Last year I was asked to present at the NSCA Sports Specific Conference in Orlando on torso training for Baseball. From my past experience with presenting at the NSCA, I knew that any talk which includes the words torso, core, or functional in its title attracts the functional training and physical therapists masquerading as a Strength Coach types like flies to shit.
Pissing-off these purveyors of weakness has become a hobby of mine. As I got up on stage and surveyed the audience, I knew there were going to be some folks with their panties in a bunch.
Below is the presentation I gave.
(Each number represents an individual slide with the title of the slide appearing next to it in bold. Following the title, is the transcript of my presentation)
Developing The Torso For Optimal Power And Strength Production in Baseball Players
“A sane coaches guide to ‘functional’ training”
1. Opening statement
Torso training, core training, functional training, corrective exercise – whatever you want to call it – have become industries unto themselves. There are entire training systems focused primarily on torso development. This would be fine if you were coaching a team of torsos. The truth is, training programs that isolate the torso are as effective for improving athletic performance as a program revolving around a thighmaster. It is my hope that after I am done you will have a better understanding of the role the torso plays when properly-designed training is implemented.
2. What Is The Function Of The Torso?
The torso is a conduit for transmitting energy. It does not produce energy itself. In ground-based sports such as baseball, all action is initiated by pushing against the ground. That energy travels through the lower body, through the torso and manifests in whatever action is required. The more efficient the energy flow through the body, the more effective the intended action. So the objective for torso development should be to create a medium in which energy flows efficiently. The torso can be the difference between home run and warning track power or throwing 89mph, not 94. However, in order for the torso to be the difference-maker, it needs to be addressed properly in training.
3. What The Science Says About Torso Training
The former Soviet Union is one of very few nations to have done longitudinal scientific research on strength and conditioning methods. From the 50’s through the late 80’s they dedicated their finest scientific minds to answer the question “how do you create maximal performance?” Through the 7 Olympic games the former Soviet Union competed in from 1960-1988 they dominated the events in which strength and power are the dominant characteristics. Because of the work of their sport scientists they were able to predict results within 90% accuracy. This was possible because they found a strong cause and effect relationship between particular training methods and results. And if you examine their training design, it includes little or no specialized torso training. In fact, many scientists and coaches felt that direct torso work was unwarranted because of how much the torso was involved in either stabilizing or moving some other part of the body during non-isolation exercises. They understood that the coach had a finite amount of time to work with an athlete since they had to spend more time practicing their actual sport. Through extensive scientific research and experimentation, these scientists discovered the most effective and efficient methods for improving performance.
I am not arrogant enough to claim that I am “ahead of the science” nor am I foolish enough to think what has worked for decades is, all of a sudden, ineffective. I’ll assume that the human body has not evolved all that much in the past 20 years. So that being the case, the body will respond to a training stimulus today the same way it did in 1980. Until someone puts in the time and effort to disprove the current accepted science, I will not waste my athletes’ or your time or money with unproven methods.
Before I continue I would like to establish some facts about athletic development:
4. Fact Statement 1
Physical therapy (PT) protocols are designed to restore normal movement and function which has been threatened by injury.
5. Fact Statement 2
Strength and conditioning protocols are designed to enhance normal movement and function to improve athletic attributes.
6. Fact Statement 3
You cannot train a healthy athlete using PT protocols and expect to maximize athletic attributes.
7. Fact Statement 4
High repetition, low intensity training is not optimal for developing strength and power.
8. Fact Statement 5
The optimal rep range for developing strength and power is between 3-5 reps.
9. Fact Statement 6
The body is one unit comprised of a linked system of interactive muscle groups
10. Fact Statement 7
The most effective exercises to develop strength and power are squatting, pulling, and the Olympic lifts
11. Fact Statement 8
Squatting, pulling, and the Olympic lifts require the entire body to act as one complete unit
12. Fact Statement 9
The area between our neck and hip is part of this “unit.”
Keeping those facts in mind lets take a look at the problem with functional training.
