Home Posts tagged "baseball strength and conditioning" (Page 3)

EC Talks Transfer of Training for Baseball Players

Back in July, I presented at the NSCA National Conferences in Providence, RI.  My topic was "Individualizing the Management of Overhead Throwers: How to Spot What Your Throwers Need."  The NSCA films all the presentations, and this excerpt was just made available online, in case you'd be interested in checking it out. You can access this video HERE. A special thanks to the NSCA for making this available online.

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Pitching Injuries and Performance: Understanding Stride Foot Contact and Full External Rotation

At the end of the day yesterday, I took a quick glance at my Facebook feed and was quickly drawn to a "highlight" video from a baseball strength and conditioning program.  The athletes' energy was great, and there was a ton of camaraderie.  The only problem was that if you had watched the video without first seeing the word "baseball" in the title, you would have never known it was a baseball team training. The exercises - and the way that they were/weren't coached - clearly didn't reflect the unique demands of the sport.

With that in mind, I thought I'd use today's post to quickly highlight the most important positions you need to understand when you're training throwing athletes: stride foot contact/full external rotation.

Stride foot contact occurs just before maximum external rotation takes place.  As the foot touches down, the pelvis has started rotating toward home plate while the torso is still rotated in the opposite direction to create the separation that will enhance velocity.  Maximum external rotation - or "lay-back" - signifies the end of this separation, as the energy generated in the lower extremity is already working its way up the chain.  Nissen et al. (2007) presented this tremendous diagram to illustrate the separation that takes place.  This image represents a right handed picture, where the top image is the hips, and the bottom image is the torso (right and left shoulder joint centers of rotation).

Source: Nissen et al.

Based on this image alone, you should be able to see where most oblique strains and lower back pain originate; this is ridiculous rotational stress.  Additionally, you can appreciate why hip injuries are higher in throwers than they ever have been before; it takes huge hip rotation velocities to play "catch up" so that the pelvis and thorax are squared up at maximum external rotation (if they aren't, the arm drags).  This just refers to what's happening at the lower extremity and core, though.  Let's look at the shoulder.

At full lay-back (maximum external rotation), we encounter a number of potentially traumatic and chronic injuries to the shoulder.  In a pattern known as the peel-back mechanism, the biceps tendon twists and tugs on the superior labrum. The articular side (undersurface) of the rotator cuff may impinge (internal impingement) on the posterior-superior glenoid, leading to partial thickness cuff tears. Finally, as the ball externally rotates in the socket, the humeral head tends to glide forward, putting stress on the biceps tendon and anterior ligamentous structures. 

Likewise, at the elbow, valgus stress is off the charts.  That can lead to ulnar collateral ligament tears, flexor/pronator strains, medial epicondyle stress fractures, lateral compressive injuries, ulnar nerve irritation, and a host of other isssue.  I don't expect most of you to know what much of this means (although you can learn more from Everything Elbow), but suffice it to say that it's incredibly important to train throwers to be functionally strong and mobile in these positions. 

And, this brings to light the fundamental problem with most strength and conditioning programs for overhead throwing athletes; they commonly don't even come close to training people to be "safe" in these positions. "Clean, squat, deadlift, bench, chin-up, sit-up" just doesn't cut it.  You need to be strong in single-leg stance to accept force on the front side with landing.

You need to be able to apply force in the frontal and transverse planes.

You also need to transfer this force to powerful movements.

You need to have plenty of rotary stability to effectively transfer force from the lower to upper body.

You need to be strong eccentrically in the 90/90 position.

You need to have outstanding hip mobility in multiple planes of motion.

You need to attend to soft tissue quality in areas that other athletes rarely have to consider.

These demands are really just the tip of the iceberg, though, as you have to see how all the pieces fit together with respect to throwing and hitting demands at various times of year.  Training for baseball isn't as simple as doing the football strength and conditioning program and then showing up for baseball practice; there are far more unique challenges when dealing with any rotational sport, particularly those that also integrate overhead throwing.  Watch the sport, talk to the players, appreciate the demands, and evaluate each individual before you try to write the program; otherwise, you're simply fitting athletes to existing programs.

For more insights like these, I'd encourage you to check out one of our Elite Baseball Mentorships; we have two of these events scheduled for this fall.

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11 Random Thoughts on Baseball Strength and Conditioning

With the off-season at hand, I thought I'd type up some random thoughts that have come up in conversations with professional, college, and high school players over the past few weeks as they've wrapped up their seasons and transitioned to off-season mode.

1. Arm care drills don't really provide arm care when you do the exercises incorrectly. When you do eight exercises for three sets of 15 reps each every single day, but you do all the exercises incorrectly, you’re really just turning yourself into 360 reps worth of suck.

2. Piggybacking on #1, if you think you need 360 reps of arm care exercises per day, you really need to educate yourself on how the arm actually works. Also, when you eventually realize that you probably don’t even need ¼ of that volume to keep your arm healthy, you should definitely pick up a new hobby with all that newly discovered free time. Maybe you’ll even wind up kissing a girl for the first time.

3. In the battle to increase pitching velocity, all anyone seems to talk about is how to increase arm speed, which is a function of how much force can be produced and how quickly it can be applied.  So, we focus heavily on long toss, weighted ball programs, and mound work to try to produce more force.  The inherent problem with this strategy is that it ignores the importance of accepting force.  I'll give you an example.

Imagine two people side-by-side holding slingshots, each of which has the same thickness rubber band.  They both pull the band back with the right hand and hold the other end with the left. One guy has a limp left hand and his left forearm "gives" as he pulls the band back, and the other guy keeps the left side firm.  They both shoot the rock; which one goes farther?  Obviously, it's the one with the firm front side; that stiffness enables the arm to accept force.

This is a common problem with many young pitchers who haven't built a foundation of strength, as well as advanced pitchers whose velocity dips over the course of a season, usually when they lose body weight. If your lower-body strength and power diminishes, you'll collapse on that front side and leak energy.  And, you'll commonly miss up and arm side. 

Basically, you need to be strong eccentrically into hip flexion, adduction, and internal rotation - which is why the glutes are so important for pitching (check out this post from a while back for more information on the functional anatomy side of things).  Think of pitching with a weak landing leg as throwing like a guy with a slight hamstrings strain; in order to protect yourself, you flop instead of planting.

