Building Power For Hitting

Building Power For Hitting

by Phil Hueston, NASM-PES; IYCA-YFS

Rotational power is the backbone of many sports movements. Hitting a softball or baseball, firing off a shot in lacrosse, ice or field hockey, throwing a football, softball or baseball, kicking a soccer ball and the forehand and backhand strokes in tennis are all representative of what most athletes and coaches call "rotational power." What's interesting relative to sport applications is that all sports movements, even running in a straight line, are dependent to some degree on the ability to create rotational power.

It's often casually assumed that the effective athletes have a natural ability to perform this movement coupled with the ability to twist or rotate the trunk quickly and efficiently. Power in the movement, therefore, is created by the speed of the rotation and the resulting "slingshot" effect through the extremities.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The ability to deliver "power" through the extremities and apply it to a ball, puck, stick or bat actually begins with an essential functional movement skill known as "anti-rotation." Anti-rotation is a must-have athletic skill that can mean the difference between a long, productive career and a short, painful one spent wondering what might have been!

Anti-rotation is an outcropping of core strength, core activation and the sequencing of muscular movements and activity in the muscles which stabilize the spinal region, especially the lumbar spine. Anti-rotation training allows the athlete to create as much torque as possible, while preventing unnecessary and unwanted rotation of spinal vertebrae and discs. This, in turn, allows maximal rotational power output in the intended sport application without creating negative movement patterns that lead to loss of power, muscle strain and spinal injury.

So if we're preventing rotation in the lumbar spine during sports movements, how do we increase rotational power to improve these movements?

We improve rotational power by improving the ability of the body's foundation for movement, the core, to provide an anchor for the extremities as they apply force in the direction of its' intended application. We will, as the title implies, restrict our discussion to hitting, both baseball and softball, but you will see the breadth of application for some of the concepts.

The Anchor of Rotational Movement

The core is described as the muscles and other structures involved in stabilizing the body and facilitating and producing movement that lie in the region starting approximately mid-thigh and ranging upward, ending at the base of the rib cage. This may not be the perfect and absolutely complete kinesiological description, but it will be more than sufficient for our purposes.

This region serves as the anchor against and through which the extremities and even some of the core muscles themselves will act to produce force in rotational power production. They will reduce force (decelerate) or produce force (accelerate) in coordination with each other, but never in isolation. I will not go into great detail about the individual muscles involved in creating rotational power, but will explain the muscle groups involved as it is appropriate.

In the baseball or softball swing, there are numerous commonalities. The greatest differences lie in the application of hand-eye coordination in response to the path of the incoming pitch. Both swings begin with roughly the same sequence of core-anchored movements.

Typically, the hitter will begin the swing by lifting and planting or pushing down on to the front foot. Some say the act of lifting the front foot and moving it, even slightly, into a more forward position activates the hip extensors, the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and drivers on the rear, or drive leg. This may be true, but is not critically important for this discussion. What is important for all hitters is that the glute complex be active and trained to respond when needed.

What is also important is to understand how this act can initiate anti-rotation and create the anchor for a powerful swing. When the front foot plants, the frontal plane hip stabilizers will fire to prevent unwanted side-to-side movement, or over-shifting of the hips toward the incoming pitch. This will require the abdominal muscles, including  the obliques and deep spinal stabilizers (transverse abdominus, etc.) to fire in order to maintain positive spinal alignment. This abdominal support of the spine will serve to establish a base for movement through the remainder of the swing.

How? By aligning the lumbar spine in a stable position that prevents vertebral and disc rotation or lateral "slide" during the dynamic movements associated with the swing. Think of it this way. If you were building a catapult, you would want a stable, non-moving base for the arm to produce force against. If the lumbar spine and hip complex can be thought of as this catapult base, we want it to remain stable and firm while the catapults whip power to the extremities and through the end of the bat.

One big difference between the catapult and the human body during a swing is this: the human body has "catapult" arms at either end. Both of these are producing force, one set against a non-moving surface (the ground), the other against the moving lever arm (the bat) which is intended to make contact with a flying object (the ball.)

