Posts

Strength-Speed: Customized Mechanics for Baseball Pitchers

This post comes from Graeme Lehman, who has been working on his “customized mechanics” series on his website. Graeme aims to build mechanics and train each athlete based on their physical profile. You can find the original post here. Be sure to check out his website for more great content.

Below is the chart that Graeme uses to illustrate how we must train each pitcher differently.

 

Today’s focus is going to be on “Strength-Speed” which is a type of strength that is described as moving a moderately heavy load at a moderate speed. This is important because when we initiate the pitching delivery we are in fact moving a moderate load, in the form of your own body weight, at a moderate speed, before moving faster and faster as we climb the kinetic chain and let go of the baseball.

To put some numbers with the term moderate we can think of an external training load as being about 75-85% of 1RM while the speed is in the 0.75-1.0 m/s range.

The intent on moving the load, however, should not be moderate since you should be moving at a max speed. Due to the load, the speed then slows down to this “moderate” range.

Looking at the chart below we can see some of the exercises that are associated with this part of the force-velocity curve.  These types of exercises help us measure both how much “strength-speed” an athlete has as well as providing a means to train and improve this area, if this athlete needs to spend time and energy improving this athletic quality.

 

The two types of exercises that we see on either side of “Strength-Speed” are Olympic Lifting and weighted jumps.

Before we move onto the controversial topic of Olympic Lifting for baseball players I do want to mention that traditional lifts like deadlifts, bench press or squats can also be performed in this range of moderate load and speed.

However, it’s harder to use them as an assessment tool since approximately 34% of each lift is spent accelerating while the remaining 66% is spent decelerating the weight.

 

Olympic Lifting – The Controversy for Baseball

Olympic lifting for baseball is a controversial topic but controversy gets people’s attention.

In fact, there is a good chance that you are reading this site due to the fact that I did an interview with Eric Cressey discussing my research since it helped him justify why he doesn’t use Olympic lifting with his baseball players, in particular pitchers.

In this interview, we talked about how he was receiving a lot of criticism when he wrote that he doesn’t use Olympic lifts for his pitchers.

For some strength and conditioning professionals, this was blasphemous since Olympic lifts are held in such high regard for some coaches.

But like any exercise or drill we must weigh the risks vs the rewards to see if it is the right tool for the job. In my opinion traditional Olympic lifts like the clean and snatch do not provide enough rewards to outweigh the risks which could be an injury to the wrist’s and elbows, not to mention the fact that it isn’t a great predictor of throwing velocity since it isn’t specific enough to the movement.

Lower body power that can be attained from moving a moderate load at a moderate speed can definitely help out when you’re on the mound. This is especially true of weaker players.

Let’s look for a “Win-Win” situation where we can work on producing this type of force with the lower body without having to catch a heavy barbell on our shoulders and wrists.

Movements like jump shrugs or high pulls allow for us to “reject what is useless and accept what is useful”. These are known in the S&C world as Olympic Lifting derivatives.

In fact there are research papers like this one or this one out there that show that Olympic weightlifting derivatives that don’t include the catch phase like a high pull or jump shrug produce just as much benefit.

If we are going to use these types of lifts then we need to find a way to quantify them and the best way to do this is to measure bar speed.

Radar guns don’t pick up barbell velocity very well so if you want to use Olympic lifting derivatives to assess how much “strength-speed” a particular athlete has then you need to get your hands on a device like the tendo unitbar sensi or push device.

The reason that you need to quantify the speed is that if we only use the weight on the bar as a guide the Olympic lifts tend to be too slow in order to get the benefits we want from training in strength-speed zone.

“I’ve mentioned this before idea before here when I read an article by Dr. Bryan Mann who is an expert in the field of velocity based training.  He recounts a story about how he measured the velocity of the Olympic lifts with his football team when the weight on the bar was the primary focus.”

