Home Baseball Content 7 Reasons Baseball Pitchers Shouldn’t Do Year-Round Throwing Programs – Part 2

7 Reasons Baseball Pitchers Shouldn’t Do Year-Round Throwing Programs – Part 2

Written on December 1, 2011 at 9:06 am, by Eric Cressey

In Part 1 of this series, I outlined the first three reasons that I'm opposed to baseball pitchers using year-round throwing programs.  Here are the next four:

4. They need to get their shoulder and elbow range of motion back.

As I noted in Part 1, throwing a baseball is the single-fastest motion in sports.  With the crazy arm speeds one encounters, you have to keep in mind not only the muscles trying to accelerate the arm, but also the ones trying to slow it down.  This "braking" challenge is called eccentric stress - and I'll talk more about it in a second.

What you need to know now, though, is that when left unchecked, significant eccentric stress can lead to tissue shortening.  If you need further proof, Reinold et al. reported that immediately after a pitching outing, pitchers lose an average of 9.5° of shoulder internal rotation and 3.2° of elbow extension - and that these losses persisted at 24 hours post-throwing.

Now, imagine these acute range of motion losses being left unchecked for an entire season - or a season that simply never ends because pitchers are always throwing.  That's how elbows wind up looking like this:

(For more information, I'd encourage you to check out my Everything Elbow In-Service Video.)

Fortunately, we can prevent losses in range of motion during the season with appropriate mobility exercises, manual therapy, and breathing exercises - but the truth is that not everyone has access to these initiatives in terms of expertise, finances, or convenience.  So, while we work to educate the masses on arm care, emphasizing time off from throwing programs is also a key component of an overall strategy to reduce injury risk.

One last thing on this topic: it is a nightmare to try to improve shoulder or elbow range of motion in a pitcher during a season, as the very nature of throwing works against everything you're trying to achieve.  The off-season is "where it's at" in terms of optimizing range of motion in throwers.

5. They need to “dissipate” eccentric stress.

Okay, here's where I take #4 and geek out a bit.  I apologize in advance.

Sometimes, you have to get away from the baseball world in order to learn about the baseball world.  To that end, I need to think Mike Reinold for bringing this great 2004 study from Tomiya et al to my attention.

These researchers created eccentric stress in muscle tissue of mice using an electrical stimulation model, and monitored blood markers of muscle damage for a period of time thereafter.  What you'll see in the graph below is that myofiber disruption really peaks at three-days post-exercise, then start to return down to baseline, yet they still aren't even there at seven days post-intervention.

Source: Tomiya A, et al. Myofibers express IL-6 after eccentric exercise. Am J Sports Med. 2004 Mar;32(2):503-8.

Now, let's apply this to the world of pitching.  Every single pitcher who throws more than once every 7-10 days is surely pitching with some degree of muscle damage.  And, I can tell you that the two toughest challenges pitchers have reported to me are:

a) moving from starting to relieving

b) going from a 7-day high school or college rotation to a 5-day professional rotation

I'm firmly believe that pitchers need to throw in-season to stay strong, but I also know that we can't trump physiology.  Sure, we need to have optimal nutrition and regeneration strategies in place, as we can't just baby guys and expect them to get better.  However, make no mistake about it: high-level pitchers simply have to get good at pitching at 90% capacity (at best) if they are going to succeed.

If I already have a guy whose arm is working at a deficit for 8-9 months of throwing, the last thing I want to do is beat him up for the other three months with the same kind of volume and stress.

manual_therapy_page

6. They need to allow any undetected low-grade injuries to heal.

As I discussed in an old blog, Pitching Injuries: It's Not Just What You're Doing; It's What You've Already Done, most injuries (especially ulnar collateral ligament tears) come from the accumulation of chronic, low-level stress.  Maybe you get some calcification on your ulnar collateral ligament or a low-level rotator cuff tendinosis, and it takes a few years and hundreds of innings before something finally "goes."

Old, low-level injuries are less likely to reach threshold if you give them some downtime and work on redistributing training stress.  By strengthening the rest of your body in the off-season, you're dramatically reducing the demands on your rotator cuff with throwing.

You can't teach other joints to share the burden if the burden is never removed temporarily.

