When athletes are referred to us, whether by other athletes, physical therapists, coaches, or other trainers, we usually receive questions like:
“Do you guys work on mechanics or just velo?”
“What about mobility?”
“How about strength and conditioning?”
In short, we do all of this. Let’s dive into our holistic training process and how that drives improved pitching performance.
Intake and Assessment
When we first meet a new athlete, either in the remote or in-person/facility setting, the first part of the process is to get a full health and training history. From there, we’ll discuss goals, expectations, and answer any questions they have. Once the initial conversation is complete, we begin the assessment process.
The assessment begins with the movement and mobility portion. We examine passive and active joint ranges of motion, basic movement competency, and then more complex movement patterns. Deficiencies are flagged based on normative ranges of motion found in the throwing literature and our in-house data.
The next portion of the assessment is the mechanical analysis. We take slow motion video from four angles and then examine the athlete’s movement based on our 60-point breakdown. Everything from how well the center of mass shifts at peak leg lift, to how well the pec is utilized during the arm action, to how efficiently the lead leg blocks are examined as areas of opportunity for improvement.
The final portion is the force-velocity profile. We utilize both lower and upper body ballistic movements with varying loads and through multiple planes to find where an athlete’s greatest opportunities lay.
Once all of the assessment data is gathered and examined the programming portion, which is individualized, begins. Each athlete will begin each day with a warm-up that is individualized to suit their needs. This warm up will be laid out as follows:
Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)
SMR is generally performed with a foam roller, lacrosse ball, or other specialty tools at the beginning of a training session. The areas for which SMR is utilized will vary from athlete to athlete depending on the results of their assessment.
According to a study by Beardsley et al., SMR may acutely increase flexibility and reduce muscle soreness without impeding athletic performance (Beardsley, 2015). This means we can open new range of motion (ROM) temporarily but then must do something to improve neuromuscular control of this new ROM.
After SMR, we’ll utilize end range isometrics, full ROM movements with holds, and loaded movements. This serves to add neuromuscular control to what is new passive ROM, and therefore useless without control and strength at the end range.
Raise Body Temperature
Once we’ve opened and strengthened new ROM, it’s time to get a sweat going. This will be done with a variety of athletic movements through multiple planes of motion in order to adequately prepare tissues of the body for the ROM and movement patterns encountered in throwing.
A study by Wright et al. found that performance metrics such as working memory, subjective alertness, visual attention and the slowest 10% of reaction times improved as a result of higher body temperature (Wright, 2002). Higher muscle temperature may also lead to improvements in muscle performance as well as an increase in muscle contraction speed and reduction in reaction time via an increase in nerve transmission velocity (Andrade et al., 2015).
Finally, prior to picking a ball we’ll potentiate the session to make sure the athlete is maximally prepared to perform at a high level.
Neural drive, or excitability of the nervous system, is an extremely important part of baseball. The ability to throw gas, swing hard and run fast all require significant intent, which means the nervous system must be primed to act. Preparing your body for high output by getting to the optimal level of mental and physical arousal prior to performing may be beneficial.
A study by Andrade et al. found that using jumps as a warm-up improved both slow and fast stretch shortening cycle performance, and specifically improved performance in the squat jump, countermovement jump and depth jump (Andrade, 2015).
How Does This Actually Work?
Let’s use an athlete who has a “pushy” arm action and is restricted through horizontal abduction, scapular posterior tilt, and external rotation. For this athlete, we’ll put a focus on soft tissue work for the pec major and minor and the posterior shoulder.
Barbell Pec Smash
Posterior Shoulder Release
This will then be followed by fascial stretching and/or end range isometric holds for retraction and horizontal abduction and end range isometric holds for glenohumeral external rotation as well.
Controlling End Range External Rotation
This is just one example of a possible issue that can be worked on during the warm-up, but this will be individualized to the athlete.
Based on the findings of the mechanical analysis, the time of year (in-season, offseason, pre-season) we’ll build out an individualized throwing program.
