Strength and Conditioning Guide for Pre-High School Athletes (Especially Baseball)

Formal strength and conditioning programs for athletes usually start in high school. While this happens to be the cultural norm in the U.S., it’s not what’s best for serious athletes in youth baseball or any other sport. Starting earlier not only has the potential to increase performance short-term. A well done physical conditioning routine reduces the chance of injury and helps increase an athlete’s long-term potential.

Finishing his pitch
Spring 2016
Image Courtesy John Walter

The question is not whether strength and conditioning is appropriate for young athletes, but rather which specific strength and training activities are appropriate for pre-high school athletes, and how to tailor these activities specifically to an athlete and his or her sport(s).

I’ve spent months trying to get my mind around the general concepts and specific implementation of physical conditioning routines, because my 12-year-old son loves to play baseball, loves to pitch, and has the motivation to do what is needed to keep his arm healthy and maximize his long-range potential.

What can he do to minimize his chances for injury while increasing his chances to realize his full velocity potential 5 years from now?

Before getting answers specific for my son’s situation, I had to learn more general concepts about strength and conditioning for young athletes. My learning would have been much faster if I had had access to a general guide that explained many of the basic concepts for someone starting with little knowledge about youth fitness, strength, and conditioning. I was unable to find a comprehensive online resource for this, so I had to learn it in bits and pieces from many different articles, as well as conversations with coaches and fitness professionals.

As usual for FilterJoe, I’m creating the comprehensive guide I wish had been available for me when learning about a topic. This time it’s strength and conditioning for pre-high school athletes. This guide answers the following question:

What do I need to know as a parent when getting my young athlete started with strength and conditioning?

Contents

Why Bother with Strength and Conditioning Before High School?

In general, physical conditioning reduces the chances for injury and enhances the performance of athletes. It’s true for adults. It’s true of high school athletes. It’s true for younger athletes as well. It’s that simple.

To elaborate:

The U.S. cultural norm around strength and conditioning is that you don’t start before high school and that you don’t need it if you play multiple sports and engage in a wide variety of physical activities. There is some truth to the second part of that statement. Playing multiple sports is great. The more kids play outside, vary their physical activity, and rotate between different sports, the more a wider variety of muscles get used. On average, this will lessen the need for a formal physical strength and conditioning program.

But how often do kids actually engage in a wide variety of physical activities?

National trends are going in the opposite direction of multiple sports and varied physical activity. What I see in my area is that many kids specialize in a single sport, a few do 2 sports, and pretty much nobody does 3 sports.

Actually, most kids don’t do any sports. I see kids, even serious athletes, spending much of their time playing video games, watching YouTube, or otherwise staring at screens more often than going out to play.

Worst of all, outdoor neighborhood play is almost non-existent in my area, a big difference from my own childhood. Formal playdates are the only way most kids get together to play, and it will often be just 2 or 3 kids that play mostly indoors, not a group that plays outside all day. There may be a few kids these days who play 3 or more sports each year and/or play outside a lot when they’re not playing sports, but I don’t know any.

Given the trends in the direction of less varied physical activity over the past couple decades, combined with sports specialization at an early age, kids who love athletics will often play one sport and get strong in certain muscles and physical activities while other muscles remain weak.

Let’s take my 12-year-old son for example. He loves baseball and he loves to pitch. He has always played sports in school at recess, and he goes to an informal sports camp in the summer. He played one season of basketball last year, did some climbing for a few months 2 years ago, and took a couple years of dancing lessons when he was very young. From what I can see, he engages in more varied and more voluminous physical activity than most kids.

However, for the most part, he specializes in baseball. Furthermore, he does not play as much outside as I did as a kid. I never thought of myself as an athlete, yet I played outside with neighborhood kids for hours each day during the summer and quite a bit even during the school year.

