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Is Heavy Lifting Good For Pitchers?

If you look around social media, you’ll see that more baseball pitchers are lifting “heavy.” This is, in general, a good trend – pitchers were coddled and treated with fragility for years.

But, pitchers are different – different than position players, and they’re different than other athletes in general.

But, how different are they? Is heavy lifting good for pitchers, in the same way that it’s good for other athletes? Let’s discuss.

 

First: Is Lifting Heavy Even A Real Distinction?

Honestly, it’s a stupid, often meaningless term.

As far as I can tell, it simply means that a person tries hard to lift weights. If you lift consistently and try hard, well, then by default you’ll get stronger, weights will get heavier, and there you go – progressive overload eventually leads to heavy weights.

Really, “I lift heavy” just means “I do what I’m told and I try to get stronger in a progressive manner.”

For players who have been in a decent college program, they get this by default. Most large programs with good strength coaches have their baseball players – including pitchers – do the big compound lifts like chin ups, squats, deadlifts, etc.

One who defines himself as “a pitcher who lifts heavy” is really just a pitcher who enjoys lifting and pushing himself more than others. The heaviness of it is partly just a choice to keep progressing.

Remember: if you can only squat 150lbs, you can’t just choose to lift heavy one day and squat 315. It takes time.

What’s actually important, though is this: When a pitcher draws the line.

 

When Lifting Heavier Becomes Riskier than the Reward

We need to look at the big picture.

The problem is, what you’re doing today may not be hurting you precisely today. But, it may be eating away at you. Ask a career distance runner – his knees felt fine at 20, 30, 40, maybe even 50. But by 55, he has no cartilage left and is in chronic pain.

Missing a rep trying to get up a 455lb deadlift today may not hurt anything but pride. But, here’s what it’s doing to an arm that’s extremely valuable to a pitcher:

  • Passing tremendous strain through the forearms, elbows,
  • Passing tremendous strain through the biceps tendon (which attaches to the labrum)
  • Passing tremendous strain through the back, shoulders, spine
  • Building a large, thick upper back that may not be good for shoulder mechanics and flexibility

 

Now, the SAID principle states that the body responds to the demands placed upon it. We know this to be true – do enough push ups, and your chest will grow bigger and stronger to do the job more efficiently and protect the tissues from being damaged by the activity.

Specific

Adaptations to

Imposed

Demands

 

If we want our pitching arm to be stronger and more resilient to injury, we have to impose stress on them, and weightlifting is a great way to do this. Think about rock climbers – they have the strongest forearms and fingers on the planet, because they impose the task of clinging to tiny holds on the face of a sheer rock.

Yet, rock climbers have injuries – though fiercely strong, forearm muscles tear and tendons pop. The body must recover and keep stresses below the failing threshold of the weakest tissues in the chain. The very thing that made them strong also breaks them down.

 

When Is Heavy Too Heavy?

I’ve worked with many, many young baseball and softball players as a full-time strength coach. It frustrates me that countless young kids imitate college players and the clients of very green trainers; they want to work out exactly as they do, because it looks cool on Instagram.

Just because it may work for one player (or appear to be working today) does not mean it’s good for that player long-term, or good for others at all.

Bro! Pitchers should lift heavy, bro!

Before I tell you what I think is too heavy, I’m going to tell you: I’ve seen firsthand how my strength training programs have affected hundreds of young pitchers, unlike many internet-only trainers. I adjust workouts each month in my academy, especially as their throwing volume changes. It’s complex and learning how to optimize an athlete’s workout in person is important.

I’ve seen firsthand how complaints of elbow pain decreased when I lowered the volume of heavy deadlifting, overhead pulling, and farmers carries. All are great exercises to build strength, but can make throwing arms angry.

Yet, getting strong is important. There are three phases that determine if you need to keep pushing, or start backing off to maintain strength and reduce injury risk.

 

Foundation Phase: Large Upfront Gains

Athletes with a low training age (0-3 years) are going to make large performance gains – including throwing harder – by getting stronger and putting on muscle, provided their flexibility doesn’t suffer too much.

This means getting big lifts up to:

  • Squat: 1.0x bodyweight on the bar for 8 reps
  • Romanian Deadlift: 1.0x bodyweight on bar for 12 reps
  • Trap Deadlift: 1.5x bodyweight on bar for 6 reps
  • Front Squat: 1.0x bodyweight on the bar for 8 reps
  • Barbell Hip Thrust: 2.0x bodyweight on bar for 8 reps
  • Chin Ups: 8 reps from full hang with no assistance

 

Johnny Wholstaff, a fictional pitcher who is 16 years old and weighs 160lbs, should hope to be able to:

  • Squat 160 for 8
  • RDL 160 for 12
  • Trap Deadlift 240 for 6
  • Front squat 160 for 8
  • Hip Thrust 320 for 8
  • Do 8 chin ups.

