Accompanying the recent Steroid Era of baseball is the notion that forearm strength will allow players to hit the ball harder and further. These athletes crave the Popeye-like picture, where arm width exceeds that of any other body segment and veins seem to grow like thick ivy from elbow to wrist. However at Sparta, you won’t see any biceps curls, wrist strengthening or other isolated arm exercises, because study after study continues to suggest that such aesthetics, and certainly the limited ceiling of strength provided by these small muscles, has little effect on the sport of baseball.
So why is this practice continued in baseball training? Like long distance running (see Sparta Point 12/31/08), coaches are often inclined to accept the same modes of training they used as players years ago. Dave Szymanski, a professor at Louisiana Tech who has produced the most baseball specific research in the past decade, conducted several studies on the effects of training on a baseball swing. One study had two groups perform the same full-body resistance exercises for 12 weeks, with Group 2 also performing wrist and forearm exercises. While Group 2 did have greater increases in wrist and forearm strength, both groups increased bat and hand speed equally. Studies at other universities agree that grip strength and bat velocity are not related, and that the allocation of time and energy for added training of the forearms is not needed.
Now that we’ve sent the baseball players scurrying for other exercises to fill their time in the weight room, we need to address suitable replacements to hit for more power. Hitting a baseball is a skill that needs to be practiced (see Sparta Point 7/8/09), but no skill is an isolation of one muscle group, it is a sequence of movements. Therefore, Sparta athletes focus on lower body power, mainly through squats and the Olympic lifts, after all this is where the swing is initiated. Just notice how a baseball player “digs in” before the pitch, providing a solid platform to drive his lower body into the ground and create force to hit the ball.
After this lower body activation, the force must be transmitted to the trunk. At Sparta, athletes perform a variety of heavy medicine ball throws to specifically target this area. Other research by Szymanski confirms this use of medicine ball training to improve strength in both the torso area and in the sequence of hip-torso-arm action of a swing. Next time you’re thinking of doing an arm exercise in the gym, just substitute some extra sets of squats or just go home early, but don’t ever waste your time.