Baseball is a sport of timeless tradition, and while many of the game’s greatest qualities are born out of these traditions, many unfortunate stigmas within the sport have held over today from days gone by. One of the oldest and most misguided pieces of dogma plaguing the sport is that strength training is inherently bad for ballplayers. To some extent this misconception has subsided over recent times, but many of the lesser-informed stakeholders of the game have refused to let it go. But, with an understanding of the science behind strength training for sport, ballplayers and coaches can all begin to appreciate its value in athletic performance. To attain a firm grasp of how strength training can improve baseball performance, one simply needs to understand three concepts:
- The fundamental goal of strength training,
- The interrelation between the variables of strength and power, and
- The ways in which these two variables can be enhanced.
Let us first answer this question: what is strength?
Strength is defined as the ability to apply force against a resistance. This resistance may range from the heavy (e.g. squatting with a loaded barbell) to the seemingly nonexistent (e.g. working against gravity to jump). Baseball skills, such as throwing, swinging, and sprinting are all forms of force application; application to ball, bat, and ground. Why, then, aren’t the world’s strongest people simply the best baseball players? To answer this, we have to discuss another variable that significantly contributes to throwing, swinging and sprinting performance: that variable is power.
Power, in essence, adds a time component to strength: how much force can one apply in the shortest amount of time possible? In other words, it’s not just about how much force one applies to the bat, ball, or ground, but how quickly one can apply that large amount of force; in mathematical terms, Power = Force / Time. With powerful actions comes great speed in baseball: faster runners, higher velocity pitches, and strong swing speeds. Because strength and power are directly related, an increase in strength does, in fact, provide a greater potential for power production. Thus, to turn this potential energy into kinetic energy – something that we can actually use in sport – it is vital to train for strength prior to training for power. But, not all strength training is created equal. There are two basic types of strength to consider: absolute strength and relative strength.
Absolute strength is the total amount of force that one can apply, regardless of the size or weight of their body, and is in large part trained for by increasing lean muscle mass, or hypertrophy training. But, for those fearing “bulkiness” and “stiffness” due to an abundance of muscle mass, it should be noted that there is another way to gain significant strength that doesn’t involve excess hypertrophy.
Relative strength, on the other hand, refers to strength versus body weight; consider a gymnast or lightweight weightlifter. Despite being small in stature, athletes with great relative strength can produce a tremendous amount of force and power. Instead of hypertrophy, relative strength training targets the neuromuscular system. In more simple terms, the goal is to enhance how the muscles and nervous system work together. For any muscular action, the brain sends electrical impulses to the muscles via nerves. Given appropriate strength training, we can speed up these impulses and increase the number of muscle cells that are stimulated by a nerve, thereby improving the strength and speed of muscles actions. Additionally, groups of muscles and their corresponding nerves “learn” to work more efficiently. With improved neuromuscular efficiency comes greater strength and power.
Overall, many variables (such as mechanics, tactical skill, etc.), not just strength and power, have very large influences on baseball performance. The ability to produce powerful actions is, however, an equally important variable. In order to enhance a ballplayer’s ability to express power, strength should be optimized. Thus, despite age-old misconceptions, proper strength training can, in fact, improve baseball performance when implemented properly.