After athletes complete their warm-up, they’ll begin their throwing program for the day. The first portion of their throwing on any given day will be constraints-based throwing or “drill work” which is individualized based on the results of the mechanical analysis. This portion of the throwing program is performed at a low to moderate intensity and generally utilizes overload balls so the athlete can “feel” specific positions and actions. The constraints portion just means that each drill acts as the guardrails for movement and allows athletes to solve the problem of throwing in the way that best suits them. This allows us to gradually change the throwing pattern or “work on mechanics” without overloading athletes with verbal cues that result in overthinking and robotic movement.
Our model of mechanical change also tends to utilize backwards chaining which means we work from the end of the delivery to the beginning, rather than the other way around. Backwards chaining has been shown to be more effective for teaching complex movements in many situations for a few reasons. In backwards chaining each new piece of the movement is performed prior to any previously learned pieces, so interference does not occur as it often does with forward chaining. This means that full focus can be devoted to each new “chunk” without having to get every previously learned portion exactly right.
As mentioned above, we break the movement down into manageable chunks, which is the most effective way to learn a skill, and then put the pieces together gradually as they’re mastered. After drill work athletes will perform their primary throwing for the day. The throwing portion can vary based on goals and includes options like: velocity development session, to a patterning or blending session, to a command session, a bullpen, or a recovery session (just a few examples).
Below we’ll cover an example of how we’ll chunk the delivery and some drills that are associated with each chunk:
The first chunk is how the athlete pulls the arm through to ball release after flip up. For this chunk we have a few examples but a go to is:
10 Toe w/ Constrained Hand Position and Pause
It allows athletes to feel end range retraction/horizontal abduction and how it feels to pull the arm through.
- Forearm vertical
- Hand and face relaxed
- Pull from pec
- Feel arm unwind away from you
- Get arm into plane of shoulder rotation. May feel sidearm
The next portion is creating a stretch on the pec and utilizing the reflexive rebound. Again, we have a few options but one that tends to work well is:
Split Stance Throw w/ Rock Back
This drill allows athletes to feel an elastic stretch placed on the pec and the reflexive pull that happens once end range is reached.
- Forearm vertical
- Keep countermovement small at first
- Relax/let arm flow behind you
- Feel torso begin rotating before arm moves
- Wait as long as possible to get the arm active
- Let arm unfold away from you
The next portion involves getting pelvic rotation integrated/feeling the segmentation of the hips and upper torso to create a big elastic stretch and rebound. One of the options we’ll utilize is:
Rocker w/ Constrained Hand Position
This drill allows the pec stretch to still be felt without the arm swing (making it easier to get right) and helps integrate pelvic rotation without linear movement being a factor.
- Keep forearm vertical until max retraction/horizontal abduction is reached
- Relax into rotation
- Turn back knee down, don’t push
- Feel hips, then torso rotate
- Relaxed arm as long as possible
The final piece involves integrating linear movement into the delivery. For this portion one of the options we utilize is:
No Step Windup
This drill allows us to add linear movement and foot strike without any massive changes/progressions. The goal here is to keep the pieces we’ve worked on to this point as intact as possible while getting very close to full delivery.
- Move smoothly into leg lift
- Be as relaxed as possible into foot strike
There are a ton of different combinations that are possible here based on the needs of the athlete, but this is one potential sequence.
Strength and Conditioning
Each day athletes will perform their strength and conditioning after they throw (this is our preference, but in some cases, adjustments can be made). These programs are based on their level of experience with training, what their force-velocity profile looks like and the rest of their assessment findings.
Athletes who come in with little or no training experience will learn foundational movement competency and get an education into strength and conditioning. Athletes in this category can generally see results very quickly because of the novelty of the stimulus and the need for higher force production capabilities.
In more advanced athletes the force-velocity profile discussed above as well as the elastic utilization ratio (EUR) will help drive programming. Our force-velocity profile utilizes different loads during ballistic movements for the upper and lower body, in all planes and allows us to categorize an athlete as force deficient, velocity deficient, or balanced. We also utilize ballistic movements with and without the stretch shortening cycle to identify how well an athlete utilizes elastic energy.
Based on the profile of the athlete a program will be developed to help suit that athlete’s needs. This doesn’t mean that a velocity-deficient and a force-deficient athlete will be doing completely different movements or have a totally different structure to their sessions, rather that specific differences will be present. For example, both athletes may be using a trap bar, but while the force deficient athlete is performing deadlifts with 85%+ of their 1RM, the velocity deficient athlete may be performing trap bar jumps.