One by one, his peers are experiencing sore arms when pitching. We know of some kids a couple years older than him who have had to sit out an entire year after developing elbow or shoulder issues, and we know many kids in his peer group who have had to stop pitching for a few weeks with milder symptoms. Some kids we know pitch 1500 or more pitches in games per year. Most of these players are not throwing enough or doing any physical conditioning outside of games to support such a high pitching volume. These high volume pitchers typically attend 1-2 practices/week, where arms are warmed up for 10-15 minutes at the start of practice. That is not a lot of throwing.

Negligible physical conditioning, 1500+ pitches per year, less than 30 minutes of throwing per week, and the mediocre mechanics typical of youth pitchers—this is an all-too-common recipe for arm troubles.

At the same time we ramped up our discussions about what it takes to avoid injury to pitcher arms, my son got a pull-up bar for his birthday. As he started doing pull-ups he quickly got frustrated that he could never do more than 4 pull-ups in a row—so he asked for advice on what he needed to do to get past 4. The combination of wanting to increase his pull-ups and preserve his pitching arm for the future motivated him to start working out in a formal way, and me to figure out how to help him do that. And me being FilterJoe, I saw this as another opportunity to research a baseball-related topic and eventually write about it.

When he started doing strength and conditioning a couple months ago, his arms and legs were pretty strong from baseball and other physical activities. But his core muscles were much weaker in comparison with his arms and legs. It was easy to tell from his numbers with push-ups, pull-ups, squats, crunches, and how long he could hold a plank. Even 2 months later with considerable progress, it is still hard for him to do over 20 crunches, despite having moderately impressive numbers in the other categories (maximums so far are 15 pull-ups, 52 push-ups, and squats are so easy for him that we’ve added a 4 lb. medicine ball).

So what has happened with my son’s pitching since he started doing calisthenics 3 times/week?

  • His weight climbed from 79 to 89 pounds in 2 months. He grew from 4′ 9″ to 4′ 9.5″ during that time, so it wasn’t primarily from a growth spurt. It wasn’t fat either.
  • He never feels tired or sore when pitching (to be fair—he has good mechanics and didn’t much feel tired or sore before starting calisthenics, but occasionally he did get a little tired or sore. So he went from just a little to not at all).
  • His coaches have noticed that his velocity is creeping up week by week. According to a radar gun that I purchased just when he started his workout routine, his velocity is 5 MPH faster than it was 2 months ago, as he went from 53 to 58 MPH off the mound. There may be other reasons for his velocity gains, as he’s now half an inch taller and he’s been doing a bullpen once a week at baseball practice with a coach who is fine tuning his mechanics. But I’m guessing that his workout routine is at least partly responsible for the gains, particularly all the crunches and planks addressing his weak point, his core muscles.

I didn’t expect a rapid increase in pitching velocity after just 2 months of calisthenics, and I’m skeptical as to whether such rapid gains can be replicated in other kids. It’s by no means a scientific test, and there are many other variables in play that may be contributing to the pitching velocity gains.

But a couple months of calisthenics is just the tip of the iceberg with regards to the possibilities offered by strength and conditioning. What happens when you start formal strength and conditioning at a much earlier age? What happens if it’s designed especially for a single sport? Turns out some amazing things happen when kids start very early. For an extreme example from Russia that has produced many tennis stars, try reading this New York Times article on “How to Grow a Super-Athlete.” Under this system, kids starting out at the age of 5 are not permitted to play in any tennis tournaments for 3 years. The entire focus is on physical conditioning and technique for swinging a tennis racket.

I’m not advocating that potential athletes need to start a formal physical conditioning program at the age of 5. There’s a lot to be said for keeping it fun. What I am suggesting is:

Athletes who focus on a single sport seriously and don’t do a wide variety and substantial volume of other physical activity should start a formal physical conditioning program before high school, both to prevent injury and enhance performance.

What Do Athletes Hope to Improve with Strength and Conditioning?