With all that whipping and rotating force being produced, we're definitely going to want to provide a stable base!

Stationary Rotation

This may seem like a contradiction, but "stationary rotation" during hitting is exactly what we're going for. The hitter who is able to maintain a stationary axis of movement during the swing is the one who create more bat speed, allow less unwanted movement in all planes of motion and hit the ball harder and under better control.

The most common misconception around hitting stance and initiation is that hitters must move toward the source of the ball to apply power to the ball. Hitters moving toward the mound on impact with the ball will reduce bat speed, thereby applying less power at the moment of contact.

Prior to swing initiation, the batter will come to a controlled, balanced position relative to the mound. Only under this condition can an effective swing initiation take place.

Rotational power production is dependent on the hitter's ability to turn the hips and shoulders (and by extension the arms, hands and bat) in the proper manner against a stable base (remember the catapult.) Torque is the driver of the bats' rate of angular deflection (speed), along with efficient transfer of the body's rotational forces.

A suitable way to envision this stationary rotation is to imagine a batter with a fence pole running into his head from above, along his spine and out the bottom of his body and into the ground. This pole will be slightly angled back, from bottom to top, at the point of contact. The reason for this is simple: the batter will always want his hips to lead his shoulders by 18 to 33 degrees, dependent on the batters height, swing style and other physical variables. To determine the proper angle for any hitter is the job of an effective hitting coach. Our purpose is to give the batter the neuromuscular and physical tools needed to accomplish the job of hitting.

A "Fire in the Big House!"

In many sport fitness circles, the glutes, in particular the gluteus maximus, is referred to as "the big house." This is because a.) it is the single largest muscle head in the human body, and b.) when properly conditioned, it produces and reduces more force than any other muscle in the body. The "fire" we're referring to is the heat generated in a muscle when it is firing correctly. You know, "the burn."

We want our baseball and softball athletes to have a "fire in the big house." This guarantees us that when they make the inward turn of the rear hip after the front foot is planted, they will be able to extend that hip through the mid-point of the stationary rotation axis to lead the shoulders.

The harder the hip drive, the more power will be delivered. Period. Weak hip drive can't be overcome by the arms and shoulders. It will result in a weak, lopsided swing with no pop.

So, we need to get those glutes active, strong and powerful! Activation and strengthening are not the same. If the athletes' glutes are not active, the cause can be any number of things. If they are not strong, there is only one reason: they have not been trained or exposed to the right kind of stimulus to develop.

Activation of the glutes will assist in the strengthening process. Unfortunately, strength training for the glutes will not necessarily provide the right kind of stimulus to activate them. Since they are so important to rotational power for hitting, we want to be sure to get it right!

Let it Whip!

The role of the shoulders in hitting is somewhat misunderstood. We often hear instructors and coaches take about "pulling the shoulders through," "following" with them or "leveling" them. From an instructional standpoint, these cues may result in the desired outcome. From a bio-mechanical standpoint, they're somewhat off the reality.

We need to strengthen an athletes' upper back muscles, especially the rhomboids, trapezius and scapular muscles. During the "whip" phase of the swing, we want the upper back muscles to "pull" the lead shoulder around in a manner that both enhances the plant and turn phase and follows through from it. The ability of an athlete to activate and produce/reduce force in the upper back and shoulders will determine how well they "finish" a swing.

Remembering the catapult analogy, the shoulders hold the arm of the catapult and act as the directional force producer for the bat and the swing. We need to give the hitter the power to be able to use this tool effectively, so that the finish of the swing is as effective as the other phases.

Stable Spine, Mobile Hips

With all of this stabilization taking place through the core and spinal column and all this power being transferred from the hips through the core and beyond through the arms to the bat, it's easy to forget about one important aspect of rotational power development: mobility.

Relative to hitting, hip mobility is crucial to the development of power. Strength in, and ability to activate, the glutes will be largely negated if the hitter has immobile hips. In fact, hip immobility is likely the cause of most low back pain in baseball and softball players.

The amount of power being generated through the hips is tremendous. If the hips are not mobile and can't move easily and with control through the normal internal and external ranges of motion, the brain and neuromuscular system will find a "workaround." Most often, this is the spine, particularly the lumbar and thoracic spines.