4. Has an accomplished marathoner every thrown 95mph? Actually, has an accomplished marathoner ever done anything athletic other than running?

5. We definitely need to get John Clayton to cover MLB instead of the NFL.

Baseball hasn’t seen this kind of talent in a non-player since this Fenway Park security guard put the Terry Tate on this deserving schmuck:

6. It amazes me how many baseball players don’t take care of their eyes. They are your livelihood, people! Yearly check-ups are a good start, but if you’ve heard some of the stories I’ve heard about how terrible guys are with taking care of their contact lenses, you’d be astounded. Example: I once had an athlete come in with terribly red eyes, so I sent him to see my wife, Anna, who is (conveniently) an optometrist. He informed her that he’d been putting his contacts in the same solution at night for two weeks. That’s like reusing the same bath water for 14 days – except the eyes are worse because they’re more prone to infection.

7. Why do professional teams spend anywhere from $484,000 to $30,000,000 per year on a single player, yet try to save money by letting clubbies feed all their minor leaguers pizza, fried chicken, PB&J, and salami sandwiches on white bread?

8. This kid has a full scholarship to train at Cressey Performance whenever he opts to pursue it.

See what I just did there? It wasn’t baseball-related at all, but I just tied it in.

9. Strength and conditioning has “changed the game” with respect to early sports specialization as it relates to baseball development. Kids can get away with specializing earlier if they’re involved in a well-rounded strength and conditioning program because these programs afford as much and, sometimes, more variety than playing a traditional sport. This approach to development does, however, depend heavily on the self-restraint of players, parents, and coaches to get kids 2-3 months per year without a ball in their hands. And, they need to seek out opportunities to play pick-up basketball, ultimate Frisbee, and other random games.

10. If you’re already taking 150 ground balls per day during the season, do you really need to do extra agility work? This is like a NASCAR champ hitting up the go-karts on the way home from the race track.

11. The other day, I read a review in the International Journal of Athletic Training that focused on the different biomechanics and pathology of various pitching styles.  The authors (Truedson et al) made a strong case for modifications to training programs - particularly with respect to core stability - based on trunk tilt angles at ball release.  Overhand and three-quarters guys tilt away from the throwing arm, sidearm guys stand upright, and submarine guys tilt toward the throwing arm. Folks have long discussed the concept of posture from a mechanics standpoint, but I haven't seen anyone who has utilized this information to modify an intended training outcome from a strength and conditioning standpoint.  Obviously, you could easily make the case that submarine pitchers need more rotary and lateral core stability than all other pitchers.

Lateral core stability exercises teach you how to resist lateral flexion; in other words, your goal is to avoid tipping over. These drills may start with basic side bridging drills and progress all the way up through more advanced TRX drills and 1-arm carrying variations. Rotary core stability exercises educate folks on how to resist excessive rotation through the lumbar spine. Examples include drills like landmines, lifts, and chops.

Sidearm pitchers are much more upright with the torso, so they likely need more anterior core than rotary/lateral core stability.  Of course, you're still going to train all three.

Anterior core stability exercises teach the body to resist excessive lumbar spine extension, and encompass a variety of drills, starting with dead bug, curl-up, and prone bridging activities. In prepared individuals, they progress all the way up through more advanced exercises like reverse crunches, stability ball rollouts, and TRX flutters and fallouts.

Finally, the overhand and 3/4 guys - which are obviously the largest segment - likely just need an equal dose of the three approaches.

For more thoughts on core stability training for health and performance, I'd encourage you to check out our Functional Stability Training DVD set.

That concludes this little glimpse into my mind as we enter the off-season.  I'll probably wind up doing this again every 4-6 weeks as I have discussions on various topics with our pro guys as they return.

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Should Pitchers Distance Run? What the Research Says.

Today's guest blog comes from current CP intern, Rob Rabena.  Rob recently completed his master's thesis research on the effects of interval training versus steady state aerobic training on pitching performance in Division 2 pitchers.  He's in a great position to fill us in on the latest research with respect to the distance running for pitchers argument.

“Ok, guys, go run some poles.”

A baseball coach often voices this phrase during the season to keep his pitchers in shape. Utilizing distance running to enhance aerobic performance among pitchers has always been the norm, but do the risks outweigh the rewards? There is strong evidence in the scientific literature to support that coaches should rethink utilizing distance running with their pitchers.

Jogging Might Not be the Answer

The current practice utilized for conditioning is for pitchers is to go for a long run the day after a game to “flush” the sore arm of lactic acid, or minimize muscle soreness to recover faster for the next game. These theories are not supported by the current literature and the physiology of the sport.

In the current research study examining the physiology of pitching, Potteiger et al. (1992) found no significant difference between pre-pitching and post-pitching blood lactate levels of six college baseball players after throwing a 7-inning simulated game. Even though during an inning there is a slight lactate production of 5.3-5.8 mM, (which is not high, considering resting lactate is 1.0mM), it does not cause a buildup of lactic acid in the arm of a pitcher after a game. As a comparative example, a high lactate response would occur from squatting for multiple reps at about 70% 1RM; this might produce a lactate level of about 8-10mM (Reynolds et al., 1997). Furthermore, jogging to flush the arm of lactic acid after a start is unnecessary and not supported by the literature, especially since we learned all the way back in 2004 that lactate was not the cause of muscular fatigue ; even the New York Times reported on this in 2007! A lot of coaches simply haven't caught wind yet - in spite of the fact that exercise physiology textbooks have been rewritten to include this new information.

Should Pitchers Distance Run?

When a person jogs at a pace where he/she is able to hold a conversation (at or below ventilatory and lactate threshold), the goal is to improve V02 and to enhance aerobic performance. For pitchers, this practice is utilized to enhance and maintain endurance during games, as well as to maintain body composition throughout the season
In the research study conducted by Potteiger et al. (1992), the researchers found that mean V02 only reached 20 ml. kg.min during the simulated game, and returned to 4.9 ml.kg.min between innings (resting is 3.5 ml.kg.min). The V02s of endurance athletes are approximately greater than or equal to 60 ml.kg.min. Based off this study, V02 does not seem to be a limiting factor for pitchers who want to pitch deep into games. Since a high V02 does not make a great pitcher, why are we training like an endurance athlete, when pitching relies predominately on the anaerobic system? While jogging may help you with body composition and endurance, it’s not going to help you throw more innings in a game. Our emphasis should be on building strength and speed, which are more anaerobic qualities.

