Almost everywhere you look, coaches are creating strength and conditioning programs to improve strength, body composition, muscle hypertrophy, power and conditioning. Yet, very little attention is paid to an athlete's agility.
This is somewhat understandable, as crossover benefits from those other physical qualities can also manifest as slight improvements in agility. But there is a major difference between crossover effects and direct effects.
I want to help you directly train your baseball-specific agility, and I also want to provide clarity within this piece as to what agility training really is.
What is Baseball Agility?
A strength and conditioning program without any direct agility work is not a complete strength and conditioning program. This isn't always a bad thing, as some athletes need much more GPP (General Physical Preparedness) than they do SPP (Special Physical Preparedness).
GPP helps an athlete build a "base" level of strength, mobility, speed, power and structural integrity. But once a baseball player has graduated from GPP and is in need of greater and more specific training stimuli, they can move into SPP work. This is typically where more direct agility work will be introduced, as the athlete has reaped all the agility enhancements they can get from basic, non-baseball-specific programming.
Agility in baseball can be defined as a baseball player's ability to effectively absorb and redirect forces. Played out in real life, this includes things like high-velocity direction changes, explosive starting speeds, exploding into different planes of movement and deceleration.
Looking at those examples, one overwhelming thing they all have in common from a physiological perspective is their association with relative strength. That is, how strong you are in relation to your body weight. For example, if two baseball players both weigh 175 pounds yet the second one is stronger, that second player has a higher level of relative strength. He or she is stronger relative to his or her body weight in comparison to their opponent.
Since agility defines how efficiently and how quickly our bodies can absorb and redirect forces, we can also say that agility is the demonstration of an eccentric to concentric contraction—or a "load" to "explode" action.
How agile you are depends on how fast your body can go from an eccentric (load) to concentric (explode) muscle contraction. If you have to do this long loading phase prior to taking off and/or turning directions, you're going to be miles behind the players who can accomplish that process in a flash. Here's another way to think of it: Picture you pulling a bow and arrow back for two full seconds, while your opponent pulls it back for just 0.5 seconds. Both of your arrows travel the same speed and distance, but your opponent's arrow got their first. This is the main difference between a lot of athletes on the field. It's not actually their top speed that's slow, it's their agility and take-off speed that's holding them back.
A huge part of this is relative strength, but another part of it is power development. Specifically, the amortization phase. The amortization phase is the moment in between the eccentric and concentric contraction.
Relative strength ties in because the stronger you are in relation to your body weight, the more control you have over your body in movement. Take the example of two baseball players who are both 150 pounds. Let's say one can squat 300 pounds and the other can squat 200 pounds. The one who can squat 300 pounds will have much more control of their body in deceleration and high-velocity direction change simply because they're strong enough to overcome the forces present during game action. The weaker opponent will be more likely to succumb to momentum issues while trying to perform similar tasks, and therefore do the familiar "stutter step" when trying to slow down. That leads to wasted movement and a longer, more drawn out load and explode phase.
Additionally, relative strength plays into your explosive starting speed. A 180-pound man who can squat 400 pounds should be much better able to press down on the ground and propel himself forward than somebody the same size who can squat only 200 pounds. That greater relative strength should give the stronger player both a quicker start and a greater stride length.
One thing we know from research is that the longer you spend in the amortization phase, the more power you lose from the stretch-shortening cycle. Think about doing a Quarter Squat into an immediate vertical jump, and then comparing that to doing a Quarter Squat, holding that bottom position for 3 seconds, and then exploding into a vertical jump. The jump without the pause is going to allow you to use that natural elastic stretch that we want when trying to explode and be as agile as possible, whereas even a slight pause can take that power away (thus, increasing the length of the amortization phase and making your "take off" speed much slower).
What Are The Components of Agility?
Let's start with the pure definition of agility.
Agility is the ability to be quick and graceful. You might have agility on the basketball court or in the courtroom, or even with your gaming controller. "Agility" as a noun can be used for both mental and physical skills in speed and grace.
Quick, graceful and mentally in the zone. Sounds about right, doesn't it?