When he measured the speeds, they were in the 0.6 to 0.8m/s range when his guys were performing hang cleans so it was only the fastest guys that were just barely in this “strength-speed” range of 0.75 to 1.0 m/s.

The proof that it was too slow came when they tested vertical jumps and didn’t see any improvements. But when the speed of the bar became the focus, the jump heights went up.

Jump height is a far better indicator of on-field football performance which is the reason we don’t see Olympic lifting at the NFL combine.

Remember that we are using the weight room to increase our performance on the mound. The fact that we aren’t lifting the weight with one leg in the frontal plane, like we see on the mound, still means that the benefits that a pitcher gets from using Olympic lifts, even if they are performed fast enough and safe enough, might not be the right choice for each athlete.

But I do really like how they can be used to help an athlete initiate power from a complete stand still. This is an area that I feel a lot of players with lots of mobility, elasticity and limb length could use since they can’t get enough FORCE in the first place in order to take advantage of these qualities which help produce SPEED. Remember that FORCE x SPEED = POWER.

So if a player is generally weak like we talked about in the absolute strength article it is pretty safe to assume that their strength-speed isn’t very good either. Personally, I like to use some traditional lifts like squats and deadlifts with an emphasis on speed to help increase this quality while also making them stronger overall.

Even if the bar spends more than half the time slowing down I still take it over trying to catch the weight.

Even guys that have lots of absolute strength can benefit from this type of training if they can’t move 75-85% of their 1RM in that speed range that we are looking for.

In other words, this player is strong but slow, which doesn’t allow for max power when we are talking about a 5 oz. baseball.

To sum things up here I think that in most cases Olympic lifts don’t provide baseball players the biggest bang for their buck but if you are going use them I suggest:

  • not catching the weight
  • starting from a standstill
  • measure bar velocity

The next part of this series will talk about weight jumps as we make our way towards “speed-strength”.  This one should be fun to put together since I have some examples of guys that can throw 95mph+ doing some weighted jumps.

The Four Myths of Youth Baseball Injury Prevention

I recently spent a weekend with many high school baseball players as part of a summer academy here in Southern California. The experience was great—the teaching, instruction on technique and performance, as well as lessons on leadership were memorable—and wow, these kids are great players, too.

I had a chance to speak with a lot of the players, not only on some of their minor varied injuries, but to address injury prevention as a whole with the players. As I reflected on my time speaking with the coaches and players, it was apparent to me that there is a lot of myths regarding injury prevention and overall arm care. These myths seem to be perpetuated by travel ball coaches and the media.

I wanted to briefly address some of the main myths that I have seen or encountered that may be prevalent in other communities or teams. These myths don’t represent any certain team, organization, or specific area, but include a collection of thoughts that I think can be very helpful for parents, coaches and players alike.

 

Myth 1 – “Rest is Rehab After an Injury”

One of the most interesting conversations I had with an athlete this past weekend was regarding a previous injury that he sustained to his shoulder.

He told me that he was instructed to “shut it down,” and rest from baseball activities. He said he did just that, for two months. I asked the athlete what type of stuff he did during that period of inactivity from baseball.

He quickly told me, “nothing, I rested and felt better afterwards.”

While a period of rest is important, particularly to curb the cumulative “microtrauma” that is taking place over the course of a season or summer, rehab should always be an active process.

As an athlete, especially during a “resting” phase after injury or even between starts or tournaments, there should always be a varying level of rehab that does not include throwing the baseball. Throwing a baseball should be reserved for certain activities that may include bullpen sessions or mechanics-driven instruction.

However, I would stress to all the youth players a few things. It’s incredibly important to not focus on just the “reactive” side of injury. This includes the “my shoulder hurts” or “my elbow is really tight and bothersome.”

Instead, focusing on a “preventative” approach is often more beneficial. In this way, we can work on keeping arms healthy and prevent future injury, as opposed to just addressing an athlete who is in pain.

To reiterate, “resting” during a baseball season or during a period of injury, should not be completely passive. This should not be complete rest. This should be relative rest.

