A Pitcher’s Throwing Program: Truth- Good, Bad, and Ugly
Before I begin this important topic examination I’d like to share a video of a program that has taken America by storm over the last half decade or so. Many teams from high school level through college up to the Major League are using this program.
Jaeger Sports Baseball Throwing Program — ’360 t…: http://youtu.be/9w3xwYIx17s
An interesting Sports Illustrated article explains the reason why the popular program has taken off due to injury.
The initial impression is that this might be the greatest program ever developed. But upon examination at what exactly happens during this Long Toss program, the other products sold and demonstrated in the video for the exercises we might discover an entirely different outcome.
Let’s go to Spring Training 1996, there was a huge paradigm shift in a short period of time as players were making significantly more money than ever before. A baseball player’s arm (especially pitchers) took on new meaning as there was so much more at stake — and this put even more emphasis on the medical community’s role of “keeping players healthy” and “preventing them from breaking down”.
Back to today. Have injuries really been reduced over the years? Let’s take a quick look. This is the list of names of MLB players to have Tommy John surgery, year-by-year.
The Long Toss Program, from what I have just shown has not reduced the amount of injuries at all. And, I will argue it has INCREASED the problem. Nor does it miraculously increase pitching velocity as advertised.
After watching the video and listening to the what is described as “stretching out the arm”, exactly what does that mean? Do the creators even know?
What is being stretched during the long toss program? Perhaps the rotator cuff muscles. If this is the implication, doing so may be a unhealthy prescription for disaster. As a pitcher, shoulder mobility and scapular stability, not stretching and being loose are most important. Sometimes even a tight shoulder is better than a hypermobile dangling shoulder joint. (I will get into the possible correlation between the “increased” strength of the rotator cuff muscles and elbow problems later in this examination).
Perhaps the video trainers definition of arm being stretched out is the elbow being fully and forcefully flexed as the ball is released. On this idea, I’d like to expand just a bit.
The (UCL) Ulnar Collateral Ligament connects the Humerus to the Ulna on the inside part of the elbow. The motion of throwing is already a stressor to this area. Repeatedly, forcing the elbow into extension or “stretching” further stresses and overuses this ligament. It can rupture, then, at any given moment.
Rather than waste the motion on attempting to stretch the arm, using long toss programs that force pitchers to adjust their throwing mechanics, why not work at shorter distances and even more bullpen mechanical work to learn how to use more of the entire body while delivering a pitch and not just the arm?
To give credit to my position, I will use Dr. James Andrews and his studies on proper throwing mechanics at the American Sports Medicine Institute to support my claims above, as he is generally thought of as the orthopedic surgeon of record when dealing with sports injuries and certainly Tommy John surgery.
You can read his case studies here: http://www.asmi.org/asmiweb/research/baseball.htm.
“Throwing from flat ground produced a shorter stride and less shoulder external rotation at foot contact, more elbow varus torque during arm cocking, a more upright trunk at ball release” quote from Dr. Andrews’ case study on “Interval Throwing Program”
Dr. Andrews’ case study on “Shoulder Abduction and Lateral Trunk Tilt Influence the Peak Elbow Varus Torque During Pitching” states: “The combination of 10 degrees of lateral trunk tilt and 100 degrees of shoulder abduction produced the minimum peak varus torque among all conditions in the study. Thus, the results of this simulation study clearly show that shoulder abduction angle and lateral trunk tilt have an affect on elbow varus torque and thus can be helpful in reducing stressful forces on the shoulder and elbow during pitching.”
You can read Dr. Andrews’ case study on “Biomechanics of Elbow Injuries During Throwing” to learn about Elbow Varus Torque here: http://www.asmi.org/asmiweb/research/usedarticles/elbow_injuries.htm
So, how can we truly train to prevent arm throwing injury?