Baseball players who have an elite level of agility make highly explosive and highly accurate movements appear effortless, like they are floating across the field. Less agile ballplayers, meanwhile, are apt to bumbling around the field and pulling their hamstring halfway to second base.
To have a high level of agility, you need to have all your bases covered (terrible pun totally intended, not even sorry). In baseball, this means:
- Having structural balance from the upper body to the lower body, and from the left side to the right side
- Having excellent mobility, which comes from regularly working on the limited mobility areas that commonly plague baseball players
- Being relatively strong
- Having mental agility, confidence and prediction skills
- Having high levels of total body power output
- Having a well-developed core from the inside out
- Having excellent movement mechanics/technique
A full blog series could be written on all of these topics, and there is no way we could do them all justice within a single submission. But I wanted to put them all into your orbit, because each of these qualities can be a potential deal breaker when it comes to baseball agility.
For example, if you aren't relatively strong, you will not be able to absorb and redirect forces appropriately enough to remain in athletic motion and prevent injury. In another example, you may have excellent status in all of the above categories, but if you aren't mobile enough to execute excellent technique, that will always slow you down.
I could give a bundle of other examples, but the important thing to know is that to truly have a balanced approach to agility work for baseball athletes, you must check all of these boxes. Any other approach is wishful thinking.
Building Real Baseball Agility
To get started on your baseball agility work right away, I would recommend a combination of both rehearsed and reactive agility drills.
Rehearsed agility drills are where the exercise is already pre-meditated and choreographed. The athlete knows exactly what they need to do and where they need to go to complete the drill. These drills can be great tools to build confidence, get your motor patterns down correctly, and master the agility-specific force angles so they can become ingrained into the nervous system.
Rehearsed agility work is also great because it allows you to quantify what you're doing. Since it's measurable, you are able to see if your program design is actually working. Cone drills are the most often used drills in this department. Here are some of my favorite drills to work with when using this area of opportunity to build a baseball athlete's agility:
Reactive agility drills, on the other hand, are much different and are one of the most overlooked and undertrained aspects of true agility. The goal with reactive agility drills is to create chaos and unpredictability. No baseball game is ever predictable. Athletes need to be able to have quick mental reaction time and physical explosiveness in response to that reaction time. To replicate this in a trainable manner, we need to create a visual or auditory cue that triggers them to carry out the drill.
Reactive drills are the natural progression to rehearsed drills, because reaction drills combine both mental and physical agility. Rehearsed drills are great and all, but if you don't perform in a game, it's most likely due to your inability to be reactive. Essentially, rehearsal drills could be viewed as "non-specific" agility work (almost like a GPP for agility), while reactive drills are a "specific" form of baseball agility (exactly like SPP). These drills will require a partner or coach as you're going to want something there to trigger the athlete's response (be it a clap, a "go!" call or a whistle). Here are some of my favorite reactive baseball agility drills:
- Lateral Mirror Shuffle Drill
- Partner Sprint and Chase
- Reactive Ball Drop
- 3-Cone Point and Sprint
- Tag inside a 4-Cone Box
Baseball players who have never done the correct rehearsed or reactive agility work would benefit greatly from incorporating it into their routine based on need/importance/periodization schedule.
In most cases, I like athletes to perform this type of work immediately before their conditioning training. Trying to be reactive/explosive after a conditioning workout would negatively affect the reaction time of the athletes and ultimately lower their performance for this specific task, so we perform it before.
If this causes a little pre-fatigue before a conditioning session, that's fine. They are performing conditioning work, anyways, which should be effectively training their body to continually create force production in a state of fatigue. Agility work beforehand clearly wins the cost/benefit analysis here.
Depending on the need and time of year, I like to recommend two or three agility sessions per week in order to gain maximum benefits but still be able to successfully recover from the session. Trust me when I tell you that more is not better here.
You aren't what you can do, you only are what you can recover from. To learn more, see my website baseballtraining.com.
Photo Credit: RBFried/iStock, tomprout/iStock, lydiabilby/iStock
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