02 May Strength and Conditioning Guidelines for Pitchers
Increasing velocity, the ability to pitch every fifth day, and how to avoid the “DL” are all questions ask by the MLB pitcher. Today’s baseball players in general are stronger, quicker, and more powerful than players even a decade ago. The workloads are high on the pitcher, the number of pitches thrown from the days of little league to the big leagues are greater, and the number of arm injuries appears to have increased dramatically at every level of the game. It is obvious the workloads and stresses on the pitcher are higher today than ever before. As a result the questions begin to arise on how can a pitcher stay healthy, maintain high level workloads, and develop as a pitcher in a successful manner from the high school to the professional ranks.
Even though in this day and age where it is common for ball players to conditioning with weights in the off-season and in-season many questions still arise as to what is the optimal way to condition the body for pitching. Many questions arise such as:
- How do I lift weights and not loose my flexibility?
- What type of weightlifting exercises do I need to perform as a pitcher?
- How often should I train with weights?
- Can I increase my arm speed with strength and conditioning?
- What can I do to avoid arm injuries?
The purpose of this article is to provide a broad based outline of the underlying principles governing a strength and conditioning program for pitchers. Before providing this information it is important to have a base understanding of the biomechanics of pitching. Biomechanics is the study of human movement. Great strides and increased data based on the biomechanics of pitching have occurred over the past two decades, providing the baseball community with great insight into the kinematics, neuromuscular firing patterns, and physical requirements of pitching.
Leaders in the data capture on the biomechanics of pitching have been Coope Derenne of the University of Hawaii, the American Sports Medicine Institute founded by Dr. James Andrews, and Dr. Tom House currently at the University of Southern California. Through research by these companies and individuals we have learned a vast amount of information about the correlation between the biomechanics of pitching and the human body. We now know how pitchers generate velocity, transfer energy through the body to the release point, and ultimately what is biomechanically necessary to increase throwing velocity and improve arm health.
Biomechanics of Pitching
The pitching motion is generally classified as an overhead throwing motion. The focus of many studies center upon the shoulder’s complex involvement in the throwing motion. We recognize the pitching motion is a total body activity beginning with lower extremities, moving up through the kinetic chain into the pelvis, torso, and advancing to the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand at release point.
Research indicates deviation from this aforementioned segmental activity can affect outcome of the pitch in terms of velocity, accuracy, and stresses placed upon the kinetic chain.
Phases of the Pitching Motion
Pitching coaches, researchers on the biomechanics of pitching, and coaches in general will define the phases of pitching differently in terms of the number of phases, what occurs in each phase, and how to develop the pitcher in general. To establish a baseline for this book we will provide the reader a basic synopsis of the phases of pitching for reference purposes. The pitching motion in the most basic of terms has four phases; (1) Windup, (2) Cocking, (3) Acceleration and (4) Follow Through.
The windup is considered the setting phase of the pitching motion. The goal of the windup is to set the kinetic chain in motion in the correct sequence and timing. The windup begins at a set position with the glove hand and ball hand together. The contalateral leg begins the motion within the pitching action and ipsilateral leg is the support or balance leg. (Dillman, Fleisig, & Andrews, 1993) A weight transfer will occur during the windup with a body rotation of up to 90-120 degrees. The windup is considered a prepation phase where the body is loading the kinetic chain in preparation for the cocking phase.
The cocking phase is the second phase of the pitching motion. Most models indicate the cocking phase begins when the hands separate and is complete when the throwing shoulder is completely abducted and laterally rotated. (Pappas et. Al., 1985) The majority of pitching models separate the cocking phase into an early and late phase.
The early cocking phase is categorized with activity surrounding the arm movement and scapula retraction. The late cocking phase begins with the stride foot coming into contact with the ground (Jobe et, al. 1984) The late cocking phase will encapsulate both arms elevated and in-line with the shoulders. Research indicates stress on the anterior potion of the gleno-humeral joint is high at this position within the throwing motion.
