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Strength Training for Pitchers

Strength Training for Pitchers

by: Eric Cressey

Recently, I received an email inquiry about the value of strength training for pitchers. The individual emailing me had come across the following quote from a pitching "authority:"

"Training will not teach you how to apply more force...only mechanics can do that. And pitching is not about applying more effort into a pitch but is about producing more skilled movements from better timing of all the parts. That will help produce more force.

"No matter how hard you try, you will not get that from your strength training program...no matter who designed it, how much they have promised you it would or your hope that it will be the secret for you."

To say that this surprised me would be an understatement. I'll start with the positive: I agree with him that pitching is all about producing skilled movements secondary to appropriate timing of all the involved "parts." I've very lucky to work hand-in-hand with some skilled pitching coaches who really know their stuff - and trust in me to do my job to complement the coaching they provide.

With that said, however, I disagree that you can't gain (or lose) velocity based exclusively on your strength and conditioning program. On countless occasions, I've seen guys gain velocity without making any changes to their throwing programs or mechanics. I know what many of the devil's advocates in the crowd are thinking: "you're just making that up!" So, if my word isn't enough, how about we just go to the research?

From: Derenne C, Ho KW, Murphy JC. Effects of general, special, and specific resistance training on throwing velocity in baseball: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 2001 Feb;15(1):148-56.

[Note from EC: Yes, it's pathetic that this REVIEW has been out almost seven years and people who are supposedly "in the know" still haven't come across ANY of the studies to which it alludes.]

Practical Applications

Throwing velocity can be increased by resistance training. A rationale for general, special, and specific resistance training to increase throwing velocity has been presented. The following findings and recommendations relevant to strength and conditioning specialists and pitching coaches can be useful from the review of literature.

In the "further reading" section at the end of this article, I have listed ten different studies that each demonstrated a positive effect of weight training on throwing velocity. The authors in the review above also have a table that summarizes 26 studies that examined the effect of different strength protocols on throwing velocity, and 22 of the 26 showed increases over controls who just threw. In other words, throwing and strength training is better than throwing alone for improving velocity -

independent of optimization of mechanics from outside coaching.

The saddest part is that the training programs referenced in this review were nothing short of foo-foo garbage. We're talking 3x10-12 light dumbbell drills and mind-numbing, rubber tubing blasphemy. If archaic stuff works, just imagine what happens when pitchers actually train the right way - and have pitching coaches to help them out?

Oh yeah, 10 mph gains in six months happen - and D1 college coaches and pro scouts start salivating over kids who are barely old enough to drive.

With that rant aside, I'd like to embark on another one: what about the indirect gains associated with strength training? Namely, what about the fact that it keeps guys healthy?

We know that:

a) Pitchers (compared to position players) have less scapular upward rotation at 60 and 90 degrees of abduction -and upward rotation is extremely important for safe overhead activity.

b) 86% of major league pitchers have supraspinatus partial thickness tears.

c) All pitchers have some degree of labral fraying - and the labrum provides approximately 50% of the stability in the glenohumeral joint

d) There is considerable research to suggest that congenital shoulder instability is one of the traits that makes some pitchers better than others (allows for more external rotation during the cocking phase to generate velocity).

e) Most pitchers lack internal rotation range-of-motion due to posterior rotator cuff (and possibly capsular) tightness and morphological changes to bone (retroversion). Subscapularis strength is incredibly important to prevent anterior shoulder instability in this scenario.

We also know that resistance training is the basis for modern physical therapy - which I'm pretty sure is aimed at restoring inappropriate movement patterns which can cause these structural/functional defects/abnormalities from reaching threshold and becoming symptomatic. Do you think that a good resistance training program could strengthen lower traps and serratus anterior to help alleviate this upward rotation problem? Could a solid subscapularis strengthening protocol help with preventing anterior instability? Could a strong rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers allow an individual to work around a torn supraspinatus?

And, last time I checked, strength and conditioning was about more than just being the "weights coach." We do a lot of flexibility/mobility and soft tissue work - and it just so happens that such work does wonders on pec minor, levator scapulae, rhomboids, infraspinatus/teres minor, and a host of other muscles in pitchers.

I also like to tell jokes, do magic tricks, and make shadow puppets on the wall. Am I to assume that these don't play a remarkable role in my athletes' success? I beg to differ. Sure, banging out a set of 20 chin-ups because one of my athletes called me out might make me look like a stupid monkey when my elbows refuse to extend for the subsequent ten minutes, but I still think what we do plays a very important role in our athletes success; otherwise, they wouldn't keep coming back. And, for the record, my shadow puppets are great for building camaraderie and bolstering spirits among the Cressey Performance troops - even if I'm just a "weights coach" or whatever.

