Posts Tagged ‘Arm strength’

Spring is one of the best times of the year for sports fans. College basketball has the NCAA tournament, the Masters is here, and most importantly baseball season has started.

The weather starts to warm up and nothing brings back the memories of the ballpark quite like the smell of freshly cut grass, hot dogs, and torn UCLs.

When pitchers start throwing again there always seem to be arm soreness or stiffness one would expect after the layoff. That’s just the nature of the beast.

This year, UCL injuries seem to be occurring at an alarming rate. Maybe it’s because some big names have gone down this spring, or that social media informs us of the hang nail that keeps a player out of a spring training game. But it seems that every day a pitcher is getting checked for structural damage to his elbow.

Both Medlen and Parker underwent their second Tommy John surgery

Both Medlen and Parker underwent their second Tommy John surgery

Jarrod+Parker+New+York+Yankees+v+Oakland+Athletics+vOSSgnHCbQUl

So the billion dollar question is, can you do anything to prevent ripping your Tommy John?

I believe the answer is YES…sort of.

Throwing a baseball is a very unnatural movement for your body. It is also the fastest movement for any joint in sports, with a pitcher’s arm rotating at up to 8,500° per second. No, that is not a misprint. Combine these two factors and something has to give, and it’s either the elbow or shoulder.

"Lay back" phase (maximum external rotation)

“Lay back” phase (maximum external rotation)

 

Can torn UCLs be completely eliminated from baseball? No.

Is there something that can be done to reduce the rate or likelihood of it happening? Absolutely.

Here are 3 ways to lower the chance of a UCL tear, or any arm injury for that matter:

1. Proper Mechanics

No matter how strong or mobile or “functional” the athlete is, he/she will not be able to overcome poor mechanics for any repetitive movement. Baseball is a very repetitive sport and requires movements at high speeds, like 8,500° per second high speeds. Improper technique multiple times at high speeds is a recipe for injury. While some pitchers may be able to have a long, healthy career with “poor” mechanics, I would certainly not advise tempting fate.

brandon_beachy_medium

I am restraining myself from going on a rant about how there is no such thing as perfect mechanics and how it depends on the individual, but for now I will leave it as that. There are certain indicators that have been found to increase the likelihood for injury. I do not believe the idea of significantly altering a professional pitcher’s mechanics is realistic. This is the kind of information that needs to be applied at an early age in place of coaching clichés like “throw strikes” and “get on top of the ball “.  Coaches should be taking advantage of technology, like frame-by-frame video apps on your cell phone, to identify possible red flags like the inverted W or angle of shoulder abduction at release.

2. Physical Restrictions/Compensations

The first two points actually coincide a lot more than one may think. A strong argument can be made that proper mechanics cannot be achieved without out proper strength, mobility, and stability. For instance, factors like internal hip rotation of the lead leg and internal rotation of the throwing shoulder can lead to increased chance of injury. Lack of strength in the legs and core means the arm will have to make up the power and speed in order to produce adequate velocity.

While better training is definitely a contributor in the increase in velocity over the past 20 years, baseball still has a long way to go before old school myths, like long distance running, are out of the game. Not that I have all the answers, but proper training will decrease the chance of injury for any sport, baseball included.

Soft tissue work has also become popular in the last few years. The attitude has changed from getting a massage for relaxation to getting specific soft tissue work, like Active Release Technique. Soft tissue evaluation and treatment is certainly another tool that can keep athletes healthy.

 

3. Pitch Selection

Jeff Zimmerman of FansGraphs did a really cool article on breaking ball usage and it’s affect on a pitcher’s health.

Granted the numbers are not drastic, but it gives validity to the notion that throwing a high percentage of breaking balls increases the chance of injury.

The fastball is and always will be the best pitch in baseball. That’s why it’s thrown about 70% of the time. Learn how to pitch off your fastball growing up. Locate your fastball, learn a change up, and then a decent breaking ball will just make it unfair for the hitter.

After his rookie year, Greg Maddux started 33 games every year until retirement (except '94 strike)

Greg Maddux pitched 5008 1/3 innings and spent 15 days on the Disabled List

At the end of the day, the ulnar collateral ligament can only withstand so much stress. With the increased demand for velocity, Tommy John surgery will continue to be commonplace in baseball.

