One thing I didn't note in this video is that if you have muscular, capsular, or alignment issues that persist for an extended period of time, you'll eventually develop changes to the joint (bony overgrowth). In a 2013 study, world-renowned hip specialist Marc Phillipon examined how the incidence of femoroacetabular impingment (FAI) - bony overgrowth at the hip - changed across various stages of youth hockey. At the PeeWee (10-12 years old) level, 37% had FAI and 48% had labral tears. These numbers went to 63% and 63% at the Bantam level (ages 13-15), and 93% and 93% at the Midget (ages 16-19) levels, respectively. The longer one played hockey, the messier the hip – and the greater the likelihood that the FAI would “chew up” the labrum.
It's imperative for strength and conditioning coaches to understand these issues. On evaluation, if an athlete already has changes to the joint, we need to create training programs to deliver a training effect while working around these issues. If you squat an entire team of football players even though you know 4-5 of them already have significant FAI and associated pathologies in their hips, you're probably going to be funding some hip surgeon's retirement. Work on deadlifting and single-leg work instead, though, and you'll probably kick the can down the road for those athletes.
Conversely, if your assessment reveals that an athlete is out of alignment and has some tissue density and core control issues that are preventing quality hip flexion and internal rotation, you need to design a program to get to work on those problems before they can develop bony blocks at the hip. As my buddy Mike Reinold often says, "Assess, don't guess."
2. We might be seeing the end of the versatile strength and conditioning coach.
One thing I've noticed in the strength and conditioning field over the past decade is an increased tendency toward specialization among coaches. Over the years, there have some been really bright coaches - Al Vermeil, Mike Boyle, and Bob Alejo come to mind - who've had success across multiple sports at the highest levels. They were few and far between, but it was still something that was feasible if someone was educated and motivated enough. I think that's changing and this versatility will be obsolete very soon.
We're seeing a much bigger focus on analytics in all professional sports; the focus on minute details has never been greater. In college sports, we are seeing more "baseball only" and "hockey only" guys to build on the years of the football strength and conditioning coach typically not working with other teams. At every level, specialization among strength coaches (and rehabilitation specialists, for that matter) is increasing. As a result, if a coach tries to venture out into another sport at a high level, it takes longer to get up to speed.
If a guy leaves basketball to go to baseball, he's got to learn about thoracic outlet syndrome, ulnar collateral ligament injuries, and lat strains; these just don't happen very often in hoops. He won't have to worry much about humeral retroversion in his programming for shooting guards, either - but it has a huge influence on how he manages functional mobility in pitchers.
Likewise, just because I have a solid handle on managing shoulders in overhead athletes doesn't mean that I'm equipped to handle the metabolic demands that swimmers encounter.
Versatility is still important; a well-rounded professional will never go hungry. However, at the higher levels, I just see fewer and fewer professional teams and colleges valuing it highly when the quickest option is to seek out specialists in specific realms.
3. Create context not only to improve coaching, but also to improve adherence.
Recently, I saw a professional pitcher who noted that his team had commented on how limited his extension on each pitch was. For those who aren't familiar, in recent years, teams have started tracking the actual release point of various pitchers. Basically, if two pitchers both throw 95mph, but one releases the ball closer to the plate, the one with more extension is actually releasing the ball closer to the plate, so it "gets on" the hitter faster. All things considered, a higher extension is generally better. You can view it as part of the Statcast panel on each MLB pitchers' page; here's CSP athlete Steve Cishek's, as a frame of reference. Steve's extension is well above MLB average, so the perceived velocity of his pitches are over one mph higher than their actual velocity.
Returning to the pitcher I evaluated recently, he commented that although his fastball velocity is among the best in the minor leagues and he has quite a bit of movement, he doesn't strike a lot of guys out. While there are a lot of reasons for this, one consideration has to be physical limitations that don't allow him to get extension out in front. In his case, on evaluation, we saw a pseudo military posture; his shoulder blades were tugged back into adduction, and he lacked the upward rotation to effectively "get out front."
Additionally, in the lower extremity, he had significant bilateral muscular/alignment limitations to hip internal rotation. If you don't have sufficient hip internal rotation on your back leg, you aren't going to ride your hip down the mound very far. If you don't have internal rotation on the front hip, you won't be able to accept force on the front leg, so you'll effectively cut off your deceleration arc, also shortening your extension out front. These are usually the guys who "miss" up-and-armside, or cut balls off in an attempt to correct the issue.
If I had just told him he needed to fix these for the sake of fixing them - or even just to prevent injury - it probably wouldn't hold much water. However, by relating these movement inefficiencies back to aspects of his delivery with which he struggles, the buy-in is a lot higher. Striking guys out is a lot "sexier" than avoiding injury or conforming to some range-of-motion norm.
