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How Strength and Mobility Impact the Pitching Stride

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance Pitching Coordinator, Matt Blake. Matt is a key part of the Elite Baseball Mentorships team. Enjoy! -EC

In today’s video, we’re going to be discussing stride dynamics in the high-level throw. In order to do that, we’re going to use Zach Greinke as our pro model and then show a few other amateur variations, while going into some detail on how strength and mobility play into the equation for developing this powerful stride.

This is important to understand because a lot of the other qualities we look for in a high-level throw – such as achieving efficient “extension” at release, repeating the delivery, and executing our deceleration pattern consistently in an effort to reduce stress – all rely on having a stable stride pattern. In order to understand how this works, let’s take a look at some of the components that make up Greinke’s stride:

As you can see, one of the defining features of Greinke’s stride is the efficient action of his back leg and hip directing the pelvis down the target line early to set the direction and momentum for the stride. The way this is achieved is often overlooked and ultimately results in “offline” or unstable landings.

If you’ll notice the move that Greinke is making here is a posterior weight shift where he actually pushes his hips back in the delivery by hinging at the hip and not drifting his knee forward over his toes like most amateurs do. By engaging his posterior chain in this manner and not relying simply on his front leg to swing him into landing, he’s able to create a more balanced stride phase that unfolds in a more rhythmic manner, using the lead leg as a counter-balance to the delivery and not the primary power source.

For those familiar with the strength & conditioning world, I typically like to relate it to the initial movement of a one-legged squat to feel the glute and hamstring engagement and then a lateral lunge to stay engaged in the adductors for control of the pelvis. The lead leg action is ultimately just a relaxed extension to counter the posterior weight shift and then a swivel in the hip socket to align the foot for landing.

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The effect of engaging the rear leg’s posterior chain allows us to create both extension and rotation out of the back-side, which is important for maintaining the direction of our force into the ground at landing. If we can’t control the force of our action into the ground, we won’t be able to stabilize our landing appropriately, which has ramifications up the chain into our pelvis positioning, core stability and ultimately into our hand positioning on the ball at release.

If we’re trying to create a level of “extension” at release and maintain our leverage on the ball to throw it with angle, we need to take ownership of our pelvis positioning. If we don’t actively control the pelvis movement into landing, we’re going to have a hard time centering the head of the lead leg in the hip socket, and in turn, accepting the ground reaction force that we’re trying to create. This happens when we lose the tension of our back hip too early, because we swung our lead leg out as the power source and “chased it” into landing. This means we won’t have control of the pelvis upon landing and we’ll be unable to properly pressurize the front leg to keep leverage in the delivery.

This pelvis leverage is essential in making sure we can keep our core stable and allow it to translate the thoracic region forward, instead of rely on it to create motion, which isn’t the primary role of the lumbar region. We want the “core” to simply transfer the energy we created from the lower half efficiently. If we can do that, we allow ourselves to accelerate on a longer line to release, because our path of deceleration is set up to be fully accepted on the front hip’s internal rotation and flexion. If the pelvis is too flat, and relies purely on rotation and not flexion, our line of deceleration becomes much shorter and forces us to handle more of the stress in our throwing arm, which isn’t ideal.

A good example of how both length in the adductors and strength in the posterior chain helped an athlete achieve a more athletic and powerful stride can be seen here. The first clip is a video of a 17 yr old LHP, who was 6’4” 180lbs, and 82-84 at the time of the video:

Notice how his stride pattern is very limited not only in his length toward home, but in its inefficient direction and its ability to allow for a full finish to protect the arm. As you can see, this athlete struggled to get a posterior weight shift out of his gather position, drifted into a closed stride position, and then had too flat of a pelvis position to achieve a proper flexed hip position. As a result, he runs out of lateral rotation in the lead hip and the finish buckles on him. This could be a result of many things, including limited adductor mobility, poor single leg stability, weakness of the anterior or rotary core, etc. Candidly, though, you usually see all these things in untrained pitchers!

Fortunately, this same athlete took it upon himself to devote some quality time to making himself a better athlete, getting stronger, and gaining awareness for the movements the high level delivery was asking of him – and he’s now turned himself into a legitimate prospect. In this more recent video, the athlete is 20yrs old now, 6’5” 215lbs, and 88-91mph, topping at 92mph:

By no means is this athlete a finished product, but you can see where the added strength, mobility, and movement awareness allows him to get into a deeper hip-hinge position, ride out of the stride longer, and certainly take the finish deeper to allow for a longer line of deceleration. The next step for this athlete will be continuing to work on his single-leg stability, as you can see a slight wobble in the landing and a touch of misdirection, but certainly leaps and bounds ahead of where he was three years prior.

To give you an example of where this stride pattern can go, here is an example of one of our more accomplished athletes, Tyler Beede, who was the 14th overall pick in this year's draft and had one of the best amateur stride patterns I’ve seen:

From time to time this athlete will struggle with slight misdirection and postural control, but his ability to pitch 92-96mph with above average off-speed offerings is a testament to the balance and power in the lower half of his delivery.

At the end of the day, everyone is going to present with different levels of mobility, stability and coordination, so you certainly have to leave room in your model to account for individual variance. However, these athletes are good examples of how properly maintained mobility and stability can tie into the high-level delivery to make you a more powerful and durable pitcher in the long run.

Looking for more video analysis and training insights like this? I'd encourage you to sign up for one of our upcoming Elite Baseball Mentorships. We have events in both October and November, and you won't find a more intensive baseball educational course.

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5 Great Analogies for Training Baseball Players

In their outstanding book, Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath emphasize that a new idea will always be more readily accepted if it is incorporated into an individual’s existing schema. In an example I've used before here at EricCressey.com, if I give you the letters TICDGFASOH and then ask you to list all the letters I included to me 20 minutes later without writing them down, most of you won’t be able to accomplish the task correctly.

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However, if I reordered those letters as CATDOGFISH, you’d accomplish the task easily. You know the words DOG, CAT, and FISH – so it would fit into your existing schema. I work to apply this same logic to how I educate my baseball players. With that in mind, here are five analogies I like to use as part of the long-term baseball development process.

1. Arm care is just like making bank deposits and withdrawals.

To me, every action you make with your arm either takes you closer to or further away from arm health.  Every time you do your arm care drills, get in a strength training session, do some soft tissue work, or get your arm stretched out (when appropriate), you're making a deposit in your bank account. Each time you make a throw - especially off a mound - you're making a withdrawal. If withdrawals exceed deposits over the course of a year, you're likely going to go bankrupt (get injured).

2. Bad scapular positioning or scapulohumeral rhythm is like starting behind the starting line - or you're backpedaling when the starting gun fires.