When people think of strength and conditioning, the first image that may come to mind is weight lifting. While strength training with weights can be (and often is) a part of an overall strength and conditioning program, athletes typically aim to improve much more than just their strength. The following list, adapted from page 18 of Progressive Plyometrics for Kids, covers the specific attributes that help an athlete’s performance and resistance to injury as they improve:

  • Speed – getting faster at sprinting
  • Agility – more quickly accelerating, decelerating, and changing directions
  • Strength – applying more force to an external load with muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments
  • Power – becoming more explosive, generating as much force as fast as possible (the product of force and velocity)
  • Flexibility – increasing elasticity and range of movement in joints or muscles
  • Reaction – responding faster to a stimulus
  • Coordination – controlling 2 or more body parts together more effectively and efficiently to produce desired outcomes
  • Balance – better maintaining body position and coordination under varied conditions
  • Endurance – increasing the amount of time muscles can be used without fatigue

According to the authors of Progressive Plyometrics for Kids:

Children and teenage athletes need to work on their weaknesses and enhance their fundamental fitness abilities to build a solid foundation for success in any sport. Ask successful college or professional athletes what they did when there were 12 years old. Most likely they will say that they played outside every day after school (developing fundamental fitness abilities) and competed on 2 or 3 different sports teams (developing a variety of sport-specific skills).

What Does a Good Workout Routine Look Like?

A specific workout routine works best when tailored to an individual’s specific needs. However, there are up to 5 parts of every good workout routine:

  • Warmup/Mobility (mandatory)
  • Skill/Technique (optional)
  • Strength (optional)
  • Endurance (optional)
  • Cooldown/Flexibility/Recovery (mandatory)

It’s fine to have a workout that consists of warmup, cooldown and just 1 of the other 3 parts. For example, Monday could be a strength workout, Tuesday endurance, and Wednesday working on a new exercise or sport-specific skills, and so forth. A workout can have 3, 4, or 5 of the above parts to it.

All workouts should have at least a few minutes of warmup and cooldowns.

The purpose of the warmup portion of the workout is to get muscles soft and stretchy. There are many ways to do this well—all include getting muscles and the entire body warmer with dynamic activities. Jogging half a mile, perhaps speeding up a little towards the end, is a fine way to get started for an outdoor workout. It can then be followed by some dynamic stretches. Indoors, the running can be replaced by vigorous movement such as jump rope, jumping jacks, running in place with high knees, butt kicks, etc. Depending on athlete-specific needs or which muscles will be worked later in the workout, there may be some additional muscle-specific stretches to help loosen up at the beginning.

It’s neither necessary nor desirable to exert 100% effort during warmup. It’s better to have controlled movement that’s fast enough to warm up muscles, but not so fast as to lead to exhaustion or gasping for breath before the workout gets going in earnest.

Warmup stretches need to be dynamic, not static. A static stretch is when the body is held in a still pose in order to stretch (lengthen) one or more muscles. But later during a workout, strength exercises contract muscles, which is exactly the opposite. There is ample evidence that static stretching before strength training (or any other physical activity that strongly exerts muscles) decreases performance and increases the chances of injury. If the goal is to get specific muscles warm, then simply use dynamic stretches. For example, arm rotations and various swinging arm routines are safe and helpful, while holding arms in static poses (such as the pulling-arms-behind-the-neck stretch so common to baseball) are not as safe and won’t help throwing performance.

Skill or Technique work may be related to refining how specific exercises are done such as learning how to do elbow levers. They could be various gymnastic skills such as handstands. Or they may be related to sport-specific training such as a baseball pitcher learning to throw with more pronation. It’s generally easier to correctly learn new skills before strength or endurance portions of a workout while at full energy. Some skills will be impossible to do correctly until weeks or even months of training subsidiary skills or strengthening specific muscles.

Strength training is often the most difficult part of a workout, which may be why so many people associate strength training with working out. How to structure strength training will differ for every athlete depending on goals and the sport(s) involved. The next section explores concepts related to strength exercise selection, intensity, duration, and number of repetitions.

