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Ankle, Hip, and Thoracic Mobility Training for Catchers

Written on March 16, 2013 at 6:25 am, by Eric Cressey

Today, my good friend Joey Wolfe has a great guest post on the topic of training baseball catchers.  Joey’s a really bright guy with a lot of experience on this front; I think you’ll enjoy this. – EC

One of the biggest challenges for young players is being able to make adjustments to their swing, throwing mechanics, running mechanics, etc. Sometimes mental barriers get in the way of making the adjustment, yet often times it is a physical limitation; more specifically a mobility, stability or sequencing issue. As a coach it can be very frustrating trying to get a player to make an adjustment to their mechanics that their body is simply unable to make. A good coach will try to figure out another way to communicate the adjustment to the player. A great coach will figure out where the problem lies. This is where the strength & conditioning coaches come in. Although most of us may not know what it means to beat the ball to the spot, all of us should have a good understanding of how to improve the mobility of our athletes. It is this skill set that will directly affect the performance of our athletes.

The main responsibility of any catcher is to catch the ball. If a catcher cannot consistently catch the ball he will quickly find himself playing in the outfield. A catcher has many responsibilities; handling the pitching staff, calling pitches, receiving, blocking, throwing; the list goes on. In order for a catcher to be successful they must first and foremost be comfortable. Without the proper mobility the catching duties can quickly go from hard to impossible. Here are the three areas that stand out as the limiting factors in regards to mobility for catchers.

1. Limited ankle mobility: It is imperative that a catcher has mobile ankles. Having mobile ankles allows the catcher to comfortably get in a squatting position. With nobody on base (primary stance) a catcher is generally going to sit into a deep, comfortable squat with the ankles slightly everted. Stiff ankles have a tendency to put more stress on the hips. Also, without ankle mobility a catcher’s ankle sway will be limited. Ankle swaying is extremely important for catchers, especially at the lower levels because pitchers tend to lack command of their pitches. Ankle swaying allows the catcher to get their nose and body in front of the ball without moving the receiving arm too much. When there is a lot of movement with the receiving arm the pitch doesn’t look as good from the umpire’s vantage point. Finally, if an ankle is locked up it will limit the catcher’s ability to get in the proper throwing position to deliver the ball to second base. Although the movement may start at the hip, the ankle needs to have the appropriate amount of mobility to allow the ankle to externally rotate so the back foot can get in the correct position. Here are some of our favorite ankle mobility exercises.

Multiplanar Wall Ankle Mobilizations (previously described by EC here)

Ankle Inversion with Band

Sit with the band attached to your inside foot with a pad under calf so heel is off the ground. Use only your ankle, pull toes to stretch the band shin and return to the starting position for prescribed number of repetitions. Do not allow any movement throughout your leg or hip during the exercise. There should be less motion moving your foot out than in. This exercise will work the muscles in your lower leg and challenge the coordination in your ankle.

Ankle Eversion with Band

Sit perpendicular to a band that is attached to the outside of your foot. Place a pad under your calf so the heel is off the ground. Move your ankle away, stretching the band for the prescribed number of repetitions. Do not allow any movement throughout your leg or hip during exercise. There will be less motion moving your foot out than in. Working the muscles in your low leg and challenging the coordination in your ankle.

2. Poor thoracic mobility: It has been pretty well documented that limited shoulder mobility and/or thoracic extension will impede one’s ability to get into the correct squatting position. Well imagine trying to catch an Aroldis Chapman fastball or a Tim Collins curveball if you can’t get down in a comfortable squatting position; not fun! Remember, the key to being a successful catcher is being comfortable. The absence of thoracic mobility is highlighted when a catcher has to get down into their secondary stance (two strikes on the batter and/or a runner on base). What you’ll find is a rounded upper back and shoulders that roll forward. This creates three problems.

First, it makes for a smaller target for the pitcher. Pitchers want a big target to throw to, not a small one. Therefore, generally speaking, it is the catcher’s job to make himself look as big as possible.