The very first step is proper instruction on how to throw from the first time baseball is played in youth league. After that (and this is going to be very controversial) eliminate the pitch count restrictions. Yes, that’s correct! Pitch counts limit development. At the same time, this places responsibility on the coach, parents and the player to know when to stop pitching. As soon as a coach or parent notices a drop in velocity or the player is fatigues it is time to end for the day and call in a reliever. Until very recently, pitch counts were not utilized for many years in pro baseball. The main factor was how successful the pitcher was. If his velocity went down or he was laboring, the pitcher was simply taken out. Common sense ruled the day. In 1987, there were 106 performances where a pitcher threw at least 140 pitches in a Major League game. Eight years later in 1995, that total was only 36. The protocol by the late 1990s was 120 pitches as the limit to keep pitchers healthy. Yet, from the data provided this has not kept pitchers healthier.
Is it possible to train every pitcher using the same program of nothing but long toss and rubber bands? Absolutely not! Even the Jaeger sponsored athlete says “cookie cutters are for cookies” when referring to recommending a set number of exercises or reps or in my opinion even the EXERCISE itself.
The bands that are made reference to in the video and are a very popular product for sale are for a used for a variety of movements as well as concentration isolated exercises. However, it’s extremely important to note that when doing isolation exercises, proper form is a must. The video description does not show proper form. Not every player needs every exercise. Only a qualified individual with a solid background in functional movement can determine if these are even necessary for a particular thrower or not. A pitching coach or salesman is not. And, this may in fact, get players injured.
The rotator cuff is a combination of 4 muscles that perform movement of the shoulder. This is a small group of muscles and each has its own purpose working alone or in conjunction with one another, as in performing a throw or similar activity. (will explain later).
However, development of this group is a double edge sword. It CAN prevent injury especially on the delivery and follow through phase of the pitch. It CAN also create injury by becoming overworked and creating other SHOULDER problems. Additionally, since strengthening the muscles in the upper back and shoulder are the target, other areas become neglected.
As mentioned previously, the stronger the shoulder becomes, the weaker the elbow may become. Why is this? The elbow is a joint that is connected with LIGAMENTS, flexor and extensor tendons. Not muscles groups. Thus, the elbow joint is developmentally compromised when placed with disproportionately isolated shoulder and upper back training.
Isn’t it possible to see the correlation between an increased rotator cuff group being able to handle more stress thus throwing harder but the elbow joint not being able to tolerate the stress so it becomes injured? Medical studies are being performed on this theory. I personally think they will reveal the theory to be conclusive to a high degree.
The proper training program begins from the ground up. It starts with the feet and involves the entire body, not isolating the shoulder. Equal total body development is ideal for proper injury prevention.
Total body development isn’t defined as going to a gym and performing leg pressing exercises or endless bench presses. It’s defined by multiple joint total body movements, from the ground up, using pulling, pressing, explosive multi-plane movements in a controlled manner.This includes bending, twisting and turning while moving the weight. That is how you train!
In viewing the video at the beginning, you’d get the impression that if you did the long toss and isolated shoulder exercises you’d automatically increase velocity to your pitching. But what happens when an individual pitcher has already reached their maximum potential and they tried this program? Would it benefit? I dare say not. Otherwise, every professional pitcher would do this program and every pitcher would be able to throw well over 100mph and increase each year.
Using the example of a professional player at the top level, I’m chosing to use Rafael Nadal. He turned pro in 2001. He, like every other tennis player has increased the speed of their 1st serve. How? Absolutely NOT by standing on a football field and hitting the ball as far as they can. Absolutely NOT by lowering the net (representing throwing on flat ground) and hitting the serve across the court. And absolutely NOT by hundreds of hours of isolated stretches and strength exercises.
What tennis has correctly executed was incorporate proper mechanics with movement exercises. The result is stunning! Not just an increase yearly on individual player average serve speed but individual maximum. And new world records as well.
Knowing a players limitations, their weakness and building a foundation from that is a major key. From there an individual customized program is developed. A pitcher must understand why he performing this movement and how it relates to performance on the field. A balanced combination is imperative to a successful program that includes no throwing over the distance where the pitcher will break form. If that dis r ancestors is 150ft then so be it. If it’s 200ft that’s OK also. As long as good form is maintained. But as soon as the ball archs and a crow hop is necessary it is time to stop.