This only encompasses a few of the seemingly countless examples I can come up with at a moment's notice. Pitchers are an at-risk population; your number one job in working with a pitcher is to keep him healthy. And, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that a guy who is healthy and super-confident over his monster legs and butt is going to throw a lot harder than a guy who is in pain and as skinny as an Olsen twin because his stubborn pitching coach said strength training doesn't work. You've got to train ass to throw gas!

Last fall, I started working with a pro ball player whose velocity was down from 94 to 88 thanks to a long season - but also because he'd had lower back issues that have prevented him from training. In other words, he counts on strength training to keep his velocity up. And, sure enough, it was a big component of getting him healthy prior to this season.

Putting it into Practice

I suspect that some of the reluctance to recognize strength training as important to pitchers is the notion that it will make pitchers too bulky and ruin pitching-specific flexibility. Likewise, there are a lot of meatheads out there who think that baseball guys can train just like other athletes. While there are a lot of similarities, it's really important to make some specific upper body modifications for the overhead throwing athlete. Contraindicated exercises in our baseball programs include:

  • Overhead lifting (not chin-ups, though)
  • Straight-bar benching
  • Upright rows
  • Front/Side raises (especially empty can - why anyone would do a provocative test as a training measure is beyond me)
  • Olympic lifts aside from high pulls
  • Back squats

The next question, obviously, is "what do you do instead?" Here's a small list:

  • Push-up variations: chain, band-resisted, blast strap
  • Multi-purpose bar benching (neutral grip benching bar)
  • DB bench pressing variations
  • Every row and chin-up you can imagine (excluding upright rows)
  • Loads of thick handle/grip training
  • Medicine ball throws
  • Specialty squat bars: giant cambered bar, safety squat bar
  • Front Squats
  • Deadlift variations

The Take-Home Message

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with strength training program for pitchers. In reality, what is wrong is the assumption that all strength training programs are useless because some are poorly designed and not suited to athletes' needs and limitations. Be leery of people who say strength training isn't important. Everyone - from endurance athletes, to grandmothers, to pitchers - needs it!

Further Reading

1. Bagonzi, J.A. The effects of graded weighted baseballs, free weight training, and simulative isometric exercise on the velocity of a thrown baseball. Master's thesis, Indiana University. 1978.

2. Brose, D.E., and D.L. Hanson. Effects of overload training on velocity and accuracy of throwing. Res. Q. 38:528-533. 1967.

3. Jackson, J.B. The effects of weight training on the velocity of a thrown baseball. Master's thesis, Central Michigan University,. 1994.

4. Lachowetz, T., J. Evon, and J. Pastiglione. The effects of an upper-body strength program on intercollegiate baseball throwing velocity. J. Strength Cond. Res. 12:116-119. 1998.

5. Logan, G.A., W.C. McKinney, and W. Rowe. Effect of resistance through a throwing range of motion on the velocity of a baseball. Percept. Motor Skills. 25:55-58. 1966.

6. Newton, R.U., and K.P. McEvoy. Baseball throwing velocity: A comparison of medicine ball training and weight training. J. Strength Cond. Res. 8:198-203. 1994.

7. Potteiger, J.A., H.N. Williford, D.L. Blessing, and J. Smidt. Effect of two training methods on improving baseball performance variables. J. Appl. Sport Sci. Res. 6:2-6. 1992.

8. Sullivan, J.W. The effects of three experimental training factors upon baseball throwing velocity and selected strength measures. Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University,. 1970.

9. Swangard, T.M. The effect of isotonic weight training programs on the development of bat swinging, throwing, and running ability of college baseball players. Master's thesis, University of Oregon,. 1965.

10. Thompson, C.W., and E.T. Martin. Weight training and baseball throwing speed. J. Assoc. Phys. Mental Rehabil. 19:194-196. 1965.


