TEAM FEATURE: MIDWEST SURGE TRAVEL BASEBALL

A 12 week velocity building experiment

Written by Ben Brewster

In the fall of 2016, Nick Herrin, a college hitting coach at Harris-Stowe State University and head of the Midwest Surge travel organization reached out to myself and TreadAthletics along with one my training partners, Kyle Bogese.

Kyle and I were training in St Louis at the time, and Nick was looking for a way to help develop a group of his pitchers outside of their regular practice schedule.

Kyle and I have both thrown 98 mph, are still pursuing pro careers, and got to that point from starting as below-average college arms. We wanted to put those same training principles to work (a couple brief clips below).

While Kyle coached the class, Tread handled all aspects of individual strength programming, assessments, and throwing protocols.

Participants

The 21 pitchers ranged from 13 to 18, with a mean age of 15.6 years. Average height and weight was 5’10” and 146 lbs. 17 out of 21 athletes reported doing some sort of weight training class at school, but few reported having added appreciable size or strength over the past year. 18 out of 21 athletes reported muscle gain as their body composition goal, while 3 identified fat loss as their main body composition goal.


"This was a relatively novice group with minimal training histories."


All pitchers listed improved velocity as their main sport-specific goal – the majority were freshmen or sophomores playing on their high school JV teams, so this was a relatively novice group with minimal training histories.

Bottom line – this population represented a mix of talents and abilities, but was unremarkable in terms of training history or starting numbers. There were no freaks in this group, indicating how repeatable the following results can be achieved with similar populations and protocols.

Methods

Participants registered for a 3-night per week, 12-week class. This class was run and implemented by Kyle, while Tread handled all of the assessments, strength programming and throwing programming. Each of these will be covered below.

Assessments

Prior to beginning the program, all athletes were taken through a 20-30 minute comprehensive movement screen to identify muscular imbalances and movement deficiencies. Additional baseline metrics like height, weight and grip strength were taken as well. The assessment contained both a general movement portion, as well as a throwing-specific component where we checked for scapular movement issues, overhead shoulder flexion, shoulder rotation range of motion discrepancies and more.


"All athletes were taken through a comprehensive movement screen to identify movement deficiencies."


For any red flags, the athlete was given a pre-training corrective exercise (or three) and coached on how to perform these properly. We also made notes of specific strength training modifications that would need to be made based on the assessment (i.e. no pull-ups for athletes missing a ton of shoulder flexion, heel lift modifications for ankle mobility issues while squatting, etc.).

Strength Programming

Athletes lifted 3 times per week for approximately one hour, which immediately followed their throwing for the day. Lifts were broken up into Monday (Upper Body emphasis), Wednesday (Lower Body emphasis) and Friday (Total Body). Each session was started with their individual corrective work, after which the pitchers paired up to complete a brief plyometric pre-lift routine followed by their primary compound lifts for the day. We started with conservative loading, and used volume as the main stimulus over the first four weeks of the program. From there, we increased the intensity and instructed the athletes to aim for +5 lbs/2.5 per side on upper body movements, and +10lbs/5 per side on their main lower body movements, given that perfect form could be maintained. Specific exercise cueing is beyond the scope of this summary, but athletes were coached through the specific technique and tempo of each movement, and then further policed by one another as they learned.

A sample of the training we performed (ignore the velo/weight averages, which were calculated before the final data came in)

Accessory movements followed the compound lifts, varying over the course of the 12 weeks. Core strength and stability movements were a staple, including rotary, anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion variants rather than high-rep floor ab circuits. Shoulder and scapular strengthening was another staple, focusing in particular on rotator cuff (both eccentric/concentric strengthening in additional to rhythmic stabilization variants), serratus anterior and lower trap function.

With all accessory movements, progression and technique (particularly ensuring full range of motion) were constant focuses.