I've discussed the importance of scapular positioning and scapulohumeral rhythmic for throwers in the past - especially in our new resource, Functional Stability Training of the Upper Body. Here's a video to bring you up to speed:

In this video, I talk about "ball and socket congruency." In other words, the ball can't ride up, and the socket can't stay too low. I like to refer to neutral scapular resting position as the starting line. If you sit in too much downward rotation, you're effectively setting up behind the starting line. In the photo below, the black line is where the medial border of his scapula should be at rest, and the red line is where it actually is.

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Other folks may actually start in the correct position, but begin what should be upward rotation with an aberrant movement - such as a "yank" toward the midline (rhomboid dominance) or into scapular depression (lat dominance). These are the exact opposites of what you want to occur - which is upward rotation, or running toward the finish line.

3. Doing arm care drills with a faulty core recruitment pattern is like shooting a cannon from a canoe.

I always talk about how the spine and rib cage "deliver" the shoulder blade. You can do all the arm care drills in the world, but if you don't know how to keep a stable core in place, you'll never really put your shoulder girdle (or elbow, for that matter) in an ideal position to throw - and you certainly won't effectively transfer force from your lower body. Here's what a lot of athletes look like with their overhead reaching pattern:

Instead of getting good shoulder flexion and scapular upward rotation, they just go into lumbar (lower back) extension. When you see an aberrant movement pattern like this, you realize that it's no surprise that some of the same underlying movement inefficiencies can contribute to upper extremity, core, and lower extremity injuries alike. It's really just a matter of where an athlete breaks down first.

4. Committing to a college really early is like proposing to the first girl you ever date - and then letting her "shop around" for other dudes while you stay faithful.

This observation has less to do with the actual training process, but more to do with long-term management of an athlete. Why in the world does a freshman in high school need to be verbally committing to a college - especially when he can't sign on the dotted line to officially commit until his senior year? If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that we always look back on what we did 2-3 years earlier and laugh, as we realize how misdirected we were. I do it at age 33, and you can just imagine how much faster an impressionable teenage athlete can acquire new views on the world.

It's fine to take your time and see what's out there - and any coach that pressures a freshman or sophomore to commit so young is probably not a person for whom you'd like to play. And, 99% of the time, that offer is still going to be on the table 6-18 months down the road in spite of the false deadlines they throw on you.

Finally, as an "in the know" friend reminded me the other day, don't forget that even if you verbally commit to a school, they're still out there trying to "date" other athletes. If they can find someone who they think is a better prospect than you are, they'll drop you like yesterday's newspaper. The ethical coaches don't do this, but it is nonetheless still a sad part of college sports. With that in mind, it's okay to go on "dates" with different schools and take your time in finding the one that's right for you.

Side note: if you're looking to be a more informed consumer with respect to the college recruiting process, give this a read: 25 Questions to Ask During the College Recruiting Process.

5. Stretching a loose shoulder is like picking a scab; it feels good for a bit, but only makes things uglier over the long haul.

There are a lot of hypermobile (lose-jointed) pitchers out there. It's often a big part of what makes them successful, but it comes at a cost: increased injury risk, if they don't stay on top of their stability training.

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What they often lose sight of, though, is the fact that it's just as important to avoid creating instability as it is to train for stability. In other words, continually stretching a hypermobile joint is likely even worse than just leaving out your strength work. The former reduces passive stability, whereas the latter just doesn't improve active stability.

The problem is that a lot of loose-jointed players feel "tight" - and it's usually because they lay down trigger points to make up for their lack of stability. The stretching feels good in the short term, but the trigger point comes back stronger and stronger each time - until you're eventually dealing with a torn anterior (shoulder) capsule or ulnar collateral ligament. Eventually, reducing the passive stability leads to a pathology - just like picking that scab eventually leads to an infection or scar.

Speaking of training baseball players, we recently announced that registration is open for our Elite Baseball Development summer program at Cressey Sports Performance. For more information, click here.

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Long-Term Baseball Development: Part 2

Today is the second part of Cressey Performance Pitching Coordinator Matt Blake's article on long-term athletic development for baseball players. In case you missed it, check out Part 1.

blakeindexIn the first installment of this two-part article, I outlined the problem with respect to youth baseball injuries, discussed some of the causes, and emphasized the need for age-appropriate, individualized training programs over the course of the "baseball lifespan." Today, I want to look closer at this step-by-step developmental process.

I think it’s paramount to first teach young pitchers about rhythm, tempo and direction in the throw, before they learn how to just “air it out.” If they understand how to play catch with intent and focus for every throw on a daily basis, the velocity will usually take care of itself. One way to do that is to use drill constraints to create feel for these qualities, such as in this stride drill progression below:

If the velocity doesn’t begin to develop as you matriculate into your adolescent and teenage years, you have to begin to ask why? Is it a problem with athleticism, strength, delivery issues, or something else? Typically speaking, it will be a little bit of all these, but it’s not usually because the kid isn’t trying to throw the ball hard enough. More often than not, the players that I see getting hurt at a young age have an excessive amount of effort in a poorly sequenced throw, and no awareness for how to take care of their body or how to explain to an adult/coach what they’re feeling when they throw. They need a larger framework to understand movement, so they can understand what feels good and what doesn’t outside of simply throwing to get better.

If you can teach these kids simple concepts regarding core control, how to do a proper lunge, or how to do a proper un-weighted shoulder external rotation, you’ll go a long way towards opening up pathways to throw the ball harder. A great example of this is the exercise demonstration below, which you could certainly use to help educate your athletes:

They don’t need to know what joint centration is, or why adhering to certain muscular length/tension relationships are essential in creating force and resisting fatigue, but they’ll be able to feel it and move towards these positions more frequently on their own. To be honest, we very rarely even use a radar gun at our facility, and without trying to sound conceited, we have some of the hardest throwers in the country at every level of development. It all starts with a foundation that adheres to movement quality over quantity. Owning a routine that allows you take care of your body on a daily basis by taking inventory of tissue quality and adhering to a thorough warm-up and recovery process every time we throw is essential at every level of baseball. Something as simple as implementing the use of a foam roller on a day-to-day basis could go a long way in aiding this process.

Once the athlete understands movement quality, then we can begin to layer on force production, whether it be through a more general application like strength training or a more ballistic action like throwing a baseball. They need to understand how the force is generated, and where it’s dissipated; if they can’t decelerate or disperse what they’re producing, it’s unusable. There’s a laundry list of athletes in every town who threw harder than their peers, but couldn’t use it because they couldn’t throw strikes or couldn’t avoid pain. And, it’s not unusual to see the guys who don’t throw strikes to be more likely to end up in pain, because it’s a byproduct of having reckless motor control, which creates more stress by hitting joint end ranges more frequently, and in turn, creates more tissue damage than you’d see with a strike-thrower with a higher level of coordination.