4. This is a great weekend to be an up-and-coming fitness professional or rehabilitation specialist on a limited budget.
Black Friday/Cyber Monday might be annoying if you're in stores and dealing with a bunch of crazy Moms who are fighting over the last Tickle-Me-Elmo, but in an online context, it's pretty darn awesome - especially if you're an aspiring coach looking to get your hands on some quality educational material.
I did my undergraduate education at a smaller Division 3 school in Southern Maine. We didn't have a varsity weight room where I could observe or volunteer, and there weren't tip top internship opportunities right down the road where I could've found opportunities like that. Looking back, I realize that one of the main reasons I got on the right path was that I was willing to search high and low for those learning opportunities. I spent hours reading T-Nation and hard copy books I'd bought, not to mention driving to whatever seminars I could find.
Nowadays, education is much, more more accessible. Instead of driving nine hours to Buffalo or dropping $1,000 on a plane right, hotel, rental car, and seminar registration, you can spend 10% of that amount and get an awesome education - and you can pick and choose what you want to learn. This weekend, you can do it super affordably, too.
Looking to patch up the holes in your college anatomy course by learning about functional anatomy instead? Pick up Building the Efficient Athlete from Mike Robertson and me (20% off this weekend; no coupon code needed).
Interested in taking a peek into the mind of a successful NFL strength and conditioning coach? Soak up Joe Kenn's knowledge in Elite Athletic Development (20% off this weekend; no coupon code needed).
It's an amazing age in strength and conditioning; short of actual hands-on coaching experience, all the information you need to be successful is at your fingertips in a digital medium - and this is the weekend to get it at the best price.
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I talk a lot about how there's a difference between simply "training baseball players" and actually training baseball players with a genuine appreciation of the unique demands they encounter - as well as their bodies' responses to those demands. Today's post will be a great example of how you can't just throw every throwing arm into a generic program.
One of the adaptations you'll commonly see in throwers is an acquired valgus carrying angle at the elbow. For the laymen in the crowd, take note of how the throwing arm (in this case, the right arm, which is to the left side of the picture) has a "sharper" angle:
This is an adaptation to the incredible valgus stress during the lay-back portion of throwing.
While the research on the subject isn't really out there, it's widely believed that a sharper valgus carrying angle predisposes throwers to elbow injuries, particularly ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tears. My good friend Mike Reinold actually has a lot of very good unpublished data on the topic, too. In my eyes, this verifies that we need need to treat throwers like this with extra care in light of this increased susceptibility to injury.
From my perspective, I think it means more time off from throwing each off-season in order to regain passive stability, as the UCL is already stretched out more than in the normal pitcher. Additionally, it may take longer for these athletes to regain good soft tissue quality, as the musculature at the medial elbow is likely working harder to make up for this loss of passive stability and the increased range-of-motion demands. Another key point is that this valgus carrying angle may increase the likelihood of ulnar nerve hypermobility (snapping back and forth over the medial epicondyle during flexion/extension) or ulnar neuritis (irritation of the nerve from excessive stretch). If this nerve only has a limited number of flexion/extension cycles before it really gets irritated, then we need to use each throw wisely to put off the possibility of needing an ulnar nerve transposition surgery to set it where it needs to be.
Additionally, I think it means less aggressive throwing programs, particularly with respect to extreme long toss. I think long toss has a ton of merit for a lot of throwers, but one concern with it is that it does increase valgus stress slightly as compared to throwing on a line at shorter distances. With that in mind, these folks might respond better to other throwing initiatives, or simply less long toss than they otherwise might do.
From a training standpoint, we need to work to gain more active external rotation to ensure that more of the range-of-motion is occuring is at the shoulder than the elbow. This should not be confused with simply stretching the shoulder into external rotation, which does much more harm than good in 99% of cases. Rather, we need to educate athletes on how to get to lay-back without compensation. I like supine external rotation - an exercise I learned from physical therapist Eric Schoenberg - as a starting point.
Once we've been successful working with gravity, we'll progress this drills to prone to work against gravity, and then add in various holds at end-ranges of motion to strengthen athletes in external rotation closer to end-range. Here's an example you can try at home:
In terms of contraindications, I can't say that it changes much as compared to what we avoid - back squats, Olympic lifts, etc. - with the rest of our throwers. However, I think the fallout could be even more dramatic; just imagine these elbows catching a snatch overhead in the off-season after 200+ innings of wear and tear.
This picture also teaches us that one can simply be born with a more significant valgus carrying angle, but throwing during the adolescent and teenage years would make it more extreme.
Beyond training implications, for the reasons I noted above, it's also extremely important to take care of tissue quality at the common flexor tendon and pronator teres. I like a combination of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization and hands-on work like Active Release.