Throwing Programming

Prior to each weight training session, the athletes completed a 1-hour block of throwing. This was broken up into three distinct phases, in order: movement prep, drillwork/throwing, and arm care/recovery

Movement Prep

Progressing from general to specific, the goal of the movement prep phase was just to prime each athlete for throwing, increase core body temperature and increase total body muscle activation and blood flow. This was broken into the following:

Soft tissue work > Corrective work > General dynamic warm-up > Specific arm warm-up

Soft tissue work consisted of mainly foam rolling and lacrosse ball trigger point work, while the general dynamic warm-up varied but consisted of a variety of jumps, skips, lunges, sprints and bounds. The specific arm warm-up incorporated J-bands, wrist weights, and the shoulder tube to further warm up the shoulder and elbow.

Drill work and Throwing

Plyocare lead-into drills (low to moderate intensity) > Daily throwing (varied)

Next came Plyocare lead-into drills, which included reverse throws, pivot pickoffs, modified roll-ins, rocker drills and walking windups. Depending on individual mechanical issues, modifications to these drills were made, such as the step-back wind-up for athletes struggling to get into and feel their back hip as they initiated forward momentum. Sets and reps varied depending on the day and on the athlete, but this generally took about 10 minutes to complete.

Baseball and weighted ball throwing came next, and was generally divided into four phases: Baseline testing (Week 1), on-ramping (Weeks 2-4), overload/underload pulldowns (Weeks 5-8) and overload/underload mound velo.

For the first week, we just introduced the athletes to the drill work, routines, footwork and overall program. The athletes had been practicing and throwing for several months, and after confirming their arms were in shape and healthy, we radared 5 full-speed baseball throws on either day 1 or 2, depending on when the athlete indicated they felt fresh and ready.

During the on-ramping phase, light catch play, simulated indoor long toss, and submaximal pulldowns were implemented with intensity ramping up to near maximal efforts by the end of week 4.

The pulldown and mound velo phases used a similar protocols, with the pitchers building up to several max effort throws of weighted baseballs ranging from 4 to 6 ounces. Total number of weekly max effort throws was strictly capped at 12-15 throws, as some of these pitchers had other practices and throwing obligations, and we were dealing with a relatively inexperienced and novice group of pitchers – huge initial gains could be made without an aggressive throwing workload to start off.

Arm Care and Recovery

Additional pre-hab and recovery modalities were implemented immediately after pitchers finished throwing, and included Plyocare Rebounders, Band Pull-Aparts, J-Bands and prone Blackburns. This was non-negotiable and athletes weren’t allowed to begin lifting until they had completed their recovery routine.

Results

Below are the summarized results. Each athlete also kept weekly bodyweight and lifting tracking charts, and an up-to-the-date team record board for each ball weight and age group was also kept. For the sake of brevity, the results were condensed below:

(Click to view full size image)

Starting velocities ranged from 59.2 to 78.2 mph, while final velocities ranged from 64.0 to 86.9 mph. On average, velocity improved by 6.7 mph across the group, with individual improvements ranging from +3.5 to +11.2 mph. Worth noting, there was not a single athlete who fully participated in the study who didn’t gain velocity. For athletes who listed muscle gain as a primary goal, average bodyweight rose from 146.1 to 155.9 lbs, nearly a 10 pound jump in 12 weeks. Weight gain was universal in this group, but ranged from only +3 lbs to as high as +17 lbs. Although strength numbers are not included here, many athletes added 100lbs or more to their deadlifts and squats over the 12-week period.


"On average, peak velocity improved by 6.7 mph."


What about pulldowns? While this was not a primary focus (mound velocity was), average peak pulldown velocity for the group rose from 72.0 (range: 58.8 to 80.9) at initial testing to 79.3 (range: 68.1 to 88.0), a 7.3 mph increase.

