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Strength Training for Pitchers

Written on January 31, 2008 at 3:03 pm, by Eric Cressey

By: Eric Cressey, MA, CSCS

Recently, I received an email inquiry about the value of strength training for pitchers.  The individual emailing me had come across the following quote from a pitching “authority:”

“Training will not teach you how to apply more force…only mechanics can do that. And pitching is not about applying more effort into a pitch but is about producing more skilled movements from better timing of all the parts. That will help produce more force.

“No matter how hard you try, you will not get that from your strength training program…no matter who designed it, how much they have promised you it would or your hope that it will be the secret for you.”

To say that this surprised me would be an understatement.

I’ll start with the positive: I agree with him that pitching is all about producing skilled movements secondary to appropriate timing of all the involved “parts.”  I’ve very lucky to work hand-in-hand with some skilled pitching coaches who really know their stuff – and trust in me to do my job to complement the coaching they provide.

With that said, however, I disagree that you can’t gain (or lose) velocity based exclusively on your strength and conditioning program.  On countless occasions, I’ve seen guys gain velocity without making any changes to their throwing programs or mechanics.  I know what many of the devil’s advocates in the crowd are thinking: “you’re just making that up!”  So, if my word isn’t enough, how about we just go to the research?

From:

Derenne C, Ho KW, Murphy JC. Effects of general, special, and specific resistance training on throwing velocity in baseball: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 2001 Feb;15(1):148-56.

[Note from EC: Yes, it’s pathetic that this REVIEW has been out almost seven years and people who are supposedly “in the know” still haven’t come across ANY of the studies to which it alludes.]

Practical Applications

Throwing velocity can be increased by resistance training. A rationale for general, special, and specific resistance training to increase throwing velocity has been presented. The following findings and recommendations relevant to strength and conditioning specialists and pitching coaches can be useful from the review of literature.

In the “further reading” section at the end of this article, I have listed ten different studies that each demonstrated a positive effect of weight training on throwing velocity.  The authors in the review above also have a table that summarizes 26 studies that examined the effect of different strength protocols on throwing velocity, and 22 of the 26 showed increases over controls who just threw.  In other words, throwing and strength training is better than throwing alone for improving velocity – independent of optimization of mechanics from outside coaching.

The saddest part is that the training programs referenced in this review were nothing short of foo-foo garbage.  We’re talking 3×10-12 light dumbbell drills and mind-numbing, rubber tubing blasphemy.  If archaic stuff works, just imagine what happens when pitchers actually train the right way – and have pitching coaches to help them out?

Oh yeah, 10 mph gains in six months happen – and D1 college coaches and pro scouts start salivating over kids who are barely old enough to drive.

With that rant aside, I’d like to embark on another one: what about the indirect gains associated with strength training?  Namely, what about the fact that it keeps guys healthy?

We know that:

a)      Pitchers (compared to position players) have less scapular upward rotation at 60 and 90 degrees of abduction –and upward rotation is extremely important for safe overhead activity.

b)      86% of major league pitchers have supraspinatus partial thickness tears.

c)       All pitchers have some degree of labral fraying – and the labrum provides approximately 50% of the stability in the glenohumeral joint

d)      There is considerable research to suggest that congenital shoulder instability is one of the traits that makes some pitchers better than others (allows for more external rotation during the cocking phase to generate velocity).

e)      Most pitchers lack internal rotation range-of-motion due to posterior rotator cuff (and possibly capsular) tightness and morphological changes to bone (retroversion).  Subscapularis strength is incredibly important to prevent anterior shoulder instability in this scenario.

We also know that resistance training is the basis for modern physical therapy – which I’m pretty sure is aimed at restoring inappropriate movement patterns which can cause these structural/functional defects/abnormalities from reaching threshold and becoming symptomatic.  Do you think that a good resistance training program could strengthen lower traps and serratus anterior to help alleviate this upward rotation problem?  Could a solid subscapularis strengthening protocol help with preventing anterior instability?  Could a strong rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers allow an individual to work around a torn supraspinatus?

And, last time I checked, strength and conditioning was about more than just being the “weights coach.”  We do a lot of flexibility/mobility and soft tissue work – and it just so happens that such work does wonders on pec minor, levator scapulae, rhomboids, infraspinatus/teres minor, and a host of other muscles in pitchers.  For instance, all our guys roll through this foam rolling series when they first come to the gym – and we use a ton of the upper-body warm-up drills from the Inside-Out DVD.