Endurance Running or Sprints?

Still not convinced that sprint or anaerobic training is right for your pitching staff? Okay, coach, here are a few more studies comparing sprint training to aerobic training and their effects on pitching performance.

One study examined dance aerobic training (yes, dance training) to sprint training in baseball pitchers and found a significant improvement (p<0.05) in the pitching velocity and anaerobic power measures of the sprint groups (Potteiger et al., 1992).

In a similar study that compared sprint training and long, slow distance running in-season, Rhea et al. (2008) found a significant increase in lower body power for the sprint group, and a drop in power for the distance group. Do we want our pitchers dropping in lower body power? I don’t think so!  Would you like to see their power production increase? Absolutely!

My Research

My Master’s thesis, “The Effects of Interval Training on Pitching Performance of NCAA Division II pitchers”, examined the in-season steady state exercise and interval training on pitching performance. Prior to collecting data, I hypothesized that I was going to find a significant difference in pitching velocity, WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched), 30m sprint time, fatigue index and muscle soreness.

The results of my thesis study found no significant difference (p>0.05) in any of the hypotheses. However, there was a very strong trend (p=.071) for the distance training group presenting with more soreness based off a 0-10 scale. The distance group did not drop in velocity, get slower, or decrease pitching performance like the previous studies suggested. When examining the results of my thesis study with the current literature, I continue to question if there is an appropriate place and time to implement distance running for pitchers within a training cycle, and if so, when would it be most efficient to do so?

Now What Do We Do?

Most of the research available supports that assertion that pitchers should stop distance running or not make it a focal point of their baseball strength and conditioning program. Distance running trains the aerobic energy system, where pitching is purely anaerobic in nature. I’m not totally bashing distance running because it does have its benefits for certain populations, just not for the performance goals of pitchers.

Now that we know what we shouldn’t be coaching, what should pitchers be doing for conditioning instead of running poles during practices? There are few things to consider when designing sports specific conditioning for pitchers:

● What should the rest periods be between sprints?
● What distances should pitchers sprint?
● How many days a week should pitchers actually condition, and does this fit into the overall training program?

The time between pitches is 15-20 sec (Szymanski, 2009), or longer for guys who are known for working slow on the mound. This can really help coaches when implementing interval sprints. Based off research and my time spent at Cressey Performance, anything 40 yards and under for 4-8 sprints, 2-3x a week is recommended. This, of course, depends on time of year (in-season vs. off-season). At the end of a workout, if the equipment is available, a lateral sled drag, farmers’ walks, or sledge hammer hits are always a plus to increase the anaerobic energy systems, which for a pitcher are most important.

Training pitchers out of the sagittal plane is another key consideration often overlooked with training baseball players; for this reason, using rotational medicine ball exercises is extremely valuable. Check out this study by Szymanski et al, (2007), which compared a medicine ball and resistance training group to resistance training only. Researchers found an increase torso rotational strength for the medicine ball group.

This explains why med balls are a great option for baseball players to not only develop rotational power, but also to blow off some steam. With that in mind, during a movement/conditioning day for pitchers, exercises like band-resisted heidens and lateral skips should be incorporated, along with the more traditional straight sprints mentioned above.

Conclusion

Based off the literature, long distance running should not be implemented for pitchers. When it comes down to it, a well-developed training program that incorporates strength, movement and conditioning is the most efficient way to enhance the way your athlete moves and plays on the field.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to leave comments below, as this is the start of a process and something that coaches need to further consider and discuss to improve the efficiency of the conditioning programs for pitchers.

About the Author

Rob Rabena M.S., C.S.C.S, is a strength and conditioning coach who is currently interning at Cressey Performance. Rob recently earned his M.S. in Exercise Science with a focus in Strength and Conditioning. Prior to his graduate work, Rob obtained his B.S. in Exercise Science with a focus in Health Promotion from Cabrini College in 2011. Although Rob has a particular interest and experience with coaching collegiate athletes, he also enjoys working with clientele of diverse backgrounds and dictates his coaching practice to making his clients feel great, both physically and mentally, while placing a strong emphasis on the specific goals of the client. Feel free to contact Rob Rabena directly via email at robrabena@gmail.com.

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References

1. Fox EL. Sports Physiology (2nd ed). New York, NY: CBS College Publishing, 1984

2. Potteiger, J., Blessing, D., & Wilson, G. D. (1992). The Physiological Responses to a Single Game of Baseball Pitching. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research , 6, 11-18.

3. Potteiger, J., Williford, H., Blessing, D., & Smidt, J. (1992). The Efect of Two Training Methods on Improving Baseball Performance Variables. Journal of Applied Sports Science Research , 2-6.

4. Reynolds, T., Frye, P., & Sforzo, G. (1997). Resistance Training and Blood Lactate Response to Resistance Exercise in Women. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 77-81.

5. Rhea, M., Oliverson, J., Marshall, G., Peterson, M., Kenn, J., & Ayllon, F. (2008). Noncompatibilty of Power and Endurance Training Among College Baseball Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 230-234.

6. Szymanski, D. J. (2009). Physiology of Baseball Pitching Dictates Specific Exercise Insensity for Conditioning. Journal of Strength and Conditioning , 31, 41-47.

7. Szymanski, J., Szymanski, J., Bradford, J., Schade, R., & Pascoe, D. (2007). Effect of Twelve Weeks of Medicine Ball Training on High School Baseball Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 894-901.

8.Torre, J., & Ryan, N. (1977). Pitching and Hitting. NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.

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Body Weight, Throwing Velocity, and Pitching Injuries: Interesting Parallels

This morning, my good friend (and fellow baseball aficionado) Lou Schuler posted the link to an article that compared mortality rates in football players and baseball players. If you'd like to check it out, you can do so HERE.

One thing the article showed that I found very interesting was the rapid physical development of the average MLB player.  In 1960, the average player was 72.6 inches and 186 pounds, which is actually surprisingly comparable to what one might expect of the prototype male model for a magazine (I'd call this a weighted average of the skinny Abercrombie types and the more athletically-built Men's Health guys).  In 2010, however, those numbers had shifted to 73.7 inches and 208.9 pounds.  For those curious about what it looks like in a jersey, this was right about the height/weight of CP athlete and Orioles utility man Ryan Flaherty when he got to spring training this year:

Height had increased relatively linearly over the course of the 40 years, presumably as teams scouted and selected taller players and the game increased in popularity, drawing better athletes to the sport. Weight, on the other hand, made a rapid surge (+18.5 pounds) in the fifteen years between 1995 and 2010 (and +20.9 pounds between 1990 and 2010).  You'd expect a small increase alongside average height improvements, but this jump can only be explained by the increased emphasis on strength and conditioning (which was obviously aided by the steroid era for quite some time).

