Home Baseball Content Improving Thoracic Mobility in Throwers

Improving Thoracic Mobility in Throwers

Written on November 5, 2013 at 8:35 am, by Eric Cressey

It goes without saying that all rotational sport athletes need adequate thoracic spine (upper body) mobility in order to create appropriate separation as they work to transfer force from the lower extremity to the upper extremity during swings, throws, shots, and changes of direction.  In a throwing population, however, you need to take some special precautions as you work to build it.

One thing we know about pitchers is that their shoulder external rotation improves over the course of a season, and this likely takes place because the ligamentous structures in the front of the shoulder become looser. In this image of a left shoulder, it would be the area labeled "capsular ligaments:"

ghligaments

Effectively, the looser one's anterior capsule is, the more external rotation one will have.  The problem, however, is that if this area becomes too loose, the biceps tendon must pick up the slack as an important anterior stabilizer during external rotation.  Additionally, there are many nerve structures at the anterior shoulder that can be irritated because the humeral head isn't controlled.  This is yet another reason why it's not a good idea to stretch a throwing shoulder into external rotation.  In this video, I go into greater detail:

This knowledge gives rise to two thoughts:

1. If we lack thoracic rotation, our arm will drag during the pitching delivery, as it's a means of creating better separation (albeit in the wrong places).  Guys who have quick arms can often make up for it, but still inevitably irritate the anterior shoulder over time.  So, if your thoracic rotation stinks, you'll need to try to find more external rotation in the wrong places.  Additionally, if we lack thoracic extension, we often substitute lumbar extension (lower back arching) to maintain an upright torso.  These guys wind up with low back pain, oblique strains, and hip issues.

2. We can't just throw any thoracic mobility drill at throwers, particularly in the early off-season, when the anterior shoulder is all stretched out and it may be the path of least resistance.  As an example, the kettlebell arm bar might be a great drill for many folks in the population, but I would never use it with a thrower:

Instead, particularly in the early off-season, we need to pick drills that heavily emphasis thoracic movement independent of humeral (arm) movement. Here's a progression we might use over the course of the off-season:

Off-Season Months 1-2 (and during the in-season phase): Supine Alternating Shoulder Flexion on Doubled Tennis Ball, Thoracic Extension on Roller, Rock-Back Quadruped Extension-Rotation

tspineexte

Off-Season Months 3-4: Side-Lying Windmill, Bent-Over T-Spine Rotation

You'll notice that these options integrate a lot more humeral movement.  In many cases, you can use them earlier in the off-season, but only if they're coached really meticulously to ensure athletes are moving in the right places.

We use these exercises right after our foam rolling and positional breathing drills during the warm-up, and before anything we'd do to directly work on scapular stabilization and rotator cuff strength/timing.  Hopefully, this article gives you a little feel for not just some of the exercises we may use, but also the way we'd program them throughout the competitive season.

If you'd like to learn more about how we manage throwers, be sure to register for one of our Elite Baseball Mentorships.  The next one will take place June 14-16 in Hudson, MA.

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  • Coach,
    First off, great stuff, I use a lot of these techniques too. I have a couple quick questions I would like to get your thoughts on. First question, do you ever have your athletes squeeze a pad or something along those lines between their knees while performing the bent over rotation (to limit motion through the hips and lumbar spine)? Second, thoughts on using the pad squeeze technique while doing seated t-spine rotations too? My last question, when your athletes are working on t-spine mobility, do you allow for passive assistance to push the athletes restricted mobility? Thanks for all the great post. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  • I like to use the arm bar for stability. I noticed you said never for throwing athletes. I have my RKC/SFG and CKFMS. I like to use the arm bar where the pec is not on stretch. I add a few rotations with the whole joint as well as a few neck rotations so the client can learn to find their entire arm in space as well as take some of the trap out of it with the neck rotations…again, with the pec not on stretch at all… loose and relaxed. Would this change your thoughts for throwing athletes? Thanks. Jeff

  • Hi Eric,

    I get a lot of kids from ages 9-14, who have poor throwing mechanics due to: weak shoulders, wrist etc… The stretching exercises above (supine shoulder flexion exercises)would that be helpful, along arm circles and J-band exercises?

    Also you have great content!

  • Hi. I’m curious. I am a pitcher in background. Recently I looked at ido portal’s type of movement. All I say is do you know him? If not whatever, if so whatever, but movement can be so realative. It’s funny what he would proscribe and you would for a movement thrower. So what I ask to you is what’s the difference between circus masters and sports masters? Only if you know my question. Thanks and you are a genius

  • andy

    Eric,

    Awesome insight into early off season needs! one quick question. do you tend to program the position specific breathing drills before the foam rolling to take out excessive parasympathetic tone, or foam roll before breathing specific positions, or does it even matter?

    Thanks!
    Andy

  • Hi Andy,

    We roll first, but they’re likely very interchangeable.

  • Interesting Paul Check has a variation of this exercise where you move your eyes further from your rotating hand.

  • Geoff

    Eric,

    Awesome info as usual and very helpful. I have a 15 year old son who is beginning his off season baseball workouts, he’s a pitcher. Should these movements/stretches be included in every warm-up or just the workouts involving scapular stabilization and rotator cuff work? For example, a non-throwing leg day.

    Thanks,
    Geoff

  • Rick,

    Certainly won’t hurt!

  • Geoff,

    He can do them daily.

  • Michael

    I have noticed four different pain situations over my carreer. 1) no pain 2) pain in shoulder and elbow, and most often the last two 3)pain in shoulder with healthy elbow 4) pain in elbow but none in shoulder. I have very limited mobility in my shoulders primarily because my day job requires lifting (not working out). When I get mobility in my shoulder around mid season of pitching, then my elbow dose not get stressed and I am able to increase velocity. I understand the importance of shoulder strength and stability but is it at the cost of elbow health?

  • Jason Rudy

    Very informative article! When are some instances you would use the kettlebell arm bar? Do you avoid it with your overhead athletes because it causes too much joint laxity at the glenohumeral joint? Thank you for the great articles!


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