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Random Friday Thoughts: 11/7/08

1. I'm driving down to Connecticut today, and then going the rest of the way to Long Island for the Major League Strength Coaches Clinic this weekend. I'm excited to present, talk shop, see some old friends, and make excessive use of the phrases: a. "You have to train ass to throw gas." b. "You can't steal second with your foot on first." c. "Is this thing on? Oops! Did I say that out loud?" If you couldn't make the event, you're still in luck; you can pre-order the DVD of the seminar HERE. 2. Last weekend, my girlfriend and I moved all our tupperware to a new cabinet. I have to say: it's changed my life. There's no more cramming containers and lids into a small drawer - and there's no more searching for the long-lost-lid for the weird shaped container that doesn't seem to match. I haven't felt this free, yet organized, since I switched from boxers to boxer-briefs. And, for the record, yes, I just became the first person in history to liken tupperware to male reproductive anatomy. If you ever need a reminder that this blog is all about trendsetting, just bookmark this post. 3. I had a pleasant experience voting on Tuesday - right up until the point at which I went to leave, and I was accosted by a 70-something-year-old women at the door insisting that I take an "I Voted" sticker. It got me to thinking on my walk home from the polls... If 122.3 million people voted in 2004, and they expected 2008 to be even better, we'll assume 130 million people voted. I'm writing this three days early, so the final numbers will surely be slightly different - but being exact isn't important for my point. Let's assume that each one of those stickers costs American taxpayers a penny. That's $1.3 million in stickers! Assuming a salary of $35,000 per teacher, you could hire over 37 teachers nationwide with that money. And, I'm guessing that those 37 teachers would do more good than 130 million stickers that likely went directly to the trash. That said, by the time the 2012 election rolls around, I may very well be on the presidential ticket with the campaign slogan, "Stickers are SO 2008." 4. Twitter seems to be the new rage these days. I'll be honest: I don't know what it is, and the word "Twitter" really evokes the same kind of emotions from me as the "anal leakage" warnings on the old Olestra packages. Plus, I have to say that the minute-by-minute Twitter updates some people give are flat-out stupid: Fred is twittering. He's going to get a drink of water. Fred is twittering. The water wasn't cold, so he got some ice from the freezer. Fred is twittering. The freezer made his nipples hard, and he's strangly aroused. Fred is twittering. Is thirst a more important sensation than his nipple arousal? Fred is twittering. Maybe if he spent less time on the internet, he might kiss a girl sometime before he dies. Seriously, Fred; nobody cares. If you can twitter that much, you really aren't important enough for any of us to give a s**t. 5. I got so busy this week that I literally forgot what day it was - and got a parking ticket (street sweeping) at 12:30AM on Wednesday morning. And, just when you thought I couldn't get any more confused, Bill Gates decided to reformat the Hotmail set-up to make me feel hopelessly inadequate once again. Seriously, Bill - was it really that important? For those of you who are visual learners, the following two photos should sum up my Wednesday. Please note that in both photos, I would be considered the "kickee" and not the "kicker." 6. It's nice to see that researchers and pediatricians have finally upped their recommended daily Vitamin D intake to 1,000IU+, particularly for those in northern climates during the winter months. 7. Speaking of Vitamin D and sunlight, want to know the easiest way to recognize a pro baseball player in New England in November? The tan line! 8. As I'm sure you noticed, there was very little to do with fitness in this week's blog. Fortunately, I can assure you that you burned at least two calories while reading it. Nice job, skinny. Have a good weekend.
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Random Friday Thoughts: 10/31/08

It's Halloween, and as you're reading this, I'm down in Georgia for baseball stuff. Because I'm actually writing this on Tuesday night, it's hard to get in the mood and be spooky, but I'll do my best. 1. I'll be doing a LOT of baseball seminars over the next few months: November 8-9 (NY), December 14-16 (TX), January 30 (MA), and February 14 (MA). For more information, check out my schedule page. 2. I actually think the Fat Tax is a good idea. While we're at it, can we institute an a**hole tax for guys who curl in the squat rack? My girlfriend was lifting at a gym down in Southern CT this week, and she told me a guy took up a squat rack all morning to do three curl variations - and then proceeded to set up two bars in the rack to do dips. The good news for him, though, is that the Horse's A** trophy he receives partially offsets the tax. 3. When dealing with athletes post-ACL reconstruction, it's obviously important to get range-of-motion back quickly. However, the direction of that ROM can actually tell you quite a bit about what is going on. When someone is struggling to get knee extension, the problems are usually do to scarring. Flexion problems, on the other hand, are usually related to graft tensioning issues. In other words, when there is loss of flexion, it is usually surgical. When there is loss of extension, it is usually rehabilitative. When there is a loss of both flexion and extension, the problem is - you guessed it - Richard Simmons. Yes, he's spooked, spooky, and stupid. I don't want your trick or your treat, Richard; I just want you to put some pants on and get a haircut. 4. Scientists recently confirmed a virgin birth in a shark. Apparently, the baby shark (called a pup, for reasons I can't explain) carried no male genetic material. Immediately upon its birth, the shark started bitching about how it didn't want to get too bulky. Scientists fear for the pup's survival, as it refuses to swim fast enough to catch its prey because it doesn't want to get out of the "fat burning zone." 5. I went into quite a bit of detail on why I dislike the term "shoulder impingement" in my newsletter this week. Check it out HERE. Just five this week, as I've got lots to do. Have a great weekend!
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Random Friday Thoughts: 9/26/08