 

These are good benchmarks for a pitcher aged 13-21 with a low training age, and he will see good results from reaching these milestones. Use them as a guide, not as an absolute.

 

Intermediate Phase: Higher Weights, Diminishing Reward

Once a pitcher can check off all the above big lift benchmarks, usually after 3-5 years of training, he’ll enter an intermediate phase where he is:

  • Pretty strong
  • Pretty good at lifting, as far as technique is concerned
  • Still seeing performance increases, but at a lower rate

 

We are all aware of diminishing returns, and they start to show up here – we’re now fighting for smaller incremental gains in performance. That’s okay! – keep going. Now, we’re building to fill our strength and power “bucket.” Go beyond the recommended weights we had before.

But, that bucket is getting full…

 

In the graphic above, courtesy of Mike Reinold, he was explaining that athletes need a routine that establishes balance – they need strength, but not at the expense of other things like arm care, or good mechanics.

Likewise, pitchers need to throw and have good mechanics, but can’t throw so much that they leave other areas underdeveloped or bodies over-stressed.

As the strength bucket fills, injury risk increases, as tissues are getting stressed much higher to squeeze out ever-smaller performance gains.

 

The Maintenance Phase

Okay. Now, you’re a high school senior, college or pro pitcher. You’ve got a moderate training age (3-6 years) and you’re pretty strong. You weigh 175-220 lbs. If you can lift the goal weights we discussed, it’s time to start allocating more of your time to different things.

Why? Because…

  • You’re strong enough
  • Injury risk is high
  • Performance gains through weightlifting are now very low
  • The risk vs reward is no longer worth it

 

You deadlift 445lbs. You want to get to 495.  Okay – why? What will that do for you? Add more velocity? Probably not. Improve your slider, curve or changeup? Nope. Improve your command? Nope.

Okay. So why? To be the best at weightlifting? To earn a pride button for being the strongest pitcher in the bullpen?

Personally, I reached this phase at age 21, but didn’t know it. I realized it at age 25 and when I did, I started allocating more time to other things, other than simply lifting heavy weight. I had filled my strength bucket and making it overflow wasn’t going to make me a better pitcher.

Are you a powerlifter, or a pitcher? Once you can do the following, it might be time to move on and start allocating less time to strength work and more time to other types of training:

  • Trap Deadlift or Regular Deadlift: 405lbs x 3 reps
  • Squat: 365 x 5 reps
  • Front Squat 335 x 5 reps
  • Chin Ups: 15 bodyweight reps, which is equal to around 5 reps with 50 pounds added
  • Barbell Hip Thrust: 405lbs for 8 reps
  • Farmers walks: 40 yards with 120lbs per hand
  • Bench Press: simply not an important measure of strength for a pitcher.

 

My Recommendations For Pitchers:

Pushing to ultra-high weights on any given lift will have a negligible effect on pitching prowess. It will almost certainly make your arm irritated if you’re lifting that way while pitching at even a moderate volume. And, the risk versus reward simply is not there.

Lifting consistently and progressively (which ultimately means heavy) is great. Yet, it’s important to know when to say when.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Get a program from a trainer who has played the game him or herself, or has worked with a lot of players in real life.
  • More isn’t always better, and there is a definite point of diminished returns that affects risk and reward.
  • Exercises should fit the athlete, not the other way around.
  • When returns are so diminished that they pale in comparison with the risks, then it’s time to back off, move on, or choose new exercises
  • Realize that the goal is the sport, not being the best at lifting.
  • There are countless ways to build explosiveness without the Olympic Lifts, which are sometimes deemed “essential.” No exercise is essential – exercises are merely tools and multiple tools can do the same job.
  • Be careful of the monkey-see, monkey-do that is all too prevalent on social media.

 

Want More Pitching Help?

Check out two of my best resources, both of which are completely free:

 

How to Throw a Hammer Curveball YouTube Video Course

Go here to check out my free online course hosted as a playlist on YouTube.

 

The Pitchers Development Checklist

Go here to get the free checklist to figure out if the pitcher in your life is doing everything he should be to reach the next level.

 

Thanks for reading. Leave a comment below!