13. The Problem With Current “Functional Training” Dogma and Why It Doesn’t Work
Much of the functional training information available today for the torso is based on PT protocols. As you know PT protocols are not effective for the training of athletes. If the purpose of torso development for sport is to develop a strong and powerful torso through which energy can easily flow, then “functional training” which is based on PT protocols cannot and does not accomplish this.
This type of training generally falls into three categories:
Bodyweight Stabilization Exercise
• This teaches isometric contraction for torso musculature, which is good, however it provides no progressive overload other than introducing unstable surfaces. The motor patterns developed through training on unstable surfaces are not the same motor patterns needed to stabilize on solid ground.
Spinal Flexion/Extension Exercises
• This is exactly the opposite of what is needed to develop a strong and stable torso. It is the ability to prevent movement of the torso that is needed, not flexion or extension.
Cable Column Training/Med Ball Training
• Provides the ability to train while standing and some progressive overload however, the lines of force are not axial, therefore the entire torso is not stressed.
14. Rotational Training and Weighted Bats
• One of the biggest mechanisms of torso injury occurs while flexing the spine during rotation. So If an athlete’s torso is not strong enough to prevent spinal flexion/extension then wouldn’t introducing rotational movements such as med-ball throws be foolish? Specific rotational exercise is an advanced form of training and should not be introduced into a program until the athlete has developed enough isometric strength in their torso to stabilize the spine. A better choice for training rotation would be barbell exercises. While an athlete rises from a squat or especially an overhead squat, they will be strongly resisting the tendency to rotate. This act of stabilization creates significant increases in rotational strength. As an athlete matures and gains control over their torso function, specific rotational exercises can be introduced. However, unlike in other rotational sports such as the shot put, hammer, and discus where the implement thrown will range between 16lbs and 4.4 lbs and specific rotational training may be beneficial, the heaviest object a baseball player will handle will be the bat, which will generally range between 30-40 oz. So aside from actually practicing hitting the baseball, it would seem unnecessary to spend the time in the weightroom on rotational training.
As far as using weighted bats, you are doing more harm than good. Adding weight to the bat changes the swing mechanics as well as the timing of the swing. And because of the extra weight, the muscles contract more slowly, therefore stimulating less type 2 fibers.
15. Sports-Specific Movements
I thought it necessary to discuss this idea of sports-specific torso training in the weightroom. This does not exist in weightroom. It is the job of the S&C coach to improve athletic attributes such as strength, power and speed. It is then the job of the baseball coach to teach the athlete the sports-specific movements. Doing a side toss with a med ball or rotational movements on a cable column is not the same as swinging a bat or throwing a ball. Throwing and hitting are very specific skills, which require very specific motor patterns, which you will not be able to replicate in the weightroom. In fact these rotational exercises create conflicting motor patterns and may very well negatively affect the athletes skill on the diamond.
Remember, in an untrained or under trained population nearly any training method will get a positive result for a short period of time. That doesn’t make it proper training
16. How To Develop The Torso
Because the body is a system of interactive muscle groups and the torso is part of that system, in order to correctly develop the torso you must improve the inter/intra muscular coordination and function of all the muscles that attach to the hip. If there is an issue with a muscle that attaches to the hip then torso function will be compromised. In my 18 years of S&C coaching I can say without hesitation that poor function and coordination of these muscles – and what I mean by poor function and coordination is tightness, imbalance, poor movement patterns, and weakness – can be attributed mostly to poor technique coaching or poor exercise choice by the S&C coach. Improper technique and exercise choice in the weightroom will do more to create muscle imbalances and weakness to the muscles that attach to the hip then anything else an athlete can do.
As the quality of your training program goes, so goes the quality of your torso training. The two are inseparable
The good news is: improving inter/intra muscular coordination and function are skills that can be improved in the weightroom by choosing exercises which require the entire body to act as one coordinated unit such as squatting pulling, and Olympic lifts. To perform these exercises properly, there must be efficient coordination and function of the muscles that attach to the hip. And when they are performed properly the body will use the most effective sequence of muscle contraction and relaxation as well as the proper amount isometric contraction of the torso to facilitate these movements efficiently.
There is a direct correlation between the efficiency of these movements and the athlete’s level of function. As far as the torso goes, you will see a dramatic transformation. There will be less unnecessary movement or muscle twitches while lifting. It will be like a piston.