As the athlete continues to advance through the high school and college years, there only comes more societal pressure to perform at a high level, so, if you don’t have a sound base of movement, you better bear down now. This 16-20 age group is probably the most at-risk population because of how strength really begins to come into the mix, how the wear and tear of poor deliveries and overuse in the youth development systems start to reach threshold, and the increased level of exposure at year round events fuels the fire. This is usually when the majority of players begin to realize that they want to be baseball players and start to specialize in the sport at a higher rate, and with that comes an even more detrimental aspect: not clearly identifying your developmental calendar.

If baseball is the only sport you play in the HS/college years, it’s essential that you understand what the year-long developmental calendar looks like. If you don’t, and you live in a warm weather region, you could theoretically start playing “spring season” games in January for your HS or college team and play into May/June. Once that season’s done, you would naturally transition right into your summer season, whether it be travel ball or a collegiate summer league and play another 45-60 games through July/August.

Once that season is over, the HS players who would normally shut it down and play another sport are now inundated with showcases and camps from every different angle, as well as fall leagues that run into November. The college athlete has his fall season, which is usually another six weeks of competitive baseball activity somewhere between September and November, and that leaves us with the window of November to January. This is where we’d normally be dormant, but now we have showcases and tournaments to attend to make sure the scouts and schools know who we are. And, college coaches are reluctant to shut pitchers down less than 10-12 weeks out from the start of a season.

Is it really a surprise that pitchers are getting hurt?

If you don’t step back and be sensible about this developmental process, your train will get derailed somewhere, so you have to set some clear boundaries.

For all of our athletes, it starts by encouraging them to get the ball totally out of their hand for 8-12 weeks of no-throwing each year. Now, this might sound excessive to some, but it still leaves you approximately 300 days of the year to work on your throwing. If you can’t get better in the other 300 days, you’re probably misusing this other 8-12 weeks anyways!

Aside from that, we typically try to adhere to keeping our high school pitchers under 100 competitive innings on the mound, and hopefully more like 80. So, as a HS athlete, if you compete from Feb/March until July/August as your two main competitive seasons, that allows you to shape your September-Feb/March in a multitude of ways. If college camps/showcases are an important aspect of your development so you can reach the next level, then make sure you give yourself adequate time to prepare for them. Going 0-60mph in these events is a recipe for injury, as we know the kids who attend more showcases end up getting hurt at a higher rate. If you’re aware of this and use the lead-up time and structure your throwing schedule properly, and understand the drastically different warm-up component at these events, you can likely head off some of these issues.

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If you’re a college athlete, you have to consider where your most important development is going to come. Obviously, the spring is a constant, but depending on how many innings you throw, and what level of development your college team offers, the fall season may be more important than simply adding another 60 innings in a summer league. So, you have to weigh out what makes more sense. Take the summer months and work on your strength base, while allowing your body to recover from a heavy workload, so you can be ready to continue developing in the fall; Or, play competitively in the summer for increased exposure and in-game development in a competitive summer league and then take the fall off from throwing. Too many times guys will throw 80+ innings for their college team in the spring and then another 50+ in the summer and now you’re carrying 130+ innings into the fall, which is a crucial time for your college pitching coach to develop your throwing ability or work on pitching skills in a controlled environment unlike the spring schedule or even the consolidated winter build-up.

The pro side might be the most cut and dry schedule wise, because you’re typically starting spring training in Mid-Feb/March and playing until September/October. It only becomes a little murky when you consider that some prospects have to attend instructional leagues in September/Oct or play in the Arizona Fall league, leaving a smaller window of off-season development. They may also need to pay bills so a winter league becomes more attractive. With that said, they have a nice window of time from September through February, which is crucial for them to get the ball out of their hand for an extended period of time and get their cuff strength back, while working on a general foundation of movement before they start the slow build-up back towards the season.

Obviously, there are some different concerns in the world of professional development where you’re constantly weighing the risk/reward for implementing certain training stimuli on both the strength training front and throwing program design side of things since these guys are generally already very successful at their craft. But, with how long their season is, and how quick they ramp up bullpens in spring training, it becomes essential they make good use of their window from September through February to avoid being a victim of the early season wrath we see unfold every year, as depicted by the charts below (click to expand):

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Sources: Epidemiology of Major League Baseball Injuries and
Incidence of Injuries in High School Softball and Baseball Players, respectively.

We could obviously go on and on here and not cover all of our bases on specific developmental concerns, so it’s important we reiterate the main driver behind all of this.

We’re going to continue to have arm issues in the sport of baseball if we insist on pushing the boundaries of the human species to see how much performance we can get out of these players. The money in the game is so large, and velocity has become such a huge component of success for these players and organizations, that the industry of baseball from top to bottom will constantly be looking to develop more of it.

The only problem is that the means for attaining this beloved velocity needs to be individualized and it’s such a complex recipe that goes beyond what you’re looking at in the present moment. It keeps every outing on short rest or poor warm-up before a cold rainy start on file, so you need to follow the body of work as best as you can to know where the next step needs to be for each athlete. Too many people are treating this like it’s a sprint from one MPH checkpoint to the next.

Slow down, be sensible about the developmental process, and just realize that this day and age, if you want to throw hard, there’s enough information out there to point you in the right direction. The key to all of this though, isn’t necessarily who can simply throw hard anymore, it’s who can stay on the field the most consistently while doing it, and for some reason, people don’t seem to be as willing to listen to that information.

In the meantime, if you're looking for more detailed information on long-term management of throwing athletes, be sure to check out our Elite Baseball Mentorships. The early-bird price for our June mentorship is May 15.

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Long-Term Baseball Development: Part 1

Today's guest post is the first half of a two-part article from Cressey Performance Pitching Coordinator, Matt Blake.  Matt is a key part of the Elite Baseball Mentorships team.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I assume you’ve heard that there seem to be a lot of pitchers getting hurt lately. Well, in light of the media spotlight recently shining on the injury epidemic we’ve been watching evolve over the last few years, I figured there’s no better time to contribute to this discussion.

This media attention has discussed a plethora of incredible information regarding some of the most relevant research and statistics pertaining to these arm injury rates. You can see experts call into question usage rates among amateur pitchers, pitch selection among youth/amateurs, recovery rates, mobility deficits, too much or too little strength, length of season, delivery flaws, and a host of other factors. In short, there’s clearly no one right answer in solving this issue, as there are just so many variables in this multi-factorial problem, and as a result, it is quickly making Tommy John the most famous pitcher of all time for all the wrong reasons.

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This is probably exacerbated by the fact that I can almost guarantee you every single MLB pitcher whoever existed would fall into one of the categories deemed “detrimental” to healthy development at one point or another during their career. I’m sure they’ve been at risk of throwing too much, pitching on short rest, having a red flag in their delivery, lacking necessary range of motion, etc. It’s all part of the game, unfortunately. Beautiful game, isn’t it?

