Home Baseball Content (Page 74)

Bodyblades for Baseball Pitchers?

Q: What do you think of Bodyblades and how - if at all- should they be incorporated into a pitcher's routine? A: As many of you know, I'm a fan of integrating rhythmic stabilization drills that train the true function of the rotator cuff: maintaining the humeral head in the glenoid fossa.  I wrote about it in some depth HERE, and Mike Reinold and I spent quite a bit of time on it in our Optimal Shoulder Performance DVD set.

Of course, if you compare the perturbations to stability that the Bodyblade provides, it appears to simulate some of what you'd get with a rhythmic stabilization drill.  So, it's probably a good alternative to a pitcher who doesn't have a training partner, therapist, or coach who can provide those destabilizing torques.  Shirts, apparently, are optional.

bodyblade

That said, to me, using a Bodyblade is a more closed-loop (predictable) drill, whereas manual rhythmic stabilizations are more open-loop (unpredictable).  So, it goes without saying that the benefits of "surprise" stabilization probably extend a lot further - and they don't cost a penny.  Moreover, I've heard claims about the Bodyblade being an effective way to build muscle, which (outside an untrained population) just isn't going to happen.  There are also much better ways to train the core.

For more information, check out the Optimal Shoulder Performance DVD set.

shoulder-performance-dvdcover

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Healthy Shoulders with Terrible MRIs?

In the same grain as Monday's post on lower back pain, today, I thought I'd highlight some of the common findings in diagnostic imaging of the shoulder, as these findings are just as alarming.

Do you train loads of overhead throwing athletes (especially pitchers) like I do?  Miniaci et al. found that 79% of asymptomatic professional pitchers (28/40) had "abnormal labrum" features and noted that "magnetic resonance imaging of the shoulder in asymptomatic high performance throwing athletes reveals abnormalities that may encompass a spectrum of 'nonclinical' findings."  Yes, you can have a torn labrum and not be in pain (it depends on the kind of labral tear you have; for more information, check out Mike Reinold's great series on SLAP lesions, starting with Part 1).

slap_lesion

This isn't just limited to baseball players, either; you'll see it in handball, swimming, track and field throwers, and tennis as well.  And, it isn't just limited to the labrum.  Connor et al. found that eight of 20 (40%) dominant shoulders in asymptomatic tennis/baseball players had evidence of partial or full-thickness cuff tears on MRI. Five of the 20 also had evidence of Bennett's lesions.

The general population may be even worse, particularly as folks age. Sher et al. took MRIs of 96 asymptomatic subjects, finding rotator cuff tears in 34% of cases, and 54% of those older than 60 - so if you're dealing with older adult fitness, you have to assume they're present in more than half your clients!

rtc-tear

Also, in another Miniaci et al. study, MRIs of 30 asymptomatic shoulders under age 50 demonstrated "no completely 'normal' rotator cuffs."  People's MRIs are such train wrecks that we don't even know what "normal" is anymore!

As is the case with back pain, these issues generally only become symptomatic when you don't move well - meaning you have insufficient strength, limited flexibility, or poor tissue quality.  For more information on how to screen for and prevent these issues from reaching threshold, check out Optimal Shoulder Performance from Mike Reinold and me.

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Mobilizing the Throwing Shoulder: The Do and Don’t

Q: I recently opened up my own place to train athletes, and wanted to thank you for all of the knowledge you have passed along, as it has been a big factor in designing my own training philosophy.  The majority of my athletes are baseball and football players in the high school and collegiate level, and I had question for you regarding my baseball players specifically. Nearly every player I work with (and for the most part every pitcher I have worked with), has tight shoulders due to over-use, being imbalanced, and weak.  I have them performing a ton of upper back work in comparison to pressing movements, rotator cuff work, sleeper stretches, and myofascial release.  It helps greatly, but they still seem to never get back to a full range of motion or an actual natural throwing motion.  Because of this, I was wondering what you thought about adding in shoulder dislocations using a dowel rod or broomstick to help with shoulder mobility. Because the players I work with are either in college because of their ability to play baseball, or have a chance at being drafted or getting a good college scholarship from their arms, I want to make sure that everything I do makes them better instead of hurting them in the long run for what looks like a quick fix when they are with me. I'd love to hear any thoughts you might have on helping increase shoulder mobility and the shoulder dislocation exercise, in particular.

