The Benefits of the Weightlifting Movements for Baseball Players

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There are no bad movements – just poor understanding, shitty implementation, and even worse execution.  Just because you don’t completely understand an exercise or can’t communicate effectively to teach and coach your athletes to do something proficiently, doesn’t mean that the movement or exercise has a purpose and validity in training athletes.

For whatever reason, weightlifting and overhead movements have been demonized in the baseball world for years.  Admitting you use the snatch and clean & jerk with your baseball players seemingly gets the same reaction as you would walking through the streets of San Francisco wearing a MAGA hat.  Making broad statements about the “negatives” of the weightlifting movements and their variations is only one side of the coin.  To me, most of these “negatives” are simply just excuses and underscore a lack of understanding of how these tools can actually be a huge benefit, rather than a hindrance to performance.

In fact, there are many positives to why these movements could and should be used with baseball players throughout their training career.

I want to make clear that I don’t believe an athlete’s program should look like that of a weightlifter – that would be dogmatic and naive.  What I am saying is that before completely throwing out one of the most potent tools in your belt because of the “negatives,” or as I see it – excuses, it’s important to understand the benefits first.  From there, you need to reflect and analyze your skill set as a coach.  Do you have the skill set to effectively implement these tools?  If you don’t, will you look to improve your craft, or will you settle for mediocrity, and be dishonest for why you don’t use these tools?  Be a pro – always look to improve your craft.

Remember, there are very few absolutes in this world, especially when it comes to training – only Sith Lords deal in absolutes. It makes me uneasy and should be a red flag to others when coaches make blanket statements of “all,” “none,” “always,” or “never.”  It exposes either a dogmatic approach or inexperience.  Just because certain exercises aren’t a good fit for a handful of athletes, doesn’t mean it isn’t good for everyone.  That’s where you as a coach need to be ready to make adjustments for that individual, or individuals.  Be fluid.

With that in mind, I’m going to first outline some of the most common and unfounded arguments, or excuses, that advocate against using the weightlifting movements, then I’m going to provide a rebuttal as to why you should consider use them in your programs for developing baseball players.  Also, while we may be directly addressing baseball players, there is obvious carry over as to why the weightlifting movements could and should be used for other sport athletes as well.

EXCUSE #1: THEY ARE HIGH RISK MOVEMENTS – HEALTH AND LONGEVITY OF UPPER EXTREMITY JOINTS IS CRUCIAL FOR SUCCESS OF BASEBALL PLAYERS.

The weightlifting movements and their variations are only high risk if they are coached and executed poorly.  And yeah, no doi that health and longevity of the upper extremity joints is crucial for success.  But let’s take a step back and look at the most common injuries in baseball, and then address why this is occurring.  Shoulder and elbow overuse injuries are the most common and rampant across the board.  Why is this so? Two fold.

First, because of early specialization and year round play. This provides no offseason to develop the body or other skills and athletic traits by playing other sports.  This is becoming an epidemic at the youth level for many club sports outside of baseball (just google early sport specialization in youth sports). Coupled with year round play, a second contributor for this epidemic in shoulder and elbow injuries is due to lack of dedicated or focused emphasis in strength training, especially in the upper body.

I’m not sure we can do anything about the state of travel ball and early specialization in youth baseball or other sports – we’re small cogs in a big wheel.  But what we can do to minimize these overuse injuries is to STRENGTHEN these athletes and their upper extremities through effective training.

If coached and used properly, the weightlifting movements and their variations can be extremely effective at STRENGTHENING the connective tissues and the surrounding musculature of the elbow and shoulder joints, not weaken.  Are you putting stress on the joints when you snatch or clean & jerk? Sure, but not all stress is bad – in order to drive adaptation and resiliency, stress is a crucial component of development. You must stress to progress.

Too often, the weightlifting movements are only viewed in terms of their ability to develop and produce force, but for athletic development, a crucial component of using these exercises is their ability to develop and train the athlete to absorb impact and REDUCE force.  Force reduction is an essential part of injury PREVENTION and creating a more durable baseball player to withstand the demands of throwing year round.

One of the biggest mechanisms for elbow and shoulder injuries in baseball players is deceleration, or lack thereof, in the follow through of throwing.  This is a major reasons to have baseball players snatch, for example. The turn over and the catch in the snatch trains and improves decceleration/force reduction qualities baseball players.

So in reality, the biggest issues that should cause the most concern for health and longevity with baseball players in the upper extremities, especially youth, is year round play and the LACK of training to develop strength and stability in the upper extremities using overhead movements.  Don’t run away from a problem, run to it and attack it head on!

EXCUSE #2: WEIGHTLIFTING MOVEMENTS REQUIRE A HIGH LEVEL OF PREREQUISITE MOBILITY, ESPECIALLY IN THE HIPS, ANKLES, AND T-SPINE.  MANY BASEBALL PLAYERS HAVE LIMITED MOBILITY, SO THE LAST THING WE WANT TO DO IS THROW THEM INTO A LIFT THAT REQUIRES SUCH HIGH LEVELS OF MOBILITY.

If you’ve identified a performance limiting factor like limited mobility, what are you doing to improve to limiting factors?  Again, some strength coaches have a very myopic view of what the barbell can be used for.  While it is primarily understood as a tool to develop strength and power, many overlook the barbell as a tool to develop and improve MOBILITY.  The weightlifting movements and basic barbell exercises can simply be mobility tools in and of themselves.  Those coaches that don’t realize this haven’t spent much time using a barbell – it shows.

