Baseball Pitchers: “Laying Back”

About the Author: Eric Cressey

Q: I am a 18-year-old Division 1 college baseball pitcher, and I have a baseball mechanic/ biomechanical question for you. I’ve been trying to get my arm to “lay back” like in this picture of Billy Wagner.


When I pitch, my arm is not parallel to the ground like most major league pitchers. I am trying to throw with a more relaxed arm which helps it “lay back” more efficiently to help me throw harder, but I am struggling to get it to resemble the picture of Billy.

Basically, I am just looking for suggestions on how to help my arm lay back from a biomechanical standpoint. Am I “too tight?” What are the possible reasons for it? Scar tissue? Flexibility? What are some solutions?

A: Okay, I have a bunch of thoughts on this – and hopefully I can relate them pretty clearly and concisely.

Want to know the biggest difference between you and Billy Wagner? 19 years of pitching! Seriously, there are just disgusting forces put on the shoulder and elbow joints over time in throwing a baseball. And, as a result, you can actually get changes in the structure of the bone. For instance, the research has shown that pro pitchers have on average 13.3° less total arc of elbow flexion-extension. To recreate the forces on Wagner’s elbow in that picture, you’d have to take a plumb line and hang it down from his throwing hand with a 40-pound weight attached. Crazy, eh?

The shoulder isn’t much different; most of the pros have thickened posterior glenohumeral (shoulder) joint capsules. This can be advantageous for getting more external rotation to generate added velocity, but disadvantageous in terms of injury prevention, as the glenohumeral internal rotation deficit (GIRD) that results causing posterior, superior translation of the humeral head during the late cocking phase of throwing. Ever heard of a SLAP lesion? It’s superior-labrum-anterior-posterior. It’s no wonder that the guys with symptomatic labrum problems are the ones who have the least amount of internal rotation ROM. Younger guys are different. Little leaguers have little to no shoulder stiffness, and present with lateral elbow issues (compression type issues from the stress in the cocking to acceleration transition). As guys get to 14/15+, you start seeing more muscular stiffness in the posterior shoulder girdle, and the elbow problems are more medial and related to valgus-extension overload (the acceleration to deceleration transition). Take a look at what valgus-extension overload can do to a 16-year-old’s elbow when he throws a lot while developing:


Can you tell that he’s right-handed? And, more specifically, can you see how the alterations to bony structure can make it easier to “lay back?” Just imagine his right arm in the cocking position; he’s got an extra 10° of ROM over the rest of us.

This doesn’t speak to the flexibility limitation you refer to directly, but what it does show is that one of the best ways to develop pitching-specific flexibility is to throw as you develop – and at age 18/19, you’re still headed in that direction. Now, with that said, you’re probably wondering why some kids can pop 90+ mph while still in high school, but you can’t. First, there is a big genetic component to flexibility; some guys just have crazy laxity. I’ve found that long spines can be extremely advantageous in pitchers, as they allow guys to go into lumbar flexion in the follow-through without hitting end range (where disc issues present). As long as an athlete like this doesn’t get lazy and leave out his lumbar stabilization exercises, he’ll thrive with such a build. As for stuff you can fix, you could be looking at:

1. Soft tissues and flexibility restrictions in pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, or subscapularis – all of which would limit shoulder external rotation range of motion. I don’t normally like to stretch pecs in baseball pitchers simply because it’s a bit too much stress on the anterior capsule (alongside the crazy stress they get from throwing all the time), but it does have merit in some guys, particularly those who care too much about their bench press…

2. Restrictions in levator scapulae, pec minor, and rhomboids alongside weakness of lower trap and serratus anterior. These issues would interfere with effective upward rotation and posterior tilting of the scapula on the throwing side.

3. Poor thoracic spine extension and rotation. This is one more reason that doing thousands of crunches is a stupid idea; you’re chronically shortening your rectus abdominus and pulling your rib cage into depression, making it hard to extend your thoracic spine to lay back. Watch how much thoracic extension and rotation Nolan Ryan gets HERE.

4. Poor mobility of the opposite hip and ankle. If you take a look at the pitcher of Wagner above, you’ll see that the lead leg hip is flexed almost completely as the shoulder is in maximal external rotation. If you’re trying to lengthen on the front side, you’ll lose it on the back side. Kibler et al. found that in 49% of arthroscopically repaired SLAP lesions, there was a weakness or range of motion deficit in the opposite hip.

5. Poor core stability. This sounds like a buzz word, but there is actually merit to it. I got to thinking about it when I watched two athletes do overhead med ball stomps to the floor alongside one another. The first – one of our most experienced high school athletes – maintained a neutral lumbar spine and only a small amount of thoracic flexion as he stomped; the position of the rib cage was pretty constant. The second guy, who was in his first week, really “caved over;” the rib cage dropped as he stomped. Sure, this relates considerably to #3, but it also speaks to the weakness of the lumbar and thoracic erectors to resist the flexion momentum. These same erectors are going to be the ones that allow a pitcher to post-up, stand-tall, and throw gas downward. They don’t recruit predominantly tall guys for nothing, you know…

Obviously, this just speaks to the direct flexibility issues affecting velocity. There are a ton of strength and power measure you have to take as well. We tell our guys that you have to “train ass to throw gas.” In other words, posterior chain strength is huge for the push off on the back leg and for the deceleration on the front leg. It takes a ton of glute and hamstrings strength to decelerate a 95mph fastball that ends like this:

And, to take it a step further, if you’re a guy who throws more across your body (more rotation), you better have some excellent rotary stability at the lumbar spine to resist that destabilizing torque at follow-through – and the hip rotation range of motion to ensure that you’re rotating at the right places. Otherwise, your back will get chewed up pretty quickly. A lot of the movements in Jim Smith’s Combat Core Manual are great for preventing this problem.

So, all that said, to the naked eye, they’d say you just need to stretch your pecs to more effectively “lay back.” There’s actually a lot more to it – and the pec stretching could even give you problems if done too aggressively or if that isn’t your particular need.
For more information, I strongly encourage you to check out the 2008 Ultimate Pitching Coaches Boot Camp DVD set.

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