Designing the Program
There are several different things Dechant focuses on with his athletes at TCU. Chasing mass is not one of them. He uses the scale as feedback and has ranges he likes his players to fall under, but he never makes adding mass an objective. For him, any kind of mass his players need should be the byproduct of a plan that addresses:
If his players can take care of these things, the numbers on the scale should take care of themselves.
As for the training itself, we need to first be able to assess and categorize the players in front of us so we can make good training decisions. For the sake of this article, we’re going to break down two different populations of athletes that fall on opposite ends of the spectrum: “Muscle bound” players and “string beans.”
When it comes to muscle bound guys, there are a few common themes that tend to stick out:
If we were plot these guys on the force velocity curve, they would be all the way to the left. They can produce a ton of force but can’t express it very quickly. This is a problem when it comes to baseball. Our ability to produce elite velocity does not come down to our ability to deadlift or squat a certain amount of weight. The baseball weighs just five ounces. Increasing the amount of potential force we can produce does not mean it’s all getting into the baseball.
For Garza, the easiest way to connect with muscle bound athletes is to start with where they’re hurting. In his experience, nearly all of these athletes have some sort of aches, pains, or chronic discomfort. This typically happens because at some point in time moving more weight became more important than moving well. This is exactly why Dechant titled his book Movement over Maxes. If you sacrifice how you move for how much you max, you’re throwing the whole purpose of the weight room out the window.
In order to get to the bottom of these inefficiencies, Garza assesses how the move on the mound and in the weight room. He looks for compensations and gets to the root of what is causing them. Improving he pattern will improve the pain they’re experiencing. When they can start to build some better solutions, Garza wants to teach these guys how to move stuff fast. These guys don’t need to add another 15 pounds to their front squat max. They need to learn how to express the force they already have. This starts with improving their rate of force development (RFD).
Some exercises to improve this include:
Garza also modifies compound lifts where the objective is to move lighter loads at faster speeds. This might not create the same level of satisfaction as a set of heavy deadlifts, but it’s a lot closer to something they actually need. Remember: The baseball only weighs five ounces. Training to move heavy stuff slow does not help you move light stuff fast.
Now let’s go to the other side of the spectrum.
In order to determine the lowest hanging fruit for “string beans,” Garza explained how he utilizes his four Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the weight room:
Garza doesn’t have specific metrics athletes need to hit for bilateral compound lifts (very individualized), but he does like to shift the focus away from them when athletes can get into the 2X BW range for deadlift and 1.75X for a front squat pattern.
Single leg variations (e.g. barbell reverse lunge) give Garza a lot of information on how well an athlete is able to stabilize their spine, produce, and accept force on one leg. As a general rule of thumb, he likes to see his guys be able to lunge their bodyweight for six to 10 quality reps.
Garza will test all of his athletes to see what their vertical jump looks like with and without a countermove. This gives him information on how well – or not so well – the athlete is able to leverage the stretch shortening cycle to produce force. Garza likes to see about a 10% difference between the two, but he’ll often see greater than 10% with his elastic driven athletes and less with his muscle driven athletes. The “twitchier” you are, the more skilled you are at using the SSC to overcome inertia. Muscle driven athletes tend to struggle with this.
Using the 30 yard sprint with 10 yard splits gives Garza a lot of information on how well athletes can accelerate and get up to top speed. Muscle driven athletes tend to win in the first 10 as acceleration largely depends on strength and technique. Elastic athletes tend to win in the last 20 as they are much better at creating stiffness throughout the system and rapidly contracting/relaxing. Muscle driven athletes might know how to turn things on, but they’re not so great at knowing when to turn them off. Comparing the 30 yard time and the 10 yard split gives Garza a pretty good picture for where they fit on that spectrum.
Garza will collect information from the KPIs, do a thorough assessment of the skill, and prioritize his findings to determine where he’ll start his training interventions. For the sake of simplicity, let’s look at two different examples and how each requires a slightly different approach:
Athlete A: Performs well on field, not in weight room
This kind of athlete can be challenging from the perspective of a strength coach because they might have zero interest in strength training at all. If they can throw significantly harder than the rest of their teammates who lift significantly more, why should they care about getting “stronger?” If the weight room was really that important, shouldn’t the kids who lift more be able to throw harder?
In this kind of a situation, Garza tries to relate the weight room to the field as much as possible. He’ll start his sessions with specific exercises that target movement movement qualities all baseball players need. Of these include pelvic stability, rotation, and motor control. When teaching these movements, he’ll use language and analogies that relate it back to their swing or delivery. This helps build buy in. Instead of just force-feeding bilateral lifts down their throats, Garza starts with the thing that’s most important, invites engagement, and back chains from here.
By taking something that’s unfamiliar and teaching it in a way that is familiar, you increase the chances they’ll learn and retain it.
