Training that Transfers

What is specificity and how do you add it to your workouts?

Being the SAVAGE and strength and conditioning coordinator at the Florida Baseball Ranch, I get a lot of questions from players and parents on certain topics such as arm health, best age to begin lifting, exercises to throw 90+ mph or hit the ball 300+ feet, and various others.  My scientific answer is always: it depends.

It depends on the athlete’s mobility, training age, time of year, previous injuries, and so on.  There are a multitude of variables and I’ll be one to tell you if you’re searching for a magic pill or the “one thing” that will change you or your son’s baseball career, it isn’t out there.  It’s never just one thing.

Evaluate yourself amongst your competitive peer group in the 6 Contributors above.  Which do you think you need to improve in the most? Be honest with yourself.  You know yourself or your son better than I would.

The area I am specifically passionate about is the training portion.  One of the hot topics in the baseball world today is specificity of training.  Specificity is a commonly thrown around word in regard to training.  “That’s not baseball specific,” some might say. Well, what does that even mean?

Some experts say you need to be as specific as you can.  Others say if you get too specific then there’s no benefit. I believe the truth is in the middle. So, to bring some clarity, let’s first define what specificity is.

Similarity of movements between strength exercises and sport movement is known as specificity. How specific can you go? Obviously, you can’t go around the gym and throw heavy dumbbells! However, some would raise the argument with weighted balls but that’s a touchy subject and might need another article to talk about.

Let’s stick with exercises for now.

We can look at exercises being on a continuum. Some are highly specific and low load, some are medium load and medium specificity, and others are highly loaded and less specific. The more you load it the less specific it can be. The less you load it, the more specific it can be.

Side note: Remember that load doesn’t always necessarily mean weight.  Load can also mean variability/unpredictability of exercise.

A great training program has a little bit of everything across the entire spectrum. What combination is best? It depends on the athlete’s training age and the player’s individual athletic ability and other variables found in a comprehensive thorough physical and performance assessment (type 1 and type 2 contributors).

Well educated coaches should know when to implement these at the right time in the athlete’s training cycle.

As a parent or player, ask yourself this question: how is (insert training method or modality) getting me better?

If there is no logical explanation as to how the training piece is helping you play better, I would say you are wasting your time. Let’s think outside of baseball. Why would an ice skater think that running on land will improve their skating performance? Their body postures are completely different and the Achilles tendon is in a different position and would not be an optimal choice. A tennis player doesn’t think that shooting baskets is going to make them better at their serve, so why waste time shooting baskets? Time is the most valuable asset.  Use it wisely!

When I was playing, the only criteria I had was whether or not the right energy system and plane of motion was specific to the sport.  Now, being more educated and experienced, I have added more checkpoints to my criteria with the help of Randy Sullivan here at the Florida Baseball Ranch, and Frans Bosch who I have had the pleasure working with at our Skill Acquisition Summit this past September.

We have clearly defined these checkpoints in a 5-star rating system.

1. Energy system

The longest play in baseball is the inside-the-park home run.  It takes 12-14 seconds, so make your movements explosive and less than 12 seconds.

This is known as working in the ATP-CP system, wherein phosphogen is the biggest fuel provider.

You can train aerobically, but a meta analysis back in 2012 showed that training aerobically more than 2 times per week will decrease power output. If you’re constantly training in different energy systems and making your body produce less force over a long period of time, then your body will self-organize and produce less force.

2. Plane and type of motion

Making your movements specific to what you would normally do in a game is the best way to make sure the training transfers.

The best way to remember this is using the F.O.R.D. acronym.

  • Frontal plane or side to side movements
  • One leg
  • Rotational
  • Diagonal or not quite purely one specific anatomical plane

If an exercise fits the FORD it should be a fairly specific exercise.

3. Rate of force development

Once muscle slack is removed, the rate of force developed happens simultaneously. In simple terms, when muscle fiber starts to perform action and the end of strength buildup at their attachment points.