Endurance training typically involves doing a whole body activity such as running, swimming, or bicycling for a long period of time. Baseball is an example of a sport where the endurance portion of training should be a smaller part of the overall mix, because too much endurance training interferes with the development of muscle power/explosiveness which is much more relevant to the sport. Pitching, hitting, and base running all require explosive power, not endurance.

The purpose of Cooldown/Flexibility/Recovery is to bring your body’s heart rate and breathing back to normal, remove lactic acid, and reduce muscle soreness and stiffness that may develop during the next few hours or days. The overall effect is to aid recovery during the 2-3 days of rest to follow. Common types of activities during cooldown include light exercise, static stretches, and soft tissue massage (including self-administered myofascial release). This is the part of the workout when static stretches can be helpful, as there will be no strength training or other vigorous use of muscles to follow. Static stretches when muscles are already warm will lengthen muscles, ligaments, and tendons, which helps maintain flexibility.

How Should the Strength Portion of a Workout Routine Be Structured?

How to structure strength training seems arbitrary and confusing if you jump online and start reading random advice. But it all becomes easy to comprehend once you understand the answer to the following biology question: What causes muscles in humans or other animals get stronger?

The answer is surprisingly simple:

  1. Use a muscle a little bit, and it will not get stronger.
  2. Stress muscles enough and they will tear. The body adapts by repairing these “micro-tears” and strengthening muscle to better handle the type of stimulus that caused the tears. The formal name for this process is hypertrophy.
  3. The more a specific muscle is stressed beyond its present limits, the more time it will take to repair the damage.
  4. Stress the muscle too much and it may suffer injury beyond just micro-tears, and take much longer to heal.

Make sure to understand the above concepts of hypertrophy and micro-tears. All strength training logically follows from this understanding. You don’t want to stress muscles too little or too much. You want just the right amount.

Training is not the only way muscles get stronger. Other factors that cause muscles to grow larger include hormone signaling, developmental factors, and disease. One form of cheating for athletes is to use steroids to amplify hypertrophy. But this article is about strength and conditioning so the focus will continue to be on what an individual can control through strength training, rest, and nutrition.

The above description of what causes muscles to build (or not) implies a few other useful concepts:

  • As a specific muscle adapts to stress (#2 above), it becomes stronger. Continuing to stress the muscle in the exact same way for weeks will not lead to continued gains, because it becomes too easy (#1 above). Therefore a progression is needed. The way a muscle is worked needs to get harder over time, typically some combination of increased repetitions, increased weight, or greater difficulty. This concept is often called progressive overload. To sum up this point: When an exercise becomes easy, it’s time to change by increasing repetitions, weight, and/or difficulty.
  • As stated in #3 above, it takes time to repair the damage from micro-tears. This means that rest and recovery from strength training is as important as the training which breaks down muscle. For many people 48 hours is an adequate period of time to rest after a typical workout, though optimal length of time will vary by individual and the intensity of a given workout. It is during this rest period that muscles get stronger as the body repairs the micro-tears.
  • Working out the same muscle groups every day in an increasing progression with no rest days is often less effective than working out every other day, as the body does not have enough time to repair micro-tears in muscles. It can cause exhaustion, fatigue, irritability, decreased performance, and even injury. However, it’s okay to work out every day if rotating between muscle groups, or rotating between strength and endurance training. For example, strength training M/W/F while running 5 miles on the other days for endurance training is fine.

An example that puts all of these concepts together is a program designed to increase the number of pull-ups an individual can perform. Obviously this is not a strength and conditioning plan for the whole body, but by focusing on this one exercise, you can see a sample progression as the number of repetitions and sets increases over time. Someone who follows this plan will first take a test in order to find their starting level. A progression gradually increases the number of pull-ups done within each of 5 sets over the course of many weeks.

For someone who initially tests in the 6-8 pull-ups range, for example, here is a page that explains how many pull-ups to do on each set on Day 1:

http://www.50pullups.com/50-pullups-programme/6-8-pullups

Note how a day of rest is required after Day 1. Then there is a different set of numbers for Day 2. Then another day of rest is required. And so on. If you’re unfamiliar with what a typical day-to-day and week-to-week progression looks like, I encourage you to examine this page and other pages on the 50-pull-ups site to get a sense of what a structured program looks like.