Second, it limits the catcher’s ability to receive the ball comfortably from the pitcher. Often times the catcher will feel “locked up” when they are unable to move freely through their t-spine. A low and away curveball from a right-handed pitcher will give them fits and you can forget about a good right-handed two-seam fastball or filthy left-handed slider. Basically any pitches that require the catcher to go get the ball will create challenges for a catcher that is tight in their t-spine.

Third, when a mobility issue is present the lengthened muscles will serve to dissipate the force transfer from the ground and lead to slower feet. This will make it near impossible to do anything quickly. Whether it is going down to block a ball, throw a runner out or back up first base, being tight up top will effect what is going on down below. Here are a few great exercises to help improve mobility in the t-spine.

Thoracic Spine Mobility – Double Tennis Ball

Tape two tennis balls together to for a “peanut” shape. Lie on your back with the balls under your spine just above your lower back and your hands behind your head. Perform 5 crunches. Then raise your arms over your chest and alternately reach over your head for 5 repetitions with each arm. Move the balls up your spine 1 to 2 inches and repeat the crunches and arm reaches. Continue moving the balls up your spine until they are just above your shoulder blades and below the base of your neck. During the crunches, try and “hinge” on the ball rather than rolling over it. Think about keeping your ribs pushed down to the ground during the arm reaches, as if you were getting a deep massage in your mid to upper back.

Side-Lying Extension-Rotation

Quadruped Extension-Rotation

3. Bad hip mobility: Last, but certainly not least, on the list of mobility restrictions is bad hip mobility. Of the three limitations I have mentioned, this one may be the biggest culprit in young catchers today. Given the number of hours kids spend sitting in class, watching T.V. and playing video games, it comes as no surprise that their hip mobility is negatively affected. We often find that the catchers we work with lack internal rotation (internal rotation deficit), and are short/tight in their hip flexors and adductors.

Two of our favorite stretches to address an internal rotation deficit are the knee-to-knee stretch and the supine dynamic hip internal rotation stretch. Allowing for more rotation in the hips is going to free the catcher to better perform the ankle sway, which really starts at the head of the femur. That internal hip rotation gives the ankles and the rest of the body a better chance to get in front of the ball when receiving a pitch and also allows the feet to get in the proper position when throwing the ball.

Lying Knee-to-Knee Mobilization

As Eric mentioned a few weeks ago in his epic post 15 Static Stretching Mistakes, the lying knee-to-knee stretch can impose some valgus stress at the knees if it isn’t coached/cued properly. So, instead of thinking of letting the knees fall in, tell the athlete to actively internally rotate the femurs. The stretch should occur at the hips, not the knees.

Supine Dynamic Hip Internal Rotation

When addressing the adductors (groin), we are advocates of doing as much soft tissue work as one can stand. It’s not easy to get in to all of these areas with a foam roll, so we’ll often we’ll have our clients use a tennis ball or lacrosse ball (if they can handle it). After hammering these areas with some soft tissue work, we’ll have our catchers do a few lengthening exercises. A couple of our favorites are the Split-Stance Kneeling Adductor Mobs and the Half-Kneeling Hip Stretch. When done right, both of these exercises emphasize the importance of hip mobility while maintaining core stability. Here’s a look at some of these exercises.

Split-Stance Kneeling Adductor Mobs

Half-Kneeling Hip Stretch

Simple and easy way to stretch some of the tightest muscles in the body. Squeeze the glutes of the knee that is on the ground, then push the hips forward. To progress, raise your arms overhead.

Typically, catchers are big guys who – for their size – move free and easy, especially in the aforementioned areas. Being a good catcher is more than just being big and strong. It is about being big and strong while maintaining your mobility and flexibility. Anyone can add size and strength, but if your movement is compromised in the process, then it is almost certain that you will see a decrease in performance. Spend some time doing these mobility exercises before, during (preferable) or after your workouts for the next few weeks and see how much better your body feels. Good luck!