The more ridged any material is, the more efficient energy flows through it. The torso is no exception. Another thing you will notice is improved bar velocity especially in the Olympic lifts. This is a bi-product of the combination of a well-developed torso meeting better muscular coordination.
17. Exercise Progression Overview
Now I wanted to share with you the exercise progression I use to develop athletes and their torsos.
There are 3 phases with a total of 25 exercises. There is a definitive purpose for the order of the exercises in each phase as well as the phases themselves. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I wont be able to discuss the details of the design however, I will be able to give you a thorough overview.
I start with the first exercise in phase one and work through each exercise until they all have been learned. Each exercise is designed to develop specific motor qualities. These specific qualities are chunked together to develop gross motor qualities.
18. Basic Barbell Exercises (Phase 1)
- Back Squat
- Standing Press
- Good Morning
- Front Squat
- Overhead Squat
- Bent Over Row
- *Push Press
19. Phase 1- General Purpose
- Reinforces/teaches proper torso alignment
- Muscular balance
- Range of motion (improved connective tissue strength)
- Improved force production (Strength)
- Rotation Prevention
- Inter/intra muscular coordination under controlled environment
- Teaches/strengthens “ready position” for sport
- <*Introduces energy flow (from the ground up)
19. Basic Barbell Exercises (Phase 2)
- Hang Power Snatch
- Hang Power Clean
- Push Jerk
- Power Snatch
- Power Clean
20. Phase 2- General Purpose
- Improved rate of force production (Power)
- Introduces energy flow (from an external force to the ground)
21. Basic Barbell Exercises Bi-lateral (Phase 3)
- Split Squat (bar in back)
- Split Squat (bar in front)
- Lunge (bar in back)
- Lunge (bar in front)
- Overhead Split Squat
- Overhead Lunge (multiple directions)
- *Split Snatch
- *Split Clean
- *Split Jerk
22. Phase 3 (General Purpose)
- Addresses remaining bi-lateral deficit
- Improved rotational strength
- *Improved foot speed
Unlike what some coaches might have you believe, the split squat or any other unilateral variations are not a suitable substitute for the back or front squat with beginning or intermediate athletes. Unilateral lifts are advanced exercises, which require a tremendous amount of pelvic control, much more than squatting with your feet in line. We have all heard the stories of athletes giving up the squat for a step-up or some other unilateral movement. And this does occur however these squat killers are overlooking a very key fact. If these athletes gave up the squat, it means that they had to have been squatting in the first place in order to have given it up. The truth is, in any sport other than powerlifting, there is such a thing as enough strength. In sports like baseball where the weight of the implements used do not vary in weight very much, at some point depending on the sport, increasing squat strength would be counterproductive. But to totally forgo the squat when developing a young or untrained athlete in lieu of the split squat and claim the split squat is more effective and safer is irresponsible and, more importantly, incorrect.
If you ask coaches to break down success or failure in sport to one variable I believe it would be this; If you can get to the point of attack before your opponent, then your chances of success will greatly improve. It just so happens that this particular variable is exactly what an educated S&C coach can affect the most. Now I understand that there are other pieces to the S&C pie however the pieces are not cut evenly, and shouldn’t be. Many S&C coaches use a microscope in their approach to athletic development. They take a small part of the pie such as core or functional training and they make it the primary focus. The reality is that athletic development does not occur under a microscope or in isolation.
We are biological organisms that have numerous interrelated systems that respond in unison to particular stimuli in very specific ways. As coaches it is our responsibility to use stimuli that will have the greatest effect on our athlete’s ability to perform. Stimuli that will improve their athlete’s ability to get to the point of attack before their opponent.
If you use training that is properly designed using basic barbell exercises that are performed with correct technique, barring some physiological anomaly, you will hit most if not all of the pieces of the pie sufficiently.
And you will never again go to a presentation on torso development because you will understand that the very premise is ridiculous.
The coaches in attendance who actually understood the process of athletic development were very pleased with the presentation and were very complimentary.
The coaches who were pissed-off because I said barbell exercises are the best means for developing the torso, well… F**K UM!
Fight until your very last breath!
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