Another important piece of our training programs is our utilization of plyometrics. The first piece to this is understanding what plyometrics are and how they’re different from ballistic training.
Plyometrics and ballistic training are very similar in nature and some movements may even qualify for both categories. The main difference is that plyometrics are focused on reversible muscle action or the stretch shortening cycle (SSC). Ballistic training involves moving something through the air with high velocity intent, whether it’s jumping, loaded jumps, medicine ball throws, etc. These movements may or may not involve the SSC. To put it simply, ballistic training allows an athlete to accelerate all the way through a movement by releasing the implement or leaving the ground. As opposed to a typical lift where the load must be decelerated during the middle and end portions of the movement (i.e., holding onto the bar during a bench press), which does not optimally build explosiveness.
Plyometric or SSC movements can be divided into slow and fast categories based on ground contact times (GCT). Slow SSC movements involve GCT >250ms and fast SSC movements involve GCT <250ms. For example, a countermovement jump is typically classified as a slow SSC movement (500ms) (Laffaye and Wagner, 2013), whereas sprinting is a fast SSC movement (80-90ms) (Taylor and Beneke, 2012).
These types of movements can help improve performance through:
- Adaptations in the amount of elastic energy that can be stored and utilized (Kubo et al., 1985and Finni et al., 2001)
- Changes to reflexes (Bosco et al., 1981)
- Changes in length-tension relationships (Finni et al., 2001)
- When necessary, changes in the preactivation of muscles (McBride et al., 2008)
Why Does This Matter for Pitching Velocity?
In order to throw at high velocities athletes must not only have high maximal force production capabilities, they also must be able to produce large amounts of force very quickly, through extreme ranges of motion, and transfer and amplify energy. This means storing and utilizing elastic energy efficiently.
During the pitching delivery, the lower body produces large amounts of force which must then be transferred through the body via a series of contractions, relaxations, accelerations, and decelerations. These can be difficult to train with traditional strength training movements and can be the difference between a weight room beast with mediocre velocity, and a high velocity pitcher.
Elastic Energy, Length Tension Relationships, and Reflexes
In order to effectively perform plyometrics and take advantage of the SSC, athletes must be able to effectively store and utilize elastic energy. Elastic energy is stored during the deformation of tissues such as muscles, tendons, fascia, or aponeuroses, and is utilized when that tissue returns to its original length. With regards to the human body, this elastic energy cannot be stored indefinitely. In order for elastic energy utilization to be maximized timing is important as cross bridges have a half-life of about 120-150ms (Cavagna, 1977).
Length Tension Relationships
This is where length tension relationships and reflexes play a role. Every muscle has an optimal length range to create tension or force, and tension is maximized when the number of cross bridges is maximized. If a muscle is too short or too long, the number of cross bridges that can form is not maximized. Meaning, there’s a Goldilocks effect here with the length of a muscle fiber. Additionally, the passive piece of this equation is the elastic elements; the tendons, the fascia, and the aponeuroses. These components can create more passive force the more they are stretched.
Altering the length tension relationship in favor of greater force production at longer muscle lengths can have a positive impact on both health and performance. Shorter optimum muscle lengths may be more likely to lead to injury as more of the muscle’s operating range is in the descending force range (Brockett et al., 2004). Meaning that, even though a muscle may be put through a specific range of motion during movement, it may only be able to apply significant force through a portion of it and may be weak through the end range. For example, if a pitcher’s throwing side pec has a short optimum length, it may not be able to apply maximal force through the entire range of horizontal abduction it goes through during throwing. Or, if the pec stays in its optimal range for the entire throwing motion, it will not maximize the benefit of passive force from the elastic components.
Eccentric movements, such as those present at the beginning of plyometrics, may lead to a more compliant muscle tendon unit at shorter ranges of motion, with increasing stiffness as length increases. This means that it may be possible to store more elastic energy due to a greater stretch (more compliance) while releasing this energy at a higher speed due to the increased stiffness at the end of the stretch (Brughelli and Cronin, 2007).