Inability to turn the back side, or drive hip inward upon initiation of the lower body drive phase of hitting will cause the "lever" of that drive to be shifted to the lumbar spine. If the lumbar spine is being adequately controlled in anti-rotation, the stress will likely transfer to either the knee of the drive leg or the thoracic spine.

Stress transference to the knees leads to adduction stress (think "crashing knee" or ACL tear position) during the push-through of the rear hip during the drive phase. This can be avoided if the rear hip can be internally rotated, under control and with adequate dynamic stability, prior to the full extension of the glutes and hip.

Mobility is the key to this capability.

The "How's" of Training For Rotational Hitting Power

The ways to generate rotational power are many. I'll outline some basic ways to activate and strengthen key muscles and muscle groups to make your hitting more effective.

Core Training:

It isn't necessary, nor advisable, to make your core training look like hitting. In fact, when we recall that the first thing we need to master in developing rotational power is anti-rotation, you will realize that training the muscles to hold the core in an anatomically correct, stable position should be the first thing we do. After that we can begin to challenge the core with movement - linear, side to side and rotational.

Phase 1 -

Planks - Possibly the most over used and under-perfected exercise out there, planks, done correctly, will improve stability of the core and spine in rapid fashion. Try these:

Plank with forearm rotation - Take a plank position on the floor. Be certain to keep weight pushed back on your toes and your elbows tucked under your body, approximately even with the bottom of the rib cage. Maintain neutral lumbar spine and neutral head position. With the hands and elbows aligned, place your palms on the floor. Without allowing any other movement in any other part of the body, slowly rotate your hands so your palms are facing upward. Then slowly rotate them down again. Repeat 6-8 times, holding the plank the entire time.

Plank with triple extension - Assume the same plank position as above. Without allowing any other movement, lift only the toe of the right foot off the floor, pointing it actively at the wall behind you. Slowly place it back down and repeat with the other toe. Slowly lower your body to the floor. Return to the start position, maintaining neutral lumbar spine and head. Repeat 6-8 times for a set.

SL Tilt - Stand on one foot, with that knee softly bent and locked in that bend. Slowly push the other leg back into the air behind you, until it is nearly parallel to the floor, allowing your upper body to tilt forward as well. At the bottom, your body should resemble a "T." Slowly return to the starting point, moving the upper body and leg together. Remain on the same foot and repeat 4-5 more times. Switch legs and repeat.

Phase 2 -

Plank Rotation - Begin in the plank position as described above. Slowly lift one arm off the floor and rotate your body as far as possible, making sure to move the hips and shoulders as one unit. Continue until the shoulders reach approximately a 90 degree position relative to the floor. Return slowly, maintaining the relative position of the hips and shoulders. Perform the movement in the other direction. Do a total of 10-12 reps.

Rotational Lunge - Start in a standing position, feet parallel and about hip width apart. Raise hands to shoulder height and place palms together. Keep the arms straight. Step forward slowly, placing the heel of the front foot firmly on the ground. Lower your hips toward the ground without touching the back knee. Rotate the shoulders in the direction of the foot that is forward. (i.e., right foot forward, turn to the right) Keep the arms extended. Return to the start position and perform the exercise in the other direction. Do 10-12 reps for a set.

Medicine Ball Crunch - Lie in the crunch start position on the floor, holding a medicine ball (start light!) at your chest with both hands. Perform a crunch, pressing the medicine ball straight up toward the ceiling as you do. Return to the start position and repeat. Perform 8-12 reps in a set.

Phase 3 -

2 Point Plank - Begin in a plank position as described above. Slowly lift the right arm and the left foot off the floor. Point the toe and extend the arm along, but off of, the floor. Pause at the extension point. Slowly return to the start. Repeat the movement with the opposite limbs. Perform 8-12 reps in a set.

Medicine Ball Twister - Start in a crunch position on the floor, medicine ball held at the chest. Rise to a ½ sit-up position, keeping the feet on the floor. Maintain a neutral spine position and keep the chest slightly out. Moving nothing but the shoulders and arms, slowly rotate the upper body to one side and touch the ball to the floor. Return to the start point, then perform the same movement in the other direction. Repeat 10-12 times for a set.

