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Softball Conditioning - Balance Training in Baseball and Softball

Baseball and softball have very similar movement patterns. Hitting, fielding, running and throwing are mechanically the same. But pitching with its stresses on the shoulder offers a larger degree of contrast. Let’s compare and contrast.

softball conditioning - integrating balance into a training regimen is key for optimal athletic performanceThe act of pitching in baseball may be a bit more physically demanding on the arm. It requires a bit more work on the technique of throwing. In softball, a lot comes from rhythm and control. It’s timing between the hip and the arm at the release point. It does require almost the same amount of coordination, but it is somewhat different. In softball we want pitchers who are very flexible and who have good rhythm, balance, and coordination. A lot of the throws, especially drop balls, rise balls, screwballs, curve balls, and even change-ups, is all a matter of release at an exact point in time with the hip that gives the desired effect to the ball. The contrast here is that softball requires more coordination at the release point than baseball.

With baseball, it is more in the wrist action. It is different because in softball, you really must coordinate the hip as well. The windmill movement requires less strength and the physical demands on the muscles are less in softball than they are in baseball. You can see that when a softball pitcher throws two or even three games in a day. It’s not rare to see that; however, in baseball, the pitchers need four to five days of rest before they come back.

The demands in pitching baseball are very mechanical and technical. They physically require more from the muscles of the upper body. In softball, you need good exposure and a lot of power and strength, which helps, but you get your speed more from the coordination you get from all of your body. The coordination aspect is very important to get power. In baseball, you need that element to a lesser extent.


Defining Balance and its Relation to Field Play

The contribution of balance to field play depends on how you define balance. If you give it the standard definition, it means that you are in control of your movement either statically, meaning that you’re not moving, or dynamically, with movement. You have static and dynamic balance and that is what most people refer to when discussing balance—it’s stability. There are also people who define it as balance between two muscles, or enough strength to do a certain task.

Is your body well balanced? It depends on how you define it. With softball and baseball let’s use the traditional definition where you have both static and dynamic balance that are required. Static balance does not require as much training as dynamic balance and dynamic balance in baseball and softball is very important. An example of dynamic balance is a shortstop turning a double play. He is moving toward the bag, paying attention to the runner who is coming, timing footwork with the throw that is coming and at the same time avoiding the runner while throwing to first base. That is where you require an enormous amount of skill, ability, coordination, and dynamic balance all at the same time.

How do you train balance in baseball and softball? A lot of people think it requires walking on a 2 x 4. That is a good start but is done more if you are trying to retrain older adults or people who have lost their balance. The best way to train balance in our sports is by mimicking the sport-specific movements in the training environment. You either do it with baseball/softball-specific drills or skills, or you use exercises in the weight room or training room that mimic some of the movements. An example is that we often say running and lunging use the same muscles, which are examples of trying to stabilize. Lunging is a good example of where you need both static and dynamic balance. If you do lunges on a core board or some other stability device, that will definitely train dynamic and the specific types of balance you need in baseball and softball.

Another tool for training that I like is the Reebok core board, which is different from the bounce boards you usually find. It has a stable base but it isn’t stable in all planes. It forces the body to adjust in all planes and not just for backward or side-to-side movement. It isn’t as unstable as traditional balance devices with a wooden disk under the platform. This device is useful for working balance in hitting. It is wide enough that you can hit with a stride already done—you just swing with the backside. That is an excellent device to work with that, even for pitchers.

In baseball, I know Tom House uses 2 x 4s to train balance for pitchers. It is also used to a lesser extent in softball. A lot of pitchers would benefit from throwing on 2 x 4s to train their balance. The key here is to look at how muscles are involved in the actions and how you can reproduce that in the training room where a lot of the traditional training is done on machines that don’t really reproduce the balance demands of our sport. Find exercises that mimic balance requirements, even if they are not necessarily baseball/softball-specific.

Integration of Balance and the Body-How does Balances Work?

I hope this is an easy explanation. You have two types of training: functional and isolation or traditional. The key here is muscle functions and how they work. Look at what muscles are designed to do. That is an oversimplification of how muscle function works. You have some muscles that were designed to be movers. Their job is to move the bones and joints and to produce an action. Other muscles are trained or designed to function as stabilizers. There are muscles to keep the joints stable and the body in place and straight. They stabilize the spine and other joints.

The body is designed to work as a unit, meaning that every muscle in every action plays some kind of role. Some muscles will act as stabilizers during a certain action and others will act as movers. In every action, the stabilizers always fire first. That is where athletic trainers and rehab specialists will often diagnose dysfunctional muscles. Some stabilizers should recruit before movers do but actually do not recruit. We often see that in the abdominal area where the transverse muscle, one of your main trunk stabilizers, does not fire to any other action. That is often what leads to back pain. Research done in Australia during 1997 proved that some people who have pain in their back or other joints, often their stabilizers were not doing the jobs they are supposed to. Those stabilizer muscles were supposed to recruit prior to an action to stabilize the body while the body is accomplishing the action or doing some kind of movement, but were not firing early enough, not firing at all, or firing in the wrong way or pattern (too late, too soon).