The deltoid is extremely active in this phase and stabilizers of the upper torso and shoulder are predominant to restrain the throwing motion. Further research indicates the scapula stabilizers are active and reciprocal inhibition occurs in the rotator cuff to resist the subluxation forces in the torso from the forward lean. (Jobe et al. 1984) At the end portion of this phase the shoulder complex medial rotators are maximally stretched, the pelvis is leading the shoulder to facing home plate, (Braatz & Gogia, 1987) shoulder rotation to home plate, and lateral trunk activity are facilitated by the non-throwing arm’s motion. (House, 1995)
According to House acceleration begins with maximum lateral rotation of the shoulder and is complete when the ball is released from the pitcher’s hand. Scapular protraction, humeral head horizontal flexion, medial rotation of the humeral head, and elbow extension occur in this phase. (Jobe, et al, 1984) During the acceleration phase arm speed has increased significantly in a very short time. Research indicates a maximum speed of 7500 degrees per second are reached by the end of this phase. (Pappas et al, 1985)
The follow through phase of the pitching motion occurs after the ball is released to home plate. This phase entails the slowing down of the kinetic chain and dissipation of energy not directed into the baseball. Deceleration of the arm occurs during the follow through and entails high levels of activity from the deltoid, biceps, and rotator cuff. (Braatz & Gogia, 1987) Research indicates a high number of posterior shoulder injuries occurring in this phase due to the required dissipation of energy. (House, 1992)
Summary of Biomechanics
Providing a basic synopsis on the biomechanics of pitching and phases of the throwing motion provides us the base information on how to develop the body around the requirements of the pitcher. We recognize how the kinetic chain is integral in the generation of arm speed, the stress placed upon the body, and what is necessary in terms of a strength and conditioning programs for the pitcher. It is invariably understood from this information physical parameters must be present in the kinetic chain in order to execute a proficient pitching motion which generates maximum arm speed and prevents injury. The next chapter will build on this information and decipher what is required on the “physical side” of this equation.
I get into more depth on Strength and Conditioning Programs for Pitchers in my Complete Conditioning for Pitchers. Injury prevention, improving arm strength, and durability are all covered within the covers of this book.
After a basic model of the Biomechanics of pitching has been presented, the next step in the process is establishing the guidlines by which a strength and conditioning program for pitchers is developed. We must remind ourselves pitching involves the generation of speed through the body which is released into the baseball. In order to execute this athletic action efficiently with the least amount of stress on the arm, the body must have a sound physical foundation. This physical foundation is rooted in the concepts of flexibility, mobility, stability, strength, and power.
That being said, we must recognize the importance of developing all these base physical components involved in executing the pitching motion. The process where the development of the pitcher or any athlete begins is what I term the “five physical pillars” of sport. They are: Mobility, neuromuscular efficiency, stability, endurance, and power. The cohesive combination of these physical parameters creates the foundation for the execution of the athletic actions associated with pitching
The goal of the strength and conditioning program for a pitcher is to develop a physical foundation allowing you to execute the athletic actions associated with pitching efficiently and effectively. This is accomplished through the development of the “five physical pillars” within the kinetic chain. We will now look at what is required from your body in terms of mobility, neuromuscular efficiency, stability, endurance, and power.
Mobility/Stability Pattern of Human Movement
Before breaking down the “five physical pillars” of pitching individually it is important to discuss a concept very central to athletic development. The concept we are referring to is the mobility/stability pattern of human movement. This principle was first noted by physical therapist Gray Cook and strength coach Mike Boyle. This principle states efficient movement within the kinetic chain of the human body occurs in an alternating pattern of mobile joints and stable segments. If this pattern of mobile joints and stable segments is altered, dysfunction in movement patterns will occur, and compensations in these movement patterns will be the result. The table below provides a joint-by-joint view of this pattern within the human body.
Mobility/Stability Pattern of Human Movement Table
- Foot Stable
- Ankle Mobile
- Knee Stable
- Hip Mobile
- Pelvis/Sacral/Lumbar Spine Stable
- Thoracic Spine Mobile
- Scapula-Thoracic Stable
- Gleno-Humeral/Shoulder Mobile
- Elbow Stable
- Wrist Mobile
- Lower Cervical Spine Stable
- Upper Cervical Spine Mobile
As you can see from the above table the human body “feet to fingertips” operates in an alternating pattern of a mobile joint followed by a stable joint throughout the entire kinetic chain. It is obvious joints such as the elbow and knee are not rod like pieces of iron that do not flex or extend, but rather these joints are stable in terms of limited degrees of motion. For example, the knee joint does not rotate in 360 degrees of motion as does the hip or shoulder, rather it operates essentially in one plane of motion flexing and extending. As a result this joint is considered a stable joint where as the hip, shoulder, and ankle require large ranges of motion for human movement to occur efficiently.
Relative to pitching the mobility/stability pattern of human movement allows for the creation and transfer of energy through the kinetic chain from “feet to fingertips” into the baseball at release point. If the mobility/stability pattern is dysfunctional relative to the pitching motion, the development of speed will be limited, transfers of this speed to the ball will be compromised, and the ability to execute a repeatable throwing motion will most likely be limited.
The first pillar is mobility. Mobility is a combination of both joint range of motion and flexibility. Joint range of motion concerns itself with the actual articular structure of the joint (i.e. skeletal structures), and flexibility has to do with the extensibility of the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments) surrounding the joint. To better understand the relationship of joint range of motion and flexibility let’s define both.