In terms of reflexes, plyometrics rely on the myotatic (stretch) reflex in order to enhance the power of the concentric contraction. This reflex relies on the sensitivity of sensors within the muscle tendon unit (muscle spindles and golgi tendon organs) to determine how powerful the subsequent contraction will be.
Muscle spindles sense the magnitude and speed of a stretch, and when they sense a stretch that is too great or fast they send a signal to contract the muscle and resist any further stretch.
Golgi tendon organs (GTO) have a similar job, but involving tension or force, rather than stretch. When GTOs sense too much force is being produced, they send a signal to relax the muscle and stop the contraction.
Both of these elements are present to keep athletes from injuring themselves, but in less-trained athletes the ceiling is often set far too low.
Extensive to Intensive
Extensive plyometric variations should be used prior to their intensive counterparts. Extensive plyometrics involve higher volume, lower intensity movements in order to prepare the neuromuscular system and tissues for the intensity that will be undertaken later. Intensive plyometrics are the more intense variations involving high eccentric force and maximal effort.
During this period, we utilize movements through a variety of ranges of motion, planes, and tempos. This will generally continue for about 60 days as according to Dr. Keith Baar, connective tissue (fascia, tendons, and ligaments) takes about this long to adapt.
As athletes adapt to extensive plyometrics, intensive plyometrics are introduced. These will be used less frequently and in smaller volumes than their extensive counterparts as they’re much more neurologically and physiologically demanding.
Why Strength Train?
Strength has not only a performance enhancing effect, but also a protective effect when it comes to resisting injury. Athletes with a lower training age will have a greater emphasis placed on improving strength as at these lower strength levels, improvements in strength tend to result in more direct benefits in terms of on-field performance. As athletes progress, however, pushing strength numbers beyond some standards we’ve identified has little transfer to the field. The diminishing returns of pushing farther on the strength side means that training focuses must be adjusted. However, even advanced athletes who have reached our strength standards will still perform strength training to “top up” this quality and take advantage of its protective benefits.
Throwing a baseball is a certainly a stressful endeavor. Our knowledge and training have improved over the last couple of decades and so has our knowledge of our recovery as it relates to throwing. However, recovery has now become an industry unto itself and has begun to mean doing more stuff after throwing. While this “active” recovery absolutely has a place, doing a ton of exercises immediately after you’re finished throwing may not be optimal.
What Happens Post Throwing?
Immediately after throwing, range of motion (ROM) and strength are diminished and can take multiple days to return to baseline levels (Mirabito et al., 2022). Specifically, shoulder internal rotation, shoulder external rotation, and elbow extension ROM decrease after throwing as well as shoulder rotational strength. The compulsion by many athletes will be to get the recovery process started as soon as throwing is finished, however, that can present some problems as we’ll cover below. So first, let’s discuss the considerations that should be made before adding more activity to the recovery protocol.
The first step is to make sure athletes are crushing the basics such as sleep, nutrition, hydration, and appropriate training (in terms of volume, intensity, and frequency). Basically, this means sleep 8+ hours per night (ideally more like 9+ hours), eat enough, hit your macro and micronutrient needs, and drink plenty of water/supplement electrolytes when appropriate. If you’d like to dive into these pieces in more depth, check out this article.
Once the above boxes are checked, post throwing recovery exercises may be appropriate. However, immediately after throwing can present some problems as a ton of specific fatigue has already been driven to the tissues that athletes are trying to “recover.” Rather than blowing up your forearm and rotator cuff right after you get off the mound, you’re better served to get into a parasympathetic state (rest and relax) via some nasal breathing strategies and to just relax. Then, 6+ hours later some activity is appropriate. Generally, these exercises should take place at least 6 hours after throwing as connective tissue changes are maximized through short duration sessions spaced out by roughly 6 hours (Baar, 2017). At this point the goals of the exercise are to restore range of motion (ROM) and target any specific restrictions.
After throwing, ROM tends to be restricted in a few key movements-elbow extension, supination, and shoulder internal rotation. In order to restore this ROM utilizing end range isometrics and other slower tempo movements through a full ROM can be very helpful. This also tends to be an opportunity to work on areas that many pitchers need to improve anyway such as external rotation strength (especially at end range), forearm and finger strength (especially at end ranges like supination and extension), and upward rotation and specifically lower trapezius and serratus anterior recruitment/strength. Note that if you’re already getting adequate volume of these in your strength and conditioning program it may be unnecessary to include them here as well.
