The baseball industry is kind of in a funny place right now.
Kids get into baseball at very young ages, but there are so many questions around the idea of whether or not youth athletes can or should be doing some baseball training in addition to their practices and games.
To perpetuate this issue, there really isn’t a lot of rock solid information out there regarding what young baseball athletes should be doing with their training even if they do decide to train.
I first want to tell you that your youth athlete can and should be doing some additional training, beyond this, it is 100% safe for them to do so.
Having said this, there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do things. Just like adults can get hurt doing stupid training, so can your kids. The problem here is that, although they mean very well, parents and volunteer coaches more often than not just aren’t up to date on what the scientific literature has to say about youth athletics and the real cost/benefit analysis that you’re looking at when putting your kid on a new exercise regime.
Because it’s normally not real strength and conditioning coaches working with kids at this age, the adults can miss the mark on creating a huge advantage for their kids by choosing the correct training methods to optimize their athletic ability and nervous system capacity.
Youth Baseball Players Can’t Train Like Adults
Rule #1: Kids are not super short adults
The training stimulus you apply to a youth athlete is exponentially different than what you would apply to an adolescent or adult. Meaning, I would have no problem whatsoever programming a teenager or adult to do 7 sets of 3 at 90% of their 1-Rep Max on the deadlift for the first exercise of their workout.
A kid, on the other hand, should not be exposed to these advanced training methods just yet as they can make tremendous gains in strength, endurance, speed, and power with incredibly basic body weight and/or light weight (DB’s / BB) work.
We back off on the advanced training methods for now because a kid is a kid!
The advanced methods are used once you are approaching your genetic potential and progress is coming at a much slower pace. As you get closer to your genetic potential you will require new motor unit exposure/stimuli to get over a current plateau in your progression. The more advanced you are, the more advanced your training needs to be.
An 8-year-old doesn’t have any experience in this strength and conditioning world, so any stimulus is a new stimulus to their muscles and will provide a great enough stress in order to make excellent and logical progress from. You can consider a kid’s musculature a blank canvas, they will continue to make progress on the basics for a long time.
Not to mention, the basics are what is actually going to keep them happy and engaged during these maturing years. For youth athletes, I cannot articulate into words how important it is that you take care of their psychology just as much (or more) as their physiology.
Meaning, IT HAS TO ACTUALLY BE FUN.
The moment you force your kid to do banded Zercher squats, a daily mobility routine, and hill sprints until they puke is the exact same moment you take the fun out of baseball. Yes Dad living vicariously through his son, I’m looking at you. The last thing you want to accomplish with your training is for them to dread it, lose interest in athletic development, and ultimately not care about baseball anymore because it’s “not fun”.
I don’t blame the parents though, there really isn’t any youth specific training out there. Most of the time people only want to know what the Derek Jeter’s or the Alex Rodriguez’s of the world are doing. Although that’s cool, applying that training to a kid takes the fun out of the game.
What’s funny here is that the people posting what the pros are doing don’t understand that what you do in your youth training is actually what is arguably the most important factor in long-term athletic success.
Yes, I meant that. Youth training can make or break athletes.
Training To Set Up Future Success
The science behind that statement revolves around the modeling of the nervous system during the growing years. On average, up until an athlete hits puberty their nervous system is still very adaptable and can be compared to molding clay. This is very important to care about because the nervous system is involved in intensely important physical baseball qualities such as total body relative strength, explosiveness, running stride frequency, agility, balance, and overall body awareness/coordination.
In a nutshell, the more different types of movement you can expose a youth athlete to during these crucial years of development, the more of an advantage he/she is going to have in all of the above-mentioned qualities. By movement exposure, I am referring to everything.
Running, crawling, multiple sports (big hint: do not specialize in year-round baseball too young), resistance training, running backward, jumping in different directions, punching, kicking, hanging, swinging— essentially anything and everything movement related. Additionally, the more unique the movement skill learned, the better.
Should Kids Play Other Sports?
This movement variation strategy at a young age will transfer directly to a greater overall athletic ability. Not just in the short-term, but in the long-term as well due to the fact that they will carry that nervous system with them for life.
This is why a minimalist’s approach to baseball youth specialization is the best recommendation for adult specialization. For example, if you took two kids and made one focus and play baseball year-round every year versus another kid who played baseball during the summer but then played hockey in the winter, soccer in the spring, and lacrosse in the fall– he is going to be the better athlete when the time comes for his adolescence + adult years.
Sure, he played less baseball than the other kid, but his nervous system exposure and development before puberty was extremely superior to the first kid who only focused on baseball and therefore he created a much better skill set within stride frequency (one of the biggest factors that determine a baseball players speed), body awareness, total body relative strength, balance, explosiveness, and agility.
To make things more basic, you can simply think about it as movement skill development. The more moves you know, the greater crossover those moves can all interconnect in your overall athletic prowess. Not to mention the major point that a kid with a greater exposure/experience in multiple sports would have a far less susceptibility to creating any repetitive strain injuries or structural imbalances due to constantly repeating the same movement patterns.
It’s night and day from a sports performance and physiology perspective. You know how often baseball players already get injured, don’t start that at a young age.
Bottom line, when it comes to youth:
Multiple sport exposure > Baseball specialization
I’m not saying a kid should only ever play baseball in the summer either. Kids often love baseball and want to play year-round. For the kids who want to play it year-round, that’s fine, but I would limit it to once per week or even once bi-weekly during these seasons where his real baseball team isn’t playing.