overhead-shoulder-dislocation-1overhead-shoulder-dislocation-2

A: First off, thank you very much for your kind words and continued support. Unfortunately, to be blunt, I think it would be a terrible idea and you would undoubtedly make a lot of shoulders (and potentially elbows) worse. Most pitchers will have increased external rotation (ER) on their dominant side, and as such, increased anterior instability.  If you just crank them into external rotation and/or horizontal abduction, you will exacerbate that anterior instability.  Think about what happens in the apprehension-relocation test at the shoulder; the relocation posteriorly pushes the humerus to relieve symptoms by taking away anterior instability. We are extremely careful with who we select for exercises to increase external rotation, and it is in the small minority.  Most pitchers gain ~5 degrees of external rotation over the course of the competitive season, as it is.  If we are going to have them do mobilizations to increase ER, it's only after we've measured their total motion (IR+ER) as asymmetrical and determined that they need ER (a sign is ER that is less on the dominant shoulder).  And, any exercises we provide on this front are done in conjunction with concurrent scapular stabilization and thoracic spine extension/rotation - as you'd see in a side-lying extension-rotation drill.

Here, you've got supination of the forearm, external rotation of the shoulder, scapular retraction/posterior tilt, and thoracic spine extension/rotation occurring simultaneously on the "lay back" component.  And, the opposite occurs as the athlete returns to the starting position.  Again, to reiterate, this is NOT a drill that is appropriate for a large chunk of throwing shoulders who already have crazy external rotation; it's just one we use with specific cases of guys we discover need to gain it. With the broomstick dislocation, you're going to be throwing a lot of valgus stress on the elbow - and as I noted in my recent six-part series on elbow pain, pitchers already get enough of that.  To read a bit more, check out Part 3: Throwing Injuries.

aroldis-chapman-mechanics

While we're on the topic, be careful about universally recommending sleeper stretches.  There is going to be a decent chunk of your baseball players that don't need it at all.  In particular, if you have a congenitally lax (ultra hypermobile) athlete (high score on Beighton laxity test), a sleeper stretch will really irritate the anterior shoulder capsule and/or biceps tendon. These players don't really need to be stretched into IR; they just need loads of stability training.  You'll find that these guys become more and more common at higher levels, as congenital laxity serves as a sort of "natural selection" to succeed for some people.  So, universally prescribing the sleeper stretch becomes more and more of a problem as you deal with more and more advanced players and could be jacking up multi-million dollar arms.  You'll even find guys who can gain 10-20 degrees of internal rotation in a matter of 30 seconds  - without any shoulder mobilizations - just with the appropriate breathing patterns.  It just doesn't work for everyone.  Honestly, the only way to know is to assess; each pitcher is unique. The obvious question then becomes "why are you seeing shoulder "tightness.?"  Is it postural?  Is it an actual range of motion you've assessed?  Is it guarding/apprehension in certain positions?  And, what is a "natural throwing motion?" They said Mark Prior had "perfect mechanics" and he has been injured his entire career.

mark-prior

What is "natural" is not what is "effective" in many cases, so you have to appreciate that throwing is an unnatural motion that may be necessary for generating velocity, creating deception, and optimizing movement on a certain pitch. It might seem like shameless self-promotion, but I would highly recommend that you pick up the DVD set Mike Reinold and I recently released: Optimal Shoulder Performance.

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It covers all of this information in great detail, plus a ton more.  Baseball players - and particularly pitchers - are a unique population as a whole, and within that population, each one is unique. I'd also strongly encourage you to check out Mike Reinold's webinar, "Assessing Asymmetry in Overhead Athletes: Does Asymmetry Mean Pathology?"  It's available through the Advanced CEU online store. Sign-up Today for our FREE Baseball Newsletter and Receive a Copy of the Exact Stretches used by Cressey Performance Pitchers after they Throw!
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The Hips in Baseball Hitting

In just the past few days, I've had two separate conversations with some really knowledgeable CP "dads" who also happen to have a ton of experience with coaching youth baseball players, particularly hitters.  In both conversations, a (paraphrased) line that stood out was "improving as a hitter in the teenage years is largely about learning to use the hips."