I don't think the results of this study are all that awe-inspiring - that is, until you look at them alongside some other numbers in baseball over the past decade.  As Jayson Stark discussed in his outstanding article, The Age of the Pitcher and How We Got Here, pitchers have dominated more and more over the past ten years. Check out these 2000 vs. 2011 changes Stark highlighted in his article:

Runs Scored: 24,971 vs. 20,808
Home runs: 5,693 vs. 4,552
 
Then, between 2006 and 2011:

Average ERA: 4.53 vs. 3.94
Strikeouts Per 9 Innings: 6.6 vs. 7.1

Perhaps most telling is the fact that between 2007 and 2011, the number of MLB pitchers with an average fastball velocity of 95mph or higher increased from 11 to 35.  When velocities are jumping like that, it's hard to say that the improved pitching performances are just due to the fact that guys are introducing better secondary pitches (most notably cutters), or that hitters are falling off because they're off the sauce.  Pitchers are getting more dominant.

I understand Stark's point that hitting has declined considerably in recent years as strikeout totals have piled up and batting averages have plummeted. However, I'm not really interested in debating whether offense is falling off because pitchers are getting better or because hitters are getting worse, because it's obviously a combination of the two.  However, what I think is a hugely valuable takeaway from this is that increased body weight is once again associated with increased pitching velocity.

Can you throw hard without being heavy?  Absolutely; many guys do it.  Would many of these already-elite slighter-framed MLB pitchers benefit from increases in body weight?  In many cases, yes - assuming the changes in body weight are gradual, accompanied by strength/power gains, and properly integrated with their existing mechanics.  While a gain of ten pounds seems like a huge deal to most pitchers, the truth is that it's actually a trivial amount of muscle mass over an entire body.  Have a look at this picture of 5lbs of muscle vs. 5lbs of fat that's floated around the internet for a while now:

Now, imagine spreading two of the red masses on the right over the course of an entire body; you would barely notice they're there, especially on the average MLB player, who is almost 6-2.  I guarantee you that if you hide one of those in each glute, you're going to see some big velocity gains, regardless of who you are.

Of course, every action has a reaction.  While you'll be more successful if you throw harder, you'll also be more predisposed to arm injuries. It should come as no surprise that the number of Tommy John surgeries has gone sky-high as more and more guys have blown up radar guns (and scales). Run fast and you're more likely to pull a hamstring.  Drive your car fast and you're more likely to crash.

Lots of people are quick to hop on board the "all injuries are due to bad mechanics" bandwagon, but the truth is that a lot of injuries are due in large part to the fact that a lot of guys are throwing really, really hard nowadays.  And, taking it a step further, they were usually throwing pretty hard at a young age - and on five different teams, in front of 150 radar guns at each game, with absurd pitch counts, while jumping from showcase to showcase, while playing year-round without a quality baseball strength and conditioning program and arm care routine in place. The truth is that all injuries are multi-factorial, and we have to control what we can control with an athlete, especially when we first interact with that player after years of mismanagement.

 

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Long-Term Baseball Development: Attention to Detail Matters

As I type this, I'm out at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, CA with New Balance Baseball.  For those who aren't familiar with Area Codes, it's a yearly event that brings the top high school players in the country together to showcase their skills in game play and batting practice in front of loads of professional scouts and college coaches.  In all, about 230 of the top players in the country take part in the event, and they compete a representatives of their geographic regions. I've been doing arm care education and taking teams through pre-game warm-ups on the field.

It's been interesting for me to interact with kids from not only a variety of different parts of the country and get a feel for the coaching style to which they each respond.  And, you can definitely tell who has been exposed to some quality strength and conditioning thus far, as well as who has had formal baseball-specific education to assist in their development. Along those lines,  one of the the more prominent observations I've made in high level players at Cressey Performance has also proven to be present here: 

Attention to detail makes a huge difference.

I often cite CP athlete and Royals pitcher Tim Collins as a great example of this.  Tim is a gym rat in the off-season; he hangs out in the office and cracks jokes with our athletes all the time.  However, the second he picks up a baseball or gets to lifting, he flips a switch and tunes the world out.  This is true regardless of whether he's long tossing, deadlifting, or warming up.  There is no joking around with buddies when he's trying to learn a new skill or repeat his mechanics.

Steve Cishek is the same way.  He might coordinate the CP NHL League on X-Box, but the second he picks up a ball, he's all business.  As a sidearm guy who used to throw from a higher arm slot, repeating his somewhat new delivery is super important, as it is easy to develop bad habits when you're inattentive.

With that in mind, there isn't a high school kid alive who repeats his mechanics at a big league level, yet most high school guys you encounter have no problem chatting and goofing around when they're playing catch.  Kids would be much better off paying close attention to what they're doing on every throw, correcting as they go and using it as an opportunity to improve, not just warm-up.

The same goes for pre-game dynamic flexibility warm-ups.  When you chat with buddies the whole time, it's easy to do fewer reps, hold positions for less time, or just forget to do drills altogether.  And these are just a few of many examples; it's easy to get into bad habits and cut corners.

Maybe it's just the added scouting presence out here, but a lot of these highly ranked prospects really "get it" more than most of the other up-and-coming players I encounter.  Most are the best players in the history of their towns, yet they still want to improve. When they pick up a ball, they throw with intent.  When you coach them, they are more likely to look you in the eye to make sure they're doing things correctly.  While there are examples of guys being successful in spite of what they do and not because of what they do, for the most part, you can learn a lot by watching what accomplished players do to be successful.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: small hinges swing big doors.  

Pay attention to warm-ups.  Focus when you're long tossing.  Look coaches in the eyes.  Get in that one lift at the end of a long day when other players are tapping out.  Eat healthy when your teammates are just crushing pizza.  Seek out expertise instead of waiting for it to fall into your lap.  There are so many ways to improve - and do so today - that it's only your own fault if you aren't getting better.