Training the Glutes and Hips:

Floor Bridges - Lie on your back with your knees bent and place your feet flat on the ground, shoulder-width apart. Draw-in your navel and contract your glutes. Slowly push through your heels and lift your pelvis off the floor until your knees, hips and shoulders are in-line. Hold the top position for a few seconds and then slowly lower your pelvis back down to the floor. Do 8-12 reps in a set.

Squats - Squats are essential to hip strength. Begin with bodyweight squats if you've never done them or have little experience. Generally, your foot stance should be no wider than hip width and you should strive for a thighs-parallel position at the bottom. To generate the highest activation of the glutes, begin with the glutes squeezed and push the outside three toes of each foot into the floor. Do not curl them under the foot. This activates the muscles of the foot, keeping the ankle in a better position to accept loading. Perform 8-12 reps in a set.

Lunges - Begin with lunges similar to those done above. Instead of rotating the upper body, try carrying dumbbells, a medicine ball or something else relatively heavy. You can begin with repeated forward lunges and progress to walking lunges and even multi-directional lunges. Done correctly, lunges are a great baseball strength exercise.

Training the upper body:

Push-ups - Place your hands on the floor so they're slightly outside shoulder-width. Be certain to keep them roughly even with the mid-chest line. Rise up on your toes so your body weight is on your hands and your feet. Draw your abdominals to keep your torso in a straight line and prevent your back from arching or your butt from sticking up in the air. Bend your elbows and lower your body toward the floor, maintaining a straight and neutral spine. When your elbows bend slightly beyond 90 degrees, push off the floor and extend them so that you return to starting position.

Band or tube rows - Using rubber exercise tubing or bands, stand with your knees slightly bent and the handles in your hands, tubes/bands anchored firmly at waist height. Keeping your spine straight and neutral and your abs drawn, squeeze your shoulderblades down along your back and inward, bending your elbows and pulling the tubes. Stop when your hands are approximately even with the front of your rib cage. Slowly return to the starting point. Repeat for 10-12 reps in a set.

Rotational row - Standing as above, take a band or tube in only one hand, with the start point being a slightly forward reach. Perform the row as described, but allow your body to rotate into the movement slightly, so your finish point is just beyond the front of the rib cage. Return slowly to the start point and repeat. Perform 8-12 reps per arm in a set.

Hip Mobility:

Ilio-tibial Band Self Myofascial Release - Using a foam roller, position yourself on your side lying on the foam roller with the roller perpendicular to you upper thigh. The roller should be just below the bony part of the hip. The bottom leg can be raised slightly off the floor. Maintain your head in a neutral position with ears aligned with shoulders. Begin to roll by moving the roller along the side of the leg to a point just below the knee. When a tender point is located, stop rolling, and rest on the tender point until pain decreases by 75%.

Spiderman Stretch - Begin in a push up position. Maintaining a straight, flat spine and a good abdominal draw, bring one foot forward until it rests just outside the hand on the same side. Keep the foot flat on the floor. Keep the elbows relaxed and slowly let your hips sink toward the floor until you feel a stretch in the hip flexors, groin and quad. Hold for about 5-10 seconds. Return the foot to the starting position and repeat on the other leg.

Fire Hydrants - Begin in a kneeling position, with the knees directly under the hips and the hands directly under the shoulders. Draw in the abdominals, maintaining a neutral spine throughout the movement. Slowly lift your knee off the ground and out to the side. Circle it back as far as you can, until the leg is straight out behind you. Return the knee to the start point and repeat.

There are many other exercises that will improve the components of rotational power. These are offered based on their relative simplicity of performance and widespread availability. The most important thing to remember is that nobody becomes a better hitter without first becoming a better athlete. This is the fastest and most effective way to truly transform your hitting.

If you're looking for something more advanced and want to take your training to the next level, contact us and we can help you craft a plan to maximize your rotational power and take your hitting from "just okay" to "Holy Cow!"

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