So, if this is the case – and I’m sorry to sound so negative about the future of this game and the problem that we’re currently experiencing – but this injury issue has way more to do with our society at large and the values we’re pushing into the game of baseball than simply little Johnny throwing too many pitches in his Babe Ruth game or throwing 95mph when he’s 17.

It’s not too dissimilar from the global climate discussion we’re having (apologies in advance if you don’t believe in global warming), where we seem to understand what the problem is and potentially what some of the solutions are. However, because these issues have huge monetary implications and there are large organizations and cultures set in their ways behind a lot of this, it’s very hard to change the direction of this tsunami that’s been building out at sea and is now crashing onto our shores.

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Percentage Growth of ASMI Youth/High School UCL Reconstruction Surgeries (Original Article)

In order to narrow the discussion, though, I’m going to try to pick a couple key points out to help give the general population something to chew on and digest without burying them in a sea of research, stats and mechanical jargon. In my mind, there are two main social factors that are fueling this:

1) the burning desire as a culture to see and reach for more velocity at every level of development

2) the digital age giving us enough information to be dangerous in so many different ways

I can promise you neither of these will be going away, so we better learn how to manage them effectively.

When I talk about this insatiable desire for velocity at every level of development and this information age, I’m encompassing a lot of different thoughts. It could be Johnny Rocket throwing 70mph in the Little League World Series at 12yrs old while being broadcasted to the world on ESPN, or it could be the fact that we have a generation of fathers armed with a Pocket Radar at the backstop, and an Ipad in the dugout with up-to-the-minute strike % rates at all of Little Billy’s games.

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Once these players get out on the travel ball circuit, online scouting resources do their fair share to rank every single player/team that comes through their tournaments and showcases, so every kid knows where he stands against his peers. Like it or not, this encourages them to make it to as many events as they can, regardless of the time of year, which we know from the research carries a larger injury risk as well. These issues are a microcosm of this media blitz, and are simultaneously creating our greatest strength and becoming our biggest weakness.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these same reasons can also be tremendous developmental qualities, by allowing for more information to be processed, we can speed up the developmental curve. We know that fastball velocity is an important predictor of strikeout rate and success at any level of baseball. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t we want to speed up the developmental curve in an attempt to throw harder?

With that said, I’m sure there are people out there who point the injury bug finger at me in thinking I offer “Pitching Lessons” all year round, or point it at Eric Cressey for developing these athletes into physical monsters too soon, which allows them to throw the ball harder than the human species is supposed to do so. So, if we’re going to frame the discussion, we need to look at the process for how these athletes are being developed, because I think this becomes the crucial determinant.

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We have to have a big picture look at how we get Johnny Rocket to sustain his standard deviation of dominance at each level or how we get little Billy to have enough fastball so he can move from level to level and stay in the game he loves to play. But, if everything is causing problems, and you can’t play too much because you’ll get hurt, and if you don’t throw enough, you won’t be any good…How do we shepherd these athletes from level to level until they reach the promised land of the Big Leagues? Ultimately, it comes down to a few main principles for me.

At CP, we’ve had a lot of tremendous athletes and baseball players come through our doors ranging from Little Johnny Rocket at 10yrs old all the way to Curt Schilling on his last go round in the Big Leagues and everything in between. The three qualities that have resonated through all of the successful athletes regardless of level are – general athleticism, competitive instinct and an above average fastball that they can command.

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I’d also include a caveat that the ability to be consistent and adhere to a plan is the glue to these qualities. We’ve had good athletes who were great competitors who sucked at simply showing up, or following the program as it was written, etc…and, it’s ultimately what keeps them from being reliable performers. It’s what can separate a guy who doesn’t have natural athleticism from a guy who doesn’t make the most of his athletic talents. Our most diligent and successful athletes don’t just randomly disappear for three weeks, or skip their warm-up for the heck of it. This can be a major separator if you’re willing to show up day in and day out and be diligent about executing your process.

Now, this may sound overly generic, but I think it’s important to consider what falls in each bucket and how it affects each developmental stage.

If you’re looking at the youth level – say 10-14 year-olds – who ends up pitching the most? Typically, your best athletes (because they’re coordinated enough at that age to throw strikes), or the kids who throw the hardest (because they generally miss more bats). Often, these two categories occur in the same kids, too, so they’re extra likely to throw every inning of every game. I don’t think anyone would question that.

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The same begins to take shape when you look at who gets recognized at the high school and college level. The best pitchers again end up being the guys who throw the hardest and strike the most guys out, and ultimately, end up with the college scholarships and are drafted the highest.

At the minor league level, there’s less of an emphasis on winning games, but there is definitely a premium placed on competing in the strike zone with an above average fastball in order to advance at each level through the system, regardless of organization. Finally, you have your big leaguers, who have made it to where everyone wants to go, and in this day and age, its few and far between the guys that don’t have premium stuff or aren’t voracious competitors with at least “average” stuff. Mark Buerhle and Jamie Moyer are the 0.01% of professional pitchers who were able to compete with below average fastball velocities, but they were able to compete at every level – including the big leagues – by relying on good movement, changing speeds, and impeccable command. So how does this factor into our greater discussion? You have to find what each athlete does well and find a way to maintain those strengths while filling in the weaknesses. You’d be foolish to give guys on opposite ends of the spectrum - say, Aroldis Chapman and Jamie Moyer - the same developmental plan.

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If you bring that thought further down the developmental chain, and have a 12yr old who throws hard, but doesn’t have a “sound delivery” or isn’t a good athlete, he probably needs to work really hard on his general athleticism first to provide a sound movement base for him to repeat his delivery. This can mean playing another sport, such as basketball or soccer, or simply riding his bike or playing at the park with his friends. It doesn’t mean he needs to engage in the 10,000 hours theory and practice pitching more. Could this help? Sure, but is it the best long-term solution or does it attack the greatest window of adaptation? I doubt it. If anything, he just needs to keep playing catch with his dad, brother, or a buddy and continue throwing a lot on his own to learn more about himself, but pitching in more games is just going to exacerbate the problem. Games are fun, and obviously one of the principles of long term success is developing that competitive spirit, but with what we know about the stress of throwing a baseball and what happens to kids who throw hard at an early age, this kid is seriously at risk for hurting himself down the road, if he doesn’t find other ways to develop.