Balance also includes proper conditioning of the entire body, not just isolating the rotator cuff muscles. And finally, the pitcher is meant to throw. So let him. The body is a remarkable machine. It can recover from great demands if properly addressed.
This is the program we use with pitchers at Next Level Dynamic Sports Performance, a hybrid of Eastern and Western philosophy. Not 1 has become injured and the coaches rave about the pitcher’s durability.
Can’t complain about that! Until next time…
With the local adult baseball leagues in the early stages of the year, I wanted to post this information to answer many questions and requests I’ve received.
To start off, this topic is schedule dependant. I prefer to have the most challenging lift after a game at the beginning of the week. I also suggest giving players a full day of rest before a game day, but do so without interfering with the overall training effect. Rather than 2 full-body workouts, I have my position players perform a full-body lift on Monday, then a lower body lift and upper body lift back-to-back for Wed-Thu or Thu-Fri (again depending on game schedule and needing 1 day rest before a game). It is also a good idea to monitor how many innings he’s getting on the field. Some feel better when they lift more often, or those who simply aren’t getting much playing time and really want to continue developing.
These players get enough movement training just from taking ground balls and sprinting during warm-ups and practices, so there usually isn’t any need to add extra movement training to their programs. On another note, we also keep medicine ball volume down because position playets are already doing a lot of high volume rotation with their throwing and hitting. We do have them performing their foam rolling (self myofascial release) and mobility work daily, though.
Starting pitchers should be treated as once-a-week starters. This is if they don’t play another field position. It’s best to try to pin down one particular day of the week when he is a starting. If he starts on Friday, he’d want to lift Saturday and Monday or Tuesday. Moreover, if he strength trains on Monday, he’ll have the option of getting in another good brief, light session on Wednesday. Like the position players, our pitchers take part in daily foam rolling and mobility work.
Relief pitchers, though, are a bit different. Their schedules are very unpredictable; they might throw Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday – or they might only throw on Saturday and then have six days off. What to do? I say that when there is chaos, give people structure – and that’s exactly how I manage relievers. I’ve found that most guys appreciate having at least one part of their routine set-in-stone – and scheduling strength training sessions can be just that.
So, assume that every reliever lifts Monday and Thursday – even if he may have to pitch Thursday night and the stated rest day before a Tuesday night (just pare back volume in the session). As long as new exercises are not introduced, he shouldn’t be sore and interfere with performance. There are relievers in pro baseball who lift all the time on days that they wind up throwing – and many actually report that they feel better on the mound when they’ve already lifted that day. Our players at Next Level Dynamic Sports Performance train on thesame-day to get in their movement training, anyway – and nobody has ever complained about sprinting during warm-ups.
Additionally, if a relief pitcher has a particularly long outing and knows he won’t be back to throwing for a few days, treat him just like a starting pitcher and lift within 12 hours after the game; possibly an extra strength training session for him during that week.
Sample schedule for a position player with games on Thursday and Sunday
Mon: Practice and strength training (whole body)
Fri: Practice and strength training (whole body)
Sample schedule for a pitcher with only one start per week
Tues: Strength Training (lower body emphasis, core, and light upper body)
Wed: Movement Training
Thurs: Low Volume Medicine Ball Work, Strength training (upper emphasis, plus low volume lower)
Fri: Movement Training
Sat: Very light Strength Training (mostly upper and core work)
Sun: off completely
If this pitcher was playing the field on non-pitching days, simply drop the movement training and eliminate either the Thursday or Saturday strength training session.
This obviously doesn’t include the “throwing program” component. As stated previously, I do not believe in long toss for pitchers. Pitchers would throw their bullpen session on Fri. Additionally, they’d be playing catch on some of the other days, too, of course. No need for extra throwing.
Baseball in Guam getting underway at all age groups. Over the last week to 10 days, I’ve received literally dozens of emails, Facebook messages, Tweets, text messages and phone calls on the topic of in-season strength and conditioning for baseball players.