Flexibility can be defined as the optimal extensibility of all soft tissues surrounding a joint to allow for full range of motion. (Michael Clark, Director: National Academy of Sports Medicine) If certain muscles are “tight” or ligaments become “un-pliable” the ability for a joint to move through multiple ranges of motion may be hindered. For example, pitching requires the hip to be mobile in order to execute correctly. If the surrounding soft tissues (ligaments, muscles, tendons) are “tight” the hip will be immobile and unable to operate through the ranges of motion required too execute the rotation of the hips after foot strike in the pitching motion.
In addition to flexibility, range of motion is the second component of mobility. Mobility as stated above is the combination of normal joint range of motion and proper extensibility of the surrounding soft tissues. Range of motion is simply the number of degrees a joint should be able to flex, extend, or rotate. For example, the elbow joint is considered a hinge joint that only flexes and extends. The elbow joint should flex or extend a certain number of degrees. Limitations in the degrees of flexion and extension would be considered a limited range of motion in relation to the elbow joint.
The second “physical pillar” is neuromuscular efficiency, which is often referred to as balance. It is defined as the ability of the neuromuscular system (nervous and muscular systems) to maintain the proper alignment, center of gravity, and coordinate the body during biomechanical movement. (Gray Cook, Athletic Body in Balance, 34) Throughout the entire pitching motion, it is necessary for the ball player to maintain certain angles, create a weight transfer, coordinate muscular movements, and generate speed. To execute these requirements of the pitching motion efficiently, the ability to maintain balance of the body as a unit and control extremities (i.e. arms and legs) is necessary.
Stability is the third pillar. Stability can be defined as the ability of any system to remain unchanged or aligned in the presence of outside forces (Greg Rose, Titleist Performance Institute Manual, 86) The development of stability within the neuromuscular system is contingent upon muscular strength. Strength is defined as the ability of your body to exert the required levels of force to perform the functional movement at hand. (Michael Clark, Integrated Training for the New Millennium, 369)
The fourth pillar is endurance. Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle(s) to repeatedly perform a physical action over an extended period of time without fatigue. Performing repeated physical actions such as the pitching motion causes fatigue within the muscular system. As a result, muscular performance can decrease. Once this occurs the ability to pitch will decrease and potential for injury increases.
Muscular power is the final physical pillar and final factor necessary for optimal performance on the mound. Muscular power can be defined as the ability of the body to create the greatest amount of force in a short amount of time. (Vladimir Zatsiorsky, Professor Department of Exercise and Sport Science, Pennsylvania State University) Basically, power is one component of developing arm speed. The more speed that can be developed by the body the more potential for increases in arm speed. So it is a great attribute for any pitcher to develop the power components of the body.
Power training is often not thought of as an integral component of the pitcher as the pitching motion utilizes a kinetic energy chain to gradually increase speed through the body into release point. Even though this is the case, increasing the power outputs of the body will only benefit this speed generation in the pitching motion.
In order to increase the power outputs within the kinetic chain, it is necessary to implement specialized exercises. These types of exercises, referred to as plyometrics, jump training, Olympic lifting, or med ball work will enhance the ability of your neuromuscular system to develop power, which in turn, as stated above, will enhance the amount of speed generated by the body. Typically for pitchers, plyometrics and med ball work are utilized for power development as the Olympic lifts for overhead throwing athletes have a high risk-reward ratio to benefit the pitcher.
Mobility, neuromuscular efficiency, stability, endurance, and power comprise the “five physical pillars” of the athlete. The “five physical pillars” of the athlete support the mobility/stability pattern of human movement. Development of these five pillars is necessary to execute the biomechanics of pitching correctly. Inefficiencies in any one or all five of these categories will directly affect the execution of throwing the baseball. The athlete will often have physical deficiencies within the areas of neuromuscular efficiency, stability, endurance, and power development hindering the ability to perform optimally and maintain health as a pitcher. These five pillars are the guidelines by which a strength and conditioning program for pitchers is both developed and implemented.
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About Performance Coach Sean Cochran: Sean Cochran, one of the most recognized performance coaches in sports today. A career spanning positions with 2 major league baseball organizations, over 10 years on the PGA Tour and work with top professionals including three-time Masters, PGA, and British Open Champion Phil Mickelson, future hall of fame Trevor Hoffman, and Cy Young award winner Jake Peavy provides Sean a proven track record of success. He has been involved in the production of numerous performance videos and authored books including; Performance Golf Fitness, Complete Conditioning for Martial Arts, and Fit to Hit. He has been a presenter of educational seminars for numerous organizations including the world renown Titleist Performance Institute.