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Too often, we see parents who think that the best way to get Johnny to become Nolan Ryan is to bring him to the local pitching instructor and get him signed up on the local travel ball team. Also, obviously, he still has to play with his town buddies, so now he’s on multiple teams, etc. This is not the answer. Let Johnny figure out a world of movement and compete with different people in different venues and you’ll be surprised what that does for his confidence and motor control. Having the ability to relate to other social environments, and physically move through different patterns will drastically shape Johnny’s ability to repeat his delivery and create force in the throw in healthier ways. With that said, below, I’ve provided a “Developmental Lifespan” for how successful athletes have generally progressed in their athletic focus:

Up to Age 10 – Complete fun, wide variety of activities
Ages 11-15 – Multiple (3+) organized sports with “seasons,” integration of strength and conditioning
Age 16-17 – Hone in on 1-2 sports
Age 18+ - Specialization

When they do play baseball, let’s not worry so much about velocity just yet, but let’s focus on establishing good daily routines - sound warm-ups, arm-care processes, and movement patterns – as well as focusing on the yearly calendar. These will have long-term implications for the athlete’s health and continued progress – and I’ll focus specifically on these things in Part 2, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you're looking for more detailed information on long-term management of throwing athletes, be sure to check out our Elite Baseball Mentorships.  The early-bird price for our June mentorship is May 15.

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Exercise of the Week: Half-Kneeling 90/90 External Rotation Hold

Today’s guest post comes from my friend and colleague, physical therapist Eric Schoenberg. Eric is an integral part of our Elite Baseball Mentorships.

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I have yet to meet a high level baseball player that hasn’t done some form of rotator cuff strengthening exercise. The interesting part is that a high percentage of these athletes don’t actually know where their rotator cuff is and where they should be feeling these exercises. The most common response is the athlete will point to the front of their shoulder. This is also the same spot (biceps tendon, labrum) where all of their pain is when they throw!

In other words, the athlete is doing a “rotator cuff” exercise to help decrease or reduce the risk of shoulder pain, but in turn, ends up actually causing more stress and overuse to their already irritated anterior shoulder.

The ability to properly recruit the rotator cuff works hand in hand with being able to relax/shut down the posterior deltoid, latissimus, and lumbar extensors from overcompensating as an athlete “lays back” into external rotation.
We commonly see athletes/coaches performing the right exercises, but executing them improperly due to faulty recruitment, poor timing, or compensation. In these cases, the athlete looks the part and even appears stable and strong, but are not actually receiving the intended benefit of the exercise. In fact, more times than not, they are potentially making themselves worse.

Enter the ½ kneeling 90/90 External Rotation (ER) Hold. It is a great exercise to teach the baseball player (pitcher or position player) what they should feel and maybe more importantly, what they shouldn’t feel when attempting to build stability and proper alignment in their shoulder.

This exercise is one of many concepts that we discuss in our Elite Baseball Mentorships. With the continued rise in baseball injuries, we have made it our mission to help create an environment for collaborative learning among the leading strength coaches, health care professionals, and pitching instructors/coaches in the world.

Our next Upper Extremity course will be June 15-17, and the early-bird registration deadline is May 15; to learn more, click here

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Destroying Baseball Dogma: Installment 1

Today, I'm going to kick off a new series about common myths from the baseball world.  I'll tackle one of these each month.  In this first installment, we're going to have some fun with this quote that I hear all too often:

       "Guys are working too hard in the off-season,
    and all this strength training is leading to injuries."

I've heard this muttered hundreds of times, but this is this quote by Lou Piniella in the NY Times in 2013 stands out for me:

“The season is so long now and so strenuous, you need to rest your body for two-three months after it’s over,” said Sweet Lou. “But today, these players all have their personal trainers and they work out all winter and put on more muscle. When I played, we didn’t have a weight room or a strength coach and everybody took the team bus to the ballpark. We never heard of an oblique. Now guys are going out on their own, five or six hours before the game, going right to the batting cages and taking hundreds of swings a day. It’s overdone. The body can’t take it. If you ask me, that’s where all these oblique injuries are coming from.

I'm going to respond to this in bullet point fashion, as I think there are a lot of gems in here:

1. You'll be surprised to know that I partially agree with Piniella on a few different fronts.  First, the season is absurdly long.  Guys may play 200 games in 230 days - with a lot of travel mixed in - and that makes it incredibly hard to maintain strength, tissue quality, and mobility. Interestingly, though, a lot more injuries occur at the beginning of a season than at the end. It makes you wonder if some guys are showing up unprepared and then benefiting from the adherence the team environment forces.

Second, setting the lazy off-season guys aside, there are a lot of players who are doing absolutely idiotic stuff with their training. As recently as a few years ago, a few teams were still recommending P90X to MLB players for off-season conditioning.  I'm not making that up.  How can we say strength training is the problem if most organizations still haven't even made it a priority?

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Third, guys getting bigger and stronger is leading to injuries...but doing so in an indirect way.  You see, average body weight in Major League Baseball increased by 12% from 1990 to 2010; this time period parallels the rise in popularity of strength training. With the increase has come a huge increase in average fastball velocity, too - especially over the past 6-7 years.  And, the aforementioned body weight study also showed that offensive leaders were more likely to be heavier than their "normal" MLB counterparts. Obviously, the steroid era played into this, but the message doesn't change: being stronger increases your likelihood of success - even if it means you are playing with fire with respect to injuries.  Swinging quicker, throwing harder, and running faster will increase your likelihood of injury - regardless of whether you strength trained to get to that point in the first place.

The alternative, unfortunately, is to throw 88mph or have subpar bat speed - neither of which will help you compete in the modern game.  At the highest level, sports will always be a balancing act between high performance and injury risk.  To this point, I'd also subjectively note that most of the guys who have wound up with injuries this spring were not massive dudes; I'd argue that they really weren't that strong or heavy

2. With respect to the comment about taking 2-3 months off at the end of the season, one has to really do the math on this to realize how silly it would be. The big league season ends in early October for most teams, whereas playoff teams will play all the way through the month of October. If a player takes off all of October, November, and December, he wouldn't do anything until January 1.  If he make the playoffs, he wouldn't do anything until (potentially) February 1.  If players report in mid-February, that would give them 2-6 weeks to prepare. 

If you think that's enough, good luck dealing with the media scrutiny that comes when a load of the players are on the disabled list, and all the pitchers' fastball velocities are down.

I'd also ask: is it healthy for anyone to take 2-3 months off from exercise altogether?  Let's just make them obese in hopes of cutting back on our oblique strains!

3. I think it's important to recognize that not all lifting is created equal.  The problems usually stem from incorrect technique, poor exercise selection, excessive loading, or a number of other common mistakes. If one athlete burns himself on a cup of coffee because he wasn't careful with how he prepared or drank it, do you vilify coffee for an entire team? Of course not!  So, why vilify strength training because there are some idiots out there applying it incorrectly?

Taking it a step further, lifting sometimes "displaces" other important components of a successful training program - because lifting heavy stuff is "sexier" to many athletes. You simply can't lift at the exclusion of other key physical preparation strategies; it has to complement them.