I hope this post brings to light an additional assessment and follow-up training principles you can use to give your throwers the quality training and (p)rehabilitation they need. If you're looking for more insights on training throwers, I'd highly recommend you check out our Elite Baseball Mentorships; the next course takes place on December 8-10.
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At the end of the day yesterday, I took a quick glance at my Facebook feed and was quickly drawn to a "highlight" video from a baseball strength and conditioning program. The athletes' energy was great, and there was a ton of camaraderie. The only problem was that if you had watched the video without first seeing the word "baseball" in the title, you would have never known it was a baseball team training. The exercises - and the way that they were/weren't coached - clearly didn't reflect the unique demands of the sport.
With that in mind, I thought I'd use today's post to quickly highlight the most important positions you need to understand when you're training throwing athletes: stride foot contact/full external rotation.
Stride foot contact occurs just before maximum external rotation takes place. As the foot touches down, the pelvis has started rotating toward home plate while the torso is still rotated in the opposite direction to create the separation that will enhance velocity. Maximum external rotation - or "lay-back" - signifies the end of this separation, as the energy generated in the lower extremity is already working its way up the chain. Nissen et al. (2007) presented this tremendous diagram to illustrate the separation that takes place. This image represents a right handed picture, where the top image is the hips, and the bottom image is the torso (right and left shoulder joint centers of rotation).
Based on this image alone, you should be able to see where most oblique strains and lower back pain originate; this is ridiculous rotational stress. Additionally, you can appreciate why hip injuries are higher in throwers than they ever have been before; it takes huge hip rotation velocities to play "catch up" so that the pelvis and thorax are squared up at maximum external rotation (if they aren't, the arm drags). This just refers to what's happening at the lower extremity and core, though. Let's look at the shoulder.
At full lay-back (maximum external rotation), we encounter a number of potentially traumatic and chronic injuries to the shoulder. In a pattern known as the peel-back mechanism, the biceps tendon twists and tugs on the superior labrum. The articular side (undersurface) of the rotator cuff may impinge (internal impingement) on the posterior-superior glenoid, leading to partial thickness cuff tears. Finally, as the ball externally rotates in the socket, the humeral head tends to glide forward, putting stress on the biceps tendon and anterior ligamentous structures.
Likewise, at the elbow, valgus stress is off the charts. That can lead to ulnar collateral ligament tears, flexor/pronator strains, medial epicondyle stress fractures, lateral compressive injuries, ulnar nerve irritation, and a host of other isssue. I don't expect most of you to know what much of this means (although you can learn more from Everything Elbow), but suffice it to say that it's incredibly important to train throwers to be functionally strong and mobile in these positions.
And, this brings to light the fundamental problem with most strength and conditioning programs for overhead throwing athletes; they commonly don't even come close to training people to be "safe" in these positions. "Clean, squat, deadlift, bench, chin-up, sit-up" just doesn't cut it. You need to be strong in single-leg stance to accept force on the front side with landing.
You need to be able to apply force in the frontal and transverse planes.
You also need to transfer this force to powerful movements.
You need to have plenty of rotary stability to effectively transfer force from the lower to upper body.
You need to be strong eccentrically in the 90/90 position.
You need to have outstanding hip mobility in multiple planes of motion.
You need to attend to soft tissue quality in areas that other athletes rarely have to consider.
These demands are really just the tip of the iceberg, though, as you have to see how all the pieces fit together with respect to throwing and hitting demands at various times of year. Training for baseball isn't as simple as doing the football strength and conditioning program and then showing up for baseball practice; there are far more unique challenges when dealing with any rotational sport, particularly those that also integrate overhead throwing. Watch the sport, talk to the players, appreciate the demands, and evaluate each individual before you try to write the program; otherwise, you're simply fitting athletes to existing programs.
For more insights like these, I'd encourage you to check out one of our Elite Baseball Mentorships; we have two of these events scheduled for this fall.
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I've been very outspoken in the past about how I am completely against the inclusion of Olympic lifts in baseball strength and conditioning programs because of injury risk and the fact that I don't believe the carryover in power development is as good as many folks think. I've taken a lot of heat for it, too, as it's essentially blasphemy for a strength and conditioning coach to not think the Olympic lifts are a "Holy Grail" of performance enhancement.
Truth be told, I think there is merit to the Olympic lifts for a lot of athletes and general fitness folks. However, baseball players aren't like most athletes or general fitness folks. They have far more joint laxity, and it's a key trait that helps to make them successful in their sport. While I hate to ever bring additional attention to an extremely unfortunately event, a weightlifting injury that occurs in this year's Olympics reminded me of just one reason why I don't include the Olympic lifts with our throwers. Please keep in mind that while this isn't the most "gruesome" lifting injury video you'll see, some folks might find it disturbing (if you want to see the more gruesome "after" photo, read this article). If you're one of those folks, don't push play (Cliff's notes: he dislocates his elbow).