About the Author

Joey Wolfe is the owner and founder of Paradigm Sport, a Santa Cruz based training business that specializes in performance training for athletes. Before his career as a strength & conditioning coach, Joey played baseball professionally in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. He now works with dozens of youth, high school, college and professional baseball baseball players. Joey’s aptitude in the specific skill sets as well as the strength and conditioning aspects of the game provide him with a unique perspective from which to work with his clients on multiple levels. He can be reached at joey@paradigmsport.com.

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  • http://www.ZenStrength.net AJ Oliva

    Fine post, this applies to all sports

  • M Dahl

    Good stuff Joey. Should be required reading for all coaches, players and parents. in my clinical practice (PT), thoracic spine restriction and hip mobility issues seem to be an epidemic in the student-athlete population as much of their time is spent sitting (in class, or while studying, travelling, or using social media). In addition to limiting performance, it invariably leads to altered sequencing and dysfunctional movement patterns. By the time they seek sports med and rehab input, they have often developed secondary elbow/shoulder injuries. We’ve been trying to get this preventative message out in our region as well. Thanks again. Look forward to more posts.

  • http://buthmanmedia.com Kyle Buthman

    Looks good!

  • http://www.absexercises.org/ Dave

    Good training exercises, specially for beginners

  • Jim Nonnemacher

    The 2 tennis ball self massage…are the tennis balls placed so that the spine rests in the “valley” of the tennis balls?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Yes, Jim.

  • http://www.rockysfitnesscenter.com Rocky Snyder, CSCS

    Excellent information and great videos to back up your approach. Really appreciated! Keep it up guys.

  • Nic Hdez

    This is HORRIBLE .. Haha jk. Awesome job Joey and Kyle!

  • Dan Farnsworth

    He internal rotation and hip flexor deficiencies cannot be overstated, even at the professional level. These are some of the most critical areas important for mobility of the swing, making it imperative that catchers stay on top of this. I even wonder if catchers hit for lower averages while often maintaining their power due to these imbalances. Less internal rotation and flexion mobility means less ability to stay sideways with the legs, making the swing go into rotation very quickly. Big muscles still work so power shouldn’t be as hindered, but contact skills are hampered by a physical impairment. Any thoughts?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Dan,

    It’s an interesting thought. At the highest levels, guys have likely adapted to their deficiencies already and found a way to work around them, but that really just means that it’s a matter of time until they’re hurt or unable to get to positions they need to reach in order to be successful. Clean the issues up and you might prolong a career or keep a guy in the big leagues instead of AAA. Good thought!

    EC

  • http://www.paradigmsport.com Joey Wolfe

    Dan,

    That’s an interesting theory… I’ve never looked at it that way. I think the biggest issue with catchers, specifically at the professional level in regards to hitting for lower averages has more to do with the demands of their position. Although I only played professionally for a few years, I did notice there was much more of an emphasis on how catchers performed behind the plate, not at it. There are so many responsibilities that fall on the catcher’s shoulders that often times their hitting can get neglected. All of that said this didn’t stop Joe Mauer from winning the AL batting title 3 times (’06,’08 and ’09), or Buster Posey from winning the NL batting title last year.

  • Derek C

    Thanks for the information guys.Do you recommend any of these be done pre or post game or practice.Keep it up.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Derek,

    Definitely do them pre-game/practice!

  • Dan

    Hey Eric. Great article. What do you think about performing isolated internal rotation with a band in both flexion (seated) and extension (prone)? Would these also be avenues to look into when assessing lack of internal hip rotation? Seems to be like there is a rise in talk about abduction and external rotation of the hips over the net. Glad to see someone is talking about LACK of internal rotation. Every case is different and balance is essential it seems.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Dan,

    I don’t think the avenue is necessarily to strengthen folks into internal rotation, although it may have a small amount of merit.  I find that if you create stability at the core, hip IR tends to improve (reduce stiffness by adding stiffness at an adjacent joint).  I also like performing some of our core stability exercises with a bit of an internal rotation bias.


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