Look, the full lifts obviously wouldn’t be a great option for a baseball player, or any athlete for that matter, whose hips are too locked up to get in a good start position from the floor, or shoulders too tight to get into the bottom of an overhead squat.  You’d be negligent to force a range of motion that isn’t there yet.  BUT, if you have an understanding of the different variations, it can be a simple fix to set the athlete up for success (in terms of both performance AND health/longevity).

An example of this would be to start from blocks or the hang, and finish in a power (think a quarter squat) – both positions don’t require as much hip and shoulder mobility respectively.  To regress it further, you can even simply do a snatch press or overhead squat to a range of motion where the athlete can maintain solid posture and position.  The mobility, stability, and strength gained in the shoulder girdle can be quite dramatic in the most positive way!

If you have a visceral understanding of the barbell, it can provide you with another tool in your belt to attack the performance limiting factors of limited mobility and/or lack of stability to compliment what else you are doing to mitigate those limiting factors.

Again, instead of running away from a problem, run to it and attack it head on!

EXCUSE #3: WEIGHTLIFTING MOVEMENTS HAVE A HIGH LEARNING CURVE – PICK THE LOW HANGING FRUIT.  BY THE TIME A LIFTER LEARNS THE TECHNIQUES PROFICIENT ENOUGH TO MOVE HEAVY WEIGHTS THAT SAME ATHLETE COULD HAVE BEEN DOING SIMPLER POWER MOVEMENTS FOR MONTHS.

Again, another excuse and I despise.  Sure, you get a pro or college athlete that comes to work with you during a short break that a) has never done a weightlifting movement, and/or b) doesn’t do weightlifting movements in their program back at school or club, then sure, teaching and implementing those movements would be a poor use of time.  You would get more bang for your buck implementing sprints, dynamic med ball work, plyos, and basic barbell training.

But in the context of longer term athlete development in the high school or college setting when you have 2-4 years to work with these kids, you’re telling me you can’t get someone to move effectively within a couple of weeks!?  This tells me that you, the coach, don’t have a systematic and repeatable approach to teaching and progressing an athlete with the weightlifting movements. Which is fine, but what are you doing about it to fill that gaping hole in your coaching?

There’s only a high learning curve if you don’t have a systematic and repeatable approach or you can’t effectively communicate.  Yes, the weightlifting movements are complex, but complex doesn’t need to be difficult.  In my experience, when I see a “high learning curve,” it has more to do with the coach than the athlete.  If you spend the time as a coach developing and improving your approach to TEACHING the lifts, the learning curve for the athlete can be reduced exponentially.

I’m a performance whore.  If there’s something that I think will improve the performance of my athletes that I don’t have a great understanding about, I’m going to invest my time and resources into gaining at the very least a base level of understanding so I can then effectively implement it with my athletes.  Why wouldn’t you want to do the same?  Don’t be a “systems guy.”

Additionally, it’s not just about getting the athletes to be in a position to move “heavy weight”.  Again, this view shows a lack of deeper understanding of the benefits of the weightlifting movements.  There’s so much more that these exercises train and develop than just strength and power!  Even if the athlete is moving around and learning simply with an empty barbell, he is developing and improving their biomechanical and neuromuscular efficiency – important factors in developing general athleticism.

EXCUSE #4: POWER IS PLANE SPECIFIC.  DEVELOPING POWER IN THE FRONTAL (SIDE TO SIDE) AND TRANSVERSE (ROTATIONAL) PLANE HAS GREATER CARRYOVER TO THE FIELD OF PLAY.

Power may very well be plane specific, and I agree – if you only train sagittal plane movements, you are not truly developing athleticism, and you’re creating performance imbalances that will catch up to you at some point and cost you when it matters the most.  Even with my weightlifters, we incorporate movement in all three planes of movement.  I wrote about this at length in a recent article for Power Athlete here.

With that being said, using the sagittal dominate weightlifting movements is still important in DEVELOPING power.  The implementation of dynamic med ball exercises, additional plyometrics, sprinting and change of direction drills in the frontal and transverse planes is how you EXPRESS and DISPLAY your developed power.

Weightlifting movements have their time and place, especially with baseball players!  The transfer to the field that these movements can have are powerful and undeniable.  But there’s one last point to be made should you implement these potent tools into the training of your athletes – it’s NOT about the numbers.  The numbers, or weight on the bar, should never be the priority. The emphasis and focus should always be about quality of MOVEMENT and how the bar is being moved, not what on the bar is being moved. If you’re chasing numbers, the quality of training will suffer over time, as will the health and longevity of your athletes.  Movement over intensity – no question about it.

Instead of pushing false and worn out narratives, a better and more honest answer to the question of “why weightlifting movements aren’t great for athletes and why we don’t use them” should simply be “we don’t know enough about them or have enough in depth personal or practical experience with them to effectively and safely use them with our athlete population.”

Now that’s an answer I can respect!  Why?  It tells me you’re honest with yourself and understand what you do and don’t know.  But want to be a pro coach? Take it to the next level. Take ownership. Be honest with yourself. Stop making excuses.  Admit what you know and more importantly what you don’t know.  Excel at what you do know. Continually seek out knowledge and improvement in what you don’t know. Apply that new knowledge.  Push the profession forward!

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