Now, without knowing for sure what the official diagnosis is, an elbow dislocation could mean two things. First, it could have been elbow hyperextension; I doubt that's the case, as the elbow appears to be slightly flexed when it "buckles." Second - and more likely - we're talking about a valgus stress injury; not the joint angle below, which is approximately 20-30 degrees of elbow flexion:
You know what's remarkably coincidental about that elbow flexion angle? It's where you do a valgus stress test to assess the integrity of the ulnar collateral ligament.
I don't know for sure if Sa Jae-hyouk is going to have a Tommy John surgery, but I can't say that I would be surprised if it does occur. And, he certainly wouldn't be the first Olympic lifter to have one.
Now, I want to bring up a few important items.
1. I think this essentially kills the "they're safe for baseball players if it's in good form" argument that some folks throw out there. For those who might not know, this was a gold medalist in Beijing in 2008, and he was expected to medal at this year's Olympics, too. I suspect he knows a few things about proper Olympic lifting technique.
2. According to research from Bigliani et al, 61% of pitchers and 47% of position players at the professional levels had sulcus signs (measure of instability) in their throwing shoulders. And, 89% of the pitchers and 100% of the position players ALSO had it in their non-throwing shoulders, meaning that this is the way that they were born, not just something they acquired from throwing. I've never met an accomplished male Olympic lifter with a sulcus sign, though, which tells me that laxity is virtually non-existent in this athletic population, particularly in comparison with baseball players. We need to fit the exercises to the athlete, not the athlete to the exercises.
3. The obvious next question for most folks is "what about cleans and high pulls?" With cleans, the wrist and elbow stresses are even more problematic than with snatches, and there is also the issue of direct trauma to the acromioclavicular joint on the catch phase. Plus, when folks hang clean, the distraction forces on the lowering component of the lift (assuming no drop) can be a big issue in "loose" shoulders and elbows. High pulls are a bit better, but all of the aggressive shrugging under load with minimal scapular upward rotation can really interfere with the improvements to scapular stability that we're trying to make with our overhead throwing athletes.
Quite some time ago, I met a pitching coach who made a bold statement to me:
"Most Major League pitchers have terrible mechanics."
I don't know if he meant that they were mechanics that could lead to injuries, or simply mechanics that would interfere with control and velocity development, but either way, I shrugged it off. Why?
Their mechanics are so terrible that they're in the top 0.0001% of people on the planet who play their sport. And, they're paid extremely well to be terrible, I suppose.
Kidding aside, this comment got me to thinking about something that's been "festering" for years now, and I wanted to run it by all of you today to get your impressions on it. In other words, this post won't be about me ranting and raving about how things should be, but rather me starting a dialogue on one potential way to get the baseball development industry to where it needs to be, as it clearly isn't there yet (as evidenced by the fact that more pitchers are getting hurt nowadays than ever before).
The way I see it, mechanics are typically labeled as "terrible" when a pitcher has:
1. Trouble throwing strikes
2. Pitching velocity considerably below what one would expect, given that pitcher's athleticism
3. Pain when throwing
4. Mechanical issues that theoretically will predispose him to injury
In the first three cases, anyone can really make these observations. You don't need to be trained in anything to watch the walk totals pile up, read a radar gun, or listen when a pitcher says, "It hurts." Moreover, these issues are easier to coach because they are very measurable; pitchers cut down on their walks, throw harder, and stop having pain.
Issue #4 is the conundrum that has lead to thousands of pissing matches among pitching coaches. When a pitcher gets hurt, everyone becomes an armchair quarterback. The two biggest examples that come to mind are Mark Prior and Stephen Strasburg.
Prior was supposed to be one of the best of all-time before shoulder surgeries derailed his career. After the fact, everyone was quick to pin all the issues on his mechanics. What nobody has ever brought to light is that over the course of nine years, his injuries looked like the following (via Wikipedia):
1. Hamstrings strain (out for 2002 season)
2. Shoulder injury (on-field collision - missed three starts in 2003)
3. Achilles injury (missed two months in 2004)
4. Elbow strain (missed 15 days in 2004)
5. Elbow injury (missed one month in 2005 after being hit by line drive)
6. Rotator cuff strain (missed three months in 2006)
7. Oblique strain (missed two starts in 2006)
8. Rotator cuff strain (ended 2006 season on disabled list)
9. Shoulder surgery (missed entire 2007 season, and first half of 2008)
10. Shoulder capsule tear (out for season after May 2008)
11. Groin injury (missed last two months of 2011 season)
By my count, that is eleven injuries - but four of them were non-arm-related. And, two of them (both early in his career) were contact injuries. Who is to say that he isn't just a guy with a tendency toward degenerative changes on a systemic level? How do we know one of the previous injuries didn't contribute to his arm issues later on? How do we know what he did for preventative arm care, rehabilitation, throwing, and strength and conditioning programs? We don't have his medical records from earlier years to know if there were predisposing factors in place, either. I could go on and on.