Before I get into specifics, I’m going to outline basic concepts. In the following days a seperate blog will be posted for each age group that should train.
1) Leave the equipment at the training facility or home, don’t take it to the field.
This is referring to rubber tubing or bands in particular. You don’t take a bench and squat rack to the game or practice do you? Then why take bands? Mostly these are used for rotator cuff exercises. At the field it’s not necessary. In a nutshell, I tend to stick with 2x/week “conventional” rotator cuff exercises (mostly external rotations) and 2x/week rhythmic stabilization drills. In conjunction with the rest of our overall program – which includes compound upper body strength exercises (horizontal and vertical pulling exercises, in particular), rotational movements, deceleration catches, core stability drills, lower half strength exercises, soft tissue work, mobility work, etc – we cover all our needs for keeping an arm healthy. Why on earth would I add more rotator cuff exercises to my program when I’m already increasing throwing volume, intensity, and frequency because of the season? The rotator cuff is already getting abused – so there is no need to work it any more with daily tubing circuits unless they are just aimed at improving blood flow.
I believe that many pitchers (and position players alike) overuse their arms during a season simply because they add, more and more to their program without fully understanding the outrageous eccentric stress that’s placed on the arm during throwing. And, for those who insist that doing lots of in-season rotator cuff exercises has kept them healthy, this may be the case because they weren’t that prepared at the end of the off-season.
2) I don’t have my players do much in-season medicine ball work. During the season, players are about as far to the “absolute speed” end of the continuum as they can be, as they’re hitting, throwing, and sprinting. With the overwhelming amount of “accidental” power training taking place, I feel that it’s best to stay at the other end of the spectrum. You can spend more time ttaining in the middle during the off-season.
That said, at Next Level Dynamic Sports Performance we do utilize a small amount of medicine ball work during the season. Usually, it’s predominantly done in the opposite direction of a player’s swing/throw; in other words, a right-handed hitter would perform left handed medicine ball throws. We might also do a small amount of overhead work just to maintain power within this range of motion (as well as the thoracic spine and shoulder flexion mobility that goes with it).
3) No distance running for any player. The most any player would EVER run during a game situation is 360ft (120yrds) and its ONLY with a home run. Work on various sprints of 180ft, give or take 90ft depending on the day. Anything more is not just unnecessary but useless and counterproductive. To be blunt: coaches who have their baseball players run long distances are either lazy or flat-out stupid (or both).
4) Less is more and quality over quantity for in-season training. Rarely should an in-season strength training program session last more than 35-40 minutrs. However, a player might be in the gym longer than that for prehab, regenetation and/or targeted mobility drills.
5) Start with low intensity then increase. We usually keep the volume and intensity lower in the first week of the program to minimize initial soreness. Then, once the familiarity with the exercises is in place, we can imcrease in weeks 2-4 (or 2-6, if you opt to extend a cycle a bit longer).
6) Exercise selection changes a bit in-season, but the basics still apply. We’re still using a lot of compound, multi-joint strength exercises, but there are a few modifications. In-season, I tend to utilize more horizontal pulling (rows) than vertical pulling (pull-downs/chin-ups). We use a lot of vertical pulling throughout the year, but never really go above once a week during the season, as some guys can get a bit cranky in the elbow with the amount of weight it takes to make them challenging. NY the way, if you want some of the benefits without the elbow issues, you can perform the crossover reverse fly.
Especially with pitchers, I utilize more push-up variations than dumbbell/barbell bench pressing during the season. Push-ups allow the scapula to move more than confined when laying on a bench. If we wind up doing three days of horizontal pushing, two will be push-ups and one will be dumbbell pressing. If we do two days, it’s one of each. If it’s only one, it’s a push-up. We have several different variations from which to choose, so athletes are actually far less likely to get bored with them than with dumbbell pressing, anyway.
7) Maintain mobility. Even though I’m a Strength and CONDITIONING Coach, the truth is that we could probably scrap the conditioning part with respect to baseball and replace it with “mobility.” Guys don’t get hurt in-season because they lose strength; they get hurt because they lose mobility. All the eccentric stress leads to significant losses in mobility, as does all the standing around leads athletes to miss out on basic functional movement patterns like squatting and lunging. At Next Level Dynamic Sports Performance we are more than just a “weights coach;” or a “trainer” there are other things to address!