Relative rest includes soft tissue mobility to restore range of motion or resistance band work to increase muscle activation. Baseball players should continue to improve the resiliency of their bodies and arms to tolerate the stresses of playing baseball during the times in which they are not actually playing.

 

Myth 2 – “Playing Year Round Builds Strength and Ability”

In my opinion, one of the greatest threats to the health of a youth baseball player, is simply playing baseball year-round.

By playing baseball during the entire course of a year, the athlete never has the opportunity to halt the cumulative microtrauma of throwing a baseball over the course of a season. Year-round play also prevents the ability for a true off-season to rest and address deficits in strength and coordination that can actually help baseball performance.

Dr. Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, AL, best describes this level of sports participation in a 2012 article stating that pitching competitively more than 8 months per year increased the odds of surgery by 5 times. That’s truly startling, and represents one of the easiest ways to avoid injury – don’t play as much.

While I do advocate for having a period of no baseball throwing, I think it is still important to perform active exercise, especially for the core and the lower half. Proper training of the core and lower half can reduce the athlete’s risk for injury. This is similar to the first myth. Rest does not mean do nothing.

Lastly, throwing all year can obviously bring upon concerns of arm fatigue. Dr. Fleisig continued in the same article above by reporting that a pitcher who regularly pitches fatigued was 36 times as likely to require surgery.

While these numbers are staggering, they both represent modifiable ways that we can avoid injury. In other words, playing year-round and playing fatigued are both factors that can be avoided through proper communication.

 

Myth 3 – “Throwing Faster is Due to Just Weighted Baseballs”

Velocity is the name of the game, especially in youth baseball. Athletes are infatuated with how fast they can throw, as they believe that it is the sole determinant of success and college opportunities.

We are truly in the “velocity era,” in baseball now. Injuries occur more and more, not only in terms of frequency, but as well in a variation of the type of injury.

This article is not necessarily to address the benefits or disadvantages of weighted baseballs, I want to briefly touch upon the misconception that arm strength via the use of weighted baseballs are the ultimate solution.

I believe that aside from improving mechanics, which can easily stress the shoulder and elbow in ways that are potentially harmful, lower body rotational strength, improving muscle mass, and increasing generalized body weight in an effective manner are the most critical factors towards improving velocity.

While arm strength, a resilient rotator cuff, good shoulder range of motion, and adequate thoracic spine mobility are all important to tolerate the demands of throwing a baseball, developing a powerful lower half rotational component can greatly impact the force that is even able to be dissipated through the arm.

Lastly, I spent a lot of time with skinny baseball players this past weekend. Granted some of these kids are only 15 or 16 years old, but a few of them can throw in the upper 80’s. While this is fairly impressive, I can only imagine the improvements in velocity that will simply take place from not being 140 pounds.

Young athletes can easily get caught up in the newest training tools such as weighted baseballs, but the easiest way to develop velocity without actually throwing is to improve lower half strength and rotational power in addition to simply becoming bigger and stronger by gaining effective muscle-dominant weight.

Everything else is just gravy.

 

Myth 4 – “Innings Pitched in Different Settings Don’t Aggregate”

One of the most troubling conversations I had with a youth athlete this weekend was with one who had shoulder discomfort. He told me he made over 20 outings this past season as a starting pitcher during his high school season and that he recently participated in a weekend college showcase by throwing 95 pitches.

Admittedly, the athlete told me that he was fatigued and sore, but he felt that the pitches thrown recently in the showcase should be considered differently than the ones he threw recently as his high school season ended.

It’s important to note that all pitches count towards the cumulative stress on your throwing arm, whether it be during a live session or simply to the catcher as part of a bullpen setting.

Dr. Fleisig reported in the same 2012 article that averaging more than 80 pitchers per game at the youth level almost quadrupled the chance of surgery.

I often tell young players that they need to be their greatest advocate. Understanding and communicating their pitch counts, conveying feelings of fatigue, and being able to say “no.”