A few follow-up results after completion of the 3 months of training…

  • Joe (Athlete 15) went from JV topping at 72.7 mph to varsity, ultimately touching 84 mph during the season as a high school sophomore.
  • Jack (Athlete 7) went 5-2 as a high school junior on his varsity team, posting a 1.66 ERA with 4 complete game shutouts (1-2 hits).
  • Kevin (Athlete 3) went from 78.2 mph to 86.9 mph as a high school junior and posted a 0.97 ERA on varsity.

Wait, but you didn’t have a control group. How do you know that these kids wouldn’t have thrown harder just from puberty?

Fair point, but here’s what happens over 12 weeks to a control group of pitchers who don’t undergo a lifting and overload/underload intervention – nothing statistically significant! Here are plenty more studies that did incorporate control groups and showed similar findings.

Discussion

It certainly isn’t rocket science to help less advanced pitchers gain an initial chunk of velocity, but this case study shows just how rapidly these adaptations can occur when all of the training variables are accounted for.

4-6% velocity improvements in novices over 10-12 weeks have been demonstrated in the literature from just throwing overload/underload implements (equivalent to roughly 3-4 mph) – but our results indicate just how important the strength/nutrition/muscle mass component appears to be (our 6.7 mph average increase is equivalent to a 9.7% bump in velocity). Again, these weren’t hyper-dedicated athletes – they just showed up and trained properly for 2 hours, 3 days a week and, more or less, followed the calorie recommendations that were provided.


"This case study shows just how rapidly these adaptations can occur"


What have we seen in individual case studies with highly dedicated athletes? Jack went from touching 77 at 136 lbs to touching 87 at 151 lbs in 12 weeks as a freshman (a 13% increase in velocity and 15 lb weight gain), which is more impressive considering he was already training hard for at least a year prior. He has recently hit 93 as a HS junior and is a top-ranked prep pitcher in GA.

Worth noting are some reasons why we feel these 12 week results with Midwest Surge Baseball were as good as they were, and why some coaches would have trouble replicating them in practice:

  • Nutritional compliance: athletes weren’t just harped on to “eat more,” they were given specific and individual targets with detailed instructions on how to actually hit these numbers. Then they were held accountable with weekly weigh-ins in front of their peers, and their running results recorded publicly.
  • Exercise form: athletes weren’t just told to lift weights – as we established, these kids had all been in weight training classes at school and made little to no progress. The majority initially demonstrated flared elbow dumbbell bench presses, half rep squats and round-back deadlifts. Lifting 3 days per week is not the same as properly training 3 days per week – I’d go so far as saying that the coach should have at least an intermediate level of strength and experience with doing the program themselves before attempting to coach athletes through it. Details matter. Form matters. Emphasizing full range, explosive concentrics and proper positioning matters. Screw this up, and you lose much of its effectiveness and are unlikely to replicate these results.
  • Buy in: athletes literally bought in, registering and paying for this 12-week class. This seems trivial, but we know that, based on basic human psychology, we value things more that we have invested something (money, time, etc.) in vs. things we get for free. High school coaches are going to struggle to replicate these results with unmotivated JV players. While this was not a group of elite, hyper dedicated pitchers, they were motivated enough to at least invest money, follow the program and put in a reasonably legitimate effort. Had we taken all 100+ individuals from the travel organization and put them through the exact same training for free, there is little doubt that buy-in, and therefore average compliance and results would have suffered substantially. No program can do the work for the athlete – which is why this component is so important.

Conclusion

Underachieving athletes are everywhere, and this is especially true in high school and travel baseball. For coaches and players, recognize that just practicing more isn’t the most efficient path to player development. Perfecting your team’s bunt defenses and pickoff moves isn’t going to stop you from getting squashed by rival teams that have even a handful of players who take their training – away from the field – seriously. Adaptations – significant ones - can happen in a relatively short timeframe. All it takes is the right programming, reasonably committed athletes and a coach who has put in the time and sweat to understand how to effectively implement it.

Interested in learning more about our team programming for high school, travel and college programs? You can reach us at contact@treadathletics.com

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