Strength training for sports is a great way to avoid injury and to frankly enjoy the sport a lot more. Below are some tips to get started as the summer season is beginning.
This isn’t baseball, where the pitcher throws so hard all you need to do is put the bat in the way and the ball is headed for the outfield. In softball, you need real power to dent the fences. Start by shoring up your leg strength, says softball batting champ Dirk Androff. By far the best all-around exercise for the lower body–the butt, hips, hamstrings and quadriceps–is the squat. To do one correctly, place a barbell on a squat rack and position yourself in front of the bar. With your legs shoulder-width apart and your feet pointing straight ahead, carefully lower the weight behind your head so it rests across your shoulders. Keeping both hands on the bar and your back and head straight, descend slowly until your thighs are almost parallel to the floor. Push back up with your legs.
Next, strengthen the rotator cuff by throwing a water-soaked softball, which provides a bit more resistance. “You’re not throwing full speed, but at a fairly high percentage of effort,” says Dennis Wilson, Ed.D., head of the department of health and human performance at Auburn University. “It helps strengthen the arm and improves coordination.” Here’s an exercise:
Lateral lifts: Standing with your back straight and your feet shoulder-width apart, grab a 5-pound dumbbell in your right hand and hold it at your side, With your palm facing in. Slowly lift the weight out to the side until your arm is parallel to the floor and slightly bent. Hold for a count of one, then lower the weight to the starting position. Do two sets of 10 repetitions, then repeat with your left hand.
Finally, it’s a good idea to work your way into the season with some light batting practice, but ask a friend, not a pitching machine, to do the throwing, says softball Hall of Famer Bruce Meade. Machines and friends both throw erratically, but when you’re paying for those pitches, you tend to swing at everything–and that can ruin your batting eye.
Take a quick run around the outfield, then stretch the shoulders, arms, hamstrings, quadriceps, groin and Achilles tendon.
* To slide into second, start your slide early. “Most recreational players just slide way too late,” says Cecil Whitehead, the 1990 national softball player of the year. The result is that they crash into the bag and wreck knees, ankles, shoulders–one study found that 71 percent of all softball injuries come from sliding into bases. He recommends you begin your slide feet first and at least a body length in front of the bag. Tuck one leg under the other and keep your hands up to avoid jamming your fingers.
* To hit the ball hard, extend your arms. Your bat head should be whipping around in front of your hands as the ball comes into the plate. “I always draw a little line in the dirt a few feet in front of the plate to remind me I’ve got to hit the ball out front,” says Androff, who hit .750 consistently his last three seasons in majorleague softball.
Conventional wisdom used to have it that weight lifting ruined your shot–the muscles get too pumped, get in the way, tarnish your golden touch. You believe that today, though, and you’re going to get muscled off the court even at the accountants’ pickup game at the local effete sports club. Basketball is a full-body sport, the kind that requires both strength (for mixing it up under the net) and endurance. The best way to build both simultaneously is circuit training. David Oliver, strength and conditioning coach for the Orlando Magic, puts his players through a simple program consisting of two sets of 10 repetitions on each exercise and only 15 to 25 seconds’ rest in between sets.
The key to his circuit routine is to perform exercises that require pushing movements, followed quickly by those that involve pulling. That allows you to train all the muscle groups without having to rest between exercises. (If you’re unfamiliar with any of these exercises, ask a trainer at your local gym to demonstrate.)
* Chest presses, followed by seated rows
* Incline bench presses, followed by lat pulldowns
* Shoulder presses, followed by shoulder shrugs
* Squats, followed by leg extensions, leg curls and calf raises
Once you’ve built the groundwork, targeting specific muscles can increase your skill. You’ll want to concentrate on building abdominals for better control of midair twists and turns; you’ll also need powerful quadriceps for leaping.
Finally, triceps development is the secret ingredient for increasing the range of your shots, says Steve Bzomowski, a former Harvard assistant coach who runs the Never Too Late basketball clinics around the country. “That’s what really adds power to the ball,” he says.
The crucial areas to stretch before you play are the hamstrings, Achilles tendons and, because of all the lateral movement involved, the groin. (See “Break Loose” on page 49 for an explanation of all the important sports stretches.)
* If you want to dribble better, use your fingertips. “Dribbling is like shooting,” says Tom LaGarde, an Olympic gold medalist and a member of the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics championship team. “Keep the ball on your fingertips or you’ll lose control.”
* To get a rebound, work on the catch. Don’t jab or swat at the ball. Wait for it to come into reach. When it does, be sure to face your palms toward the ball to absorb the momentum. Rather than trying to snatch it out of the air, use your fingers to catch it.
* To get open, get out of bounds. “If somebody’s boxing you out, you can exit the court underneath the basket,” says LaGarde, who relied on the trick often during his years as a pro. This allows you to re-enter the court on the other side of the basket, where you’ll probably be open.