 

Final Thoughts

While these myths represent a brief snapshot of conversations I had this past weekend, other players, coaches, and health care providers can probably relate to these myths in some way.

Ultimately, from an injury rehab profession perspective, I think a lot of our attention is towards injury reaction and rehab, when it should shift to injury prevention with a good grasp of the modifiable injury risk factors for optimal baseball performance moving forward.

Combining Strength Training And Throwing Programs For Baseball Pitchers

The increases in pitching velocity and the distance guys are covering when they go yard tells one thing for sure… Guys are getting in the gym and getting bigger, faster and stronger. Period.

That’s great. As a matter of fact, nothing could make me happier as a strength and conditioning coach. But let it be said, with training comes a responsibility on educating athletes as to how and when is the best way and time to incorporate it.

This gets especially tricky when it needs to be integrated with a throwing program. A great program should incorporate throwing and strength training as ONE program and not viewed as two separate entities. Let me try and briefly explain why one hand washes the other.

When an athlete lifts, he is spending valuable energy that he must pay back via recovery before going at it again the next time. Much like paying back a debt.

As we get closer to the season and throwing is introduced alongside lifting, overall training volume is increased and the amount of debt to payback is doubled. Stack up enough debt, and both an athlete’s recovery and performance will tank.

Any strength training program that’s combined with pitching / throwing needs to be highly coordinated to be effective.

This is the first thing we need to understand when we start putting together a strength and throwing program. As each athlete’s size, strength and other characteristics differ, so must the overall program. We break this down into three parts:

  • Physical Preparation
  • Skill Preparation
  • Periodization

Let’s look at these three separately…

Physical Preparation

This is strength, mobility and power. This is where a lot of guys miss the boat.

These goals will likely create the greatest initial performance improvements as well as lay down a “grass roots” foundation of strength and mobility for the future when training protocols get more advanced. It also goes a long way in helping to reduce the risk of injury.

An example of this would be a 6’2” high school junior weighing 165 lbs. with a less than average strength numbers in the weight room.

For this athlete, playing fall ball and spending that much-needed energy on the weekends pitching becomes not only counterproductive to his physical preparation strength-wise, but adds extra and unnecessary mileage on the arm.

Getting in the weight room earlier (September / October) to work on some hypertrophy prior to starting a strength phase in November / December should be the priority and just what the doctor ordered.

Skill Preparation

Video Analysis and Mechanical Remapping

The use of video analysis helps us break down mechanics, not only from a bio-mechanical standpoint but also from a sequencing and delivery view point. From there, we can better prepare a set of individualized throwing correctives into the throwing program.

Timeline and Throwing Sessions

I am not going to get into the specifics of the timeline too much here, but during a four-month off-season program there should an ample shutdown period which would allow for a heavier lifting schedule. Here is a summary timeline from November – February:

Frankly, I think it’s a must that pitchers throw 2x per week in preparation for the spring. Throwing 1x per week does not allow the connective tissue of the arm to develop the resiliency necessary to resist the demands of a high-level throw.

 

Pitch Design and Development

We have had a Rapsodo baseball camera in-house for a while and it has changed how we evaluate certain aspects of pitching. We are discovering things about pitchers that were unfathomable just a year ago without this technology.

You can use the information from a Rapsodo in a long-term development plan with pitchers in ways unheard of even a few years back, both for improving their existing repertoire and also in new pitch design and development. Here is a typical screenshot from the device:

While strength training should never be out of the equation for this athlete, it should share the spotlight with more sport-specific work such as correcting mechanical issues, addressing his mobility and increasing force production through plyometric training.

Periodization

Let me start by saying this. Both types of athletes need to spend time in the weight room and working on throwing movements and skills throughout the off-season.

However, each athlete simply needs to spend the bigger part of his time on what he needs the most to optimize performance. This is all about individualized programs and customization.

