Demands of Pitching

Pitching certainly does impose its own set of demands on the athlete; the high-intensity nature of the movement combined with the high volume requires the arm and body as a system to very quickly produce, transfer, exert, and then decelerate immense impulses of force many times over the course of a game. This typically leads to changes in soft-tissue quality and length, in turn impacting movement capabilities.

A pitcher can use their training time to perform pre-emptive work that prepares the body for these demands, and they can also do work after the fact to address the adaptations that are bound to occur as a result of their pitching. Either way, these can be addressed very simply within the training program without having to overhaul the program. For example, simply give pitchers this work as “fillers” in between sets (as active rest), or as its own warm-up/cool-down program pre-/post-lift or practice.

***

Pitchers in baseball often need pitcher-specific training programs. This, though, becomes more important as the athlete ages; with time, the pitcher’s training age will increase (necessitating more specialized programming) and the demands imposed on their body due to pitching will intensify and accumulate.

At the high school level, the pitcher-specific program simply does not need to imply the same changes in programming that are seen at the higher levels of baseball. The athletes are younger (both in terms of biology and training), under less stress, and very simply need to develop as an overall athlete. With this in mind, the high school coach can develop a training program for their entire team, and rather than develop a secondary program for pitchers, can instead make the minor (yet effective) adjustments to the plan to meet the demands imposed on the high school pitcher.

Respectfully,

RJF

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