Limited exposure during these off times are recommended for two major reasons:
#1: More coaches get more eyes on him. If he/she has different coaching throughout the summer and winter, they may pick up areas in which they need to work on their game to reach a higher level. The more opinions and expertise you have, the better. One of your coaches may be an excellent batting coach, whereas another may be more of a strategist. In any case, more eyes on you means more development for you.
#2: No exposure “drought”. If your kid goes through a 2-4 month drought with zero baseball time and then is expected to hit the diamond for tryouts out of nowhere he/she will be at a greater disadvantage compared to those who had exposure to the game throughout the year. In my opinion, just playing around in the backyard isn’t enough. You want your youth athlete doing skill work and/or scrimmaging once a week or once bi-weekly prior to tryout time.
Stepping away from youth training yearly periodization, I think it’s important to address an agility flaw most coaches fall for when running their youth athletes through certain “agility” drills. And that is the reality that pre-determined movement patterns have minimal carryover to sports performance in baseball. Meaning, if you are running around three cones for agility you’re really not training agility.
Because the movement pattern is pre-determined. You already know exactly where you’re going and what you’re going to do about it.
A game situation is never like that.
Not to mention agility is the transfer of absorbing and re-directing force, a quality much more related to relative strength and power then cone drills. I will be going over this in much greater detail in an upcoming project I’m working on to create a comprehensive program for baseball specific speed development.
But to offer some practical advice to agility for you today, a kid would both get greater agility development and flat out have a way better time (remember, psychology) playing tag or playing dodgeball with the other kids. Tag and dodgeball are both completely unpredictable (already beats the cones), more physically demanding, more mentally demanding (think timing/co-ordination), and way more fun. If you want kids to have some better agility, play a little game at the end of the training session or practice.
They’ll think it’s fun, and you’ll know they’re becoming better athletes.
Youth Baseball Players and Strength Training
Let’s switch gears now to the most commonly referred question for youth athletes, “can my kid strength train? And is it safe?”
Yes, your kid can absolutely strength train for baseball. In fact, you could even make the argument that it would be more dangerous for them to not strength train.
It’s first very important to not get strength training confused with what you see on TV, in movies, and in magazines. Strength training for youth does not mean deadlifting, Olympic lifting, squatting, moving any kinds of heavy loads, chalking up your hands, and listening to death metal (unless they’re going through the goth stage, in which case, I don’t think anybody has advice for you).
When defining strength training it simply means training with some form of resistance to create a positive (and healthy) adaption in the body. I can’t understand at all when parents will throw their kid into martial arts, football, hockey, gymnastics, or wrestling and then start to think twice when it comes to resistance training.
This is a completely wrong thought process.
Force being applied to the body is force being applied to the body, whether it’s a dumbbell or, using the wrestling example, the kid you’re wrestling against. Same thing.
When you safely strength train a youth athlete, it should actually give you (the parent and/or coach) peace of mind as strength training dramatically lowers the risk of injury, is going to make them stronger than their opponents, and will actually make them healthier due to their increased level of fitness.
And no, it’s not going to stunt their growth.
Don’t forget, strength training will also pay huge dividends towards nervous system development. How many exercises do you think are in the book? Thousands?
Ok, and what drives nervous system development?
New movement exposure.
Strength training checks so many important and relevant boxes here for youth baseball players.
But having said all of this, I do have guidelines to follow. I said right out of the gate in this blog post that it’s not smart to have your kid perform high intensity work. It’s completely unnecessary both psychologically (not fun) and physiologically (no need for advanced training stimulus due to blank canvas). Opting for an overall lower intensity training periodization is the smartest and best way to approach this thing long term for your little slugger.
When training youth, the resistance/strength training aspect should primarily come in the form of body weight exercises. The best ones to incorporate being:
- Chin up variations
- Pull up variations
- Dip variations
- Squat variations
- Lunge variations
- Push up variations
- Abdominal circuit variations
- Jump variations
It’s most beneficial to always keep the overall intensity and training volume low with rep ranges anywhere from 10-30 reps per set per exercise; while keeping a close eye on proper technique at all times.
From a non-bodyweight perspective, youth athletes can also safely use light dumbbells, medicine balls, and light sled drags. What you want to stay away from is directly loading the spine; squats, overhead press, etc. It’s also wise to stay away from barbell movements in general in the beginning, it’s unnecessary at this point in time and to be introduced in later on in adolescence.
From a speed and conditioning perspective, youth athletes can make great progress with both aerobic and anaerobic work. But for the anaerobic work, opt for no bodyweight loading (For example, no DB farmers walks for timed sets). Conditioning systems utilizing hill sprints and/or track work is most ideal here.
To wrap things up here, I hope this blog post was helpful for those looking for some solid information regarding youth athletics and what can actually improve performance vs. what is not worth doing for young baseball players. Additionally, identifying what the myths are and what the truth is.
Keep a look out in the near future as I will be creating a complete baseball youth development system aimed for the coach or parent who has both their kids’ performance and safety in mind. This system will include all the information required to give your youth athletes the proper foundation in order to make long term progress from and become the best baseball players they can possibly be.
Major take home points for parents and coaches:
- The youth training years are some of the most important years of an athlete’s entire career
- Youth athletes should not specialize in baseball year-round
- Strength training is totally safe when done properly
- Low-intensity training should be favored
- Always ensure proper technique is performed on all exercises. If you aren’t sure, seek a real professional to help you out
- The more sport exposure, the better
- The more movement exposure, the better
- Playing games can be a great way to improve agility
- IT HAS TO BE FUN