My son increased the maximum number of pull-ups he could do from 4 to 15 in 2 months by approximately following the plan from the pull-ups site. He was able to see how he could get stronger week after week with this one specific exercise, which helped motivate him to devote himself to other calisthenics in a similar, formal progression. He now includes pull-ups, push-ups, squats, crunches, and planks in the strength portion of his workout routine.

Note how the pull-ups-specific site focuses on sets and repetitions. This is typical, though most workouts will have more than one exercise in a particular set. For example, after warming up, the first set might look like this:

  • 9 pull-ups (or more formally, 9 repetitions of the pull-up exercise)
  • 8 jumping squats (with 4 pound medicine ball)
  • 60 second plank (or 18 crunches)
  • 29 push-ups
  • 30 feet of walking lunges

He then rests for 2-3 minutes before starting on the next set. His workouts are structured with sets 1, 3, and 4 having fewer repetitions, while sets 2 and 5 have the most repetitions. Set 5 on that same day was:

  • 11 or more pull-ups
  • 60 second weighted wall sit (4 pound medicine ball)
  • 23 or more crunches
  • 40 or more push-ups
  • 5 superman reps held for at least 3 seconds each

Note that it is only the last few, very difficult repetitions that will cause the micro-tearing. So if 40 push-ups seems easy, it is really important to do a few more until they start to feel very difficult.

These numbers for my son were from the first week of August, and were higher than his July numbers. Between the warmup, 5 sets, 2-3 minutes rest between sets, and recovery, it was taking over 80 minutes to complete these workouts. I began to wonder if it made sense to do such long workouts for a 12-year old. Sure they might be helping some with endurance. But does a baseball player need so much endurance?

We met with professional trainer Joe Ruiz of X-Fit Training to answer this and other questions we had, as well as assess my son’s form. His form for most exercises turned out to be pretty good (learning form from YouTube videos proved effective), but Joe confirmed with me that you don’t need a workout for a 12-year-old to go over an hour.

When repetitions get high, it’s time to consider adding weight or making exercises more difficult. While he did start using a 4-pound medicine ball for his various squat exercises, the answer for push-ups and crunches was to increase difficulty.

So now he is doing some clapping push-ups and diamond push-ups. These are much more tiring so he counts clapping push-ups as equal to 6 regular push-ups and diamond push-ups as equal to 3 regular push-ups. If the day’s routine calls for 32 push-ups in set 3, he might instead do 5 clapping push-ups followed by 2 regular push-ups.

The specific details for every individual will differ, but this particular example illustrates how the exercises need to change over time in response to an athlete’s growing strength. If everything stays the same from week to week, the athlete will stop growing stronger.

What Does a Good Strength and Conditioning Program Look Like?

The way a workout should be structured was described in the previous section. If you already read and understood that section, then you already understand some of what you need to know about structuring an overall program. In short:

  • The program needs to be relevant to what the athlete is trying to accomplish. A baseball player will be more concerned with strength and power, while a cross country runner will be more concerned with endurance and cardiovascular fitness.
  • At the same time a program is tailored to an individual’s goals, it also needs to be comprehensive, addressing every major muscle group in the upper body, core area, and lower body.
  • The sets, repetitions, weight, and exercise difficulty need to start at a level that makes sense for the athlete’s current fitness level, and then get progressively more difficult over time. There may be a plateau or even regression because an athlete is forced to skip a few workouts or some other reason. But over a long period of time, difficulty has to gradually increase. One possible way to manage this is to try to keep reps at a similar number (say, 10-15) and if that gets too easy, change up the routine by adding weight or increasing difficulty.
  • Kids are not going to have the attention span of adults, so boredom can be a real issue. Find ways to mix up the routine to keep it interesting. While 5 sets may work for highly motivated kids, 1 or 2 sets is going to be better for most kids when getting started. When I managed a PONY Mustang team of 9- and 10-year olds, I asked the players to do 5 minutes of calisthenics per day at home—a 30 second wall sit, jumping jacks, 5 side planks from each side, and leg lifts. It was such a small thing to ask, that most of them did it.
  • Training frequency is important. Working out once every 2 weeks is not enough to gain or even maintain muscle strength, while working the same muscle groups every day does not allow adequate recovery time. 2 to 3 workouts per week for each muscle group tends to be effective for most people, but it’s important to listen to one’s body. If 3 big exercise routines per week lead to excessive fatigue, then maybe 2 is a better number. Also, while 3 long workouts each week is one way to do it, short daily workouts is an option if one is careful to rotate between muscle groups. For example, upper body and core work could be M/W/F, while lower body could be on a different 3 days.
  • In-season and out-of-season training frequency and program design differ. During game season, too much training will cause athletes to be tired for games. So generally the training frequency and intensity is much higher in the off season than it is when games are being played.
  • If at any time an athlete suffers (or is recovering from) an injury, the program must immediately be adjusted to promote a healthy recovery.

If you want further ideas and detail, see the International Youth Conditioning Association’s helpful article How to Create a Strength Training Program for Young Athletes.

What Types, Amounts, and Intensity Levels of Strength and Conditioning Is Appropriate for Kids?

Most experts agree that body weight strength training (push-ups, pull-ups, etc.) is fine starting at approximately the age of 8. The reason for age 8 is that learning proper form is very important but is difficult for many kids younger than 8.

Exercises that have little or no added weight for pre-pubescent kids are generally considered safe. Pretty much everyone agrees that the fitness attained from simply playing outside in the neighborhood, at playgrounds, and at recess is fine for kids, and that formal speed and agility training is fine.

Beyond these few areas of agreement, there is considerable debate, with questions, such as:

  • Is weight lifting safe? If so, how much weight?
  • Is plyometrics (training explosive movement) safe?
  • Exactly how much repetition, intensity, and difficulty of exercises is reasonable? How much total time per week?

I don’t believe that I or anyone else has all the answers for these types of questions. But I can at least describe what is being debated in recent years.

Before the turn of the century, most fitness professionals believed that prepubescent kids should never do any exercises requiring more than their own body weight. In the past decade, though, this has shifted somewhat. Many fitness professionals now believe weight lifting is safe so long as proper form is used and weights are kept low. The trainer we consulted, Joe Ruiz, recommends that my 12-year-old son adds no more than 10% of his body weight in any exercise. This approach is on the conservative end of the spectrum, so far as I’ve been able to tell.

However, even if you end up choosing to urge your son or daughter to use weights conservatively, there are plenty of strength gains to be made without the weight. As mentioned early in this article, in just 2 months of mostly doing pushups, pull-ups, squats, crunches, and planks for 3-4 hours a week (M/W/F), my 12-year-old son increased his weight from 79 to 89 pounds while seeing an increase of 5 MPH on his pitching velocity.

Some people believe that a focus on body weight exercises has some advantages over weights at any age. Many times, the purpose of pushing extra weight is to isolate and strengthen a specific muscle group (i.e. bench press). While this achieves the intended purpose, it does not help one become more athletic in terms of improving control over one’s body. Some types of added weights (i.e. weighted vests) allow more natural body movement but even those weights are not an entirely natural use of the body. Focusing on body weight exercises alone allows an athlete to gradually gain ever more mastery over his or her body.

Even were my son to lift weights, he would not be able to reap the benefits of bulking up his muscles anywhere near as much as post-puberty high school kids. At this point, there is such a wide variety of exercises available to him to learn that I would prefer he continue to explore gradually more difficult body weight exercises rather than fruitlessly attempt to bulk up. He can bulk up in high school. WebMD pretty much agrees.