In contrast, have the same hitting conversation with just about any professional baseball player, and he'll tell you "I hit with my hands."

So who is right?  Do professional players not use their hips?  Or, do kids not use their hands?

Actually, both parties are right.  You don't get to professional baseball in the first place if you don't use your hips well when hitting.  And, you don't succeed (and stick around) in professional baseball unless you use your hands efficiently and have remarkable hand-eye coordination.  It's just multiple levels of natural selection that set the best apart - and they may sometimes forgot about the early stages of progress.

Need proof?  Watch a little league batting practice session, and then go to a big-league game to watch their batting practice.  The young players all pull the ball on every pitch, whereas the big-leaguers usually spray the ball all over the field, moving from the opposite field to the pull side.  They do this with their hands and wrists, all the while taking the hips for granted.

batting-practice

Think about this: how many more TFCC (wrist) injuries and hamate (hand) fractures do we see in professionals when compared to teenagers?  There are a lot more - because this area gets used a ton more.  Kids, on the other hand, get stress fractures if they misuse their hips.  It's no surprise, given the crazy rotational velocities and ranges of motion we see in hitters (outlined in my old articles, Oblique Strains and Rotational Power and Oblique Strains in Baseball: A 2011 Update).

What is a surprise, though, is that nobody has caught on to the ramifications of what this means for the youth baseball player who is learning to hit.

If a kid wanted to be a NASCAR driver, would we start him with a few 200mph laps at the Speedway amongst dozens of other drivers?  Of course not.

kid_driving_car1252453542

Why, then, do we have kids playing 180-200 games per year between school teams, AAU, fall ball, and even winter ball?  Where is the opportunity to learn how to hit in a controlled environment (closed loop), as opposed to trying to learn how to hit in live situations off of kids with no control (open loop).  Don't get me wrong; many programs do a tremendous job with instruction and really do build outstanding technical hitters - but as much as I hate to say it, the occupation of "hitting coach" seems to be a dying profession.  Why?

1. Schools are starting to put batting cages on campus for year-round hitting, and some kids don't appreciate that they need to learn to hit.

2. Some people see more money in AAU programs than individual instruction.  If a hitting lesson is personal training, running a team practice is semi-private training: more money in less time (and it's usually cheaper for the players).  This strategy can work if it's executed properly with sufficient coaching on-hand and the right demographic in mind; I have seen some AAU programs that are run with outstanding organization and excellent individual instruction at crucial parts of the year.

kidbatting

What is the right demographic?  I can't say for sure - but I can tell you that we need to be really careful in dealing with kids in the 11-17 year-old range.  They're learning to use their hips in an incredibly technically precise motion while their bodies are changing rapidly thanks to growth spurts and the fact that they spend 20 hours a day on their cans, thanks to sleeping, sitting at school desks, and playing around on Facebook and Instant Messenger.  We're giving more physically demanding challenges to less physically prepared (and, many times, less motivated) kids.

Kids need good hitting instruction early.  They also need targeted mobility work, foam rolling, and appropriate resistance training.

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The Importance of Strength and Conditioning for High School Baseball Players

Yesterday, the Division 1 North Baseball Semi-final here in MA between Lincoln-Sudbury (20-2) and Lawrence (20-2) got rained out - and postponed to today.  As many of you know, we deal with over 30 players from the LS high school baseball program, plus several in middle school and multiple graduates who are now playing college baseball. With no game, local reports were left looking for something about which to write, so an interview with Coach Kirk Fredericks took place - and one of the topics that was brought up was the effect of strength and conditioning on the program.  Here's an excerpt from the article: Meanwhile, L-S has been on recent offensive tear, which includes putting up 10 and 16 runs in its first two tournament contests, respectively. As a team, the Warriors have 25 home runs this season and 62 (14, 11, 12, 25) in their last four seasons. In Fredericks' first five seasons with the team, L-S combined for 19 (5, 1, 5, 2, 6) home runs. "In the last four years, we've been working with Eric Cressey, our personal trainer, and he's really made a difference," said Fredericks. "We've also played at the same fields and the kids have been dedicated to getting stronger. The numbers don't lie."

