We see everything at Cressey Performance. While just about 70% of our clients are baseball players, we also have everything from Olympic bobsledders and boxers, to pro hockey players and triathletes, to 69-year-old men who bang out pull-ups like nobody's business.
Obviously, certain athletic populations have specific weaknesses that need to be addressed. Soccer and hockey players and powerlifters tend to have poor hip internal rotation. Basketball players don't have enough ankle mobility. Baseball pitchers need to pay more attention to scapular stability, posterior rotator cuff strength, and glenohumeral (shoulder) internal rotation range of motion.
Some pitchers have more scapular stability than others.
Folks with desk jobs have more flexion-based back pain, whereas athletes tend to have more extension-based back pain. Distance runners usually hurt everywhere, so we just plain euthanize them. These issues pop up in other populations, but they're most prevalent in certain folks who are always engaged in the same activity – whether it's skating, sitting, or something else.
In contrast, there are certain issues that pop up in almost every population, and in response, one comes up with certain "mainstays" in programming that have almost universal application. Here are a few exercises that I find myself writing into programs all the time, regardless of the population in question:
1. Dumbbell Reverse Lunges from Deficit
This exercise is fantastic because you get all the benefits of traditional single-leg work – most notably frontal plane stability and hip mobility – all while making it just a little bit harder with more range-of-motion.
Reverse lunging in general is an excellent option for those looking to take a bit of stress off the knees, as stepping back reduces some of the deceleration requirements of lunging. And, as with virtually all single-leg exercises, this is a great movement to both prevent, and work around, most lower-back pain scenarios.
One of the chief complaints about pull-throughs is that it's impossible for advanced lifters to load them sufficiently – either for direct strength or hypertrophy benefits – for one or both of the following reasons:
a) The weight stack isn't heavy enough.
b) The lifter isn't heavy enough, and the weight stack pulls him/her back.
These are both legitimate concerns and are the exact reasons why I don't see pull-throughs as anything more than an assistance exercise in advanced lifters.
However, ask someone who is trying to gradually return to deadlifting after a back injury and you'll find someone who thanks his lucky stars for pull-throughs.
Pull-throughs are a great posterior chain exercise that allow for a gradual reintegration of compressive and shear stress while teaching a lifter perfect hip-hinging technique.
While a barbell deadlift has to travel "around" the knees on the path to lockout, the rope travels between the legs with a pull-through, allowing the lifter to position the hips and lumbar spine in the exact position he wants without scraping up the shins or banging the knees with the bar.
For this very reason, like the hex bar and sumo deadlift, the pull-through is also a fantastic exercise choice for those with long femurs who may not be able to do conventional deadlifts with perfect technique (specifically, avoiding lumbar flexion).
I'll often plug pull-throughs in with low-intensity recovery circuits (as outlined in Cardio Confusion) to improve glute activation.
3. Standing 1-Arm Cable Rows
This is without a doubt my favorite shoulder health exercise as it teaches folks to both retract and posteriorly tilt the scapula. In all my years of working with people with jacked-up shoulders, I've never encountered anyone who can't do this exercise pain-free when it's performed correctly.
A cue I like to use is to take the opposite index finger and point it to the infero-medial border of the "working" shoulder blade. The goal is to feel the scapula moving down and back toward the opposite hip.
If you've got a bum shoulder, and this exercise hurts, you can assume one of two things:
a) You're doing it incorrectly.
b) Your shoulder is realllllly jacked up. Sorry, pal.
4. Recoiled Rollover Stomps
We use a ton of medicine balls at Cressey Performance. In fact, during the 2008-2009 baseball off-season alone, we broke 17 of them. Most of my pro guys are doing between 80 and 120 throws on a variety of drills three times per week from October through February. These initiatives allow us to maintain baseball-specific flexibility while training power – plus they're just damn fun!
One of my favorites is the recoiled rollover stomp. This drill allows us to get a little nasty and train power, but also work on thoracic spine extension and rotation mobility, two crucial factors in shoulder health.
It also qualifies as a great anterior core exercise, as you're resisting extension each time the ball rebounds.
5. The Supine No Money w/Band
I learned the "no money" Drill from Randy Dillon on my trip to Wilmington, Delaware last summer to observe Dr. Craig Morgan perform several shoulder surgeries. The no money was a common recommendation to post-surgery patients in the clinic. The basic idea is that you can use a corner or edge of a doorway to open up the pecs and gently strengthen the external rotators of the humerus – all while encouraging good thoracic and cervical posture. Here it is (and you'll understand the name from this video):
One day, after knocking back a Spike, I noticed that two of our athletes were performing two drills side-by-side. The first was doing the no money drill, and the second was performing a partner-assisted supine pec minor stretch on two half-foam rollers.
So, I figured that we might as well combine the two and add a little resistance. In the process, the supine "no money with band" was born.
In this exercise, the shoulder blades are pulled back and down around the half-roller to pop the chest up. The chin remains tucked, and with the elbows locked at 90 degrees of flexion, the humerus is externally rotated against the resistance of the band.
When all's said and done, you have an exercise that covers several pieces of a shoulder-friendly program. In each set, we typically do four reps, each with a ten-second isometric hold at end-range.
This certainly isn't an exhaustive list of what we use with our athletes, and in reality, it barely scratches the surface. For some folks, though, even just little additions like these can yield big results. Try them out and let us know how they go.