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Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training: Installment 6

Written on September 25, 2014 at 3:38 am, by Eric Cressey

It's time for this month's sports performance training musings. Many of these thoughts came about because we have a lot of our professional baseball guys back to kick off their off-season training, so I'm doing quite a few assessments each week. In no particular order...

1. There is a difference between "informative" assessments and "specific" assessments.

I recently spoke with a professional baseball pitcher who told me that his post-season evaluation included a 7-site body fat assessment, but absolutely no evaluation of scapular control or rotator cuff strength/timing.  Skinfold calipers (especially in the hands of someone without a ton of experience using them) are hardly accurate or precise, but they can at least be "informative." In other words, they tell you something about an athlete. 

However, I wouldn't call a body fat assessment a "specific" assessment. In other words, it's really hard to say that "Player X" is going to get injured because his body fat is 17% instead of 15%.

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Conversely, we absolutely know that having poor scapular control and rotator cuff function is associated with a dramatically increased risk of injury in throwers. Checking out upper extremity function is a "specific" assessment.

This example, to me, illustrates why good assessments really are athlete- and sport-specific. Body fat assessments mean a lot more to hockey players than they do to baseball players, but nobody ever attributed a successful NHL career to having great rotator cuff strength.

Don't assess just for the sake of assessing; instead, assess to acquire pertinent information that'll help guide your program design to reduce injury risk and enhance performance.

2. Extremes rarely work.

Obviously, in a baseball population, most athletes have at least some kind of injury history. It's generally a lot of elbows and shoulders, but core and lower extremity injuries definitely show up on health histories. When I see these issues, I always try to ask plenty of questions to get a feel for what kind of training preceded these injuries. In the majority of cases, injuries seem to come after a very narrow focus - or specialization period.

Earlier this week, I saw a pro baseball guy with chronic on-and-off low back pain. He commented on how it flared up heavily in two different instances: once in college, and the second time during his first off-season. In both cases, it was after periods when he really heavily emphasized squatting 2-3 times per week in an effort to add mass to his lower body. Squats were the round peg, and his movement faults made his body the square hole. Had he only squatted once a week, he might have gotten away with it - but the extreme nature of the approach (high volume and frequency) pushed him over the edge.

I've seen command issues in pitchers who threw exclusively weighted balls, but rarely played catch with another human being. I've seen plenty of medial elbow discomfort in athletes who got too married to the idea of adding a ton of extra weight to their pull-ups.

General fitness folks, powerlifters, and other strength sport athletes can get away with "extreme" specialization programs. Heck, I even co-created a resource called The Specialization Success Guide!

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However, athletes in sports that require a wide array of movements just don't seem to do well with a narrow training focus over an extended period of time. Their bodies seem to crave a rich proprioceptive environment. I think this is why "clean-squat-bench press only" programs leave so many athletes feeling beat-up, unathletic, and apathetic about training.  

3. Consider athletes' training experience before you determine their learning styles.

I'm a big believer in categorizing all athletes by their dominant learning styles: visual, kinesthetic, and auditory.

Visual learners can watch you demonstrate an exercise, and then go right to it.

Auditory learners can simply hear you say a cue, and then pick up the desired movement or position.

Kinesthetic learners seem to do best when they're actually put in a position to appreciate what it feels like, and then they can crush it.

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In young athletes and inexperienced clients, you definitely want to try to determine what learning style predominates with them so that you can improve your coaching. Conversely, in a more advanced athlete with considerable training experience, I always default to a combination of visual and auditory coaching. I'll simply get into the position I want from them, and try to say something to the point (less than ten words) to attempt to incorporate it into a schema they likely already have.

This approach effectively allows me to leverage their previous learning to make coaching easier. Chances are that they've done a comparable exercise - or at least another drill that requires similar patterns - in previous training. As such, they might be able to get it 90% correct on the first rep, so my coaching is just tinkering.

Sure, there will still be kinesthetic learners out there, but I find that they just aren't as common in advanced athletes with significant training experience. As such, I view kinesthetic awareness coaching as a means to the ultimate end of "subconsciously" training athletes to be more in tune with visual and auditory cues that are easier to deliver, especially in a group setting.