1. We finally got our act together and put up the Elite Baseball Development Program page up on the Cressey Performance website. We’ve already got more than a dozen pro ball players committed for the off-season with several more just confirming schedules and accommodations. It should be a great time. We’ll be making this blog pretty interactive with videos as the guys get after it this winter in scenic Hudson, MA, the vacation destination of choice for guys who like to lift heavy stuff, run fast, dominate medicine ball walls, and throw wicked pissah fastballs. 2. Word’s gotten out that I’ve made myself a guinea pig for the Warpspeed Fat Loss program along with Kevin and Danny at CP. It’s the truth. Honestly, I took my before pictures and they weren’t nearly as bad as I expected to be, but I’m still going to go through with it. I won’t be doing the programming to a T, but in terms of diet, I’m 100% on board. We’ll see where it takes me; I’m not really worried about making it Warpspeed, to be honest; I just want to see some subtle changes and not lose strength. 3. Eric Chessen is doing a seminar in Hanover, MA on exercise for children with developmental disabilities. Eric specializes in autism and has some awesome ideas. Check it out HERE. 4. Also on the seminar front, Dr. Mike Maxwell has Dr. Stuart McGill presenting on October 25 in New Brunswick, Canada. Dr. McGill is absolutely fantastic in seminar and I’d highly recommend you check it out if you’re in that neck of the woods. 5. I got asked this week why strengthening the external rotators of the humerus drives the bench press up. The truth is that I don't know that the external rotators have a huge direct effect on the bench aside from stabilizing the humeral head in the glenoid fossa. However, if you don't have humeral head and scapular stability, it's like trying to shoot a cannon from a canoe when you bench. Probably more significantly, though, strengthening the external rotators is valuable because it indirectly helps you build strength by keeping your shoulders health for the long haul. I'll take a guy who can train continuously for a year over a guy who trains nine months out of the year and nurses a bum shoulder the rest of the year. That said, in the grand scheme of things, I’d put more emphasis on a number of other factors with respect to improving the bench press independent of actually benching. 6. Thought for the weekend: hindsight is definitely 20/20. Doh!
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Diminutive Reliever Shows Stature Isn’t Everything

Here's a great article about Cressey Performance athlete Tim Collins in the Toronto Blue Jays system. Diminutive Reliever Shows Stature Isn't Everything Atta' boy, Tim!
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Back Squats and Overhead Throwers

Q: You don't like back squats for overhead throwers, is this because of anterior instability or some other reason? A: In a word, yes; anterior stability is so crucial for a pitcher that I’m not tempted to push it. Then again, that’s the short version – and it also assumes that the lifter is using a closer-grip, which mandates more external rotation. So, to the casual observer, the solution to this would be to simply bring the hands out and squat with a wider grip, which requires less external rotation. Unfortunately, this logic is flawed, too, as you have to abduct (elevate) your humerus another 15-20 degrees to get to that position. In the process, you bring it further into the “classic” impingement zone. This not only compromises the rotator cuff, but perhaps more significantly, the long head of the biceps, which is an extremely common nuisance in both powerlifters and overhead throwing athletes. All that said, while I’d never do it with a pitcher, you can probably get away with it with position players because they have better upward rotation. I wouldn’t go near it if thoracic spine range of motion is subpar – or the athlete had a history of shoulder or elbow issues. Sign-up Today for our FREE Baseball Newsletter and Receive a Copy of the Exact Stretches used by Cressey Performance Pitchers after they Throw!
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Cressey Performance in the Boston Globe

Training for On-Field Rewards: Local Ballplayers Flock to Hudson Gym EDIT: It was actually a double-dip on publicity on Sunday, as it turns out: On Campus: Ostrander, Scanlan get northern exposure
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Athletes aren’t as smart as we think….