Below are a few examples of isometrics and mobility drills we use in our post throwing recovery sessions.
Wrist Extension PAILs/RAILs: Restore elbow and wrist extension ROM by using isometrics and taking advantage of reciprocal inhibition.
Pronation and Supination Iso Holds: Restore supination ROM and strengthen end range.
Shoulder IR/ER PAILs/RAILs: Restore internal and external rotation ROM and end range strength.
Shoulder CARs: Restore shoulder ROM through multiple planes.
Thoracic Rotation: Restore thoracic rotation ROM
Bodyweight, Body Composition, and Nutrition
All athletes who train will be given access to our nutrition eBook to help them educate themselves on the importance of nutrition and how to plan their meals effectively. Additionally, based on the goals discussed by the athlete and coach, macronutrient and calorie goals will be laid out and tracked daily along with bodyweight. Very skinny athletes can often see significant velocity improvement by merely gaining some weight, while athletes who are overweight may see benefit from doing a recomposition. Depending on the needs of the athlete goals for weight gain, loss, or maintenance will be discussed. If you’re interested in a deeper dive on the balance between getting as big as possible and performing well on the field, check out this article.
Workload management IS NOT just playing less as many NBA coaches would have you believe. Workload management is the use of objective and subjective data to quantify an athlete’s fitness vs. fatigue, which may provide valuable insight into injury risk. This metric is known as the acute to chronic workload ratio (A:C).
The “acute workload” is defined as the amount of “work” an athlete has done over the last week. Whereas, the “chronic workload” is defined as the amount of “work” an athlete has done over a period of time, such as the previous four weeks. The chronic time period can be shorter or longer depending on the sport, schedule, or preference of the practitioner. The acute workload is representative of fatigue and the chronic workload is representative of the overall fitness level.
Based on the research by Tim Gabbett and others, an A:C ratio between 0.8 and 1.3 seems to be the “sweet spot” for improving fitness while minimizing injury risk, and an A:C ratio greater than 1.5 is associated with a higher risk of injury (Blanch and Gabbett, 2016) (Hulin et al., 2014) (Motus Global, 2017).
This means that we must carefully monitor how much an athlete is doing session to session and week to week. This is also part of the reason that progressive overload is so important in the context of both throwing and strength and conditioning. Big spikes in intensity or volume of work can mean higher injury risk. This is why pitchers don’t go from not throwing all winter to throwing 100 pitches in a game, but rather gradually build up the volume and intensity of their throwing over the course of multiple weeks. This means after a lay off from throwing we generally on-ramp athletes for 4-6 weeks before we have them throw at full intensity. Once we’ve reached full intensity then we gradually build throwing volume leading up to the competitive season.
In order to properly track workload, we’ve also built our own tracking system that accounts for both throwing volume and intensity to allow us to monitor this element of training very closely.
There’s a lot more to this topic, but it’s beyond the scope of this article, so check out this article if you’d like a deeper dive.
Adjustments and Troubleshooting
A key part of working with a coach remotely or in-house is the ability to adjust and troubleshoot as issues come up. With beginner athletes, results tend to come relatively easily, but as athletes develop, progress may slow down. This will require a more detail-oriented approach and real time adjustments-this is where a coach’s eye comes in handy. Tweaks to drills, cues that may be helpful, and the mechanical changes that we’re working toward are all topics that we assist with to help get progress started again.
Troubleshooting is one of the biggest values we provide as many of our professional athletes in particular are enlisting our help to return to a previous level of performance or push through a plateau.
Last year we broke down our training results for the preceding 12 months to take a look at how some of our remote and in-house athletes had improved. On average athletes gained 6.3 mph and we had 7 athletes eclipse the 90 mph for the first time during that period. Obviously, no velocity improvements are guaranteed, but consistency and individualized training programs give you a great opportunity to make big improvements.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Thank you for reading this all the way to the end! If you’re interested in improving your pitching performance and need some guidance shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and schedule a call with me (free of charge) and we’ll discuss your needs and goals.
Thank you for the support and keep getting after it!