In the next blog installment, we’ll talk about in-season training for the high school baseball player.
Analysis, especially video, should be used as part of instruction to improve hitting. It’s a tool, but only part of the equation.
A good hitting instruction program involves a pre-instruction analysis, evaluation of technique, movement modification and conditioning exercises that enhance the movement to produce more torque increasing speed and power.
After the new movement pattern is developed, post analysis should be obtained and the difference demonstrated to the hitter.
Regular follow up assures that the new techniques learned can be properly applied and practiced in a reflex response.
On Guam, proper instruction occurs… Included is a video analysis, athletic technical development and support, cutting edge training methods, and active postinstruction care.
To find find out more, call Next Level Dynamic Sports Performance at 787-4880.
Brad Hewitt, CSCS
Strength and Conditioning Coach
Performance Enhancement Specialist
Many use “core training” in a very generic manner, especially here on Guam, without knowing what this complex muscle group really is. A lot of coaches, like myself, hate the term “core strength” because it has become such a cliche. At Next Level Dynamic Sports Performance, we often cringe at the word because of its association with gentle movements. The sports world becomes more enamored with these concepts and exercises that unfortunately have limited effect on the movement signature when compared to movement that involve serious loads and velocities.
Where is Your Core?
The core goes far beyond just the abdominal muscles that you see in the mirror. The core really includes all of the structures that make up the torso; the spine, upper thigh, pelvis, rib cage and all the soft tissue that attaches them, front and back. But it is the integration of the hips, torso, and shoulders that defines core strength. Athletes must be able maintain position through these integrated structures in order to move efficiently. So, lesson number one is that the core really encompasses everything except the extremities (head, arms, and lower legs).
What is Core Strength?
Now that we have a better understanding of where the core is, we can also start to understand what the core does. To combat the common misconceptions, we must convey that core strength is much different than just the ability to flex, extend, bend, and rotate the spine. The real goal of core strength is to maintain posture of the hips, spine, and rib cage as the foundation for efficient movement of the extremities. Rarely are the muscles of the core responsible for creating dynamic movement, but they are key for maintaining proper alignment which allows for the transfer of forces through the torso. So, lesson number two is that core strength is really the ability to maintain position of the hips, spine and ribcage in order to efficiently transfer forces.
What is Core Training?
By understanding the location and function of the core, we are able to address the real problem that most coaches have with “core” which is the misguided approach that most athletes take to training the abdominal muscles that they can see in the mirror. Real core training is about challenging the body’s ability to maintain position of the core (pelvis, spine, and rib cage) while transferring forces in various directions. Given this definition, every movement that an athlete does is core training because forces that are created into the ground must be transferred through the body. As a result, (this is very important!) the goal of our core exercises is not to train specific muscles, but to educate our athletes on the principles of core strength that will carry over into their movement signature. So, lesson number three is that we choose core exercises based on their ability to help educate athlete on the principles of core strength.
Front Bridge – Alternating
The Front Bringe – Alternating is one of the core exercises that we use to help athletes understand core strength. This exercise is great because it stresses core integrity in several directions and it provides an opportunity to coach positioning at all three major components of the core (pelvis, spine, and shoulders).
Start with hands directly under the collar bone, and feet about shoulder width. Engage the quads, glutes, and abs in order to set a neutral spine position. Prevent rotation of the hips and collapse of the back and shoulder as you reach one arm out in front.
Given the widespread misunderstanding of core strength and the prevalence of ineffective ab exercises, it is understandable why many coaches have given up on the term “core”. However, if you use your training session as an opportunity to educate your athletes, you can transform the meaning of the word into something that will affect their performance and the way they move for the rest of their lives.
Brad Hewitt, CSCS
Strength and Conditioning Coach
Performance Enhancement Specialist
Next Level Dynamic Sports Performance