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What makes an elite baseball player hit the ball harder than a lower-level player? An Australian study published in the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that it’s more about speed than strength, and how quickly you can extend your rear leg and your front arm.
The study took players who were all of similar height, build and weight, they were all right-handers and they used the same bat. Players were sorted into two groups, one high-caliber players and another of lower-caliber players. Qualified coaches and seasonal batting averages were used to assess the players when dividing them into the separate groups. All the players classed in the lower-caliber group played in lower-grade leagues.
When tested, the major difference between the two groups was that the high-caliber group had a significantly higher maximum bat swing velocity. The ball also travelled faster off the bat. There was little difference between other factors, such as length of the swing, stride length, or timing of bat-on-ball.
The study noted five features of the high-caliber batting group that made them better hitters:
1. Make elbow room– The high-caliber group extended their lead elbow more prior to striking the ball and they extended their elbow faster. Previous research had already suggested that if the front arm extends immediately after initiating the swing, then you can get more speed in your bat swing. Poorer hitters tend to pull the bat first with a relatively bent elbow, which holds back how much speed you can get at the end of the bat. This is because the elbow is still extending as the trunk rotates through the swing, which cuts down the power you can get through the rotation of the body.
2. Unwind the back leg – Previous biomechanical data (Wech et al.) showed that at the point professional baseball players strike the ball, their back leg is at an angle of 135° and loaded with only about 16% of their body weight – that’s very little. This straightening or unwinding of the rear leg before ball contact seems important to the success of the swing. Analysts believe that a straighter back leg reflects the ability to transfer momentum from the lower body more effectively – that is, a straighter back leg may lead to increased hip rotation, which enables greater force production through the trunk, arms, and bat for a higher bat swing velocity.
3. Shoot from the hip – Higher-caliber hitters generate a larger angular velocity at the hip (the change in hip angle is greater over a set period of time), which helps bat swing speed. Hip rotation is an important part of the swing because it allows the muscles of the trunk and arms to contribute more to bat speed.
4. Head down – An earlier study (Race) reported that movements of the head are vital to hitting. This and other studies have noted that almost all elite hitters tend to lower their head before their bat makes contact with the ball.
So never mind how much you bench or curl, how do you train faster rotation, greater hip speed and a quicker leg and arm extension?
Here are eight exercises that can help:
Deadlifts – At the base of rotational speed is a strong core. Your core is more than your abdominals – it covers muscles through your glutes, your lower back, hamstrings, and your groin, all of which are worked in a deadlift – with the added advantage that you also need a strong, fast hip extension. Work on being able to do each individual repetition explosively fast (i.e. pause between reps to reduce momentum). Maintaining or increasing speed is more important than pushing up the weight.
Medicine ball rotational throws – This exercise is vital for rotational power and getting faster lead elbow extension. There are a few different progressions to this action. All start with you holding a medicine ball while standing side-on to a wall. For the rotary straight-arm toss, start 3 feet from the wall holding the ball away from the wall at about shoulder height, both arms extended. Swivel through the trunk, keeping the arms straight, to toss the ball into the wall. For the hitter’s push, hold the ball up next to the ear furthest away from the wall. Now rotate through the trunk and extend the arms to throw the ball at the wall at head height or higher (a little like a shot put). For the lunge figure 8 throw, move back so you are 10 feet from the wall (still side-on). Go through the motion for the rotary straight-arm toss, but don’t release the ball. Instead, swing back and bring the ball behind your head (like a soccer throw-in) and throw the ball at the wall.
For all these exercises, work both sides of the body – not just the side you swing from.
This is another basic exercise for the core that works hip speed. Lay on your back with arms extended over your head and legs flat on the ground. Now bring your arms and legs together in one motion. Make it harder by holding a medicine ball between your feet or in your hands.
Hold a medicine ball at your waist (a sand bag or kick pad also works). Drop fast into a squat, letting the ball dip between your legs, then explode up into a jump and launch the ball back over your head.
Depth jumps are great for overall explosiveness and conditioning fast-twitch muscle fibers. There are many different variations. The simplest involves jumping down from a low platform, then immediately jumping again as soon as your feet have contact with the ground. You can jump up onto another platform, box or a staircase – you can also jump for distance or for vertical height.
This is great plyometric exercise for developing multi-directional explosiveness. Stand side-on to a low box. Slightly bend your knees and jump sideways over the top of the box, tucking your knees to your chest. When you land on the other side, immediately explode back to the starting position and jump back the other direction – don’t pause between each jump. Aim to land softly on the balls of your feet. Do 8-10 repetitions at time.