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Why Baseball Players Shouldn’t Olympic Lift

I've been very outspoken in the past about how I am completely against the inclusion of Olympic lifts in baseball strength and conditioning programs because of injury risk and the fact that I don't believe the carryover in power development is as good as many folks think.  I've taken a lot of heat for it, too, as it's essentially blasphemy for a strength and conditioning coach to not think the Olympic lifts are a "Holy Grail" of performance enhancement.

Truth be told, I think there is merit to the Olympic lifts for a lot of athletes and general fitness folks.  However, baseball players aren't like most athletes or general fitness folks.  They have far more joint laxity, and it's a key trait that helps to make them successful in their sport.  While I hate to ever bring additional attention to an extremely unfortunately event, a weightlifting injury that occurs in this year's Olympics reminded me of just one reason why I don't include the Olympic lifts with our throwers.  Please keep in mind that while this isn't the most "gruesome" lifting injury video you'll see, some folks might find it disturbing (if you want to see the more gruesome "after" photo, read this article).  If you're one of those folks, don't push play (Cliff's notes: he dislocates his elbow).

Now, without knowing for sure what the official diagnosis is, an elbow dislocation could mean two things.  First, it could have been elbow hyperextension; I doubt that's the case, as the elbow appears to be slightly flexed when it "buckles."  Second - and more likely - we're talking about a valgus stress injury; not the joint angle below, which is approximately 20-30 degrees of elbow flexion:

You know what's remarkably coincidental about that elbow flexion angle?  It's where you do a valgus stress test to assess the integrity of the ulnar collateral ligament.

I don't know for sure if Sa Jae-hyouk is going to have a Tommy John surgery, but I can't say that I would be surprised if it does occur.  And, he certainly wouldn't be the first Olympic lifter to have one.

Now, I want to bring up a few important items.

1. I think this essentially kills the "they're safe for baseball players if it's in good form" argument that some folks throw out there.  For those who might not know, this was a gold medalist in Beijing in 2008, and he was expected to medal at this year's Olympics, too.  I suspect he knows a few things about proper Olympic lifting technique.

2. According to research from Bigliani et al, 61% of pitchers and 47% of position players at the professional levels had sulcus signs (measure of instability) in their throwing shoulders.  And, 89% of the pitchers and 100% of the position players ALSO had it in their non-throwing shoulders, meaning that this is the way that they were born, not just something they acquired from throwing. I've never met an accomplished male Olympic lifter with a sulcus sign, though, which tells me that laxity is virtually non-existent in this athletic population, particularly in comparison with baseball players.  We need to fit the exercises to the athlete, not the athlete to the exercises.  

3. The obvious next question for most folks is "what about cleans and high pulls?" With cleans, the wrist and elbow stresses are even more problematic than with snatches, and there is also the issue of direct trauma to the acromioclavicular joint on the catch phase.  Plus, when folks hang clean, the distraction forces on the lowering component of the lift (assuming no drop) can be a big issue in "loose" shoulders and elbows.  High pulls are a bit better, but all of the aggressive shrugging under load with minimal scapular upward rotation can really interfere with the improvements to scapular stability that we're trying to make with our overhead throwing athletes.

4. For those curious about what I meant with respect to the power carryover from linear modalities (like Olympic lifts) not being great to rotational sports, check out this recently published research study from Lehman et al. You'll see that it backs up what I'd proposed from my anecdotal experience back in 2010; that is, power development is very plane specific.  Get to doing your med ball work!

This is one case where the injury prevention battle isn't just about adding the right exercises; it's about taking some away, too.  

With all that said, I hope you'll join me in keeping Sa Jae-hyouk in your thoughts and send him good vibes for a speedy recovery and quick return to competition.

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Should Pitching Coaches Understand Research Methods and Functional Anatomy?

Quite some time ago, I met a pitching coach who made a bold statement to me:

"Most Major League pitchers have terrible mechanics."

I don't know if he meant that they were mechanics that could lead to injuries, or simply mechanics that would interfere with control and velocity development, but either way, I shrugged it off.  Why?

Their mechanics are so terrible that they're in the top 0.0001% of people on the planet who play their sport.  And, they're paid extremely well to be terrible, I suppose.

Kidding aside, this comment got me to thinking about something that's been "festering" for years now, and I wanted to run it by all of you today to get your impressions on it.  In other words, this post won't be about me ranting and raving about how things should be, but rather me starting a dialogue on one potential way to get the baseball development industry to where it needs to be, as it clearly isn't there yet (as evidenced by the fact that more pitchers are getting hurt nowadays than ever before).

The way I see it, mechanics are typically labeled as "terrible" when a pitcher has:

1. Trouble throwing strikes

2. Pitching velocity considerably below what one would expect, given that pitcher's athleticism

3. Pain when throwing

4. Mechanical issues that theoretically will predispose him to injury 

In the first three cases, anyone can really make these observations.  You don't need to be trained in anything to watch the walk totals pile up, read a radar gun, or listen when a pitcher says, "It hurts."  Moreover, these issues are easier to coach because they are very measurable; pitchers cut down on their walks, throw harder, and stop having pain.

Issue #4 is the conundrum that has lead to thousands of pissing matches among pitching coaches.  When a pitcher gets hurt, everyone becomes an armchair quarterback.  The two biggest examples that come to mind are Mark Prior and Stephen Strasburg.

Prior was supposed to be one of the best of all-time before shoulder surgeries derailed his career.  After the fact, everyone was quick to pin all the issues on his mechanics.  What nobody has ever brought to light is that over the course of nine years, his injuries looked like the following (via Wikipedia):

1. Hamstrings strain (out for 2002 season)
2. Shoulder injury (on-field collision - missed three starts in 2003)
3. Achilles injury (missed two months in 2004)
4. Elbow strain (missed 15 days in 2004)
5. Elbow injury (missed one month in 2005 after being hit by line drive)
6. Rotator cuff strain (missed three months in 2006)
7. Oblique strain (missed two starts in 2006)
8. Rotator cuff strain (ended 2006 season on disabled list)
9. Shoulder surgery (missed entire 2007 season, and first half of 2008)
10. Shoulder capsule tear (out for season after May 2008)
11. Groin injury (missed last two months of 2011 season)

By my count, that is eleven injuries - but four of them were non-arm-related.  And, two of them (both early in his career) were contact injuries.  Who is to say that he isn't just a guy with a tendency toward degenerative changes on a systemic level?  How do we know one of the previous injuries didn't contribute to his arm issues later on?  How do we know what he did for preventative arm care, rehabilitation, throwing, and strength and conditioning programs? We don't have his medical records from earlier years to know if there were predisposing factors in place, either.  I could go on and on.

