Relief Pitchers: How to Warm-up

About the Author: Eric Cressey

Q: I have followed Tim Collins’ story on your website and was very impressed with his quick path to the big leagues. Obviously, preparation has been a huge part of success and that’s where my question lies. Like Tim, I am a relief pitcher and often wonder what pro guys and in Tim’s case knowledgeable pro guys, do for a warm-up prior to throwing in the pen to get in the game. I was wondering if maybe you can shed some light on what guys at your facility do as far as a warm-up to throwing. It seems like every time I see a pro guy throw, they get up after not moving for seven innings and just throw and come in the game blowing 96mph without their arm tearing in three different spots. Is there a warm-up routine your guys do before they might come in? I appreciate any info.

A: This is actually one of the more common questions that I receive, and I’m kind of surprised at myself for never covering it in a blog post. There are a few important prerequisite considerations to take into account before I tell you what I encourage our guys to do:

1. Sadly, most guys don’t do anything. That doesn’t make this right; it just means that they are setting the stage for getting hurt further down the line.  Just because you throw with sloppy mechanics  or muscular weakness doesn’t mean that you’ll get hurt the second you pick up a ball; you get hurt from the cumulative effect over time.  So, just because a guy can go in and throw hard with a short, insufficient warm-up doesn’t mean that he’ll be doing that a few years from now.

2. You can’t compare professional guys to lower level guys for a lot of reasons. First, professional bullpens usually have powerful heaters in place to keep guys’ body temperatures up – which makes it easier to warm up when the time is right.  Additionally, most professional pitchers (whether they make use of them or not) have plenty of access to massage therapy and manual stretching from team personnel, so their “resting state” is probably more prepared than most college pitchers I see.  High school kids tend to be the most “indestructible” of the bunch, as they haven’t accumulated as much wear and tear on their bodies.

That said, regardless of experience and what you have at your fingertips for massage and other amenities, warming up to come out of the bullpen can be pretty stressful for guys.  On one hand, you kick out some serious stress hormones, which can get you fired up and ready to go, but on the other hand, it’s not good to be excited and ready to roll hormonally and psychologically if you aren’t there physically just yet.

With that in mind, I encourage guys to do their normal pre-game warm-ups like everyone else and try to sustain that body temperature and transient mobility increase by dressing warmly and trying to move around in the bullpen as much as possible.  Then, as it gets closer and closer to the time that they may need to enter the game (I usually just tell guys to start at the end of the fourth), I have guys start doing 2-3 multi-joint dynamic flexibility drills every half-inning.  An example would be a walking spiderman with overhead reach, which is going to take you into hip abduction and extension, thoracic spine extension and rotation, glenohumeral horizontal abduction and external rotation, and elbow extension (among other movements).

By doing a few of these each half-inning, you ensure that your body temperature and mobility never drop off transiently.  Plus, you ensure that you don’t lose mobility over the course of a long season, as you’re working on it even if you don’t wind up pitching.

As an interesting little aside to all of this, is a reliever that much different than, say, a center fielder when it comes to needing to stay warm throughout the entire game just in case?  He might do his pre-game warm-ups and then spend the next few hours alternating standing around and sitting with bursts of 100% effort with swinging, throwing, and sprinting.  Have you ever heard of a center fielder complaining that he can’t get loose enough to track down a fly ball, crow hop and throw a laser to the plate, or leg out an infield single?  Of course not!  And, it’s simply because he is more active than relievers even when he isn’t actively participating in the game.  Every inning, he’s playing catch and jogging to and from the outfield on top of making a contribution defensively or at the plate every 20-30 minutes.

So, in summary, do a thorough pre-game warm-up, do more “fidgeting” in the bullpen, and then hit 2-3 multi-joint dynamic flexibility drills (check out The High Performance Handbook for dozens of examples) every half-inning starting in the 4th.  Then, go to your specific throwing warm-up and head out to start blowing 96mph…safely.

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