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

About the Author: 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.

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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.

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