anderson I moved to Boston in 2006, so this is the fourth season I've gone through with the L-S guys - and while I knew power numbers had increased, I didn't realize that they had virtually quadrupled.  I did, however, get my first hint of what was happening when we saw seven pitchers hit 80mph on the radar gun on the first day of tryouts this year.  This is a pretty big deal for any high school, and certainly one in Massachusetts that has to compete with nasty winter weather and the draw of lacrosse, track, tennis, golf, and volleyball during the spring season.  It's also significant because the competition in the area has improved quite a bit; L-S actually faces many of the players from other schools that we train - and they've gone 85-10 since the start of the 2007 season (when they won the state championship). Needless to say, it was pretty cool to be able to put some numbers with the trend we'd been observing.  And, it serves as a great reminder that - contrary to what a lot of "old school" coaches will try to tell you - a strength and conditioning program is absolutely essential for high school baseball players to not only perform at a higher level, but stay healthy in the process.  In this four-year period, LS baseball has had only one arm surgery, and it was in early 2008 on a player who had been misdiagnosed on ulnar nerve issues since middle school.  He's now playing Division 1 baseball.  The guys understand that arm care is about more than just some foo-foo rotator cuff exercises. This is what happens when the players in a program dedicate themselves to something and are consistent with it over the course of several years. Please enter your email below to sign up for our FREE newsletter.

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The Fascial Knock on Distance Running for Pitchers

A while back, I had the privilege to experience Thomas Myers in seminar for the first time.  For those who aren't familiar with Myers, he is the author of Anatomy Trains and a pioneer in the world of bodywork and fascial research.

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There were a wide variety of attendees present, and Myers made dozens of interesting points - so the take-away message could easily have been different for everyone in attendance as they attempted to fit his perspective into their existing schemeta.

While I enjoyed all 150 minutes of his presentations, the portion of Myers' talk that jumped out at me the most was his list of the eight means of improving "fascial fitness:"

1.       Use whole body movements

2.       Use long chain movements

3.       Use movements including a dynamic pre-stretch with proximal initiation

4.       Incorporate vector variation

5.       Use movements that incorporate elastic rebound - this consists of cylic motions of a certain speed (for instance, cycling wouldn't count)

6.       Create a rich proprioceptive environment

7.       Incorporate pauses/rest to optimize hydration status

8.       Be persistent, but gentle (prominent changes can take 18-24 months)

A big overriding them of Myers' lecture was that the role of the fascia - the entire extracellular matrix of the body - is remarkably overlooked when it comes to both posture and the development of pathology.  He remarked that he doesn't feel like we have 600+ muscles in the body; he feels like we have one muscle in 600+ fascial pockets because they are so interdependent.  And, in this fascia, we have nine times as many sensory receptors as we've got in muscles.

Think about what that means when someone has rotator cuff problems - and treatment only consists of ice, stim, NSAIDs, and some foo-foo rotator cuff exercises.  Or, worse yet, they just have a surgical intervention.  It overlooks a big piece of the puzzle - or, I should say, the entire puzzle.

For me, though, these eight factors got me to thinking again about just how atrocious distance running is for pitchers.  I have already ripped on it in the past with my article A New Model for Training Between Starts, but this presentation really turned on a light bulb over my head to rekindle the fire.  Let's examine these eight factors one-by-one:

1.       Use whole body movements - Distance running may involve require contribution from the entire body, but there is not a single joint in the body that goes through an appreciable range of motion.

2.       Use long chain movements - Pitching is a long chain movement.  Jumping is a long chain movement.  The only things that are "long" about distance running are the race distances and the length of the hip replacement rehabilitation process.