The issue is that our sample size is one (Mark Prior) because you'll never see this exact collection of issues in any other player again.  It's impossible to separate out all these factors because all issues are unique.  And, it's one reason why you'll never see me sitting in the peanut gallery criticizing some teams for having injured players; we don't have sufficient information to know exactly why a player got hurt - and chances are, the medical staff on those teams don't even have all the information they'd like to have, either.

Strasburg has been labeled the best prospect of all-time by many, and rightfully so; his stuff is filthy and he's had the success to back it up.  Of course, the second he had Tommy John surgery, all the mechanics nazis came out of their caves and started berating the entire Washington Nationals organization for not fixing the issue (an Inverted W) proactively to try to prevent the injury.  Everybody is Johnny Brassballs on the internet.

To that end, I'll just propose the following questions:

1. Did Strasburg not do just fine with respect to issues 1-3 in my list above?

2. Would you want to be the one to screw with the best prospect of all-time and potentially ruin exactly what makes him effective?

3. Do we really know what the health of his elbow was when the Nationals drafted him?

4. Do we know what his arm care, throwing, and strength and conditioning programs were like before and after being drafted?

There are simply too many questions one can ask with any injury, and simply calling mechanics the only contributing factor does a complex issue a disservice - especially since young athletes are growing up with more and more physical dysfunction even before they have mastered their "mature" mechanics.

The Inverted W theory is incredibly sound; Chris O'Leary did a tremendous job of making his case - and we certainly work to coach throwers out of this flaw - but two undeniable facts remain.  First, a lot of guys still throw with the Inverted W and don't have significant arm issues (or any whatsoever).  They may have adequate mobility and stability in the right places (more on this below) to get by, or perhaps they have just managed their pitch counts and innings appropriately to avoid reaching threshold.  I suspect that you might also find that many of these throwers can make up for this "presumed fault" with a quick arm combined with a little extra congenital ligamentous laxity, or subtle tinkering with some other component of their timing.

Second, a lot of guys who don't have an Inverted W still wind up with elbow or shoulder injuries. Good research studies bring issues like these to light, and nobody has really gotten a crew of inverted W guys and non-inverted W guys together to follow injury rates over an extended period of time while accounting for variables such as training programs, pitch counts, and pitch selection (e.g., sliders vs. curveballs). We don't know if some of these other factors are actually more problematic than the mechanics themselves, as it's impossible to control all these factors simultaneously in a research format.

As such, here we have my first set of questions:

Don't you think that pitching coaches need to make a dedicated effort to understand research methods so that they can truly appreciate the multifactorial nature of injuries?  And, more importantly, wouldn't learning to read research help them to understand which mechanical issues are the true problem?  

The Inverted W is certainly an issue, but there are many more to keep in mind. Just my opinion: I think the baseball industry would be much better off if pitching coaches read a lot more research.

Now, let's move on to my second question.  First, though, I want to return to the Inverted W example again. I have not met more than a few pitching coaches who can explain exactly what structures are affected by this mechanical flaw because they don't understand what functionally is taking place at the shoulder and elbow.  They don't understand that excessive glenohumeral (shoulder) horizontal abduction, extension, and external rotation can all lead to anterior glide of the humerus, creating more anterior instability and leading to injuries to the anterior glenohumeral ligaments and labrum.  Meanwhile, the biceps tendon picks up the slack as a crucial anterior stabilizer.  They also don't appreciate how these issues are exacerbated by poor rotator cuff function and faulty scapular stabilization patterns.  And, they don't appreciate that these issues are commonly present even in throwers who don't demonstrate an Inverted W pattern.

At the elbow, they also can't explain why, specifically, the Inverted W can lead to problems. They don't understand that the timing issue created by the "deep" set-up leads to greater valgus stress at lay-back because the arm lags.  They can't explain why some players have medial issues (UCL injuries, ulnar nerve irritation, flexor/pronator strains, and medial epicondyle stress fractures) while other players have lateral issues (little league elbow, osteochondritis dissecans of radial capitellum) from the same mechanical flaws.  They can't explain why a slider thrown from an Inverted W position would be more harmful than a curveball.

I can explain it to you - and I can explain it to my athletes so that they understand, too. I've also met a lot of medical professionals who can clearly outline how and why these structures are injured, but we aren't the ones coaching the pitchers on the mounds.  The pitching coaches are the ones in those trenches.

To that end, I propose my second set of questions:

Don't you think pitching coaches ought to make an effort to learn functional anatomy in order to understand not just what gets injured, but how those injuries occur?  Wouldn't it give them a more thorough understanding of how to manage their pitchers, from mechanical tinkering, to pitch selection, to throwing volume?  And, wouldn't it give them a more valid perspective from which to contribute to pitchers' arm care programs in conjunction with rehabilitation professionals and strength and conditioning coaches? 

The problem with just saying "his mechanics suck" is that it amounts to applying a theory to a sample size of one.  That's not good research.  Additionally, this assertion is almost always taking place without a fundamental understanding of that pitcher's functional anatomy.  It amounts to coaching blind.

To reiterate, this was not a post intended to belittle anyone, but rather to bring to light two areas in which motivated pitching coaches could study extensively in order to really separate themselves from the pack.  Additionally, I believe wholeheartedly in what Chris O'Leary put forth with his Inverted W writings; I just used it as one example of a mechanical flaw that must be considered as part of a comprehensive approach to managing pitchers.

With that said, I'd love to hear your opinions on these two sets of questions in the comments section below. Thanks in advance for your contributions.

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25 Questions to Ask During the College Baseball Recruiting Process

When I got into the strength and conditioning field, I always assumed my job would just be about getting athletes bigger, stronger, faster, leaner, and healthier.  And, I was right that those would be constituents of my job, but I failed to realize that there was actually a lot more to consider if I wanted to be successful in the private sector and working with up-and-coming baseball players.

Those unexpected responsibilities included learning about the Major League Baseball Collective Bargaining Agreement, interacting with advisors/agents, helping kids plan out their competitive year, creating a solid physician and physical therapist network, and even jumping in to catch some bullpens.

