Keith J. Cronin, DPT, OCS, CSCS
This is one of my favorite topics: baseball throwing. Perhaps it’s that I played collegiate baseball, that I did my doctoral research on softball and baseball pitching, or that I live in one of the greatest baseball towns (Go Cardinals!), but mostly it’s because I just love the game. Now, from this love also comes a great deal of concern as the game of baseball, with respect to throwing in younger athletes, has been under the microscope. Parents, coaches, and athletes commonly face a plethora of questions that never seem to have a straight answer:
- When is it okay for a pitcher to start throwing curveballs?
- Is December too soon to start throwing conditioning?
- What’s the best strengthening exercise for a softball pitcher?
- How do I know if my child is having arm problems?
- Are certain conditioning drills better than others to build arm stamina?
These are all great questions, but they aren’t the ones that should be asked first. This article is going to address what every parent, athlete, and coach should know when it comes to baseball throwing.
Throwing Is from Nose to Toes
I cannot tell you how many times I have worked with pitchers who are obsessed with one particular exercise or regiment that is the “lynchpin” to their success. Whether it’s the bench press, biceps curls, or some sort of funky twisty arm stretch done against a fence, all throwing athletes have their go-to. The reality is that throwing is a sum of the parts, not just one! In the world of mechanics, we refer to this as segmental motion. That means that each segment, from the feet all the way up to the neck, adds a component to help throw a ball. For those athletes obsessed with curling heavy dumbbells, you can put them away! The majority of velocity and stamina is centered on the legs, pelvis, and core. The arm is merely the release mechanism, meaning everything goes right below and the arm is just along for a great ride.
Recommendations: When creating a throwing training program, make sure to address the entire athlete. Throwing athletes spend too much time on upper body strengthening when the real power and stamina comes from the legs and core. Place heavy emphasis on core training as so much power and speed is lost to the arm crossing the pelvis. If the core can’t handle the force of the legs, that energy will be lost with each toss.
Mechanics, Mechanics, Mechanics
If you have ever bought a new car off the lot and are offered a warranty for 100,000 miles, you often will purchase it knowing that if something goes wrong, you are covered. Now, car companies know that far more often than not, the design and structure of the car is going to be just fine; thus, it is profitable for them to offer a warranty. They made sure off the lot that all the mechanics of the car are in working order. Car designers spend billions testing and re-testing and designing cars with flawless mechanics.
So why should throwing be any different? While the size, ability, and overall look of every throwing athlete may vary (like cars), there are baseline mechanics that work across the spectrum. This is paramount because your athletes are not being asked to throw a ball a few times. No, it is more like thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of throws throughout their baseball and softball careers.
Let’s go back to the car analogy. Would that dealer sell you a car that has a weak suspension with that 100,000-mile warranty? Baseball and softball players do not have the luxury of a warranty, so why would you allow them to operate with bad mechanics? In youth sports, we are too often focused on the results rather than the process. Because of this obsession with results, athletes, coaches, and parents allow bad mechanics to develop simple because it produces great results.
Recommendations: Train children from a very young age to throw correctly—and stay on them! Changing throwing and body mechanics gets harder to correct every year they are done incorrectly as the nervous system and bone structure develops around it. For every baseball player who references Hunter Pence (who has a back condition) or a submarine pitcher, the reality is the other 99% all throw the same. Mechanics breakdown and fatigue are two of the greatest leading indicators to pain and injury. Stay vigilant.
Build the Brakes to Speed Up the Arm
If I see one more pitcher with a ball in their hand attached to a bungee cord rip their arm forward as fast as possible, I am going to lose it! If being the strongest or the fastest meant throwing harder and more consistently, then Olympic lifts and sprinters would make the best pitchers. But we know that is not true, so what does? You need to have good genetics, a strong will to succeed, solid training and coaching, and a great set of brakes.
Back to that brand new car you just bought. It goes from 0-60 in 3.9 seconds and sounds great, but what if you can’t stop it? Would you get in a car that didn’t have any brakes? The human brain is not keen on this either when it comes to throwing. Chest and back muscles generate a tremendous amount of power to throw, but once released, smaller shoulder, rotator cuff, and scapular muscles have to slow the arm down. If this system did not work, the arm would dislocate after one throw! The brain has a way around this though. If the brakes aren’t good enough, the “safety switch” kicks in and slows down the arm.
Recommendations: To most effectively generate good mechanics, increase in velocity, and improved control, working on the brakes is more important than the accelerators. This includes exercises to address the following muscles:
- Lower Trapezius
- Middle Trapezius
- Rotator Cuff
- Lumbar Extensors
A trainer can help an athlete focus on upper body and core eccentric exercises to slow down the body after an explosive movement.
Children are Not Adults
This is the most important while most overlooked reality. Children are growing, developing beings who require the right balance of pressure and rest. You can look up as many articles on the most effective ways to throw and the best conditioning techniques to make a superstar, but children are not adults. Developing tissue has the immense capacity to grow and strengthen, but it is not invincible. Worst of all, some young athletes are more resistant to strains, sprains, and injuries than others, making set guidelines difficult to follow. So what is a parent or coach to do?
Recommendations: If your child, client, or players participate in a lot of baseball or softball, you need to bring in the professionals when it comes to making difficult decisions. A solid medical presence, a sports primary care doctor or sports medicine/pediatric orthopedic doctor is a person you need at hand, not someone you go looking for when something bad happens. Also, a sports physical therapist (I am biased towards myself), athletic trainer, or chiropractor is great. A person with a medical license who has a strong background in sports mechanics is invaluable when providing assessment of what is “growing pains” and what is an injury.
Having a strong foundation and system to stick to will help produce better, less injured athletes in the long run—and, more importantly, a happy athlete out playing a sport they love. That’s my favorite part.
If you would like to be a coach or trainer that helps create that strong foundation and system, check out the IYCA’s Youth Fitness Specialist Certification and gain the education you need to be a great coach and trainer today!