3.       Use movements including a dynamic pre-stretch with proximal initiation - This simply means that the muscles of the trunk and hips predominate in initiating the movement.  While the hips are certainly important in running, the fundamental issue is that there isn't a dynamic pre-stretch.  This would be a dynamic pre-stretch with proximal initiation:

4.       Incorporate vector variation - A vector is anything that has both force and direction.  Manual therapists vary the force they apply to tissues and the directions in which they apply them.  There are obviously vectors present in exercise as well.  Here are 30,000 or so people, and pretty much just one vector for hours: forward (to really simplify things):

Incorporating vector variation into programs is easy; it just takes more time and effort than just telling someone to "run poles."  Take 8-10 exercises from our Assess and Correct DVD set and you've got a perfect circuit ready to roll.

5.       Use movements that incorporate elastic rebound - Sorry, folks, but even though the stretch-shortening cycle is involved with jogging, its contribution diminishes markedly as duration of exercise increases.  And, frankly, I have a hard time justifying bored pitchers running laps as "elasticity."

6.       Create a rich proprioceptive environment - There is nothing proprioceptively rich about doing the same thing over and over again.  They call it pattern overload for a reason.  Pitchers get enough of that!

7.       Incorporate pauses/rest to optimize hydration status - Myers didn't seem to have specific recommendations to make regarding work: rest ratios that are optimal for improving fascial fitness, but I have to think that something more "sporadic" in nature - whether we are talking sprinting, agility work, weight training, or dynamic flexibility circuits - would be more appropriate than a continuous modality like jogging.  This is true not just because of duration, but because of the increased vector variation potential I outlined earlier.

8.       Be persistent, but gentle - This one really hit home for me.  Significant fascial changes take 18-24 months to really set in. I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of injuries I see in mature pitchers are largely the result of mismanagement - whether it's overuse, poor physical conditioning, or improper mechanics - at the youth levels.  Poor management takes time to reach the threshold needed to cause symptoms.  In other words, coaches who mismanage their players over the course of the few months or years they coach them may never actually appreciate the physical changes - positively or negatively - that are being set into action.

stressfracture

Distance running might seem fine in the short-term.  Overweight kids might drop some body fat, and it might make the practice plan easier to just have 'em run.  Kids might not lose velocity, as they can compensate and throw harder with the upper extremity as their lower bodies get less and less powerful and flexible.

However, it's my firm belief that having pitchers run distances not only impedes long-term development, but also directly increases injury risk.  Folks just don't see it because they aren't looking far enough ahead.

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Understanding Elbow Pain – Part 6: Elbow Pain in Lifters

Today, I'm going to wrap up this six-part series entirely devoted to the elbow.  In case you missed the first five, check them out: Part 1: Functional Anatomy Part 2: Pathology Part 3: Throwing Injuries Part 4: Protecting Pitchers Part 5: The Truth About Tennis Elbow In this final installment, I'm going to discuss elbow issues as they pertain to a strength training population.  Even though some of the treatments for these injuries/conditioning may be very similar or even identical to what we see in a throwing population, I separate lifters because their problems are almost always soft tissue in nature.  While we may see stress fractures, ulnar nerve issues, and ulnar collateral ligament tears in throwers, we are virtually always dealing with problems with muscles and tendons in folks who are avid lifters.  What gives? Well, it's very simple: they grip stuff a lot more than normal folks, and also perform a ton of repetitive movements at the elbows and wrists.  This difference also makes you appreciate why we often see elbow issues in those who work on factory lines, performing the same task for hours on-end. Why is it that all these issues present at the elbow?  You see, many of the muscles involved in gripping originate at the superomedial aspect of the forearm, particularly on the medial epicondyle:

medialepicondyle

When these structures get overused, they shorten - and as we discussed in Part 1, the zones of convergence (where tendons bunch up and create friction with one another) are where we develop some nasty soft tissue adhesions.

