Home Baseball Content 7 Reasons Baseball Pitchers Shouldn’t Do Year-Round Throwing Programs – Part 1

7 Reasons Baseball Pitchers Shouldn’t Do Year-Round Throwing Programs – Part 1

Written on November 29, 2011 at 7:30 am, by Eric Cressey

When Thanksgiving rolls around, many of our professional baseball players at Cressey Sports Performance will start up their winter throwing programs after a full 10-12 week break from throwing.  They're always a bit rusty in the first week of tossing after the layoff, but every single one of them always "figures it out" in a matter of a few weeks - and still has plenty of time to get in a solid throwing program prior to heading off to spring training.  And, because they've been working hard in the gym on their strength, mobility, and soft tissue quality, they're always better off in the end.

Still, there are those who insist that baseball pitchers don't need time off from throwing.

I couldn't disagree more.

I'm sure this will rub some folks the wrong way, but I can't say that I really care, as most of those individuals can't rationalize their perspectives outside of "guys need to work on stuff."  I, on the other hand, have seven reasons why baseball pitchers need time off from throwing:

1.  They need to lose external rotation to gain anterior stability.

Having external rotation - or "lay back" - when is important for throwing hard, and research has demonstrated that simply throwing will increase shoulder external rotation range-of-motion over the course of a season.  This does not mean, however, that it's a good idea to just have someone stretch your shoulder into external rotation, as I wrote previously: Shoulder Mobility Drills: How to Improve External Rotation (if you even need it).

You see, when you externally rotate the humerus (ball) on the glenoid (socket), the humeral head has a tendency to also translate anteriorly (forward).  In a well-functioning shoulder girdle, the rotator cuff musculature should prevent anterior instability, and it's assisted by adequate function of the scapular stabilizers, which offer the dynamic stability to reposition the scapula in the right place to "accommodate" the humeral head's positioning.  For the athletic trainers and physical therapists out there, this is really what you're testing with an apprehension/relocation test.

The apprehension comes about because of either anterior instability or actual structural pathology (SLAP tear, rotator cuff impingement, or biceps tendinosis).  The relocation component is just the clinician posteriorly directing the humeral head to create the stability that should otherwise be created by the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers.

The take-home message is that while just going on year-round throwing programs in hopes of increasing external rotation seems like a good idea on paper, it's actually a terrible idea in the context of injury prevention.  Pitchers should actually lose a few degrees of external rotation each off-season intentionally, as it affords them an opportunity to improve their stability.  This leads us to...

2. They need a chance to get their cuff strength and scapular stability up.

Baseball pitching is the single-fastest motion in all of sports, as the humerus internally rotates at velocities in excess of 7,000°/second.  So, it should come as no surprise that at the end of a season, the strength of the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers is significantly reduced.  Having dealt with many of our players for up to five off-seasons now, I have a unique appreciation for how they each respond differently to not only the stress of the season, but also to arm care programs that we initiate at season's end.

It's important to remember that improving rotator cuff strength is no different in terms of adaptation than improving a bench press or squat.  Adding 10% to a guy's bench press might take three months in an intermediate population, or 12 months in a high-level lifter!  Adaptation of the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers is comparable.  I need every minutes of those three months without throwing to get guys back to at least baseline, and hopefully a bit above it.

Can you imagine if some clown trying to improve his bench press went out and benched an additional 4-5 times a week on top of his regular strength and conditioning program?

His progress would be minimal, at best, and he'd be at a dramatically increased risk of injury.  Throwing during a dedicated, appropriate structured early off-season arm care program is no different.

3. They need an opportunity to do dedicated manual resistance rotator cuff exercises.

Ask anyone who has worked with throwers for any length of time, and they'll always tell you that manual resistance exercises are the single-best option for improving rotator cuff strength.  This rotator cuff exercise approach allows you to emphasis eccentric strength better than bands, cables, and dumbbells allow.  It also keeps athletes more strict, as the one providing the resistance can ensure that the athlete isn't just powering through the exercise with scapular stabilizers or lower back.

 The only downside to manual resistance rotator cuff exercises, though, is that because they generally prioritize eccentric strength, they will create more soreness.  With that in mind, we use them much more in the off-season than in the in-season, as we don't want a pitcher throwing with added soreness.  They're a great initiative in a comprehensive off-season baseball strength and conditioning program, but guys just don't seem to like them as much in-season, presumably because both throwing and manual resistance rotator cuff exercises can be too much eccentric stress when combined.  As such, we used them a lot during the September-November periods, and then hold back in this area the rest of the year.