4. Separate training age from chronological age.

This can be a difficult concept to relate, so I'll try an example.

I have some 16-year-old athletes who have trained with us at Cressey Sports Performance for 3-4 years and have great anterior core awareness and control. I'd have no problem giving them the slideboard bodysaw push-up, which I'd consider a reasonably advanced anterior core and upper body strength challenge that requires considerable athleticism.

Conversely, I've had professional baseball players in their mid 20s who've shown up on their first day with us and been unable to do a single quality push-up. The professional athlete designation might make you think that they require advanced progressions, but the basics still work with the pros. You might just find that they picked things up quicker - and therefore can advance to new progressions a bit more rapidly than the novice 13-year-old.

Quality years of training means a lot more than simply the number of years a young athlete has been alive, so make sure you're working off the right number!

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Assessments You Might Be Overlooking: Installment 4

Written on March 8, 2014 at 9:21 am, by Eric Cressey

I always tell up-and-comers in the strength and conditioning field, "If you aren't assessing, you're just guessing."  It's not as simple as just doing a sit-and-reach test and having someone hop on the scale for you, though. This series is devoted to highlighting some of the most commonly overlooked components of the assessment process – and here are three more evaluations you might be missing:

1. Previous Athletic/Training Workload – If you're trying to help a client get to where they want to be, it's important to realize where they've been.  For example, someone who has a history of overworking themselves might respond really well to a lower volume program.  Or, an athlete looking to gain muscle mass who has never trained with much lifting volume might be well-served to add some "backoff" sets and additional assistance work.

This is an incredibly important discussion with our professional pitchers, too.  Starting pitchers who have a high workload (some in excess of 200 innings pitched in the previous 8-9 months) need to wait longer to start throwing than relief pitchers who may not have thrown more than 40 innings in a season.  The former group might not start an off-season throwing program until January 1, whereas the latter group might already have eight weeks of work in by that point.

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Discussions of building work capacity get a lot of love in the strength and conditioning field, but I think we often lose sight of the fact that sporting coaches are also looking to build work capacity in the context of the athletes' actual sports.  Now, these two things don't have to be mutually exclusive, but if everyone is always pushing high volume all the time, things can go downhill fast.

2. Quad and Adductor Length - Let's face it: a huge chunk of the population doesn't exercise enough, and even most of those who do exercise regularly don't pay attention to mobility needs. As a result, their entire exercise program takes place in a very small amplitude; they never get through significent joint ranges of motion. Two areas in which you see this probably rearing its ugly head the most are quad and adductor length. 

Your quads are maximally lengthened when your heel is on your butt.  How often do you see someone encounter this position in their daily lives?

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Adductors are stretched when the hips are abducted.  When was the last time you hit this pose in your daily activities – outside of a fall on the ice?

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If you want to do a quick and easy assessment of where you stand on these, try these two (borrowed from Assess and Correct):

Prone Knee Flexion: you should have at least 120 degrees of active knee flexion without the pelvis or lower back moving.

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Supine Abduction: you should have at least 45 degrees of abduction without lumbar or pelvis compensation, or any hip rotation.

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I generally just check these up on the training table when people get started up, but these should provide good do-it-yourself options for my readers who aren't fitness professionals.  Also, if you find that you come up short on these tests, get to work on the two stretches pictures at the start of this bulletpoint.

3. Taking the Shirt Off – This is a tricky one, as you obviously can't do it with female clients, and even when male clients, you have to be sensitize to the fact that it might not be something in which they'd like to partake.  That said, you'd be amazed at how many upper extremity dysfunctions can be obscured by a simple t-shirt.  As an example, this left-handed pitcher's medial elbow pain was diagnosed with ulnar neuritis, and he was prescribed anti-inflammatories for it and sent on his way without the doctor even having him take his shirt off to evaluate the shoulder and neck.

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Needless to say, he sits in heavy scapular depression on the left side, and it wouldn't be a "stretch" (pun intended) at all to suspect that his ulnar nerve symptoms would be originating further up the chain.  Take note on how the brachial plexus/ulnar nerve runs right under the clavicle as it courses down toward the elbow.