The issue is that our sample size is one (Mark Prior) because you'll never see this exact collection of issues in any other player again. It's impossible to separate out all these factors because all issues are unique. And, it's one reason why you'll never see me sitting in the peanut gallery criticizing some teams for having injured players; we don't have sufficient information to know exactly why a player got hurt - and chances are, the medical staff on those teams don't even have all the information they'd like to have, either.
Strasburg has been labeled the best prospect of all-time by many, and rightfully so; his stuff is filthy and he's had the success to back it up. Of course, the second he had Tommy John surgery, all the mechanics nazis came out of their caves and started berating the entire Washington Nationals organization for not fixing the issue (an Inverted W) proactively to try to prevent the injury. Everybody is Johnny Brassballs on the internet.
To that end, I'll just propose the following questions:
1. Did Strasburg not do just fine with respect to issues 1-3 in my list above?
2. Would you want to be the one to screw with the best prospect of all-time and potentially ruin exactly what makes him effective?
3. Do we really know what the health of his elbow was when the Nationals drafted him?
4. Do we know what his arm care, throwing, and strength and conditioning programs were like before and after being drafted?
There are simply too many questions one can ask with any injury, and simply calling mechanics the only contributing factor does a complex issue a disservice - especially since young athletes are growing up with more and more physical dysfunction even before they have mastered their "mature" mechanics.
The Inverted W theory is incredibly sound; Chris O'Leary did a tremendous job of making his case - and we certainly work to coach throwers out of this flaw - but two undeniable facts remain. First, a lot of guys still throw with the Inverted W and don't have significant arm issues (or any whatsoever). They may have adequate mobility and stability in the right places (more on this below) to get by, or perhaps they have just managed their pitch counts and innings appropriately to avoid reaching threshold. I suspect that you might also find that many of these throwers can make up for this "presumed fault" with a quick arm combined with a little extra congenital ligamentous laxity, or subtle tinkering with some other component of their timing.
Second, a lot of guys who don't have an Inverted W still wind up with elbow or shoulder injuries. Good research studies bring issues like these to light, and nobody has really gotten a crew of inverted W guys and non-inverted W guys together to follow injury rates over an extended period of time while accounting for variables such as training programs, pitch counts, and pitch selection (e.g., sliders vs. curveballs). We don't know if some of these other factors are actually more problematic than the mechanics themselves, as it's impossible to control all these factors simultaneously in a research format.
As such, here we have my first set of questions:
Don't you think that pitching coaches need to make a dedicated effort to understand research methods so that they can truly appreciate the multifactorial nature of injuries? And, more importantly, wouldn't learning to read research help them to understand which mechanical issues are the true problem?
The Inverted W is certainly an issue, but there are many more to keep in mind. Just my opinion: I think the baseball industry would be much better off if pitching coaches read a lot more research.
Now, let's move on to my second question. First, though, I want to return to the Inverted W example again. I have not met more than a few pitching coaches who can explain exactly what structures are affected by this mechanical flaw because they don't understand what functionally is taking place at the shoulder and elbow. They don't understand that excessive glenohumeral (shoulder) horizontal abduction, extension, and external rotation can all lead to anterior glide of the humerus, creating more anterior instability and leading to injuries to the anterior glenohumeral ligaments and labrum. Meanwhile, the biceps tendon picks up the slack as a crucial anterior stabilizer. They also don't appreciate how these issues are exacerbated by poor rotator cuff function and faulty scapular stabilization patterns. And, they don't appreciate that these issues are commonly present even in throwers who don't demonstrate an Inverted W pattern.
At the elbow, they also can't explain why, specifically, the Inverted W can lead to problems. They don't understand that the timing issue created by the "deep" set-up leads to greater valgus stress at lay-back because the arm lags. They can't explain why some players have medial issues (UCL injuries, ulnar nerve irritation, flexor/pronator strains, and medial epicondyle stress fractures) while other players have lateral issues (little league elbow, osteochondritis dissecans of radial capitellum) from the same mechanical flaws. They can't explain why a slider thrown from an Inverted W position would be more harmful than a curveball.
I can explain it to you - and I can explain it to my athletes so that they understand, too. I've also met a lot of medical professionals who can clearly outline how and why these structures are injured, but we aren't the ones coaching the pitchers on the mounds. The pitching coaches are the ones in those trenches.
To that end, I propose my second set of questions:
Don't you think pitching coaches ought to make an effort to learn functional anatomy in order to understand not just what gets injured, but how those injuries occur? Wouldn't it give them a more thorough understanding of how to manage their pitchers, from mechanical tinkering, to pitch selection, to throwing volume? And, wouldn't it give them a more valid perspective from which to contribute to pitchers' arm care programs in conjunction with rehabilitation professionals and strength and conditioning coaches?