However, this doesn't just happen from gripping.  Think about what happens when you put the bar in this position to back squat:

hammer-back-squat2

That bar wants to roll off his back, and while the majority of the weight is compressive loading, a good chunk of it becomes valgus stress that must be resisted by the flexors and pronators that attach at the medial aspect of the forearm/elbow. It's not a whole lot different than the stress we see here; we just trade off the velocity and extreme range of motion in the throwing motion for prolonged loading in the lifting example:

wagner2

As a general rule of thumb, the narrower the squatting grip, the more stress on the elbow.  Unfortunately, the wider the grip, the more shoulder problems we tend to see, as this position can chew up the biceps tendon.  The solution is to maintain as much specificity as possible with respect to one's chosen endeavor, but find breaks from the repetition of these squatting positions by plugging in options like front squats, giant cambered bar squats, and safety squat bar squats.

For these reasons, I also look at soft tissue work on the forearms - and particularly the medial aspect - as a form of preventative maintenance.  Regardless of the soft tissue modality you select, get some work done every few months and stay on top of your stretching in the area to maintain adequate length of these tissues.

We'll also see a fair amount of "underside" elbow pain in lifters, in most cases where the three heads of the triceps join up as a common tendon (another zone of convergence; does anyone see a pattern here?) to attach to the olecranon process.  The smaller anconeus - a weak elbow extensor - also comes in here.

Almost universally, the lifters who present with overuse injuries posteriorly are the ones who use loads of elbow-only extension movements like skullcrushers/nosebreakers/French presses/triceps extensions.  As a random aside to this, how can these movements have four different names, and not one of them begins with some Eastern European nationality?  "French" just doesn't get it done when we have Russian good mornings, Bulgarian split squats, Romanian Deadlifts.

lying_triceps_extension_5314_7

Anyway, we vilify leg extensions and leg curls as being non-functional and overly stressful at the knee.  The knee is the joint most similar to the elbow, yet it's much bigger than the elbow, yet nobody contraindicates 4-5 elbow extension-only exercises per week in many routines as being inappropriate - or even excessive.  If you want to build big legs, you squat, deadlift, and lunge.  If you want to build big triceps, you bench, do weighted push-ups, overhead press, and do dips.  The absolute load is higher, but the stress is shared over multiple joints.

In just about every instance, when you drop the direct elbow extension work from someone's program, their elbow issues resolve very quickly and they don't miss a beat with training.

So, as you probably inferred, it's very rarely a lack of strength that causes elbow pain in lifters.  Rather, it's generally poor tissue quality, a lack of flexibility, and overuse of a collection of muscles that have "congested" insertion points.  Simply changing the program around, getting some soft tissue work done, and following it up with some stretching can go a long way to both prevent and address these issues.  That said, there will be cases where elbow pain may originate further up at the cervical spine or shoulder or - as I learned from a reader in the comments section of Part 5 - from an abducted ulna.  So, there is definitely no one-size-fits-all approach.

That wraps up this series.  Hopefully, you've gained insights into some of what's rattling around inside my brain with respect to elbows.  Thanks for putting up with me for all six installments!

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Training Schedules for Summer Baseball

Q: I've been going through some research, and your articles about training between starts, and I was wondering what kind of approach you take with college pitchers who are playing summer ball. Do you treat them as in-season and try to keep them fresh for their starts, or are you more aggressive with them since it's not their primary season? A: My answer is - as always - it depends. If you have a younger player who is weak, scrawny, and altogether physically unprepared, he is going to train hard.  The long-term benefits of that training far outweigh any short term decrements in performance (which, as I'll note in a second, can easily be attenuated markedly). If we are talking about a more advanced player for whom summer ball performance may be extremely important (e.g., an unsigned draft pick in the Cape Cod League during the summer after his junior year who is trying to get his signing bonus up), you have to treat things quite a bit differently.  And, within this category, we manage starters and relievers differently. For starters, it's pretty easy, as they generally have predictable seven-day rotations.  I outlined my thoughts with the 7-day rotation component of A New Model for Training Between Starts: Part 2.  Here it is: Day 0: pitch Day 1: challenging lower body lift, light cuff work Day 2: movement training only, focused on 10-15yd starts, agility work, and some top speed work (50-60 yds); upper body lift Day 3: low-Intensity resistance training (<30% of 1RM) circuits, extended dynamic flexibility circuits Day 4: full-body lift Day 5: movement training only, focused on 10-15yd starts, agility work, and some top speed work (50-60 yds) Day 6: low-intensity dynamic flexibility circuits only (or off altogether) Day 7: pitch again