RhySta

4. To build on the last point, in many cases, lifting may become a problem because it's "ingraining" poor movement quality.  As Gray Cook has often said, "you can't put fitness on top of dysfunction."

The key word here is "fitness."  Many things - not just lifting - could bring these issues to threshold.  Throwing, swinging, and sprinting could all bring movement flaws to a painful threshold, too.  However, unlike strength training, these approaches can't be used to correct the fundamental problem - even if they're implemented perfectly.

[bctt tweet="General training can correct movement dysfunction, whereas specific training usually exacerbates it."]

5. Most obviously, if lifting was really the only problem, wouldn't we see a lot more guys getting hurt while lifting? Truth be told, the injury rates in strength training participation are remarkably low - even with crappy programming.

Bringing all these points together, the truth is that injuries have always been, are, and will continue to be multi-factorial.  Short of traumatic instances like being hit by a pitch, or fouling a ball off your foot, everything is something that has built for days, weeks, months, or years.  There are far too many different variables involved that have constantly changed over the past few decades to truly determine what causes injuries, so it's short-sighted to make strength training the scapegoat - especially when we know the value it has in enhancing performance, reducing injury risk, and facilitating injury rehabilitation.

Destroying Baseball Dogma is one reason we introduced our Cressey Sports Performance Elite Baseball Mentorships; we want to teach baseball coaches, strength and conditioning professionals, and rehabilitation specialists to learn more about how to best prepare players to handle the unique demands involved in baseball. Our next Upper Extremity course will be December 18-20, 2016; to learn more, click here.

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Common Arm Care Mistakes: Installment 5

It's been over a month since I posted an update to this series, so with the baseball season underway, I thought I'd get back to it - and focus on something we see as an in-season problem:

Pitchers not being advocates for themselves with respect to playing other positions games on non-pitching days.

Absolutely nothing drives me crazier than when I hear about a player throwing 6-7 innings, and then being asked to come back and play shortstop or catcher in the next few days. In fact, it might be the very definition of insanity, as it defies a lot of what we know about recovery, fatigue management, and arm stress.

To be clear, pitchers absolutely do need to throw throughout the week to optimize performance and develop.  You can't just pitch, then sit around for six days and expect to get better or stay sharp.  However, I think we do need to approach what guys do on non-pitching days on a very individualized basis.

If we're talking about starters who are going to throw 60+ pitches at least once a week, they need to stick to playing DH, 1B, 3B, 2B, or OF in the 2-3 days after a start - and preferably throughout the entire week.  Sure, there will stil be the possibility for intense throws, but the volume is much lower, and they'll be able to get their legs under them better, as compared to off-balance throws from shortstop, or rushed throws from the catching position.

If we're talking about relievers who just get innings here and there, it's a totally different story.  If they're only throwing 15-20 pitches a few times a week, they can play anywhere they're needed.  The volume just isn't enough on the mound to make it a very valid concern. The only exception to the rule might be early in the season; if guys are really sore in the 24-48 hours after they pitch, they're probably better off somewhere other than shortstop or catcher.

Now, all this seems well and good - until you realize that just about every 12-year-old in the country says that he plays "pitcher and shortstop."  Seriously, I get excited when I hear a young kid who is a catcher, second baseman, or just an "all over" utility guy.

youthpitcher2

So, as you can see, players don't just need to be counseled on this; they need to be counseled on this at a young age.

A big part of developing starting pitchers over the long haul is helping them to build work capacity, the ability to throw more innings.  This obviously gets a lot of attention in the professional ranks with young pitchers who are on strict innings limits.  However, it's equally important at the youth levels; you have to build work capacity gradually, especially in athletes who are skeletally immature. The problem with throwing them at shortstop or catcher is that it immediately puts you in a position where you underestimate how much wear and tear is on the pitcher's arm over the course of a season.

Looking for more in-depth baseball insights?  Check out one of our Cressey Performance Elite Baseball Mentorships; we'll have events in June, October, and December.

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Baseball Training: Are Shoulder Dislocates Appropriate?

I received the following email the other day, and thought my response would make for a good Q&A here:

Q: I recently heard a national level gymnastics coach speak on how he believed shoulder dislocates with a dowel rod (working up to weighted dislocates) are a panacea for shoulder health and strength. I was wondering if you use them with your clients/players, and why or why not?

OBroomstick1BDislocations2

A: Thanks for your question.  In short, the answer would be NO, I would never do shoulder dislocates with a throwing athlete.  I discussed why in a previous video that goes into great detail, so rather than reinvent the wheel, here it is!   Effectively, shoulder dislocates replicate some of the movements that I outline as problems here.

As a general rule of thumb, as a thrower, it's always better to be too tight than it is to be too loose.  WIth that in mind, you always need to ask why you're stretching an area out.  If the front of the shoulder feels "tight," it may be from a number of different causes:

1. Protective tension of the biceps tendon (secondary to rotator cuff weakness) - just stretching it out would remove what little anterior stability remains.

2. An injury to the anterior capsule, latissimus dorsi (humeral attachment point), subscapularis, supraspinatus, or biceps tendon - just stretching these areas out will likely exacerbate the injury.

3. Irritate of the nerves that run anterior to the humeral head - nerves don't like to be stretched.

Gray523

4. True muscular shortness of pectoralis major or another structure - Effectively, in doing shoulder dislocates, you're throwing all your eggs in this basket.

The only problem?  Most throwers already have an insane amount of horizontal abduction and external rotation range-of-motion on their throwing shoulders.  They aren't even close to having legitimate tissue shortness that would benefit from stretching.  This is something we work hard to drill home in our Elite Baseball Mentorships as one of the most important takeaways from the events.

Now, if we're talking about a regular ol' desk jockey who doesn't throw a baseball (or other sporting implement), play tennis, or swim, then dislocates might have some merit.  These individuals likely have some muscle/tendon stiffness that can be stretched out before they get to a point where they might crank on their joint capsule or nerves.  I would never use it as a "blanket" recommendation for everyone, though.  The only way to know is assess the individual and then plan accordingly.

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Is Thoracic Spine Extension Work Necessary? – Part 3

Today marks the third and final installment of Eric Schoenberg's series on thoracic mobility drills - and whether or not they're indicated.  In case you missed them, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2.

In the final piece of this series, I want to tie things together with a few foundational concepts that we use in the daily management of our athletes and emphasize in our Elite Baseball Mentorships.

Eric C. has written about the concept of relative stiffness on this blog on numerous occasions.  So, feel free to refer back to his articles for more background information.  Relative stiffness or relative flexibility was introduced to me by Shirley Sahrmann and the incredible faculty at Washington University in St. Louis. This is a pillar of their Movement System Impairment model

Today, I am going to discuss how relative flexibility impacts the thoracic spine and shed some more light on why T-spine extension work is not always necessary in the baseball athlete.          