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However, none of these tasks could possibly be more important than the interactions I have with a lot of high school baseball players as they work to select the right college/university for them.  While there are a lot of college advisory services out there, very few of them truly understand the athletic side of things; they're more heavily focused on the academic and social components, as there is no way they could ever possibly keep track of what each college baseball (or football, hockey, basketball, or whatever) program is doing. Coaching staffs change, universities move to different conferences, new facilities/fields are added, and new training methods are established.  With that in mind, here are 25 questions I ask of all our kids who approach me about the college recruiting process:

1. Will you have an opportunity to play right away?  If not, are you comfortable waiting?

It's very easy to fall in love with a campus and the thought of playing in front of thousands of fans, but "s**t gets real" when you've been riding the pine for your first two years of college.  Find out who is on the team who'll be playing ahead of you, as well as who else they are recruiting in your class at your position.

This, for me, is also a roundabout way of asking a kid if he is really good enough to play at a school.  If you didn't even pitch for your high school team, chances are that you aren't going to be able to pitch for a College World Series team.  In this instance, you'd be better off going to a team that will provide the innings you need to develop.

2. Do you have aspirations of playing baseball after college?

Will this program facilitate that objective? If it's going to do so, you need to see a history of players drafted.

3. Have you spoken to alumni who have played at these colleges (or for these coaches at different schools)?

Do they speak highly of their experiences, or do they rip on the coaches?  Do they go back to their college town to visit often?

4. How would the coaching staff describe their approach to coaching to you?

Some guys do well with the "in your face" coaching style, and others struggle with the regular confrontation.

5. What is the program's track record of success with developing players like you?

What do they do that will make you a better left-handed pitcher, second baseman, or catcher?  Do they have examples?

6. What (if any) scholarship or financial aid amount are you being offered?

College isn't cheap.  While full rides are rare in college baseball, the difference between a 25% scholarship and 50% scholarship can work out to $60,000 over the course of four years.  Don't forget transportation costs to and from campus several times per year, too.

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7. How tenured are the coaches, and do they see themselves leaving the school in the next few years?

At the Division 1 level, while you have some wiggle room (usually) in leaving a school if the head coach that recruited you leaves, you don't get that luxury with pitching and hitting coaches.

8. How tenured is the team athletic trainer, and what is his/her approach to treatment?  

Does he/she just fill Gatorade buckets and stay out of the way, or get involved with manual therapy and individualized rehab programs?

9. How tenured is the team strength and conditioning coach, and what is his/her approach to training both in-season and off-season?

Do guys get bigger and stronger over their four years, or do they just run poles and waste away?  Observe a lift: is he/she a respected figure in the players' lives? Also, is he/she considered a true part of the coaching staff to allow for maximum synergy, or does the head coach never interact with him/her?  Are players on unique programs based on their positions and injury history, or does everyone do the same?

Hint: if the answer to every question is "clean, squat, bench," run away.  Quickly.

10. How successful are the coaches in placing players with competitive, well-managed summer teams?

Sadly, summer baseball becomes less and less developmental every year.  Fortunately, there are still some good summer coaches out there; is your coach placing you with those coaches?

11. How are the facilities, and will there be any construction going on during your college experience?

If they're building a new field, you might be playing elsewhere for your home games.  New weight room?  You might be pushing cars in the parking lot in the middle of winter (although that may be a good thing for some of you).

12. What is a program's track record in terms of injury rates?

Are they blowing arms out left and right?  Or, are guys avoiding surgery while pitching more effectively than ever?

elbows

13. What were starting pitchers' pitch counts over the past year?

Are they consistently sending guys out there for over 120 pitches? While it's not exhaustive, this is a cool pitch count page that looked at D1 programs across the country back in 2014, but it hasn't been updated in recent years.

14. How tough of an adjustment socially will it be for you?

If you're a New Englander headed to the Deep South, expect it to be an adjustment.  The adjustment is similarly challenging if you're a Southerner headed North. Are you prepared for that? A new social scene at the same time as a new coaching staff can overwhelm some guys.

15. Do they have the academic programs you want?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but only 2% of guys drafted actually make it to the big leagues.  That essentially works out to one guy per team pear year.  And, among the guys who make it to the big leagues, very few play there long enough to be financially set for life.  In other words, there is a 99.99% chance you'll be employed in some capacity after baseball, so you need to prepare for it.  Regardless of what our guys opt to study, I encourage them to take some finance courses, as everyone needs to understand money management.

16. Do they have a solid academic support staff in place if you need it?

Do you have a learning disability that warrants special assistance? Do you need organized study halls to help with getting your work done?  Or, do you just want people to stay out of your way?

17. What is the alumni network like?  

Will it help you to get internships or employment after graduation? Or, will you have to head to the local prison to interview them?

18. Does the coaching staff get out and attend different conferences to improve at their craft?

Are they teaching the same things they taught in 1978, or are you being introduced to more forward-thinking concepts?  "New" isn't always better, though, so that's why you ask the questions: it gives them a chance to provide rationale for their methods.

19. Are the hitting/pitching coaches more hands-off, or do they want to start tinkering with mechanics to solve problems they already see with your swing/delivery?

College coaches always see more things that need to be addressed than high school coaches ever can.  They get more hours with you, and they see you against better competition that may expose your weaknesses.  These weaknesses obviously need to be addressed.  However, how much will you be abandoning the horse that got you there in the first place?  Is it going to be tinkering or overhauling, and which are you willing to commit to?

20. How is the food on campus?

The food always tastes good...for the first month.  Then, most people get sick of it.  Don't become one of those people.

21. Who is the team doctor, and what is his background and accessibility?

If you're there four years, chances are that you'll roll an ankle or get hit by a pitch at some point.  Is the team doctor readily accessible, or do you have to book an appointment and then wait three weeks to see him?  Also, does he have a solid understanding of the management of overhead throwing athletes? Many doctors don't.

22. How competitive is the conference in which you play?

If you can go out and hit .500 or have a 0.00 ERA as a freshman, you probably aren't being challenged.

23. Have you watched this team play a game and practice?

Does the team go through a thorough warm-up, or do they just roll in, do ten seconds of arm circles, and then get to it?

Do players look coaches in the eye when they're being coached?

Do players cheer in the dugout, or is it completely silent?