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I treat relief pitchers as if they are position players - but if we know that there is a good chance that they'll throw in the next 24-36 hours, we'll markedly drop the volume and intensity and just focus on them leaving the gym feeling "refreshed."  If they have a longer outing (more than an inning), we'll get some really good weight-room work in the next day, as we know they won't have to pitch that night.  If it's a shorter outing and they may be expected to throw two days in a row, we'll go easier (potentially even pushing things back a day). Sign-up Today for our FREE Baseball Newsletter and Receive a Copy of the Exact Stretches used by Cressey Performance Pitchers after they Throw!
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Understanding Elbow Pain – Part 5: The Truth About Tennis Elbow

Author's note: This is the fifth part of a series specifically devoted to the elbow.  Be sure to check out Part 1 (Functional Anatomy), Part 2 (Pathology), Part 3 (Throwing Injuries), and Part 4 (Protecting Pitchers) if you haven't done so already. Today, I'm going to cover a pretty common, yet remarkably stubborn issue we see at the elbow: tennis elbow. It's also called lateral epicondylitis, although the -itis ending may not do it justice (as we discussed previously in this series) because it is likely more of a degenerative - and not inflammatory - condition in the overwhelming majority of those who experience it.  To take this naming conundrum a bit further, while the term "tennis elbow" is used to describe pain on the lateral aspect of the upper arm near the elbow, tennis players often experience medial elbow issues as well (golfer's elbow) secondary to the valgus stress one sees with the forehand and serve.

womanserve2

In a tennis population, "tennis elbow" emerges almost solely from backhands (with the one-handed version logically being much more problematic), which require huge contributions from the extensors of the wrist to not only hold the racket, but stabilize the wrist against the vibrations from the racket as it redirects the ball.  The path of the ball against the racket creates a destabilizing torque that wants to force the wrist into flexion, and it's the job of these extensors to resist that movement.

The logical question for many is why does the pain occur at the elbow when the forces are applied so much further down the arm?  The answer rests with the zones of convergence topic from Part 1: there are lots of tendons coming together in congested area, creating friction and negatively affecting soft tissue quality.  At the lateral epicondyle, you have the common extensor tendon, which is shared by extensor carpi radialis brevis, extensor carpi ulnaris, supinator, extensor digitorum, and extensor digiti minimi (the extensor carpi radialis longus and brachioradialis attach just superiorly).

lateralepicondyle1

If this doesn't convince you of both the preventative and rehabilitative role of soft tissue work, then you might as well be living life with a bag over your head.  Yet, it amazes me how many treatment plans for tennis elbow don't have even the smallest element of hands-on work.  Here's a little demo from Dr. Nate Tiplady, with Graston and ART.

Soft tissue treatments, flexibility work, and progressive strengthening exercises for these degenerative tissues get the ball rolling - and you can find thousands of foo-foo forearm exercises and stretches online.  Additionally, as Mike Reinold has reported, there is some research to suggest that elbow straps are slightly effective in expediting the process.

tenniselbowstrap

And, eccentric exercise for the wrist extensors tends to show the most promise for tissue-specific return to function. This is all well and good - but I think it sometimes overlooks a big fat white elephant in the room.

I worked at a tennis club for eight summers when I was growing up, doing everything from court maintenance, to racket stringing, to lessons, to scheduling court time.  Toward the end of my eight-year tenure (around the time that I started getting involved with the fitness industry), I started to notice some interesting patterns.

When I looked out on the courts, about 1/3 of the participants were rocking tennis elbow straps (the research actually shows that about 40-50% of recreational tennis players get tennis elbow).  Yet, when I was in the office with some professional tennis match on TV in the background, I NEVER - and I really mean that I can't remember a single time - heard of a professional tennis player missing time because of tennis elbow.  How in the world would a pro - who might spend about 5-6 hours a day on the court - not break down faster than an elderly woman who plays a) 5-6 hours a week, b) at a slower pace, c) predominantly in doubles matches (1/2 as many ball contacts), and d) against competition that hits the ball much more softly than a professional opponent?  It really didn't make sense - until I got involved with exercise physiology.  Why?