Relative flexibility describes the relationship of how the amount of stiffness (or tension) in one area of soft tissue (muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc.) results in compensatory movement at an adjoining joint that is controlled by less stiffness.  This relationship can change (positively or negatively) based on the exercises we choose and the manner in which we perform them.

There are countless examples of relative stiffness in the body.  One of the most common examples that we see involves the lumbar spine.  If the lats are stiffer than the anterior core, then the athlete will be more prone to an extended posture. The athlete will compensate with lumbar extension with overhead activity.  The video that I included in part 2 of this series is a good example:

In this video, Lats, lumbar extensors > (stiffer than) Anterior Core = Lumbar extension tendency.

Note: Clearly, there is a lot more involved (fascia, ligaments, structural issues, motor control, relative position of adjacent joints, etc.) than just this simple math problem, but for the scope of this article, we will leave it at this.  This example is fairly straightforward and I think we are all on the same page here.  We would not program activities that would further encourage lumbar extension and drive the improper recruitment and motor pattern.

In this case, we know that simply “stretching” or foam rolling the lats will not work in isolation. We need to go ahead and “stiffen” the anterior core, while at the same time, downregulating the overuse of the lats.  We often will do this by using exericses that encourage a neutral alignment with overhead activity (i.e. wall slides, back to wall shoulder flexion) as well as limiting the amount of carrying by our sides (e.g. deadlifts, dumbbell lunges, farmer’s walks, etc.) and instead, focusing on options like bottoms-up kettlebell carries, landmine presses, and goblet variations.

In the case of someone that is in too much thoracic extension (or relative thoracic flexion), though, things can get a little more confusing.  The athlete will have increased stiffness of the thoracic extensors vs. flexors: Thoracic Extensors > (stiffer than) Thoracic Flexors = Thoracic extension tendency.

However, we often see the emphasis remain on bench T-spine mobs, quadruped extension/rotations, and side-lying windmill variations? This results in two problems:

  1. The athlete will actually become hypermobile (segmentally) and develop a local stability issue. (inverted U-curve)
  2. The athlete has difficulty “getting out of extension” due to increased relative stiffness of the thoracic extensors, lats, and scapulothoracic musculature.

This inability to properly flex the spine at ball release can result in a decrease in the required scapular upward rotation and elevation to maintain proper scapulohumeral and glenohumeral joint congruency.  This is a fancy way of saying that if your upper back isn’t positioned correctly, the ball won’t sit flush with the socket. This process can contribute to some of the shoulder and elbow pathologies that we so commonly see in the throwing population.

Baseball_pitching_motion_2004

There is one more point that needs to be addressed to complete this series – and that is the role of the rectus abdominus in thoracic spine mobility.  In this case, the athlete will present in too much thoracic flexion and may appear as though they would benefit from T-spine extension mobility drills.  However, this athlete will not benefit from these exercises unless we appreciate the following point.

When we cue an athlete to limit his extension or “rib flare” we often say “ribs down”.  This seems like a relatively benign cue to help promote a neutral spine and pelvic orientation.  However, we must be sure that the athlete is able to properly recruit external obliques (often with lower level exercises such as back to wall shoulder flexion or a dead bug variation) to help achieve this movement correction.

The reason for this is that increased stiffness of rectus abdominus (dominance) limits ability of T-spine to move out of flexion (or neutral).  Using our relative stiffness example from before, if: Rectus abdominus > (stiffer than) Thoracic Extensors = Thoracic Flexion Tendency.

Therefore, if an athlete is actually is in too much flexion… i.e. sway back (most commonly - posterior tilt and lumbar extension - hanging on rectus as their anti-gravity muscle), he will have a very difficult time getting out of flexion.  This occurs regardless of how many T-spine drills we prescribe.  This is akin to stretching rectus femoris when someone is stuck in a faulty thoracic and lumbopelvic position.

rfstretch

The best approach in our case above is to “allow” t-spine mobility (extension) to occur by decreasing rectus dominance and getting someone out of T-spine flexion.  I am all for cuing the ribs down and establishing alignment, but HOW we get an athlete to do this is of the utmost importance.  The main point here is forcing T-spine extension in the presence of increased relative stiffness of rectus abdominus is not going to give us results.  In other words, weak external obliques will result in rectus overuse and thoracic “immobility” regardless of how many T-spine mobility drills we include in our programs. 

To summarize, this is a very important (and difficult) concept that – like everything else – requires a trained eye and an individualized approach.  If an athlete has too much thoracic and lumbar extension, this can result in scapular depression and downward rotation via, among others things, excessive lat dominance, which leads to a lot of our shoulder and elbow dysfunction.  On the other hand, too little thoracic extension results in scapular anterior tilt and decreased glenohumeral external rotation (“lay back”), also resulting in dysfunction and pathology. 

As a quick review, you want to be able to answer the following questions before prescribing T-Spine extension exercises:

  • Is there a lack of T-spine extension (or rotation). If not, then why prescribe T-spine extension mobility drills?
  • Where is the extension coming from (upper or lower T-spine, L-spine, C-spine)?
  • Is the athlete already at end-range extension and if so, is our attempt to “gain” extension at end-range creating unwanted motion elsewhere? (hypermobility)
  • Lastly, if an athlete presents with mal-alignment (too much thoracic extension or thoracic flexion): first, identify it, then determine why this is happening prior to simply prescribing a bunch of mobility exercises.

Conclusion

This point, along with many others, is a main reason why we chose to develop the Elite Baseball Mentorship program.  As we gather together in these groups, many conventionally accepted ideas and concepts are questioned and explored and the demand for proof (whether it be from research or experience) requires us all to think more critically.  Most importantly, with baseball-related injuries continuing to rise, this allows us to question the status quo of generally accepted baseball-specific protocols.  Ultimately, this collaboration allows us all to advance the bar and develop a better opportunity for our athletes to meet their goals through better health and performance.

Also, if you are interested in more information like this, we would love to see you at one of our Elite Baseball Mentorships. We'll be hosting these events in June, October, and December of 2014. Please click here for more information.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank Michele Ionno, MS, SPT (Wash U Program in Physical Therapy) for his contribution to the 3rd phase of this blog series.

