I understand that in some training circles it’s become trendy to say that Weight Training isn’t functional for baseball performance, but those statements couldn’t be further from the truth.
And I’m not talking about what most people deem as “functional training” either – I’m talking about bodybuilding movements.
Yes, that’s right.
Incorporating bodybuilding movements into your training plan is one of the most functional things a baseball player could do for their performance.
Don’t believe me?
Defining the Necessary Terms
It’s important to define our terms first as I believe this is where most people get completely lost in conversation – they feel that functional means balancing on balls and jumping in and out of ladders, whereas reality would define functional training as a method of exercise that has some measure of transferability of performance towards a given activity.
An activity is functional if it improves performance, to argue against this representation would be illogical.
It becomes even muddier when you “pick and choose” which traditional exercises you deem as functional or not. For example, a leg extension is generally regarded as non-functional in comparison to a squat, because leg extension strength is not a transferable to other activities like a squat is.
True, squats are the pound-for-pound more functional exercise as they have been connected within the scientific literature to improve sprinting and jumping power – but would a leg extension not be deemed functional for an athlete who needed to correct a structural imbalance in the VMO?
And therefore, increase his/her knee stability, improve strength balance from the upper body to the lower body, and thus improve overall mechanics?
Why is one deemed functional and the other is not? Even when no context is being provided?
This becomes even more questionable since most functional training programs I have seen have no problem isolating the hamstrings for hamstrings curls, but somehow find a way to alienate the leg extension as non-functional. Again, this is illogical. You can’t pick and choose, especially when you don’t have any context.
Moving on, let’s define performance.
In a broader sense (since “performance” means something different to each different position on the field), performance generally refers to your ability to produce force during a given sport-specific movement.
Swings a bat harder/faster, running faster, jumping higher, having better agility – these are all “functions” of being able to produce a greater amount of force. Even when we talk informally about losing balance, physically the problem still is a lack of force production and increasing that force production capacity is what solves the balance problem.
So, when summing it up very simply, functional training requires an activity in training to have a high degree of transferability of force production across various sport-specific baseball movements.
Digging into Sport-Specific Force Production
In order to have any measurable transfer from training to sport, you need to be able to increase force production capacity in the sport movements that you’re measuring. This way, you can clearly see that baseball performance is being enhanced – whether this is via running, throwing, jumping, or swinging.
So, you have to ask yourself, what defines force capacity?
Because once we figure this out, we will really be able to start piecing together this whole “what’s the most functional training you could possibly do for a baseball athlete” argument. The body’s ability to produce force during any given movement is a function of two things:
- Structural contribution: Think of “structure” as what’s most obviously structure based within the body that is connected to force production. This means muscle size, myofibril muscle density, lever arms, pennation angles, and overall genetic structure.
- Neural contribution: Your neural contribution essentially refers to the ability of your nervous system to control your muscles.
Think of your muscles like the engine, and your neural system like the driver. You need the neural system to actually contract the muscle tissue that you do have (or, “hit the gas”). These two together drive your ultimate performance.
This is where things get tricky though.
Your neural contributions are highly specific, meaning, your nervous system becomes much better at performing the specific movement you’re doing with little transfer to other activities. We’ve seen a few examples of this already within the literature:
- Partial range of motion movements only make you stronger in the range that you’re working in – with an approximate only 15% carryover to the rest of the movement. This is why you see dummies in the gym not touch their chest with a bench press and use a ton of weight, but the moment they start touching their chest they have to back off a ton and reduce a lot of weight.
- 10m sprints create a significantly different response and training adaptation within the body in comparison to 30m sprints – even though both are very short distance sprints.
- The relationship between “core qualities” is almost zero. Meaning; core stability, core endurance, core strength, and core flexion have very little carryover to each other even though it is always very similar muscle groups (if not identical) being activated to perform the task.
- We have also seen in the literature that the typical “functional training” activities that over activate core recruitment are not strong predictors of performance – and neither is the functional movement screen that they do either (this has been seen more than once in the literature).
- Stretching a muscle doesn’t necessarily lead to greater function, it just leads to a stretched muscle group. Stretching just makes you better at stretching unless you teach the nervous system to use that mobility to transfer into other tasks.
These are just a few examples of many that we can draw upon from the clinical trials that have been conducted in sports science – but I point them out because if you read these all very carefully you will understand one major flaw in all conversations within strength and conditioning:
We discuss strength and power as if they are traits, when in fact they are skills.
If we’re speaking accurately, a “person” cannot be strong or powerful.
A powerlifter is not strong – he/she is strong in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
And Olympic lifter is not powerful – he/she is powerful in the snatch and the clean & jerk.
Re-read the past four sentences 2-3x if necessary before moving on, they are very important to grasp.
Getting Back to Functional Baseball Training
Since the contributing neural factors towards performance are extremely specific to the task they partake in, that leaves you with muscle size as your main driver for sport specific functional force capacity.
The structural components (mostly muscle size) are the only true trait that will increase your force production capacity without limiting your movement specificity. If you make a muscle bigger, it will increase your ability to produce force in any movement that it does.
Think about it this way – if you have a machine (your body) that knows how to play baseball very well, adding more horsepower to that machine (muscle tissue) will not diminish the machine skill, it will only make it more forceful in all of its movements (swinging, running, jumping, throwing, etc).
Beyond this, you should already be focusing on your nutrition as I have discussed its importance many times over within the past – and when you’re focused on your nutrition, you stay lean, and when you stay lean PLUS do bodybuilding movements to increase size and force production capability, you improve relative strength.
The discussion on relative strength is not just my “coaches opinion” – there is a TON of data demonstrating that muscle size and a lot body fat percentage (bodybuilding training) determine performance in a massive range of activities.
Yup – including Major League Baseball.
Smart baseball players caught on to improving their mass earlier than other sports as we have seen the average BMI of baseball players increase by 3 points between 1970 and 2010 – demonstrating a clear and statistically significant upward trend in size as the sport evolves.
Wrapping Things Up
As a last and final correlation, we can draw between bodybuilding movements and baseball performance, I would like you to consider jumping as a form of sport-specific training.
We know that both vertical power production and horizontal power production are both important for baseball athletes for various speed and agility reasons, but in this area many “functional trainers” recommend doing quarter squats to improve the jump because it “resembles jumping more accurately”
This is a fundamental flaw in functional training, or I should maybe say the “certification industry” as trainers can become certified as a functional trainer in a weekend and for some reason feel that two days of education makes them a coach.
Look, certified doesn’t mean qualified.
To ignore this type of data is foolish, and it’s only the baseball players who are going to suffer the consequences, not the coaches.
Many baseball athletes are specialized in specific movements in the gym and have certain skills but doing total body bodybuilding routine can be highly functional as the size and strength development improves force production in all movements – not just a few.
To conclude today’s article, don’t be deterred by dogma. I know it can seem convincing when a coach says “Don’t train like a bodybuilder! You’re an athlete!” – but it is exactly statements like this that let me know that coach must have never read a piece of research in his/her life.
I don’t want you to think that you should only do bodybuilding training, that’s not what this article is about at all.
This article is to represent the value of incorporating bodybuilding movements intelligently into an overall baseball-specific program design. It has a place in the periodization, and baseball athletes would benefit from it.
If you’re ready for a full training program check out our baseball training programs offered here at BaseballTraining.com!