When it comes to the less specific work, Garza doesn’t look at it as just lifting weights. He views it as a big skill acquisition process. Patterning a good front squat is just like patterning out an efficient delivery: You’re teaching a skill. It’s going to go through a phase where it stinks (unconscious/conscious incompetence), it’s going to require deliberate work and practice to improve (conscious competence), and the goal is to get it to a point where it can be executed without conscious thought (unconscious competence). By taking something that’s unfamiliar and teaching it in a way that is familiar, you increase the chances they’ll learn and retain it.
When it comes to the KPI’s, Garza doesn’t lose sleep if they aren’t deadlifting twice their bodyweight in two months. The KPI’s are information – not predictors of performance. Throwing 90 mph is a lot more than how much you can squat, lunge, or how fast you can run. The objective is to build quality training habits that positively influence performance. Whatever they add to the bar should be a byproduct of this – not the other way around.
Athlete B: Doesn’t perform well on field or in weight room
This athlete isn’t as delicate of a project. Their lowest hanging fruit is often going to be a combination of strength and increased movement efficiency. Improving general strength will get you a pretty good return on your investment because these guys need some sort of foundation to produce force from. However, this doesn’t mean you just start lifting like a bodybuilder and crushing bilateral lifts four times per week. There needs to be an on ramping process where athletes master the patterns prior to loading them. Dechant describes this process as “slow-cooking” the athlete. Skipping to level 10 right out of the gate might sound exciting, but it’s a great way to expose your athletes to demands they aren’t prepared for. Play the long game. Strength added to dysfunction only magnifies dysfunction.
Something to also be cognizant of with this type of population is how their body changes. Putting detrained athletes on a good program will have an impact on body composition, lean muscle mass, and joint range of motion. These changes, as mentioned above, will have a subsequent impact on their delivery. Don’t get caught trying to fit a square peg into a round role. Use your knowledge of the skill and their new body to reposition them into positions of best leverage. It’s often bad news if one thing changes and the other doesn’t…
The weight room can be a huge asset to the detrained and unskilled population of athletes. Just keep the main objective in mind when you go about it…
Doing this the right way
Let’s finally go back to the situation we started with.
This athlete falls under the first type of athlete we broke down – Athlete A who excels on the field but struggles with the weights. If we were to redo his training program, we need to get some background:
From here, we can start to build out the basics. The backbone of his training will address his targeted movement inefficiencies. Correcting them will involve time deliberately crafting fundamental movement patterns (e.g. hinge, push, lunge) and eventually synchronizing more dynamic movements (e.g. sprinting, landing, throwing). The progression to build these patterns will mirror the skill acquisition process: Build the pattern, challenge it to progress it, and regress it when it’s not proficient.
It might not be as fun to “slow cook” your athlete, but it’s going to keep them on the field in the long run. Performance and health need to be the priority. Chasing numbers right out of the gate jeopardizes both.
You might feel the urge to start loading the patterns right away when you start to see some improvements. Here’s my advice: Don’t. Be patient with this process early on. It might not be as fun to “slow cook” your athlete, but it’s going to keep them on the field in the long run. Performance and health need to be the priority. Chasing numbers right out of the gate jeopardizes both.
The more dynamic the movement, the more taxing it’s going to be on the CNS. As a result, activities like throwing and sprinting should be done at the beginning of sessions when the athlete is most fresh. Throwing is most important. Whatever is done in the weight room should supplement the throwing. After all, we remember what happened when lifting became more important than throwing…
Intensity, frequency, and duration of sessions should be balanced based on the demands of throwing and lifting. Each athlete only has so much training economy they can exert throughout the course of the day. If the throwing is more intense, the lifting has to be less intense to prevent overtraining. A great way to monitor this is to use a RPE (rare of perceived exertion) scale. Ask the athlete after each session how difficult it was on a scale of 1-10. This will help you understand what they can handle, what they’re struggling with, and how much you need to program so you can get the desired training effect. Your assumptions don’t often match up to what they’re actually experiencing. Don’t assume – just ask.
If the training is executed consistently and correctly, the athlete should start to progressively see improvements in pain, movement efficiency, and performance. If they’re not, the program needs to be re-evaluated. While some things may see tremendous improvement early on (e.g. general strength), other things might take more time (e.g. pitching velocity). This is where the role of a coach comes into play. If your program is creating positive movement adaptations that are creating transfer, don’t abandon ship when you don’t see instant velo jumps. If you take care of the big rocks the details will fall into place. That is, if you focus on the right things in the first place…
If these things are done consistently and effectively, this athlete very well has a chance to show up next spring up 2-3 mph. He might even put on a couple pounds, but it’s not because he tried to. It’s because he focused on the things that allowed him to.
If Mass doesn’t equal Gas, what does?
I don’t think it’s fair to put together an equation for creating velocity. There are too many different variables that influence whether someone is able to throw 95 mph. However, there is one thing I’m pretty sure of: Mass does not equal gas. Mass plays a role in throwing gas, but it’s only one thing. Let’s keep it that way.
To conclude, I think we should make a slight revision to mass = gas. I got this one from Lantz Wheeler:
I think that’s a little better, for now.