Another problem they found was the body recruiting muscles that are not designed to stabilize. An example is in the trunk when one overdoes crunches. We are so trained to do crunches and the rectus abdominus is so used to getting recruited that when we ask people to stabilize, they will recruit their rectus abdominus muscle instead of their transverse, because that is the muscle that had been trained over the years and that is the wrong firing pattern, meaning that is the wrong muscle to recruit. The transerverse, which is the deep abdominal stabilizer, should recruit first and then you move onto your other movers.

When talking about body integration, we must look at body function. How do muscles work? We must find exercises that promote the training of stabilizers and movers together to mimic the specific demands of sport—they must work together. When I am sitting on a leg extension machine, I am only recruiting my quads or some of the main fore muscles in the legs. I am isolating them. They need stabilizers, or I need the hip stabilizers or any of the leg stabilizers. This is an example of an exercise that only trains a prime mover—a muscle that is designed to complete the movement, not to stabilize a joint or a group of muscles.

When we do squats or lunges, it trains multiple muscles together. It allows the body to train in a way that the body will perform on the field. The demands placed on the body so that squats, lunges and step-ups, where you have both the stabilizers and the movers working together, that is where you have what we call “body integration.” We are training for functional performance, to move in a way the body has been designed to move. When we go away from that, we are setting ourselves up for injury and dysfunctional movement patterns. If we don’t train the body the way it was designed to move, we are creating dysfunctional patterns of recruitment. Muscles will not work in a proper way, thus reducing the efficiency of the recruitment, and also eventually leading to some kind of injury. We are not training the body in the right way. We must look at the muscles involved and how we can train them together. That in itself is integration, and it allows for training balance as well.

To have stability and balance, you must have your main stabilizers well-trained and strong enough to work in concordance with your main movers. In strength and conditioning, that is why we try to promote the use of compound or global exercises that are involved with stability balls or other stability devices. Does that mean that we can’t use any of the traditional isolation exercises? In my opinion, a good integration of both is important.
We often hear that periodization is important and the first step toward that is getting in shape and developing a good base. When we in the adaptation of first phase, the get-back-into-training phase, that should be where a lot of the stability work is done. It should be a low intensity focus on stability, making sure all the stabilizers are trained with the movers in order to give a good base to the body.

Giving a good base to the body not only gives endurance, but also gives stability. That is when you do a lot of the body integration. Then as you move up, you go more toward strength exercises and you try to make a priority of using strength exercises that will involve both the movers and the stabilizers. That is why bench presses, push-ups, any Olympic lifts, or any of the traditional compound exercises usually involve a lot of stabilizers. The more stability you train, the more likely you are to perform well because you integrate the stabilizers with the movers. That is how you go about getting muscle efficiency and at the end, you get stability and balance.

The bottom line of what stability and balance are about is to integrate both stabilizers and movers together so they work as a unit rather than to train in isolation as we often see in the weight room. I often make reference to, “Are you training for esthetics (isolation)?” or “Are you training for function?” Training for function is either for high performance, or it can be for just allowing people to go back to their daily task if they have been injured.

Building a Balanced Base

The stabilizers, or body integration, are the absolute first thing you do when you start to build balance strength. Others train body movement with objects such as the Reebok device. The bottom line is that balance can be trained. If we look at how people used to do sports 100 years ago, they were not very functional because all they were doing was multi-joint exercises. They were pulling, pushing, throwing things around. However, they were doing movements that caused the body to use all of its muscles at the same time. Early on, even when you train with children, you really don’t need to do a lot of strength exercises. First, get them to be balanced. Get them to do functional strength exercises. Get them to lunge on a stability board or do some type of Swiss ball exercise that will allow them to have a good foundation so that when they get to the next level, they can do it more effectively and more safely. By doing this preparation work and giving them a good balanced and stable foundation, when they get to the advanced exercises that require a high level of strength that will place a lot of stress on the different joints, bones, tendons and ligaments, they will be able to handle it.

Balance in Relation to Baseball/Softball Skills

In terms of skills development for baseball and softball, you usually want to go from general to specific. Consider agility—if you want to develop agility, then early in the off-season concentrate on general footwork. I’ll get the players to move around and perhaps use a speed ladder. But as the season approaches, I want to go more to specific footwork, like what is in baseball and softball where we are moving around to field the ball. The more we get into the season, the more specific I become. I am going to train agility by using sport-specific movements.
In the off-season, I want to build static and dynamic balance and coordination with very general skills. But as you move along the off-season to the preseason and then into the early season and the in season, you want to go about doing more skill work. You can work around by being creative in integrating some of the stability devices you are doing training with.