Of course, if you throw year-round, then you can forget about getting these benefits, as the last thing you want is to be sore while you're "working on stuff" in the off-season.  That was sarcasm, in case you weren't picking up on it.

In Part 2, I'll be back with four more reasons baseball pitchers shouldn't throw year-round.

In the meantime, to learn more about the management of throwers, I'd encourage you to check out Functional Stability Training of the Upper Body.

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  • Eric, great post. I have the very same beliefs with my hockey guys. They work so much with respect to abduction and external rotation during the course of a season that they need some serious groin work when it comes to the off-season. My guys are good, they listen when I ask them to take the first 8 weeks of the off-season away from skating.

    There is a huge educational aspect to our jobs, the number one focusing on the fact that athletes and team coaches need to understand that it’s called the “OFF-season” for a reason.

    Wayne Gretzky said it the best in an interview when asked about what he did to become a better hockey player as a kid during the summer. He responded; “I played baseball, my dad stuck my hockey gear up in the rafters of the garage and got my ball glove and bat down.”

    Thanks for the great information you always provide!
    Brad

  • Ted

    Can’t wait for part two.

  • phil

    Great article, and Brad, hadn’t heard that Gretzky quote….really great! thanks

  • Very true. Monotonous stress is what wears out joints. Practicing pitching in every training is like doing chest presses 5 days per week, week after week – where would that get you?

  • phil

    Eric,
    I don’t work with throwers but more garden variety of stuff. Can you comment on the use of variations of turkish get-ups and overhead carries on improving shoulder stability and rotator cuff strength? Thanks

  • david bonn

    even when pitchers were on a 4 day rotation and pitched way more innings and complete games than todays pitchers, they had a complete rest for months many of these academies for youth and high school ball do not give substantial rest to the arms of these kids causing more weakness that shows up as fatigue later in the season and from there go to a rotater cuff strain or worse I dont want to be a big downer but isn’t that the time to work on other conditioning programs?

  • Great article Eric,

    First, congrats on the MLB.com article. You deserve it.

    Next, even as an uneducated fitness enthusiast and later as a trainer I always thought there was something fundamentally counter intuitive about year round training (i.e. throwing) model. I never got why so many seemingly otherwise great coaches and trainers were recommending it.

    Thanks for all the great posts.

  • Matt

    Don’t you think it should be periodized much like year round training in the weight room?

  • Matt – yes, and it is!

  • Thanks, Tim!

  • David – agree completely! It’s one piece of the puzzle, but definitely a huge piece!

  • Mike

    Eric, what do you think about younger pitchers/throwers (like 15 & under) who don’t throw with the same annual volumes and stresses as older guys (i.e. college and pros), but instead maybe throw 1-3 times a week, even in season? Thanks.

  • Mike,

    I’m afraid I don’t quite understand what you’re asking.

  • Mike

    Sorry Eric – let me try and clarify the question:

    I asked: Eric, what do you think about younger pitchers/throwers (like 15 & under) who don’t throw with the same annual volumes and stresses as older guys (i.e. college and pros), but instead maybe throw 1-3 times a week, even in season? Thanks.

    I guess to finish the question I will ask…Would you treat that younger athlete differently from your college/pro guys in terms of taking time off from throwing? Do they need to take as much time off? More?

    Thanks again.

  • Mike,

    I’d argue that they need more. They’re skeletally immature, and they benefit more from cross-training by playing other sports.

  • Mike

    OK thanks for the reply.

  • Matthew Crownover

    thanks

  • Mike

    Mr. Cressey,
    I am assuming you believe the same goes for position players? At least something along the same lines that is.

  • Stanley Beekman

    Thanks for the high level information.

  • Mike,

    Yes.

  • George Garza

    How would you handle a group of 10-13 year olds, that only play one sport (baseball) we shut them down twice a year (pitching) 30 days in August and 30 days December/January we still work on drills like fielding, batting and conditioning.
    What other sports would help them most, soccer, swimming, basketball,ect?

  • Chris

    Eric –

    Great technical article. My son pitches and plays left field. He also plays football/baseball in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the Spring. His travel coaches shut down throwing during winter training and focus on hitting/fielding which I think is great. Question – should I have him continue to work with a pitching coach during the offseason one day/week to keep working on form and mechanics, or shut it down completely until March.

    Thanks.

  • George,

    The important thing is for THEM to select the sports. They need time to find other things they enjoy and should engage in free play. I love soccer, ultimate frisbee, football, basketball, etc, etc. Variety is the name of the game.

  • Chris,

    I’d shut it down completely.


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