It never ceases to amaze me when we have an athlete do a 30-second isometric hold (such as a side bridge), and then they'll finish the set at 12 or 13 seconds and think that they're good to go. Apparently, I'm not the only one that noticed this phenomenon - and athletes will unintentionally go overboard as often as they'll underachieve. According to Wilk, Meister, and Andrews, when professional pitchers were asked to throw at 50% effort, the radar guns showed that they were actually throwing at 83% of peak velocity. And, at a requested 75%, they were popping 90% fastballs. Perhaps we should stop worrying about ascending oscillatory conjugated inverted periodization, and instead teach athletes how to count and follow the perceived exertion chart.
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Labral Tears and Pitchers

Q: I've developed some issues with my right shoulder due mostly to pitching in baseball. I've had an MRI done recently and I've been working with an ART specialist as well. So here's the email I just received from my chiropractor: I just got your MRI results in, it shows tendonitis of the supraspinatus tendon and a small "hot spot" on the anterior/superior aspect of the glenoid labrum, which might represent a small tear. The radiologist has recommended an arthrogram, which is an MRI with contrast injected directly into the joint capsule instead of intravenously. You have two options: We could try some more ART and more laser treatments. If your pain decreased after one treatment, than I think it would definitely help. Option two is referral to an orthopedist. He would in turn probably refer you for 4-6 weeks of physical therapy. In any event, the possibility of a major labral tear is slim as a large tear should have been visible on the MRI. Based on the MRI results what do you recommend as far as the options he layed out for me? The ART has helped some but it is still very painful to throw hard. I have no clue what to do and I'm afraid of getting in over my head with medical bills and still having a hurt shoulder. A: Congratulations! You have the same MRI that every pitcher I've ever seen has ever had! I can pretty much tell you that your labrum is frayed regardless of whether or not you get the MRI. According to the research, the main difference between those in pain and those not in pain is internal rotation ROM. Get the PT - and bring this list with you: 1. Scapular stability 2. Thoracic spine range of motion 3. Glenohumeral (ball-and-socket joint) range of motion 4. Overall soft tissue quality (especially posterior capsule) 5. Rotator cuff strength 6. Cervical spine function 7. Mobility of the opposite hip 8. Mobility of the opposite ankle. 9. Core stability/force transfer 10. Breathing patterns Tell them that you want to address each of these 10 factors (in this order) in your rehab. In particular, tell them to check internal rotation ROM, and even print this out for them, if need be: http://www.jaaos.org/cgi/content/full/14/5/265/JA0008404FIG9


Click here to purchase the most comprehensive shoulder resource available today: Optimal Shoulder Performance - From Rehabilitation to High Performance.
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Quad Pulls in Baseball

Q: There have been a few quadriceps pulls in MLB this year. Have you seen these before in baseball players? What gives? A: This is why I love baseball; it's probably one of the most at-risk sports you'll ever see (particularly in pitchers). Here's a little excerpt from a slide in a recent presentation I gave on training for overhead athletes: -Very Long Competitive Season >200 games as a pro? >100 College/HS? -Unilateral Dominance/Handedness Patterns Asymmetry is a big predictor of injury Switch hitters – but no “switch throwers!” -The best pitchers – with a few exceptions – are the tallest ones. The longer the spine, the tougher it is to stabilize. -Short off-season + Long in-season w/daily games = tough to build/maintain strength, power, flexibility, and optimal soft tissue quality Specific to the quad pulls, I'd add to this list that baseball guys rarely hit top speed; all of their sprint work is done in acceleration, where the quads are dominant. Factor in that they spend a lot of time sitting on airplanes/buses, and it's no surprise that they'd get tight anteriorly. It's why it's so important to really hammer on hip mobility in any population that sits a lot.

The stop and go nature of the sport also dictates that strains would be common, whether they are groins, hip flexors, hamstrings, or quads (likely rectus femoris, which is a hip flexor that can get overactive, particularly alongside poor psoas function). So, all that said, before anyone jumps to conclusions and tries to criticize some strength coach, it's important to consider: a) the certain amount of happenstance that occurs with any baseball player due to the nature of the game and the season b) what that athlete does on his own in the off-season In terms of "b," I’ve seen some pretty bad stuff, unfortunately. For many guys, it becomes a leg extensions and curls off-season if they're on their own - or they do nothing. I'd like to think that our success in working with baseball guys is not just in the fact that we've made the programming good, but also in the fact that we've changed the culture a bit in our guys: they appreciate what lifting is doing for them and look forward to getting after it in the gym. Sign-up Today for our FREE Baseball Newsletter and Receive a Copy of the Exact Stretches used by Cressey Performance Pitchers after they Throw!
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