A New Injury Epidemic in Baseball Pitchers: Blisters

Injuries to baseball pitchers. You’re probably thinking of an assortment of shoulder and elbow pathologies. The most common ones include labral injuries of the shoulder or ulnar collateral ligament tears of the elbow requiring a Tommy John procedure.

One growing injury trend impacting pitchers at all levels, particularly in collegiate and professional baseball, is blisters. You heard that right. Blisters are causing well over several months per season of cumulative days missed at the Major League Baseball (MLB) level.

These injuries can be particularly debilitating to the throwing hand of pitchers. They can decrease performance through improper ball handling and command, and may result in an inability to throw a baseball without pain or discomfort.

Due to blisters becoming such an issue in baseball, let’s step back and quickly look at the data. Let’s review how these injuries are occurring, as well as discuss ways in which medical professionals can not only treat these injuries but work to prevent them in the first place.

 

Are Blisters in Baseball Pitchers an Epidemic?

During the 2016 and 2017 season each, approximately 190 days were missed in the MLB by pitchers due to blisters. For comparison, between 2012-2015, less than 190 days combined were missed.

So, what happened at the start of 2016?

In a recent article from “The Ringer,” former Dodgers head athletic trainer Stan Conte stated that there’s “no question that there is an increase from previous years.” He continues by stating “the million-dollar question is why. I think we all the talk about the perceived changes in the ball, that has to be on the top of the list.”

The Ringer indicated amongst their incidence data provided below, that “seam-height data” of the baseball testing they had provided from the MLB, that the seams on baseballs itself are lower now than they were before 2016. Can seam height truly dictate the incidence of blisters?

 

Why Do Blisters Occur?

Aside from the growing issue that blisters potentially pose to baseball pitchers, it’s critical for training room medical professionals to understand how to address these issues.

Blisters can form on any finger of the throwing hand of a pitcher. However, typically speaking, most blisters form on the middle finger. This is most likely due to the middle finger being the last point of contact during a fastball pitch.

In addition, these blisters can also occur more frequently on the thumb or index finger, as well. I’ve had pitchers tell me in the past that during a circle change-up pitch, they can even get contact between the nail of their index finger and the inside part of their thumb upon ball release.

Overall, blisters form due to the friction that occurs between the ball (or seam of the ball) and the end of a finger.

This repetitive load and friction that occurs with the hundreds and thousands of pitches thrown, can lead to a focal irritation and breakdown of skin.

 

How to Prevent Blisters

There are several ways in which baseball pitchers have attempted to address blisters. Mark Vinson of the Tampa Bay Rays states that “some pitchers use spray-on antiperspirant, which has been shown to help prevent sweat and reduce added moisture from sweat.”

He also recommends that pitchers place their “throwing hand into a bag of rice in between innings to help reduce moisture on their fingers” as well.

The goal of these preventative measures is to maintain integrity of the skin on the fingertip, and ultimately reduce the likelihood of “pruning” from developing from prolonged moisture that can take place from sweat.

However, once a blister has formed, it’s imperative that treatment begins quickly to avoid any potential of prolonged missed time from competition.

 

Treating Blisters in the Baseball Pitcher

The blister, whether filled with clear serous fluid or blood, can often best be addressed by having a sterile drain be applied with a needle to the affected area.

Most importantly, while the drainage should provide instantaneous relief, it’s critical that the blister be monitored to ensure that it does not open up, creating a secondary skin avulsion.

In the cases in which a “chunk” of the skin has been removed through a skin avulsion, it can cause a significant amount of missed time. This is due to basically having an “open wound” on a finger that is constantly becoming further irritated by throwing.

Outside of having a needle drain the blister, other more conservative measures include Dermabond, which is essentially like a “skin super glue” that can perform as another barrier of friction over the injured finger.

If the skin on the finger begins to open up , pitchers may have to address any potential infections that occur. Vinson states that Betadine mixed with water can be useful as “Betadine helps to clean the area, prevent infection and toughen the skin around the affected area over the long-term.”

 

Summary

It’s clear that the incidence of blisters among baseball pitchers at the Major League level is rising dramatically. The reason for this new epidemic is less clear. Is it due to the type of pitches thrown, the seams of the baseball, or other factors? We don’t have an answer.

In the meantime, it’s important for training room professionals and coaches to try to prevent blisters from occurring at all. When they inevitably do occur over the course of a season, training room staff should be educated on how to address these injuries so that the pitcher can return to the field in a pain-free manner.