We are in a very conservative sport where people have been doing the same training for years. Many coaches were players so they use the same drills and way of teaching they learned while playing. But there a lot of creative people out there and it is interesting to see people think outside the box and use some of those devices for different purposes. You can integrate some of those devices to develop skills as well. However, we must keep in mind even for the strength and conditioning coaches, that softball and baseball are very technical sports. They require a lot of practice on the skills. You may have the best athletic foundation possible; however, if you can’t hit or throw the ball, move around and catch the ball, you won’t be a very successful athlete in our sport.

Priority must be with the technical skills. Nevertheless, these skills can be greatly enhanced with a solid foundation of strength, flexibility, endurance, stability, agility, and all the athletic components. How you go about integrating both is a matter of putting more time into general stability and balance and coordination of work in the off-season. As you go along and get toward the early season or in season, then you work more on the skills. We will train on the skills and the different physical components that are required by the skills. If I am a diver or runner, the mere fact of practicing my sport is going to give me a quality that I need, but athleticism is going to allow me to handle the different demands while I am doing my skills at a higher level later on.
It’s often good to simplify things, because it can be very complex for a lot of people. You must see conditioning as one thing and skills as another. However, they shouldn’t necessarily be trained apart. You can do both in a training session. If I want to be very creative, I can do a conditioning drill that will allow me to train my energy system, my skills, and even my coordination and balance together. I must make sure the demands of my drills are requiring I make sure my skill will be technical enough that I practice certain things. You do need to integrate them and be very efficient about how you do things.

There are different categories of notions but to me, integration is a way of training. You choose exercises that will involve multiple joints and muscles, allowing stabilizers to work in harmony with movers. That relates highly to stability and balance training because as soon as you talk about balance and stability, the stabilizers are highly challenged or the demands placed on them is quite high. As soon as you do body integration, you usually require some work with your stabilizers. You can specifically train balance, either by doing general balance training, different exercises that involve balance, or you can do it in a sport-specific context by doing skills that are highly challenging. That way, if I am practicing double plays with my shortstop and second baseman and I want to train balance in a sport-specific way, I keep doing double plays. I am training their balance in a very sport-specific manner. Their skills require a lot of balance, so the more I have them doing the skill, the better they become.

If I am doing general training at the same time that requires balance and similar levels of demand on the body, that is going to transfer on the field into better skills when I won’t be doing double plays. Balance is not only fine in that example, but balance is also in your ability to hit the ball. Balance in itself is training your muscles to function properly. That is going to make a huge different when running and changing direction.

Agility is the ability to decelerate and accelerate. When I am running the bases and I must slow down, turn and change direction, that requires an enormous amount of dynamic balance. I must decelerate and change the momentum to a different direction. That in itself is dynamic balance. Dynamic balance is anything where you are moving and doing something else at the same time while keeping control of what you are doing.

Let’s use a specific example with an integration of skills work. I like doing lunges with my athletes. I know athletes hate doing them; I don’t know a lot of people who actually like lunges. I think lunges integrate a lot of the stabilizers along with prime movers together. You should start with static lunges and without using big bars or dumbbells, rather you should get people to do lunges using stability boards or putting their feet on a Swiss ball. You start training the muscle and that would be an introduction. It’s a mix of static and dynamic balance, but you start integrating that functional aspect into it. You move on to do the same thing but now you integrate a bit of resistance. You add dumbbells or you hold a bar over your shoulder. That requires a lot of core work as well as stabilization through the trunk.

Then you move on to doing dynamic lunges where you move around doing the lunges forward or backward. You can do “star lunges,” going forward, then 45 degree on the side, then side, then backward 45 degrees, then backward straight, then the other side, and so on. You can four or eight, every corner forward, side, 45 side on the right, straight on the side on the right, then backward 45, then straight backward, and then you do the same thing on the left as well.

First you do that without resistance and then you add resistance. Once you have the strength and stability, then you can do explosive lunges. That is more high-level plyometrics. You can transfer that to the field as well by fielding balls or stretching for balls or different movements such as running. You see you get into the specific skills component that requires some type of lunging.

Our athletes are making the transfer from leg work to skills work. Typically, you tend to train foundations with stability and functional strength first, and then you move to strength work. Finally you move to power work such as plyometrics or Olympic lifts. That is the traditional periodization from doing that type of training in the weight room. Then if you want to go and be very sport-specific, you integrate lunges into the sport-specific skills like fielding a ball. When I am stretching and fielding a backhand groundball, I am doing a short lunge but I must lunge that way. When I am doing a stretch to catch a ball at first base, it is typically a lunge. When I am moving forward and fielding a ball between my legs, that is a mix of lunging and squatting. The way you train a muscle will transfer to the field, because a lot of the actions require similar physical demands on the body.

Balance can be trained to improve the performance of baseball and softball players. I hope I have given you food for thought in developing balance in your players.

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