December 2000

Baseball performance statistics continue to rise in the college and professional levels. In part, the gains must be attributed to the advent of bigger, stronger, faster athletes, all of which are functions of refined strength and conditioning programs administered by qualified strength and conditioning coaches and other experts.

Traditionally, the efficacy of such programming in preadolescent athletes has been heavily debated due to low concentrations of androgenic hormones. Current information by Feigenbaum et al. and the National Strength and Conditioning Association committee on prepubescent strength training, clearly shows that strength gains between 40% and 75% are possible depending on the type and length of training programs and the baseline strength of the child.

The primary source of strength gains in immature athletes is primarily due to neural adaptations. These neuromuscular adaptations to movement patterns under resistance occur after approximately 4 weeks of programming. Heavy loads and resistance levels are not necessary to make neuromuscular adaptations. Use of low load resistance training is beneficial to immature athletes because it introduces them to using their bodies to not only move light resistance, but also to develop functional balance, coordination and joint positional sense. These factors are critical and transferable to successful acquisition of athletic skill events like throwing, pitching or hitting a baseball.

Participation in a structured monitored resistance-training program gives young athletes an excellent introduction to working in an athlete coach relationship. A more structured program with a low coach to athlete ration (10:1 or less) teaches athletes to be receptive to instruction and constructive criticism. Well-designed training programs also give young athletes self-esteem and a taste of success as they achieve goals en route to completing their individual and perhaps their team program. Most importantly, resistance training programs designed for young athletes who participate in youth baseball play a major role in overuse injury prevention and serve as a foundation for life, and long healthy training and behavioral habits.

Although there are many well documented benefits of resistance training in immature athletes, it is important to be aware of potential risks. In the absence of adequate supervision and proper coaching, the weight room environment can transform from safe to dangerous in a brief instant. Proper instruction and coaching in the areas of lifting form and spotting techniques can make the difference between a positive and negative initial experience for a young athlete.

Design and implementation of programs that are overtaxing and too advanced can lead to serious injury and may result in a participant experiencing failure and potentially lower self-esteem. Unfortunately, these negative variables may serve as deterrents to a young athlete for future participation. Acute and chronic musculoskeletal injuries are the most common potentially occurring problems facing young athletes as a result of their participation in resistance training programs.

Immature growth plate fractures are an example of an acute traumatic injury associated with poorly executed lifts of excessively heavy loads. More repetitive, microtraumatic injuries, specifically muscle/tendon strain, ligament sprains, or osteochondritis dissecans are generally related to excessive use.

Structured strength programs for young athletes are available across the country. They provide one way to increase strength. Children can also employ low weight resistance programs under the guidance of a knowledgeable coach or parent that are aware of proper technique and safety considerations. Traditional calisthenics can be performed to increase strength and these can easily be employed at the beginning of a team practice.

As strength training can affect performance and potentially reduce injury, aerobic conditioning is important to avoid fatigue and establish habits of preventive health activities. Strenuous physical activity for 20-30 minutes three days a week can provide a training affect to improve endurance and gain health benefits.

Children in youth leagues and under twelve can begin a practice by rounding the bases once (240 feet), practicing to cut the bases properly then round the bases again and practice sliding into second base and home plate (240 feet). A jog from home plate around the outfield and back home combined with the two turns around the bases, will provide a distance of approximately one-quarter of a mile. Repeating the course for a total distance of approximately one half mile is a good initial program and can be run in the time of between 10 and 15 minutes.

By slowly increasing the distance and speed, a run of 20 minutes can be obtained. A manager can request a player to run twenty minutes three times a week at home. For an older player, a run around the bases and a jog from home plate, around the outfield and back to home plate would represent a distance of approximately one quarter of a mile. Starting training at a twenty-minute run and slowly increasing the distance attained in this time makes for a good progressive program.

Strength and endurance training, when properly planned and implemented can improve performance, potentially reduce injury and promote health. This form of conditioning should be a part of all baseball programs.