About the Author

Eric Schoenberg, MSPT, CSCS is co-owner of Momentum Physical Therapy, located in Milford, MA.  He can be reached at eric@momentumpt.com

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Is Thoracic Spine Extension Work Necessary? – Part 2

Today is Part 2 of a detailed series on the thoracic spine from Eric Schoenberg.  If you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1. -EC

At this point, we need to quickly touch on the concept of “neutral.”  This is certainly a hot topic in the physical therapy and strength and conditioning worlds, as it should be.  For our purposes, we like to be clear that when someone is too flexed (i.e. fully slumped posture), our cue is to “extend back to neutral.”  In addition, when someone is too extended, the cue would be to “flex back to neutral.”  This holds true in all segments of the body and in all three planes of motion (e.g. pelvic tilt, genu valgus, etc.)  The problem that we tend to see is we don’t grade our correction and “overcorrect.”  This results in fixing one problem only to create a new one in the opposite direction.  

In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, he refers to this as the “inverted U curve.”  Its application here is that IF an athlete truly lacks T-spine mobility, then once we properly gain it, continued efforts to improve (rather than just maintain) this mobility will ultimately create a brand new problem (hypermobility).  This needs to be considered when we write new programs and lends itself nicely to the importance of thorough evaluation and re-evaluations.

invertu

To quickly recap part 1, for the purpose of this series, a cue to “extend the T-spine” is really a case of moving out of excessive flexion and learning to control flexion throughout the throwing motion.

In part 2 of this series, we will focus on the postural alignment and movement examination and its implications in developing an individualized exercise prescription for the athlete.  As a quick side note, it is of particular importance to recognize that the body segments don’t work in isolation.  This is a simple statement; however, when attempting to capture the role of a particular body segment or group of exercises, we are missing the big picture if we try to develop a concept without appreciating the kinetic chain.

In our opinion, the hallmark of an effective examination is the ability to properly identify the athlete’s unique postural alignment and movement tendencies.  These exams must be done with the shirt off to appreciate the bony and soft tissue anatomy. With respect to the thoracic spine, we first identify whether that athlete is in flexion, neutral, or extension.

Here's an example of an athlete with a flattened T-spine, and shoulder blades that have no idea what to do!

FlattenedTSpine

Additionally, we need to appreciate the position of the scapula and its impact on the appearance of perceived thoracic flexion.  An athlete that presents with scapular anterior tilt, abduction, and/or internal rotation can easily fool you into thinking that the athlete’s upper back is “rounded” or kyphotic. An athlete with a flat thoracic spine (hypokyphosis) will have a more prominent scapula due to lack of normal contour of the T-spine and ribcage.  In extreme cases, we will see the following:

1. Hypokyphosis (lack of T-spine flexion)

Hypokyphosis

2. Scheurmann's Disease (greater than 60 degrees, and structural)

Scheurmanns

On x-ray, these cases will show a change in the normal vertebral “wedging.”  The intervention in this case is NOT to attempt to fix the mobility issue, but first determine if the issue is osseous/structural in nature.  Just like any other joint (the hip immediately comes to mind), you can’t stretch bone and any attempt to do so will result in an unhappy athlete!  These are extreme examples, but certainly something that warrants inclusion in this article.

However, more commonly in the physical therapy or strength and conditioning settings, we will see more “middle of the road” cases where there is too much or too little thoracic mobility. As you can see in the lateral view below, this athlete appears to be in excessive thoracic flexion, but it's really just anterior tilting of the scapulae.

SideView

However, in the posterior view, you'd be able to appreciate that the T-spine is relatively extended compared to accepted norms (40° flexion = normal curve). 

Moving forward, static alignment does not tell the whole story, so don’t test it alone and don’t let it fool you.  All too often, I hear people trying to prove a point about pitching mechanics or exercise technique and the only proof is a still photo.  This practice needs to stop because it is impossible to capture the complexity of human movement and make a conclusive statement from a screen shot. This concept is why the combination of the postural exam and movement analysis is so critical.

Athletes don’t get injured when they are standing still. They get injured moving (incorrectly!).  For that reason, watch your athlete’s move.  The concepts of FMS or whatever collection of multi-joint movements you like to combine to form a “movement examination” are great tools to collect data on your athlete’s preferred movement patterns.  However, it is also critical to watch the athlete perform the unique movements of their chosen sport. 

In our case, we like to talk to our athlete’s about pitching and we certainly like to watch them throw.  Asking questions like:  “What do you struggle with mechanically” or “where do you break down when you get tired” gives us valuable insight into movement tendencies and injury risk.  With respect to exercise, we observe closely to make sure we are achieving the desired result of the exercise.  In addition, we ask our athletes where they feel a particular exercise to help determine activation patterns and sequencing (motor control).

In addition to watching our athletes throw/pitch, swing, and/or run, we employ simple movement tests such as standing bilateral shoulder flexion (and abduction) to gather critical information about movement quality, timing, and relative stiffness. 

With respect to the video above, consider the excessive extension moment at the thoracic (and lumbar spine) due to increased relative flexibility resulting from poor anterior core stiffness.  This video brings up a lot of questions in my mind:

  • Does this athlete need more mobility work into thoracic extension? 
  • If he attempted these exercises, how can you be sure the motion will even come from the right place?
  • If an athlete is truly “lax” congenitally, then why would they lack mobility at the T-Spine and nowhere else?  
  • Are you sure his lack of shoulder flexion is due to decreased thoracic mobility? 
  • Or, is he too flexible in his spine and too readily pulls into extension due to the stiffness of his lats? 

My point here is we need to consider the fact that improperly prescribed exercise will make the athlete worse than no exercise at all.  So, if you’re not sure, don’t guess.  Refer out or continue to re-assess until it becomes clear what the athlete needs.

Another simple movement test that we will have the athlete perform is standing thoracic flexion and extension.  Here we will assess the timing (quality), location, and amount of available range of motion that the athlete is working with.

It is also good practice to watch an athlete perform an exercise prior to putting it in his program. 

This athlete (also pictured above) demonstrates faulty movement by not getting out of extension at the top of his pushup prior to initiating the “pike” portion of the yoga push up.  When corrected, in the video below, he did a better job of getting his T-spine in position to allow his scapula to have a better platform to upwardly rotate and elevate as his hands moved overhead.  This was not a mobility issue; this was a patterning or motor control problem.

I should mention that in a full examination, we would consider movement testing of thoracic rotation and sidebending, ventilation, rib cage alignment, quadruped position/movement, etc.  But, for the purposes of this series, we again are choosing to focus primarily on the sagittal plane.  Pay attention to the way in which the athlete returns from flexion to get a good idea of his/her recruitment strategies.

In conclusion, the combination of static posture, movement testing, and unique athletic movement allows us to create a well-rounded profile of the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.  Be sure that your examination a) identifies areas of limitation that need to be addressed and b) determines the reason why the athlete has these impairments.

In the third and final part of this series, we will discuss the concepts of relative flexibility and motor control as it relates to the topic of thoracic spine extension.

Also, if you’re interested in more information like this, we would love to see you at one of our Elite Baseball Mentorships, with the next one taking place in June. Click here to learn more.

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