The problem with just saying "his mechanics suck" is that it amounts to applying a theory to a sample size of one. That's not good research. Additionally, this assertion is almost always taking place without a fundamental understanding of that pitcher's functional anatomy. It amounts to coaching blind.
To reiterate, this was not a post intended to belittle anyone, but rather to bring to light two areas in which motivated pitching coaches could study extensively in order to really separate themselves from the pack. Additionally, I believe wholeheartedly in what Chris O'Leary put forth with his Inverted W writings; I just used it as one example of a mechanical flaw that must be considered as part of a comprehensive approach to managing pitchers.
With that said, I'd love to hear your opinions on these two sets of questions in the comments section below. Thanks in advance for your contributions.
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Here are some recommended strength and conditioning readings for the week:
Recovery: Athlete vs. Average Joe - Patrick Ward summarized some great research on how it takes a lot more to negatively impact performance when you reduce the outside stress in one's life.
Force of Habit - This article by Lindsay Berra just ran in ESPN The Magazine. Lindsay interviewed me for the piece on Tommy John surgery (ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction), and while I wasn't mentioned in the final version, I thought she did an outstanding job of outlining some complex topics - everything from the mechanics to the politics - in the piece.
21 Strength Exercises for Injury-Free Mass - Bret Contreras provides some great options - and the rationale for them - for those looking to make their strength training programs a little more joint-friendly over the long-term.
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In a recent presentation in front of a bunch of baseball coaches, I made the following statement - and it turned a lot of heads:
I think most people overtrain the rotator cuff nowadays, and they do so with the wrong exercises, anyway.
To illustrate my point, I'm going to ask a question:
Q: What is the most common complication you see in guys as they rehabilitate following a Tommy John Surgery?
A: Shoulder problems - generally right around the time they get up to 120 feet.
Huh? Shoulder pain is a post-operative complication of an elbow surgery? What gives?
First, I should make a very obvious point: many of these guys deal with shoulder stiffness as they get back to throwing simply because they've been shut down for months. That I completely expect - but remember that it's stiffness, and not pain. They always throw their way out of it.
The more pressing issue is what is taking place in their rehabilitation - and more specifically, what's taking place with the synergy between their rehabilitation and throwing program. Let me explain.
Rehabilitation following a UCL reconstruction is extensive. While different physical therapists certainly have different approaches, it will always be incredibly heavy on rotator cuff strength and timing, as well as adequate function of the scapular stabilizers. Guys always make huge strides on this front during rehab, but why do so many have shoulder pain when they get further out with their long tossing? The answer is very simple:
Most people don't appreciate that throwing a baseball IS rotator cuff training.
Your cuff is working tremendously hard to center the humeral head in the glenoid fossa. It controls excessive external rotation and anterior instability during lay-back.
It's fighting against distraction forces at ball release.
And, it's controlling internal rotation and horizontal adduction during follow-through.
Simultaneously, the scapular stabilizers are working incredibly hard to appropriately position and stabilize the scapula on the rib cage in various positions so that it can provide an ideal anchor point for those rotator cuff muscles to do their job.
A post-op Tommy John thrower - and really every player going through a throwing program - has all the same demands on his arm (even if he isn't on the mound, where stress is highest). And, as I wrote previously in a blog about why pitchers shouldn't throw year-round, every pitcher is always throwing with some degree of muscle damage at all times during the season (or a throwing program).
Keeping this in mind, think about the traditional Tommy John rehabilitation approach. It is intensive work for the cuff and scapular stabilizers three times a week with the physical therapists - plus many of the same exercises in a home program for off-days. They're already training these areas almost every day - and then they add in 3-6 throwing sessions a week. Wouldn't you almost expect shoulder problems? They are overusing it to the max! This is a conversation I recently had with physical therapist Eric Schoenberg, and he made another great point:
Most guys - especially at higher levels - don't have rotator cuff strength issues; they have rotator cuff timing issues.
In throwing - the single-fastest motion in all of sports - you're better off having a cuff that fires at the right time than a cuff that fires strong, but late. Very few rotator cuff exercise programs for healthy pitchers take that into account; rather, it's left to those doing rehabilitation. Likewise, most of the programs I see altogether ignore scapular stability and leave out other ways to train the cuff that are far more functional than just using bands.
Now, apply this example back to the everyday management of pitchers during the season. Pitchers are throwing much more aggressively: game appearances, bullpens, and long toss. They need to do some rotator cuff work, but it certainly doesn't need to be every day like so many people think.
I'll cover how much and what kind in Part 2. In the meantime, if you'd like to learn more about the evaluation and management of pitchers, check out Optimal Shoulder Performance.
