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Aggressive Throwing Programs: Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Today's guest post comes from former Cressey Sports Performance intern, James Cerbie. In this post, James builds on a point I'd made a few weeks ago in an installment of Random Thoughts on Sports Performance. Enjoy! -EC

Everyone wants to throw gas.

If you throw 80mph, you want to throw 85mph. If you throw 85,mph you want to throw 90mph. If you throw 90, you want to throw 95mph…and so on and so forth.

For a pitcher, it’s the ultimate attention grabber. The radar gun doesn’t lie, and lighting one up is the quickest way to turn heads.

Assuming you have any semblance of control, throwing hard helps you get a college scholarship, helps you get drafted, and helps you toward the big leagues.

Sorry, but they aren’t handing out many signing bonuses for an 85mph fastball.

Think of it like the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine—everyone is looking for that 4.3 speed because it’s a game changer.

Due to the high premium baseball places on velocity, and the paychecks that can come along with it, weighted ball programs have gained a tremendous amount of popularity over the past several years. Not only that, they can deliver great results. By playing with the force velocity curve, you can see some pretty impressive jumps in velocity over a relatively short period of time.

Eric has written about weighted ball programs in the past, and I’ll just refer you here if you want to read more on the subject.

Unfortunately, a lot of high school and college athletes are jumping into aggressive weighted ball programs without asking the right questions—they end up chasing short-term gains as opposed to setting themselves up for long-term success.

Building a Pyramid

If I asked you to build a pyramid, how would you do it?

Would you start with the base of the pyramid, also known as your foundation, and gradually work your way up? Slowly adding on a layer at a time until you arrive at the top?

goodpyramid
 

Or, would you skimp on the base and spend the majority of your time building the top of the pyramid?

badpyramid

I’m no expert in building pyramids, but I think we can all agree that the first example wins out: a pyramid without a base may get up in the beginning, but it’ll lose out over the long haul.

General vs. Specific Training

The above example illustrates the difference between general and specific training.

The base of pyramid represents general fitness qualities, while the top of the pyramid represents specific fitness qualities (specific in relation to your sport of choice):

specificgeneral1

For example, a deadlift represents a general fitness quality for a baseball player because we’re developing strength and stability in the sagittal plane while working on the ability to “hip hinge.” None of those qualities are necessarily specific to throwing a baseball, but they lay the foundation for higher-level performance.

A weighted ball program, on the other hand, is about as specific as you can get: you’re performing the exact skill from your sport and doing so with heavier and lighter implements.

This is why so much effort goes into the assessment process before an athlete starts a training program. It gives us a good feel for where they are on the pyramid:

  • How’s their baseline movement capacity?
  • Are they lacking scapular upward rotation?

  • Can they get their hands overhead without driving into extension?
  • Are they strong and stable in the sagittal plane?
  • Can they get “in” and “out” of both hips sufficiently?
  • Do they have appropriate amounts of “core” control?
  • Do they have the capacity to control movement in multiple planes of motion?
  • Can they stand on one leg?
  • Do they have symmetrical total shoulder motion and shoulder flexion?

These represent only a few of the questions we want answers to, but they are all important because it tells us what an athlete is prepared to do at this moment in time, and what they need to work on to progress further up the pyramid.

What can happen in the world of performance training, however, is the inverted pyramid:

specificgeneral2


This is what it looks like when people rush straight for the weighted ball program. They skip over the all-important base of pyramid and go straight to the top because that’s what’s sexy. Although this structure will produce results in the short run, it doesn’t bode well for long-term success.

General Expresses Specific

If you walk away from this article remembering one thing, please let it be this: your general fitness qualities (the base of your pyramid) puts you in a position to express your sport specific skill.

In other words, they put you in a position to be successful—they give you the ability to get your body in the best position to throw a baseball.

For a baseball player, building up those qualities usually happens off the baseball field. It’s the free play you engaged in and the multiple sports you enjoyed growing up. And, it’s what you do in the weight room. It means doing deadlifts, lunges, push-ups, prone trap raises, and a host of other exercises because it builds your body up towards the ultimate goal: throwing a baseball to best of your ability.

If you skip over that stage and rush straight towards the top of the pyramid, then you’re not only setting yourself up for injury, you’re also leaving gobs of untapped performance on the table.

Tying it All Together

It’s incredibly tempting to jump into the latest and greatest program on the market that’s boasting to add 8mph to your fastball in two months. Before jumping into that program, you have to ask yourself if you’re physically prepared to do so.

Aggressive throwing programs are not bad. In fact, they are one of the more exciting developments in baseball over the past several years. But, it’s vital to remember where they fall with regards to development.

If you’ve put in the time and built yourself a solid foundation, then by all means get on a well-managed weighted ball program. If you haven’t put in the time building yourself a foundation, then start there and work your way up. Your performance and arm will thank you down the road.

About the Authorcerbie1

James Cerbie (@JamesCerbie) is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Precision Nutrition, USA Weightlifting, and Crossfit, and is the owner ofRebel Performance. He has worked with athletes at all levels, and currently coaches in Charlotte, North Carolina. You can also find him on him on Facebook.
 

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Coaching the Close-Grip Bench Press

It goes without saying that the bench press is one of the "Big 3" lifts for a reason: it offers a lot of bang for your upper body training buck. That said, the close-grip bench press is an awesome variation, as it can be more shoulder-friendly and offer slightly different training benefits. Unfortunately, a lot of lifters struggle to perfect close-grip bench press technique, so I thought I'd "reincarnate" this video I originally had featured on Elite Training Mentorship. Enjoy!