However, that does not provide an adequate excuse for elbow injuries to occur at the current rate. A strong effort should be made to increase our knowledge of why this may happen and to apply the knowledge to prevent future injuries.

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Dylan Bundy warming up with long toss

Dylan Bundy, long toss enthusiast

Baseball is a funny sport. Years ago, kids played baseball every day. No pitch count, no innings limit, just trying to throw the ball past the other boys in the neighborhood. Arm injuries were fairly uncommon, especially when compared to today’s standards. Tommy John comes along and returns to pitch in the big leagues after having a major arm surgery. The surgery becomes more common, and so a rehab protocol is put together. In this protocol, it is suggested that the player progresses back to 120 feet to conclude his rehab. The protocol does not state that the player should stop there or never throw a ball over 120 ft again, it’s just simply the end of the rehab.

And this is how the “120 ft rule” was born.

Someone thought it made sense that if an injured pitcher coming off a major surgery shouldn’t throw over 120 ft within 8 months of surgery, then by golly no one should.

The other major thought behind this rule is your mechanics start to change to put arc on the ball after 120 ft. I agree with this. Mechanics are slightly altered and the release point changes as a player begins to extend the distance. If you want to keep the same mechanics and release point that you have when you pitch, you should only throw off a mound to a squatting catcher. Throwing on flat ground at any distance will alter your mechanics when compared to the mechanics of pitching off a mound. But throwing from a mound increases the torque on your shoulder. Quite the conundrum.

Angles of flat ground vs mound

Angles of flat ground vs mound

Theoretically, I don’t mind the 120 ft rule. If a player could properly warm up his arm and throw each throw as hard as he could, properly using his entire body and not just his arm, I would be in favor of it. In fact, I wouldn’t see the need to go back to even 120 ft.

Realistically, that can’t/won’t happen. That distance isn’t sufficient to warm up an advanced high school or college arm, so chance of injury will increase if you really try to let a few go at 100%. Also, it’s human nature to do as little as possible to accomplish any goal. If the goal is to throw the ball 120 ft, it is difficult to use the entire body as much as you should, leaving the shoulder to make up the difference.

Finally, it is much easier to get feedback as the distance increases. If you ease up on a throw, the ball falls 10 ft short. If you get beside the ball, it moves more and doesn’t carry as well. It teaches the player, especially younger athletes, how to sync their entire body during a max effort throw and get the most out of their legs, hips, back, etc.

Two other reasons I am a huge fan of long toss:

1. It provides a longer arc for the arm to decelerate. If you have read any of my other articles on pitching, you know I am a huge proponent of training the body to decelerate. Long toss provides a longer arc for the thrower to slow down his arm, and encourages the rest of the body to help with it as well so it’s not just the shoulder and elbow bearing all of the distraction force. Fleisig and colleagues (1996) state, “The kinetic chain helps to reduce stress placed on the throwing arm by transferring most of the weight and momentum of the body to the lead leg.”

2. It encourages the rest of the body to help the shoulder and elbow bear the distraction forces (the force put on the arm after you let go of the ball, the arm pulling away from the body). Most shoulder injuries occur as the “rotator cuff muscles try to resist distraction, horizontal adduction and internal rotation at the shoulder during arm deceleration” and later recommends “exercises emphasizing eccentric contractions should therefore be performed with appropriate range of motions and speeds of movement. The best exercise for throwing is some form of throwing” (Fleisig, et. al. 1996).

Trevor Bauer warming up

Trevor Bauer warming up

I would never say that one training protocol is perfect for everyone. I’m sure you can find many successful major league pitchers, such as John Smoltz, that never long tossed and still does not believe in it.

However, I do believe that for the reasons listed above long toss can be a very important tool to utilize for the majority of baseball players, both pitchers and position players, when trying to improve arm speed.

Just like everything else, long toss is just a piece of the puzzle. It is important to continue to work on pitching mechanics on a mound and have a baseball specific strength and conditioning program in place. There should be a throwing program, much like a weight lifting program, that is designed to prime YOUR body for the season.

Like weighted balls, or throwing in general, there is both risk and reward with long toss. Consult a knowledgeable professional before you begin any throwing program to make sure it is right for you.

Reference

Fleisig, G. S., Barrentine, S. W., Escamilla, R.F., Andrews, J.R. (1996): Biomechanics of overhand                      throwing with implications for injuries. Sports Medicine, 21(6), 421-437.