I also like to tell jokes, do magic tricks, and make shadow puppets on the wall.  Am I to assume that these don’t play a remarkable role in my athletes’ success?  I beg to differ.  Sure, banging out a set of 20 chin-ups because one of my athletes called me out might make me look like a stupid monkey when my elbows refuse to extend for the subsequent ten minutes, but I still think what we do plays a very important role in our athletes success; otherwise, they wouldn’t keep coming back.  And, for the record, my shadow puppets are great for building camaraderie and bolstering spirits among the Cressey Performance troops – even if I’m just a “weights coach” or whatever.

This only encompasses a few of the seemingly countless examples I can come up with at a moment’s notice.  Pitchers are an at-risk population; your number one job in working with a pitcher is to keep him healthy.  And, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a guy who is healthy and super-confident over his monster legs and butt is going to throw a lot harder than a guy who is in pain and as skinny as an Olsen twin because his stubborn pitching coach said strength training doesn’t work.  You’ve got to train ass to throw gas!

Last fall, I started working with a pro ball player whose velocity was down from 94 to 88 thanks to a long season – but also because he’s had lower back issues that have prevented him from training.  In other words, he counts on strength training to keep his velocity up.  And, sure enough, it was a big component of getting him healthy prior to this season.

Putting it into Practice

I suspect that some of the reluctance to recognize strength training as important to pitchers is the notion that it will make pitchers too bulky and ruin pitching-specific flexibility.  Likewise, there are a lot of meatheads out there who think that baseball guys can train just like other athletes.  While there are a lot of similarities, it’s really important to make some specific upper body modifications for the overhead throwing athlete.  Contraindicated exercises in our baseball programs include:

•Overhead lifting (not chin-ups, though)

•Straight-bar benching

•Upright rows

•Front/Side raises (especially empty can – why anyone would do a provocative test as a training measure is beyond me)

•Olympic lifts aside from high pulls

•Back squats

The next question, obviously, is “what do you do instead?”  Here’s a small list:

•Push-up variations: chain, band-resisted, blast strap

•Multi-purpose bar benching (neutral grip benching bar)

•DB bench pressing variations

•Every row and chin-up you can imagine (excluding upright rows)

•Loads of thick handle/grip training

•Medicine ball throws

•Specialty squat bars: giant cambered bar, safety squat bar

•Front Squats

•Deadlift variations

The Take-Home Lesson

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with strength training program for pitchers.  In reality, what is wrong is the assumption that all strength training programs are useless because some are poorly designed and not suited to athletes’ needs and limitations.  Be leery of people who say strength training isn’t important.  Everyone – from endurance athletes, to grandmothers, to pitchers – needs it!

Further Reading

1. Bagonzi, J.A. The effects of graded weighted baseballs, free weight training, and simulative isometric exercise on the velocity of a thrown baseball. Master’s thesis, Indiana University. 1978.

2. Brose, D.E., and D.L. Hanson. Effects of overload training on velocity and accuracy of throwing. Res. Q. 38:528–533. 1967.

3. Jackson, J.B. The effects of weight training on the velocity of a thrown baseball. Master’s thesis, Central Michigan University,. 1994.

4. Lachowetz, T., J. Evon, and J. Pastiglione. The effects of an upper-body strength program on intercollegiate baseball throwing velocity. J. Strength Cond. Res. 12:116–119. 1998.

5. Logan, G.A., W.C. McKinney, and W. Rowe. Effect of resistance through a throwing range of motion on the velocity of a baseball. Percept. Motor Skills. 25:55–58. 1966.

6. Newton, R.U., and K.P. McEvoy. Baseball throwing velocity: A comparison of medicine ball training and weight training. J. Strength Cond. Res. 8:198–203. 1994.

7. Potteiger, J.A., H.N. Williford, D.L. Blessing, and J. Smidt. Effect of two training methods on improving baseball performance variables. J. Appl. Sport Sci. Res. 6:2–6. 1992.

8. Sullivan, J.W. The effects of three experimental training factors upon baseball throwing velocity and selected strength measures. Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University,. 1970.

9. Swangard, T.M. The effect of isotonic weight training programs on the development of bat swinging, throwing, and running ability of college baseball players. Master’s thesis, University of Oregon,. 1965.

10. Thompson, C.W., and E.T. Martin. Weight training and baseball throwing speed. J. Assoc. Phys. Mental Rehabil. 19:194–196. 1965.


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