7.  They need a chance to prioritize other competing demands.

Throwing is a good 20-30 minute endeavor each time you do it - and possibly even more.  When I think about all the things that pitchers can be doing to get better in the off-season from a strength and conditioning standpoint, I have a really hard time justifying giving away that much time and recovery capability.  There are other things that need to be prioritized at this time - and year-round throwing is an especially tough pill to swallow when you know that throwing is working against many of the very qualities - rotator cuff strength, scapular stability, mobility, and tissue quality - that you're trying to establish.

Closing Thoughts

The lack of downtime from throwing is especially problematic in younger populations, as they are skeletally immature and weaker.  I’d argue that a really weak 15-year-old kid throwing 74-76 mph does far more damage to his body on each throw than a moderately strong professional player throwing 90-92 mph, especially given that the pro pitcher’s mechanics are more optimized to protect the arm.  This underscores the importance of "syncing up" mechanics, throwing programs, and the overall baseball strength and conditioning program.

Last, but certainly not least, remember that two weeks doesn't constitute "time off."  Rather, I firmly believe that pitchers need the ball completely out of their hands for at least two month per year, preferably continuously.  In other words, eight one-week breaks throughout the year is far from ideal, as it doesn't really allow for positive adaptations to occur.

If you're interested in learning more about managing the throwing shoulder, I'd encourage you to check out our DVD set, Functional Stability Training of the Upper Body.

fstupper

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  • Joe

    Great article EC,

    I’m curious what do you recommend for college/high school athletes who play fall ball. College usually ends early october and high school late october. Would you recommend they start throwing a long toss program in December?

    Thanks again

  • ASMI cites year-round throwing as the #1 risk factor for injury but parentes and coaches still don’t get it.

    The discussion on eccentric contraction during deceleration the THE MOST overlooked aspect of training that most trainers/doctors/pitching coaches don’t know about.

    These kids spend months doing concentric training to the posterior shoulder and wonder why they get hurt anyway.

    Deceleration training is my #1 recommendation for all my patients/pitching students.

    Thanks for the article, Eric. Keep up the good work.

  • George

    I can’t believe the content you put on here is free. Eric, you are the man!

  • Mark Gallion

    This discussion and article misses the point. Young players don’t get hurt because they throw too much. They get hurt because the PITCH too much and don’t throw enough.

    For a college picher that players summer baseball, maybe this discussion makes sense.

    But, we need to ride the ASMI material carefully. It focuses on pitching over-use, not throwing. How many position players that throw year-round have TJ surgery? Not many, and if so it is probably due to bad throwing mechanics and improper conditioning.

    The issue is pitching too many innings/too many pitches. Not throwing year-round.

  • Calvin

    Eric,curious as to how you handle catchers(throwing programs). Since their volume of throwing is probably the highest of any player on the team. When do they start and when(how long) should they take off(rest)?

  • Neil

    Hi Eric,
    I really enjoyed these two pieces. However, I am curious on how you would handle the throwing and asymmetries on behalf of position players? In other words, do the same “time-off” rules apply to swinging and throwing for these players? If so, how would you handle those situations?

  • Mike

    That elbow looks familiar unfortunately, other than the scar. Do you have any feel for how much this tends to affect velocity or control?

  • Eric,

    Awesome post!
    I wanted to share with you a short story that has resemblence to this post. I was a pitcher back in high school and I used to weight train heavily before (sometimes the day before) I was scheduled to pitch. At the time I did not have adequate knowledge in exercise physiology nor did the coaching staff. Back then I could only last 5 innings before I experienced extreme shoulder fatigue and pain with external rotation. It’s funny what following the advice of muscle and fitness will get you. I really set myself up for failure.

    Do you find that the lunge pattern is critical to pitching power?

  • Jake – yes, we use a lot of lunge variations with our pitchers.

  • If it’s less than 10 degrees of an elbow flexion contracture, not much. Other guys can get away with it. The guy in the photo throws 93-95mph!

  • Neil – I think it’s good to get the bat out of their hands for a few months per year as well, as it makes it easier to get rotary stability back and gives their hips a break (otherwise you’re looking at oblique injuries and sports hernias on the rise). My position guys throw about 4-6 weeks less per year than our pitchers.

  • Calvin – most of our catchers start their throwing programs about four weeks after the pitchers. The programs aren’t as “aggressive” simply because they are never on the mound throwing downhill.