I had one college kid tell me that his head coach didn't show up for a single fall practice; the assistant coach ran the entire thing.  Unbelievable!

24. What kind of throwing programs and pitch selection does a team use?

If you're a long toss guy, go somewhere that does long toss.  If you've thrived with weighted baseballs, go somewhere that integrates them in the throwing programs.  If you like to chuck ninja stars, go somewhere that you can fight crime.

If you're a guy with a history of elbow pain, don't go to a school where all pitchers learn sliders and are forced to throw them 60% of the time.

25. What is the team's graduation rate?

Graduation rate can definitely be impacted by a number of factors, including how many guys are drafted, but don't return right away to complete their degrees. As an interesting (and scary) fact, only 4.3% of those who have played in the big leagues this year have a college degree.  Still, graduation rates are something about which you should ask because it's a question that gives a coach a chance to show you what emphasis he places on academics.

In typing this up, I rattled all these questions off in under five minutes, and the truth is that there are a lot more.  The set of questions one asks will always be unique to one's situation.  The only commonality is that kids should ask questions - and lots of them, as this is going to be 3-4 years of your life.

As an important addendum, it's important to realize that there isn't a single program in the country that is going to give you the exact perfect answer you want on all these questions.  Your goal is to find the best fit, not the perfect fit.  With that said, though, you are committing to the program as a whole, not just the parts of which you approve.  To that end, you'll need to prioritize certain things depending on your circumstances:

If money is tight in your family, the scholarship/financial aid question might be most important.

If you have a history of injuries, the athletic trainer/strength and conditioning coach/team doctor questions might be the most pertinent.

If you want to play baseball in college, but not beyond, the questions about graduation rates and alumni networks will be significant.

If you have a very funky delivery that's worked well for you and are afraid a pitching coach will change it, you need to ask those pitching coaches if they are open to that arrangement.  This scenario was made famous when Tim Lincecum headed to the University of Washington with his unique delivery.

There really are no right or wrong answers - but there are definitely a lot of questions that should be asked along the way. One friendly suggestion I make to players is to make sure that these questions come from you and not just your parents. Parents will have questions of their own, but they should never dominate the conversation; young athletes need to take a proactive role in learning about what could be their lives for four years.  It not only shows maturity to the recruiting coaches, but also makes sure that you get the answers to the questions that are most important to you.

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5 Things that Might Surprise You about our Baseball Strength and Conditioning Programs

We have quite a few baseball coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, and strength and conditioning coaches who stop by Cressey Sports Performance to observe our training.  While they are the ones visiting to learn, I actually learn quite a bit about the "norms" in the baseball strength and conditioning field by listening to them tell me about what surprises them about what they observe at CSP.  Here are some of the areas that seem to surprise quite a few people:

1. They're surprised we don't do more sprint work and change-of-direction training.

The competitive baseball season essentially runs from mid-February all the way through early September, and during that time, guys are sprinting, diving, and changing directions constantly during fielding practice.  They're also on their feet in cleats for an absurd number of hours each day.  To that end, when the off-season rolls around, most guys want a few weeks away from aggressive sprinting and change-of-direction work.  Once they get their rest, we typically go to 2-3 movement training sessions for October through December, usually on off-days from strength training.  I prefer to break them up so that we can get more quality work in with our strength training program, and also so that the sessions don't run too long.  Once January 1 rolls around, the volume and intensity of sprinting increases, while the strength training program volume is reduced.  

Summarily, because we often separate our sprint/agility work from our resistance training, many folks get the impression that we don't do much movement training - but that couldn't be further from the truth.  It's a big part of our comprehensive approach to baseball development; we just fit it in a bit differently than most coaches, and emphasize or de-emphasize it at different point in the year.

2. They're surprised how much medicine ball work we do.

One of the reasons there is a bit less movement training than you might see in other strength and conditioning programs is that we do a ton of medicine ball work, particularly during the months of October through January (for our pro guys).  

Medicine ball drills are great for not only training power outside the sagittal plane, but also because it helps to iron out excessive asymmetries while maintaining pitching- and hitting-specific mobility.  Our guys may do 240-360 medicine ball throws per week during their highest volume phases.

You can learn more about the medicine ball exercises we incorporate in our program by checking out Functional Stability Training of the Core.

3. They're surprised that we don't Olympic lift our baseball guys.

On multiple occasions, I've written at length about why I don't like overhead pressing and Olympic lifts in light of the unique demands of throwing and the crazy adaptations we see in throwers.

While the Olympic lifts might have great power development carryover to the sprinting one encounters on a baseball field, the carryover to power in the frontal and transverse planes just isn't as pronounced.  In other words, power development is extremely plane-specific.  I'll take medicine ball work and non-sagittal plane jumping exercises over O-lifts for baseball players in a heartbeat.

4. They're surprised we don't do more band work.

It's not that I think bands are useless; I just think most guys use them incorrectly, and even when used correctly, they just don't really offer that much advantage other than convenience.

The fundamental issue with bands is that the resistance is generally so light that guys can quickly develop bad habits - poor humeral head control, lumbar hyperextension, etc. - while doing them.  They'd be much more effective if guys would just slow down and use them correctly.  I am also not a fan at all of using the bands to get the arms into all sorts of extreme positions; you're just using a passive implement to create more laxity in an already unstable shoulder.  If you want (and need) to stretch a shoulder, do so with the scapula stabilized.  

Additionally, I'll take cables over bands whenever possible simply because the resistance is heavier and it matches the strength curve for external rotations better.  Throwers are generally weakest at full external rotation, yet the band has the highest tension in this position; meanwhile, the cable's resistance remains constant.  Obviously, manual resistance is ideal, but bands are a distance third.

5. They're surprised how "aggressive" our throwing programs are.

The overwhelming majority of our guys long toss, and most of them throw weighted baseballs at certain points of the year as well.  They pitch less and throw more.  They all still get their 2-3 months off from throwing each year, but when they are throwing, they work hard.

This is in stark contrast to some of the throwing models I've seen in professional baseball, where many organizations limit players to 90-120 feet with their long tossing, and the only time a baseball is "weighted" is when it gets wet on a rainy day.  Guys take so much time off that they never have any time in the off-season to actually develop.  I firmly believe that while you have to have strict limits on how you manage pitchers, you also have to stop short of completely coddling them.

These are surely just five areas in which we deviate from the norm with respect to baseball development, but important ones nonetheless.

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