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Last summer, a college pitcher came up to Cressey Performance from the South to train for a month before his summer league got underway. He was seven months post-op on a shoulder surgery (Type 2 SLAP) and had been working his way back. Unfortunately, his arm was still bothering him a bit when he got up to see us.
After the first few days at CP, though, he told me that his arm felt as good as it’s felt in as long as he could remember. He’d been doing a comprehensive strength and conditioning program, but the “impact” stuff for him had been soft tissue work, some Postural Restoration Institute drills, an emphasis on thoracic mobility, and manual stretching into internal rotation, horizontal adduction, and shoulder flexion. From all the rehab, his cuff was strong and scapular stabilizers were functioning reasonably well – which led me to believe that his issues were largely due to tissue shortness and/or stiffness.
This realization made me immediately wonder what he’d been doing in the previous months for mobility work for his arm – so I asked. He then demonstrated the manual stretching series that every pitcher on his team went through every day on the table with their athletic trainer. Each stretch was done for 2x20s – and two of those stretches took him into extreme external rotation and horizontal abduction. I was pretty shocked.
Me: “You’re probably not the only guy on your team rehabbing right now, huh?”
Him: “No; there are actually too many to count.”
Me: “Elbows, too, I’m sure.”
Want to irritate a labrum, biceps tendon, or the undersurface of the rotator cuff? Stretch a thrower into extreme external rotation and simulate the peel-back mechanism. This also increases anterior capsular laxity and likely exacerbates the internal impingement mechanism over the long-term. To reiterate, this is a bad stretch!
Want to make an acromioclavicular joint unhappy? Stretch a thrower into horizontal abduction like this (again, this is a BAD stretch that is pictured):
Want to irritate an ulnar nerve or contribute to the rupture of an ulnar collateral ligament? Make sure to apply direct pressure to the forearm during these dangerous stretches to create some valgus stress. This is a sure-fire way to make a bad stretch even worse:
These stretches are very rarely indicated in a healthy population – especially pitchers who already have a tendency toward increased external rotation. The shoulder is a delicate joint that can’t just be manhandled – and when you’re dealing with shoulders that are usually also pretty loose (both from congenital and acquired factors), you’re waiting for a problem when you include such stretches. In fact, I devoted an entire article to this: The Right Way to Stretch the Pecs.
Everyone thinks that shoulder external rotation and horizontal abduction alone account for the lay-back in the extreme cocking position.
In reality, though, this position is derived from a bunch of factors:
1. Shoulder External Rotation Range-of-Motion – and this is the kind of freaky external rotation you’ll commonly see thanks to retroversion and anterior laxity:
2. Scapular Retraction/Posterior Tilt
3. Thoracic Spine Extension/Rotation
4. Valgus Carrying Angle
So, how do you improve lay-back without risking damage to the shoulder and elbow?
1. Soft tissue work on Pec minor/major and subscapularis – Ideally, this would be performed by a qualified manual therapist – especially since you’re not going to be able to get to subscapularis yourself. However, you can use this technique to attack the pecs:
2. Exercises to improve scapular retraction/depression/posterior tilt – This could include any of a number of horizontal pulling exercises or specific lower trap/serratus anterior exercises like the forearm wall slide with band.
3. Incorporate specific thoracic spine mobility drills – In most pitchers, you want to be careful about including thoracic spine mobility drills that also encourage a lot of glenohumeral external rotation. However, when we assess a pitcher and find that he’s really lacking in this regard, there are two drills that we use with them. The first is the side-lying extension-rotation, which is a good entry level progression because the floor actually limits external rotation range-of-motion, and it’s easy to coach. I tell athletes that they should think of thoracic spine extension/rotation driving scapular retraction/depression, which in turn drives humeral external rotation (and flexion/horizontal abduction). Usually, simply putting your hands on the shoulder girdle and guiding them through the motion is the best teaching tool.
A progression on the side-lying extension-rotation is the side-lying windmill, which requires a bit more attention to detail to ensure that the range-of-motion comes from the right place. The goal is to think of moving exclusively from the thoracic spine with an appropriate scapular retraction/posterior tilt. In other words, the arm just comes along for the ride. The eyes (and head) should follow the hand wherever it goes.
Again, these are only exercises we use with certain players who we’ve deemed deficient in external rotation. If you’re a thrower, don’t simply add these to your routine without a valid assessment from someone who is qualified to make that estimation. You could actually make the argument that this would apply to some folks in the general population who have congenital laxity as well (especially females).
4. Throw!!!!! – Pitchers gain a considerable amount of glenohumeral external rotation over the course of a competitive season simply from throwing. Sometimes, the best solution is to simply be patient. I really like long toss above all else for these folks.