Slow heavy lifting will help you with maximal strength but if the lift takes longer to produce force than a swing or throw then you are training to produce force too late! Make sure you are training in the same time it takes to perform a pitch/throw/swing. You must produce max force for a pitch in about 0.75 seconds or less.

F (strength) * v (speed of shortening) = P (power)

Don’t get too lost in only doing slow heavy lifting that trains you to produce force too late! Some would argue that Olympic lifting produces force in a shorter amount of time, but those are performed mostly in the sagittal plane and safety can become a concern.

4. Clear goal or intention

Coordination is the most overlooked portion in strength and conditioning. Adding an intention or a clearly defined endpoint to an exercise is key in transferable exercises. Gaining strength is one thing, but being able to perform an athletic movement and coordinate that strength is a totally different animal.

This is why I tell my athletes to refrain from machines as this decouples coordination. At best, it will have no transfer or might even make them worse! In general, there are less degrees of freedom and it does not replicate the natural forces of gravity when an object is accelerated.

The human body is a dynamic system and has many different muscle groups working together rather than in isolation, and they must learn how to “play together” in order to perform a specific task.

We must also remember that power, strength, speed, and even coordination are not isolated phenomena, but rather they are working together in order to perform the task at hand. If you neglect having a specific intention or goal, then you train yourself to have little to no adjustability. Being able to adjust on the fly is crucial for the baseball athlete! You have to learn how to adjust to different mounds (even the ones with large gaping holes), adjust to different pitches and types of pitches, and many other unpredictable things. Adding variability is another way to help train adjustability, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

So, unless you’re a bodybuilder trying to look good in your swimsuit, stay away from the Planet Fitness machines and head over to the free weights.

5. Remove muscle slack naturally

This is one of the fundamental building blocks of athleticism. To describe this efficiently, it requires a science lesson. Your muscles don’t site on your bones ready to produce force naturally. They sit with slack like in the picture below.

There are other ways to remove slack by either counter movements, adding heavy loads, or teaching your body motor control through unpredictable stimuli and instability from above (not from Bosu balls and other stupid Instagram posts you see).

Last I checked, the umpires won’t let you bring a barbell out to the mound or in the batter’s box to help you reduce muscle slack, and in a swing or pitch there just isn’t much time for large countermovements.

Teach yourself how to remove this slack naturally. Outside of the central nervous system taking part, muscle preflexes are also important. One example is a cat getting ready to pounce. It builds up elastic energy in its legs as it crouches down. In regard to baseball, this is why chest muscles must be trained elastically rather than just solely eccentrically, concentrically, or isometrically since they are used elastically during throwing and hitting.

Additional examples

Low load high specificity
Medium load medium specificity
High load low specificity

When you’re performing certain exercises, ask yourself if it meets any of the 5 stars of specificity. You can have some exercises that have only 1, 3, or possibly even all 5 stars. If an exercise doesn’t meet any of these, then you might be wasting your time.

Caveat: If your training age is relatively low, you must first learn to efficiently squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull, rotate, and carry with clean movement patterns before adding additionally specificity.

Even then, you should be able to weave in some specificity. You have to add it gradually just as you would add weight to the bar in any other lift.

For the more experienced athletes, you can still do basic training in order to build up a more robust musculoskeletal system. But, adding 50+ pounds to your lifts won’t necessarily improve your performance. More isn’t always better. Optimal is the answer. With that, you must weave in as much specificity as possible and make your resistance training part-practice.

Coaches: overload and specificity should be juggled effectively depending on what phase the athlete is in their training. This is one of the most difficult aspects of creating a strength training program and only improves with more experience and developing a relationship with the athletes. Their feedback helps tremendously.

For the athletes and parents, find a coach you trust. Give them feedback and make sure they have a bigger picture in mind outside of filling their wallet. The longer you stick with a coach the more they will be able to add in specificity correctly and in turn make your athlete’s overall development the main priority.

If you don’t have a coach that is open to this, I know that Alex, Jason, and myself are more than capable of providing this service. Reach out if you haven’t, and Own the Offseason!