Plyometrics is a type of exercise that links strength and speed of movement to produce power. It used to be known simply as “jump training,” which involved repeatedly jumping up and down boxes at certain heights, or other types of jumps, in order to develop more explosive leg strength and higher vertical jump capability. However, plyometrics can refer to any type of explosive moment. Children naturally incorporate plyometrics in many forms of play, such as jumping off a swing, playing hopscotch, or running an obstacle course.

Box jumping is considered by some to be dangerous for kids, so therefore some people have discounted all of plyometrics as being unsafe for kids. There is no scientific evidence to back up the idea that all explosive movement is bad for kids. Professors Donald A. Chu and Avery D. Faigenbaum have studied plyometrics extensively, learning which types of plyometrics are safe and which aren’t. I’ve purchased their book, Progressive Plyometrics for Kids. My son is going to begin doing the program outlined in that book after his baseball season is over in early September. The program emphasizes development of speed, agility, and power and is specifically designed to be interesting for kids.

Speed and agility training for pre-high-school kids has long been considered safe, and should be encouraged. Some sports or physical activities such as soccer and martial arts may naturally incorporate many aspects of speed and agility training anyway, but many kids (such as my son) don’t do such activities so would therefore benefit from some form of guided instruction.

So what about the quantity question? Exactly how much repetition, intensity, and difficulty of exercises is reasonable? How much total time per week?

My take on this is that it’s going to depend on the individual’s starting point, talents, interest level, and many other factors. I don’t know if there are any scientific answers for this. I encourage my own son to listen to his body and react accordingly.

For example, a couple weeks ago his knees started to hurt a little. He has had some issues with his knees in the past so I encouraged him to immediately stop all forms of squats, lunges, and anything else that used his knees for a couple sessions. He’s back to doing squats, but paying attention closely to make sure his knees are feeling okay. He’s also been doing some physical therapy exercises for his knees during the recovery portion of the workout. He learned these exercises a few years ago after his left knee experienced a mild ACL strain.

After consulting with trainer Joe Ruiz, I encouraged my son to limit his tri-weekly workouts to about an hour. Because the repetitions were getting so high, he starting mixing in some more difficult exercises with fewer reps. It takes less time and is probably a logical next step anyway for the progression of his strength training.

Every individual is going to be different, so the only lesson to draw from the examples in this section is that it’s helpful to monitor what’s happening and make adjustments as needed to suit what makes sense for the individual. Even if an athlete is largely training on his own, it’s a good idea to check in occasionally with a professional trainer to make adjustments to the training program.

What about Sleep and Nutrition

Sleep and Nutrition are critical parts of any strength and conditioning program. Each of these merits an in-depth article of its own, but in this guide I’m only going to briefly discuss each.

As already mentioned, muscles grow while resting, as they recover from micro-tears inflicted during workouts. Kids require more sleep than adults, for both their body and mind. The less sleep a kid gets, the less time his or her body has to recuperate from workouts and build muscle.

Nutrients from food are the fuel the body needs to rebuild muscles. Through Internet searching you can find thousands of articles on proper nutrition to compliment a strength and conditioning program. Several general principles that most fitness experts agree on for both kids and adults:

  • You need to eat enough. Building muscle necessarily means gaining weight. Therefore, you need to consume more calories than you burn, as discussed in many online articles. An online calorie calculator can be a helpful tool.
  • In addition to usual good eating habits that limit sugar and include a wide variety of foods, it’s important to insure adequate amounts of the right kinds of protein and carbohydrates.
  • Timing matters. If you haven’t eaten for many hours, it’s good to have at least a snack before doing a workout. It’s also a good idea to eat something within an hour or 2 after doing a workout.

There is much much more that can be said about sleep and nutrition. Another FilterJoe article or two, perhaps?

Example: Strength and Conditioning for a Baseball Pitcher

Despite all this blog’s material about youth baseball, this lengthy primer hasn’t entirely focused on baseball. Strength and conditioning principles are the same regardless of athlete. Only the details of program design differ. This section gets more specific about baseball.