In closing, there are three important things I should note:
1. You don’t want to do anything to increase valgus laxity.
2. You’re much more likely to get hurt from being “too loose” than you are from being “too tight.” When it comes to stretching the throwing shoulder, “gentle” is the name of the game – and all mobility programs should be as individualized as possible.
3. Maintaining internal rotation is a lot more important than whatever is going on with external rotation. In fact, this piece could have just as easily been named "The Two Stretches Pitchers Shouldn't Do, Plus a Few That Only Some of Them Need."
We can do all the strength training, mobility work, and soft tissue treatments in the world and it won’t matter if they’re overused – because I’m just not smart enough to have figured out how to go back in time and change history. Worried about whether they’re throwing curveballs, or if their mechanics are perfect? It won’t matter if they’ve already accumulated too many innings.
While athletes might be playing with fire each time they throw, the pain presentation pattern is different. You burn your hand, and you know instantly. Pitching injuries take time to come about. Maybe you do microscopic damage to your ulnar collateral ligament each time you throw – and then come back and pitch again before it’s had time to fully regenerate. Or, maybe you ignore the shoulder internal rotation deficit and scapular dyskinesis you’ve got and it gets worse and worse for years – until you’re finally on the surgeon’s table for a labral and/or rotator cuff repair. These issues might be managed conservatively if painful during the teenage years (or go undetected if no pain is present) – but once a kid hits age 18 or 19, it seems to automatically become “socially acceptable” to do an elbow or shoulder surgery.
Sure enough, just yesterday, reader Paul Vajdic sent me this article from the Shreveport Times. The author interviews world-renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews about the crazy increase in the number of Tommy John surgeries he'd performed over the past decade.
A comment he made really jumped out at me, in light of my point from above:
""I had a kid come in, a 15-year-old from Boca Raton, (Fla.), who tore his ligament completely in two,' Andrews said. 'The interesting thing is when I X-rayed his elbow with good magnification, he has a little calcification right where the ligament attaches to the bone. We're seeing more of that now. He actually got hurt with a minor pull of the ligament when he was 10, 11, 12 years of age. That little calcification gets bigger and, initially, it won't look like anything but a sore elbow. As that matures, it becomes more prominent. It turns into an English pea-size bone piece and pulls part of the ligament off when they're young.'"
In other words, it takes repeated bouts of microtrauma over the course of many years to bring an athlete to threshold - even if they have little to no symptoms along the way. Injury prevention starts at the youngest ages; otherwise, you're just playing from behind the 8-ball when you start training high school and college players.
In addition to walking away with the perspective that young kids need to be strictly managed with their pitch counts, I hope this makes you appreciate the value of strength and conditioning programs at young ages, too. For more information, check out my post, The Truth About Strength Training for Kids.
I've written quite a bit in the past about how diagnostic imaging (x-rays, MRIs, etc) doesn't always tell the entire story, and that incidental findings are very common. This applies to the lower back, shoulders, and knees (and surely several other joints). The scary thing, though, is that we see these crazy structural abnormalities not just in adults, but in kids, too. Last month, I highlighted research that showed that 64% of 14-15 year-old athletes have structural abnormalities in their knees - even without the presence of symptoms. Just a month later, newer research is showing that the knee isn't the only hinge joint affected; young throwers' elbows are usually a structural mess as well. In an American Journal of Sports Medicine study of 23 uninjured, asymptomatic high school pitchers (average age of 16), researchers found the following:
Three participants (13%) had no abnormalities. Fifteen individuals (65%) had asymmetrical anterior band ulnar collateral ligament thickening, including 4 individuals who also had mild sublime tubercle/anteromedial facet edema. Fourteen participants (61%) had posteromedial subchondral sclerosis of the ulnotrochlear articulation, including 8 (35%) with a posteromedial ulnotrochlear osteophyte, and 4 (17%) with mild posteromedial ulnotrochlear chondromalacia. Ten individuals (43%) had multiple abnormal findings in the throwing elbow.
For me, the 35% with the osteophytes (and chondromalacia) are the biggest concern. Thickening of the ulnar collateral ligament isn't surprising at all, but marked osseous (bone) abnormalities is a big concern.
Also, as a brief, but important aside, this study was done at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota - which isn't exactly the hotbed of baseball activity that you get down in the South. Recent research also shows that players in Southern (warm weather) climates have decreased shoulder internal rotation range of motion and external rotation strength compared to their Northern (cold weather) climate counterparts. In other words, I'll be money that the numbers reported in this study are nothing compared to the young pitchers who are constantly abused year-round in the South.
The next time you think to yourself that all young athletes - especially throwers - can be managed the same, think again. Every body is unique - and that's why I'm so adamant about the importance of assessing young athletes. It's one reason why I filmed the Everything Elbow in-service, which would be a great thing to watch if you're someone who manages pitchers.
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