A complete initial physical assessment and throwing evaluation will give us the roadmap and help us make the best use of the time spent with our athletes.

On a final note, please make sure you’re getting a thorough assessment to determine where you fall on the physical / skill preparation profile. Your off-season program should be designed with this in mind and most importantly make sure it’s performed by a highly qualified PT/strength and conditioning coach or AT with a great track record.

See ya’ in the gym…

 

 

3 Single Leg Exercises to Build Strength and Improve Force Production for Baseball Players

This is no secret. As a baseball player, you need to be able to produce force and you need to be able to absorb force. Being able to do these two things will give you the ability to be powerful, but also help reduce the risk of injury.

When we look at throwing, and more specifically pitching, if you can’t produce or absorb force, you’re going to put a lot more stress on your arm. Not only that, but you will not be able to produce enough power to throw with any real velocity.

If the legs are not doing their part, you have to try to develop power and arm speed somewhere else. This somewhere else is the arm, because in its “mind” it knows it needs to do something to catch up.

 

Using Strength to Improve Stability

When it comes to being powerful, tinkering with mechanics will help, but really a lot of this comes down to your strength, stability, and body position. If you have good relative strength, you’re going to be able to get into better positions.

Pitching is a very explosive movement and requires a lot strength and stability to maintain good body positions.

To become explosive, you must put a lot of force into the ground. Therefore, you will see athletes who put on good weight have a big tick in velocity.

They are putting on relatively good weight, which will help them get stronger, and will ultimately help them produce more force and be more stable to absorb it.

Now when focusing on getting stronger, you want to prioritize unilateral strength. Pitching and throwing is mostly done on one leg, therefore getting strong on one leg will have more carry over.

Building single-leg strength will help you produce power and give you stability to transfer your weight and energy from one leg to the other. By being able to transfer your weight effectively, you will be able stay in a better position to pitch.

With this, I have picked these three single leg strength exercises below because it hits all three sides of the spectrum. The reverse lunge, single leg RDL, and the single-leg hip thrust.

 

Front Squat Reverse Lunge

When it comes to building single-leg strength, this is the king of single-leg exercises. Not only will this exercise get you strong, it makes you absorb force when you step back, and then put force in the ground to drive up.

Another added benefit is the torso position it forces you to be in. Because of the front squat grip and the weight being in front, it helps keep you in a more upright position and makes your anterior core work extra hard, so that you don’t tip.

When pitching, it’s important to be able to create tension at the right time and this exercise requires the same. Being able to create tension through the core is important to maintain good position and being able to push in to the ground.

 

Single Leg RDL

Single Leg Training for Baseball Pitchers

When pitching, you should be able to transfer your weight from your back leg to your front leg, and be able to put your foot in the ground while getting over your front leg.

This exercise not only teaches you to load that front leg, but also put force into the ground and get over it so you can get extension on your pitch.

The ability to get over the front side and get extension will not only help you throw harder, but will add deception to your pitch.

This exercise is going to challenge the glutes and the hamstrings, as well as the core because it helps you stabilize so that you do not tip your pelvis laterally.

The ability to stabilize and get over your front leg not only allows you to get into a better position but allows you to put more force into the ground. With the RDL, you have to be able to load the front leg and then drive it through the ground, and in this case, drive your hip through.

 

Single Leg Hip Thrust

Single Leg Training for Baseball Pitchers

The single-leg hip thrust is a great exercise because it targets the glutes and teaches good hip extension. This exercise is less dynamic and more of a pure glute exercise.

Hip extension is important when it comes to pitching and all three exercises require you to be able to do so to do the exercises correctly.

This exercise, compared to the others, is usually unweighted. However, if you get a point where you want to use weight, you can put a band, bar, or sandbag over your hips.

Pitching is a powerful, explosive movement and requires good single-leg strength and stability. It is important to gain good, relative, single-leg strength so that you can put your body in good positions to allow yourself to produce a lot of force into the ground.