Baseball is a sport that requires huge bursts of power that happen infrequently. With the exception of starting pitchers and catchers, endurance isn’t much needed. So programs designed specifically for baseball emphasize power over endurance.

Running is a good example of how to make a program design decision. Running 5-10 miles per day trains an athlete to run at a steady pace, which is great for endurance and cardiovascular fitness. However, this is not good training for baseball. Sprints of 30 or 60 yards on the other hand are very helpful, as are any exercises which train legs for explosive power that sprints require. An athlete devoted to baseball needs to do lots of lots of sprints, while keeping long-distance running to a minimum.

What types of running to do is just one of many decisions that needs to be made when designing a fitness program specific to baseball. Throwing is a big part of the game for all players, but especially pitchers. So there needs to be more exercises specific to muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the arm than if the player were playing a different sport. Agility is needed for fielding. And there are other undoubtedly other subtleties related to baseball-specific training that also need to be incorporated. However, like every athlete, it’s important to work all muscles to some extent so that imbalances don’t develop.

At the high school level and beyond, many coaches have their own ideas about the optimal training regimen. A coach may provide a structured strength and conditioning system for the players, typically with different programs for pitchers, hitters, and position players (position players are non-pitchers). In the Leo series on this site that details the true life story of a Little Leaguer from the age of 10 until college, the role of strength and conditioning in Leo’s senior year was partly responsible for transforming a historically poor team into one of the best in the state (see Leo’s Journey from Little League to College Baseball, HS Senior: A New Hope). Leo’s coach went far beyond most strength and conditioning programs, and that was likely a key reason for his unusually successful career as a high school baseball coach.

Many high schools don’t have extensive strength and conditioning programs. However, players with a strong desire to excel handle the lack of structure by purchasing a program with testing and science behind it that provides the needed structure. There are many such programs on the market for the high school level and beyond, but there are only 2 programs I’m aware of for youth baseball players, and they are both for pitchers. I don’t have experience with either one of these programs but they both have good reputations:

Driveline Baseball’s Hacking the Kinetic Chain (Ages 9-14)

TUFFCUFF (Junior Edition) Youth Pitching Program

Driveline also has a free resource for in-season arm maintenance. My son has already begun using the warmup and recovery portions of this guide. Though intended for before and after pitching, bullpens, and long toss, my son incorporates some of the recovery routines as part of his regular workout:

Driveline Baseball’s Free Youth Arm Care Program

Yet another resource I like is the Oakland Children’s hospital Sports Medicine Resource Page which includes a warmup exercise handout for baseball as well as for other sports.

The reason youth programs differ from high school and beyond is that some forms of strength training are recognized as not safe until after an athlete has completed puberty. For example, weighted baseballs are commonly included for programs aimed at older baseball players, but are considered physiologically unsafe for athletes below high school age.

Final Words

There is an enormous amount of information available about strength and conditioning topics for young athletes and baseball in specific. The principals involved are consistent across all sports. If you read this article in its entirety, you now know these principles and have enough of a vocabulary to ask good questions when assessing local training options for your athletic child.

If you want to drill down into strength and conditioning for baseball more specifically, Driveline Baseball has a blog with many in-depth articles about baseball training topics. There are many YouTube videos from Driveline and many other individuals and organizations describing baseball specific drills. You can also learn a lot by having a local fitness trainer meet with you and your son or daughter. The more baseball-specific expertise that fitness trainer has, the better.

Feel free to leave comments or ask questions in the comments section below. Given how big this topic is, there’s always more to learn.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

2 thoughts on “Strength and Conditioning Guide for Pre-High School Athletes (Especially Baseball)”

  1. Due to a site issue, the following comment was deleted, so I’m manually restoring it here:

    John 9/13/17:

    Thank you for all the great resources! I’m a father of two as well as coach to several of their teams trying to learn what’s best for my young athletes. Growing up I loved baseball and hope to pass that on to my lefty. Keep up the great work!

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