  • Mark – I disagree completely. Yes, pitching is more stressful than simply “throwing,” but that only accounts for a small part of the adaptations (and de-adaptations) I noted in the article. I see position players with injuries, weak cuffs, poor scapular stabilization, and limited mobility all the time. The off-season is even more important for position players than pitchers because they generally do less than pitchers in-season because of their different schedules, too.

  • Joe – that’s the million-dollar question. I prefer August and September off so that guys can have continuity going into the spring, but that certainly screws with fall ball scheduling (especially with NCAA rules on practice time). We manage our “stud” prospects and “up-and-comers” different in this regard.

    Studs: August-September off.
    Up-and-Comers: July-August off (summer ball is becoming less and less about development every year, anyway)

  • Mike

    His was in the low to mid 20s and dynamic splinting for a couple months got it down to around 15 or so. The strange thing was that the grip strength was down in that arm and came back to some degree as he improved the extension. When the extension loss was the worst the ball would slip out of his hand every now and then while throwing and yet he didn’t think he’d lost any feeling in his fingers. He lost 5 or 6 mph but we never did figure out how much of that was mental vs physical.

  • Hi Eric,
    I love your stuff I’ve been following for years but I do have a different perspective about taking 3 months off during the off-season. As pitchers we have increased external rotation and while pitching through a 6 plus month season this adaptation is inevitably played through. Why can we not accept this adaptation and train to keep the shoulder healthy while throwing through the year? We can tone it down to 3 or 4 days a week for the off-season while maintaining good mechanics and feel for pitches while hitting cuff strength and scap stability hard during this time.

  • Jeremy- I believe its essential to get that internal rotation range of motion, or whats left of it, back, because of the stress that limited range in internal rotation causes on the labrum when throwing. Its not about cuff strength at that point. Its about not leaving your shoulder in a compromised position as far as the labrum goes.

  • Royce

    Could not agree more with the statement of ” summer ball is becoming less and less about developement.” I hear scouts all the time talking about bigger, stronger, faster players than ever that DO NOT know how to play the game. If I had a knickle for every time I heard a summer coach tell a parent it’s about exsposure I would have Forrest Gump money.

  • maureen

    Hi Eric< A friend hooked us up with your FB page and I am grateful especially with articles such as this one. My 16 yr old son is a junior in HS and is being looked at as a lefty pitcher(also plays RF and 1st). He pitched more than ever this past summer as he is being looked at by colleges. The debate in our home was whether he continue pitching training throughout the fall. The training center owner wanted him to keep it up so that he develops more, thinking his speed could soon reach 90. My son chose to shut down till November when he will start up again with strengthening and slowly back into throwing.He is currently playing his !3th season of football as wide receiver with thoughts that this could be his last year playing the sport so he is not sitting idle. It is very confusing to know which is the right way but we are just trying to keep his arm healthy . Obviously I do not speak in technical terms and have added my son Chris to your email list so that he can read through this stuff. Thanks so much.

  • This has been a back and forth struggle for years for us and it’s so hard to do right by the kids when you have success from both sides. One thing that gives me pause about taking off was your analogy to the Bench Press. It’s that analogy from another angle I’ve heard to support the idea that you can’t take off. If you take off the Bench Press for 2 months not only do you have to start over when you get back at it but you take that long just to get back to where you were and thus it makes it hard to progress. Another analogy I heard was getting sunburn. If I go to the beach and get burnt and go inside for 3 days to recover and then go back out I get burnt again. If I stay outside my body adapts and I don’t get burnt any longer. The folks behind this analogy believe pitchers need to stop pitching, everyone needs to stop pull downs, but you still toss lightly to stay active and avoid going backwards. What you are saying is what I’ve always believed but that makes sense too so …??

  • Interesting view point. I am curious, should other skill position athletes train year round? Or should they just work out during their season? More than 80% of my pitchers train year round. In 31 years we have never had one bad arm…not one. Our high school pitchers ( 46 at this time), throw between 100-150 pitches, 3 to 5 days a week. Again no arm issues. Golf, football,tennis,basketball,gymnastics,etc. Train year round. I would argue that if a pitcher is taught to use their body and not their arm to pitch. Then injuries will be minimized. Pitchers, until the 90’s hardly ever got injured. Our kids use their body, not their arm to pitch. Sadly the baseball community has put an emphasis on velocity and not the well being of the athlete.
    Thoughts

  • Thanks for kind words and support, Maureen! Keep fighting the good fight.


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