Written on April 7, 2010 at 8:13 am, by Eric Cressey
Many baseball fans thought that it was a bit inappropriate of President Obama to wear a Chicago White Sox hat as he threw out the opening pitching at the Washington Nationals game several years ago. However, many others - including those of us on the baseball development side of things - overlooked this fashion faux pas, and instead pointed out that the commander-in-chief's throwing mechanics closely paralleled those of an 11-year-old girl.
Now that I've irritated a good chunk of my readership, please allow me to explain.
We are all born with a certain amount of humeral retroversion. For the lay population out there, think of retroversion as a bony positioning that allows for more shoulder external rotation. As we age, we actually gradually lose retroversion (gain anteversion); this process moves the most quickly from ages 8-13, which isn't surprising, as this is when kids rapidly become more skeletally mature. It's why we see more torn ACLs than broken bones in the late teenage years; the bones are no longer the path of least resistance.
However, we actually see something different in kids who are involved in overhead throwing sports during this crucial developmental period. They don't gain anteversion as quickly in their throwing shoulder; in other words, they preserve at lot of the bony positioning that gives rise to external rotation (the lay-back position), which in itself is a predictive factor for throwing velocity. Very simply, it's easier for them to get their arm back to throw because the bones (specifically, the proximal humeral epiphysis) have morphed to allow for it. There's even a theory out there that this bony positioning actually spares the anterior-inferior glenohumeral ligaments from excessive stress during external rotation, but that's a topic for another day (and president?).
How much of a difference are we talking? Well, in a study of 54 college pitchers, Reagan et al. found that had 36.6° of humeral retroversion, as compared with just 26° in non-dominant shoulders. Here's our fearless leader throwing a cream puff from a different angle at a previous All-Star Game; you'll notice that he leads with the elbow and his arm doesn't "lay back" - a technique we've come to term "throwing like a girl," as politically incorrect as it is. Think he could use an additional 10° of shoulder external rotation?
The good news, however, is that he's in good company; Mariah Carey has sold hundreds of millions of albums and rocks a 12-foot palmball, too.
We can't fault these folks (well, maybe for their attire, but that, too, is another blog post), as females traditionally haven't had exposure to baseball at young ages in order to develop these osseous (bony) adaptations that favor throwing hard. And, with just a little reconnaissance work on President Obama, I quickly came across this quote from him in the NY Daily News: "I did not play organized baseball when I was a kid, and so, you know, I think some of these natural moves aren't so natural to me." There's your answer.
Contrast his delivery with that of George W. Bush, who not only played baseball as a kid, but actually owned the Texas Rangers for a while, and you'll see what a few years in Little League will do for a shoulder.
Interestingly, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at Bush actually displayed some decent lay-back, too. It makes me wonder if he was born with some congenital laxity, played cricket or tennis, or just practiced a ton for his first international shoe-throwing appearance (cap?).
As an interesting little aside, in our Optimal Shoulder Performance, Mike Reinold talks about how European soccer players have actually served as the control group against which we can compare overhead throwing shoulders in research, as these athletes are the same age and gender as baseball pitchers, but rarely participate in overhead throwing sports. So, perhaps we should say "throw like a European soccer player" instead of "throw like a girl" - particularly since more and more female athletes have started participating in overhead throwing sports at a younger age!
However, in the interim, what can President Obama do to get over this hurdle? It goes without saying that it's too late to get that retroversion, as he's already skeletally mature. However, there is research out there that shows that pitchers gain external rotation over the course of a competitive season - so President Obama would be wise to get out in the rose garden and play some catch because, you know, presidents have plenty of time to do that!
Likewise, there are several things he could do to improve his pitching-specific mobility. The most important thing is to avoid spending so much time hunched over a desk, as being stuck in this position will shorten the pectoralis major and minor, lats, subscapularis, and several other small muscles that need adequate length and tissue quality to get the arm "back" via good humeral external rotation, scapular posterior tilt, and thoracic spine extension/rotation. To keep it simple, I'd probably just have him do a lot of the side-lying extension-rotation drill:
Of course, there's a lot more to it than just this, but these quick modifications would be a good start. For more information, check out our new Optimal Shoulder Performanceresource, which is on sale for 20% off through the end of the day today. Just enter the coupon code 20OFF to get the discount.
Please enter your email below to sign up for our FREE newsletter and you'll receive a detailed 9-minute deadlift technique video tutorial.