If you're looking for a more detailed bench press tutorial - and a comprehensive bench press specialization program - I'd encourage you to check out Greg Robins and my new resource, The Specialization Success Guide.

SSG

Have a great weekend!

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How Can Pitchers Ever Be “Elite” If They Take Time Off from Throwing?

The other day, the following comment/question was posted as a reply to one of my articles:

"How does an elite pitcher take 2-3 months off from throwing and stay an elite pitcher? I can see shutting down for one month from any throwing, but any more than that and atrophy and loss of neuro patterns kick in."

The short answer is, "They just can - and have - for a long time." I absolutely appreciate the question, and think it's an excellent one. Unfortunately, high level throwers have shown time and time again that they can do it. I'll give you a few examples among Cressey Sports Performance guys from the 2014 season.

Corey Kluber (Indians) made his last appearance of 2013 on September 27, and he didn't start his off-season throwing program until December 9. According to FanGraphs, his average fastball velocity was up from 92.9mph in 2013 to 93.2mph in 2014 - in spite of the fact that he threw 235 innings in 2014, which was 47 more than he's ever thrown in his career. Corey's saw his average fastball velocity increase in each of his four seasons in the big leagues - and he took 2-3 months off from throwing in each of those off-seasons. Clearly, the time off didn't hurt him, as he won the American League Cy Young in 2014.

Sam Dyson (then Marlins, now Rangers) made his last appearance of 2013 on September 22, and also didn't start a throwing program until mid-December. Check out his FanGraphs velocity improvement from 2013 to 2014 "in spite of" his lengthy time off in the fall/winter.

dysonvelo

Corey and Sam are just a few examples, and I've got dozens more. Elite pitchers don't struggle to stay elite; in fact, time off from throwing allows them to recharge and get their strength and mobility back to prepare for becoming "more elite" in the subsequent season.

With that point made, there are three perspectives I think are important to consider on this front.

1. Health vs. Mechanics

As I've written previously in 7 Reasons Pitchers Shouldn't Do Year-Round Throwing Programs - Part 1 and Part 2, there are a lot of physical adaptations that simply can't happen (at least not optimally) when an athlete is still throwing. You can't regain passive stiffness of the anterior shoulder capsule or ulnar collateral ligament. You can't make significant improvements to elbow and shoulder range-of-motion. You can't get rotator cuff strength/timing up, or improve scapular control. Trying to fix these things when a guy is always in-season is like trying to teach a 16-year-old to drive in the middle of the Daytona 500; things might get a little better, but don't expect great results when stressful situations are still in play.

Conversely, we can't optimize mechanics if a pitcher isn't throwing; we know that. However, I'd argue that having a healthy, strong, powerful, and mobile athlete is an important prerequisite to learning correct mechanics. Most players are really tired at this time of year - even if they don't appreciate it (more on this later). Motor learning never happens optimally under conditions of fatigue. I'm all for aggressive throwing programs and meticulous video analysis, but if mechanics and throwing programs are the only tools you have in your toolbox, then you're like a carpenter who only has a hammer: everything looks like a nail. If you understand structure, function, and adaptation, though, you've got a many resources at your fingertips to make an athlete better - and do so safely.

ECCishek

2. The Psychological Component

An example likely best illustrates this point. I recently saw a minor league pitcher who had an outstanding season: an ERA under 3.00 and a career high of 170+ innings. You'd think a guy like that would be wildly enthusiastic about baseball after such an awesome season, and even want to continue playing in any way possible.

That wasn't the case, though. He told me that for the first five days after the season, he avoided everything baseball. In fact, he was so worn out on baseball that he didn't do anything except watch TV and relax for two days. Only after that did he even feel like going for walks with his girlfriend - and he just started up his off-season training three weeks later. This is not uncommon.

It might come as a surprise, but a lot of players are completely "over" baseball by this time of year, particularly if they played for a team that wasn't in a playoff race, or pitched a career high in innings. Forcing them to continue throwing is a quick way to make them really apathetic to baseball and your coaching. If you need proof, ask any minor leaguer how he feels about being sent to Instructional League. A lot of necessary work happens there, but that doesn't mean they enjoy it.

3. Athletes might not know the difference between feeling "good" and "bad."

I'd argue that there are a lot of pitchers who say they feel great at the end of the season, but actually present really poorly in their post-season evaluations. I think a big part of the problem is that we can't necessarily perceive the issues - mobility and stability deficits - that lead to baseball injuries on a daily basis, as most arm injuries involve mechanical pain. In other words, they usually don't hurt unless you're throwing. I've seen athletes who claim they feel awesome at the end of the season, but they actually have experienced big losses in range of motion, stability, and power.

To apply this to kids who play year-round baseball, I think it's safe to say that we have a generation of kids who legitimately have no idea what it's like to feel good/fresh. They've never thrown a baseball with excellent rotator cuff strength or full scapular upward rotation. They don't know how to effectively create separation because their hip and thoracic mobility is so subpar, and even if they actually had good mobility, their poor core control wouldn't allow them to make use of it. You could make the argument that it's a "subclinical epidemic;" we just have a lot of "unathletic athletes" who aren't willing to take a step back to set themselves up for many steps forward. Build a big foundation and stay healthy, and you'll always pick up the specific mechanics corrections much easier.

Wrap-up

This article was a long response that could have been summed up with the sentence, "Don't be afraid to take time off from throwing." The research is very much in support of it helping to keep pitchers healthy, but the anecdotal evidence also supports the notion that it supports the long-term baseball development process, too.

Are you an athlete looking to learn more about Cressey Sports Performance's services at our Hudson, MA or Jupiter, FL locations? Check out www.CresseySportsPerformance.com.

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