1. The members were largely over the age of 40 - meaning that they were obviously as an increased risk of degenerative issues like tennis elbow, especially in light of their activity patterns.

2. The pros were also younger, and the two-handed backhand is markedly more common in the newer generation of players.  The one-handed backhand still predominates in the "old guard."  Research has demonstrated markedly more complexity in the swing kinetics for the one-handed backhand - so there are more ways for things to go wrong in this older population.

federerbackhand

3. This is the biggest one: the pros usually had a solid foundation of conditioning, meaning that they had the strength, power, coordination, footwork, and technical mastery to hit the ball in a biomechanically safe position.  Novice players with poor technique often hit the hit the ball with the wrists flexed and not neutral; in other words, they lead with the elbow instead of the racket, taking the wrist extensors outside of their ideal length-tension relationship.

In a non-tennis population, lateral elbow pain is almost always a function of overusing the grip and having some really nasty, fibrotic soft tissue accumulations at the lateral epicondyle.  In a tennis population, it isn't just an elbow problem; it's something that speaks to a lack of preparedness of the entire body, both physically and in the context of insufficient technical mastery.

In my eyes, tennis elbow rehabilitation should be treated much like a return to throwing program for a baseball pitcher.  The injured individual should take care of the soft tissue, flexibility, and strength issues at the elbow, but he/she should also get involved in a strength and conditioning program to improve ankle, hip, and thoracic spine mobility; core and scapular stability; and strength and power of the larger muscle groups at the hips and shoulders that should be creating the power instead of the smaller muscles acting at the wrist and elbow.

Layout 1

If you're slow to rotate your hips, you're going to hit the ball late (wrist flexed).  If you lack hip mobility to rotate to the ball, you're going to hit the ball late (or chew up your lower back).  If you lack core stability to transfer force from the hips, you're going to hit the ball late.  If you lack scapular stability or rotator cuff strength, you're going to hit the ball late.  Does anyone see a pattern?  This is about everything BUT the elbow!

Instead, what have we done?  We've done exactly what lazy people always does: created gadgets to avoid actually having to work hard!

In the 1990s, racket companies introduced oversized rackets, which have a larger surface area to minimize mishits (which increase vibrational stress) and increase power (at the expense of control).  Screw getting better at tennis or improving your physical fitness; we'll just make tennis easier!  As an interesting aside to this, strings break more frequently on oversized rackets as well - meaning that companies make more long-term on follow-up string purchases. This sucker is 125 square inches (as a frame of reference, Pete Sampras played with a 85-square-inch racket):

wilsontriad

Also in the 1990s, the titanium tennis racket was introduced.  These things are insanely lightweight - to the point that it requires very little physical exertion to swing if you are a 60-year-old woman in a doubles match.  So much for exercise!

We've handed out tennis elbow straps like candy so that people can get back out to play as quickly as possible rather than getting their bodies right and then practicing with a qualified professional who can instruct them on proper technique as part of a return-to-hitting plan.  The straps can be very valuable if used appropriately - but not if used as a crutch to "get by" with poor movement patterns and a lack of physical preparation.

Is anyone else shocked at how comparable the rushed and careless return to action in adult tennis players is to what we see with young athletes trying to come back too quickly from ACL tears, rotator cuff strains, or stress fractures?  They say retirement is the second childhood; I guess they're right!

So, here are some take-home points on tennis elbow:

1. Take care of tissue quality at the lateral epicondyle alongside any flexibility and resistance training exercises for the muscles of the forearm.

2. Condition the entire body as part of rehabilitation.

3. Ease back into tennis participation, and do so under the supervision of someone who can correct the faulty mechanics in your backhand. Along those same lines, consider switching to a two-handed backhand if you have a history of tennis elbow.

Stay tuned for Part 6 to wrap up this series.

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Understanding Elbow Pain – Part 4: Protecting Pitchers

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.

lincecum

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:

magnuson-collins

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.

brandon-webb

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.

littleleague5

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.

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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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