Understanding Elbow Pain – Part 4: Protecting Pitchers
Written on May 21, 2010 at 5:53 am, by Eric Cressey
This is Part 4 of a series specifically devoted to elbow pain in athletes. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 if you haven’t already.
As I presented in Part 3 of this series, there is absolutely nothing healthy about throwing a baseball, as the body is being contorted to extreme positions as the arm accelerates in the fastest motion ever recorded in sports. These outrageous demands warrant a multi-faceted approach to protecting pitchers from injury. In my eyes, this approach consists of four categories, and that’s what I’ll cover today.
1. Avoiding Injurious Pitching Mechanics
Let me preface this section by saying that I do not believe there is a single mechanical model that governs how one should pitch. Everyone is different, and those unique traits have to be taken into consideration in determining what is or isn’t considered potentially harmful. For instance, only a tiny fraction of the population could ever even dream about pitching like Tim Lincecum because of ideal blend of congenital laxity and reactive ability he possesses.
I’ve trained Blue Jays left-handed pitching prospect Tim Collins for the past three seasons. At a Double-A game earlier this year, Tim introduced me to his good buddy Trystan Magnuson, a right-handed pitching prospect who is also in the Jays system. While Tim was a whopping 5-5, 131 pounds when he was signed right out of high school (now 5-7, 170), Trystan stands 6-7. Check out this picture I recently came across from spring training:
Anyone who thinks these two are going to throw a baseball with velocity and safety via the same mechanics is out of his mind. As an aside, if you’re interested in watching both of them throw, there is some decent warm-up footage of both HERE.
While we can never expect all pitcher to fit the same mechanical model, we can look to the research (a great 2002 study from Werner et al. is an excellent place to start) to educate us about certain factors that predispose pitchers to increased elbow stress. To start, leading with the elbow too much increases valgus stress by about 2.5N per degree of horizontal adduction that the arm must travel. The problem with this is that every successful pitcher you’ll ever see leads with the elbow to some degree, so it becomes an issue of “how much” and “when.”
Getting to maximal external rotation too early also increases valgus stress on the elbow. According to Fleisig et al. (1995), the typical thrower is going to have about 67 degrees of shoulder external rotation at stride foot contact. The more external rotation there is, the more elbow stress you’ll see. Unfortunately, this is one contributing factor to one’s velocity, so these results must be intepreted cautiously. If you take away that external rotation, you may take away a few miles per hour. Again, the same goes for horizontal abduction.
Lower extremity sequencing problems can also wreak havoc on an elbow. Pitchers who fly open early tend to let their arm lag behind their body, increasing valgus stress in the process and making it harder to get good contribution from the lower half.
Likewise, guys who stay closed and throw across their body can wind up with medial elbow issues. If a pitcher maxes out his shoulder internal rotation and scapular protraction in coming across his body, the only choice to continue getting that range of motion is the elbow. If you create more range of motion, you have to slow down more range of motion.
This last point kicks off a brief, but important discussion. Many pitchers stay closed to improve deception. Others use it to help them get movement on sinkers.
Changing these mechanics could take away everything that makes these pitches successful, so you have to look to the other three factors to prepare them physically and protect them from these stresses. It’s like making sure you give a guy a helmet if he is going to be banging his head against a wall!
All that said, finding the right mechanics is important for little leaguers and professionals alike – and it’s the first step in protecting the elbow in a throwing situation. As we realize that the very issues that increase elbow stress happen to be the same ones that a) increase velocity and b) are often demonstrated by elite pitchers, we appreciate once again just how unnatural an act throwing a baseball really is!
2. Avoiding Acute and Chronic Overuse
One of our high school kids threw 188 pitches in a game last week. I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at what I do, but nothing I can do to keep a kid healthy if his coach asks him to do that time and time again.
Acutely, fatigued pitchers put more stress on their arms. There is less trunk tilt at ball release as the lower body gets more tired. And, the usually elbow drops. “The next thing you know, there’s money missing off the dresser, and your daughter’s knocked up. I’ve seen it a hundred times.”
Gold star to those of you who caught that movie reference, but kidding aside, just about every case of elbow pain we see who comes through our door has been mismanaged in terms of pitch count – either acutely, chronically, or both. They think they can pitch year-round. They blow money on showcases. They play on three teams team at a time. They throw bullpens with their teams and with their private pitching instructors. The research is out there and the answer is very clear: there is only so much stress an arm – especially a skeletally immature arm – can take.
3. Being Chronically Physically Prepared to Pitch
This is the topic of which I’ve written the most on this site, and it encompasses everything I’ve written with respect to strength training for pitchers and targeted flexibility work, not to mention my absolute hatred for distance running for pitchers. Long story short, throwing a baseball is an action that takes its toll on the body; if you aren’t functionally fit to pitch, you’re just asking for an injury.
4. Being Acutely Physically Prepared to Pitch
This is a very overlooked component of not only staying healthy, but also performing at a high level. I’m amazed at how many young pitchers just “show and go” when it comes to pitching. That is, they get to the field and just go right to throwing. In other words, they throw to warm up.
We teach our athletes, “You warm up to throw; you don’t throw to warm up.” I’ve spent the last 57 paragraphs (give or take a few) outlining how incredibly stressful the throwing motion is, yet some kids can’t wait to jump right into it before getting their body temperature up, optimizing joint range-of-motion, activating key neuromuscular connections, or doing anything that even vaguely resembles an appropriate “rest to exercise” transition. We encourage athletes to go through 8-10 dynamic flexibility drills followed by some easy sprinting progressions before they ever pick up a ball.
It’s not just about what you do before an outing, either. It’s also about what you do in the 24 hours after an appearance that determines how you’ll bounce back in your subsequent outing. While the schmucks out there are doing “flush runs,” the #1 thing I am worried about after a start is regaining lost range of motion. Reinold et al. found that pitchers lost both shoulder internal rotation and elbow extension range-of-motion during a competitive season when an adequate stretching routine was not implemented. It’s no surprise, when you consider the overwhelmingly high eccentric stress that’s placed on the shoulder external rotators and elbow flexors as they try to decelerate the crazy velocities we see with pitching. As such, following an outing, the first thing we want our guys to do is get back their shoulder and elbow ROM (and get the hips loosened up). There are some athletes who don’t need to be stretched into internal rotation, so be careful about using this as a blanket recommendation (more on that in our Optimal Shoulder Performance DVD set).
For a bit more information on what we recommend for our pitchers between outings, check out A New Model for Training Between Starts: Part 2.
In closing, an important note I should make is that pitchers rarely get hurt because of just one of these factors; it’s usually a combination of all of them. So, when evaluating a pitcher’s health and performance, be sure to broad perspective.
We’ve got four down and two to go in this elbow series. Stay tuned for more!
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