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Crank the scapula and clavicle down, and you can easily compress the nerve (and vascular structures) to wind up with thoracic outlet syndrome, a very common, but under-diagnosed condition in overhead throwing athletes.  The more forward-thinking upper extremity orthopedic surgeons are diagnosing this more and more frequently nowadays; elbow problems aren't always elbow problems!

The lesson is that you can see a lot when you take a shirt off.  If it's the right fit for your client/athlete, work it in.

I'll be back soon with more commonly overlooked assessments.  In the meantime, I want to give you a quick heads-up that to celebrate National Multiple Sclerosis Awareness week and help the cause, Mike Reinold and I have put both Functional Stability Training of the Core and Lower Body on sale for 25% off through tonight (Saturday) at midnight – with 25% of proceeds going to MS charities. Just use the coupon code msawareness to apply the discount at the following link: www.FunctionalStability.com.

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Baseball Training: Are Shoulder Dislocates Appropriate?

Written on February 10, 2014 at 4:28 am, by Eric Cressey

I received the following email the other day, and thought my response would make for a good Q&A here:

Q: I recently heard a national level gymnastics coach speak on how he believed shoulder dislocates with a dowel rod (working up to weighted dislocates) are a panacea for shoulder health and strength. I was wondering if you use them with your clients/players, and why or why not?

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A: Thanks for your question.  In short, the answer would be NO, I would never do shoulder dislocates with a throwing athlete.  I discussed why in a previous video that goes into great detail, so rather than reinvent the wheel, here it is!   Effectively, shoulder dislocates replicate some of the movements that I outline as problems here.

As a general rule of thumb, as a thrower, it's always better to be too tight than it is to be too loose.  WIth that in mind, you always need to ask why you're stretching an area out.  If the front of the shoulder feels "tight," it may be from a number of different causes:

1. Protective tension of the biceps tendon (secondary to rotator cuff weakness) – just stretching it out would remove what little anterior stability remains.

2. An injury to the anterior capsule, latissimus dorsi (humeral attachment point), subscapularis, supraspinatus, or biceps tendon – just stretching these areas out will likely exacerbate the injury.

3. Irritate of the nerves that run anterior to the humeral head – nerves don't like to be stretched.

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4. True muscular shortness of pectoralis major or another structure – Effectively, in doing shoulder dislocates, you're throwing all your eggs in this basket.

The only problem?  Most throwers already have an insane amount of horizontal abduction and external rotation range-of-motion on their throwing shoulders.  They aren't even close to having legitimate tissue shortness that would benefit from stretching.  This is something we work hard to drill home in our Elite Baseball Mentorships as one of the most important takeaways from the events.

Now, if we're talking about a regular ol' desk jockey who doesn't throw a baseball (or other sporting implement), play tennis, or swim, then dislocates might have some merit.  These individuals likely have some muscle/tendon stiffness that can be stretched out before they get to a point where they might crank on their joint capsule or nerves.  I would never use it as a "blanket" recommendation for everyone, though.  The only way to know is assess the individual and then plan accordingly.

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It Needs to Be Said: Throwing Doesn’t Build Arm “Strength”

Written on July 21, 2013 at 12:09 pm, by Eric Cressey

Today, I'm going to tackle one of my biggest pet peeves in the baseball world: people saying that throwing builds arm "strength."  Sorry, but it doesn't. 

What I'm going to write below might seem like wordplay, but truthfully, it's a very important differentiation to make.  If young athletes believe that throwing builds arm strength, they'll quickly convince themselves that year-round throwing is safe and acceptable, when it's actually one of the worst things they can do for long-term health and development. Here's what you need to know:

1. Throwing builds arm speed – which is power.  Power is heavily reliant on muscular strength.  If you can't apply much force, you can't apply much force quickly.

2. Throwing also builds muscular endurance in the arm.  Muscular endurance, too, is heavily reliant on muscular strength. If you don't have strength you can't have strength endurance.

If you enhance muscular strength, power and endurance will generally improve.  That's been shown time and time again in the research, both in throwers and other athletic situations.  However, if you train power and endurance, strength almost never goes up.  Otherwise, we'd see loads of athletes stronger at the end of seasons than they were at the beginning. In reality, if you check rotator cuff strength and scapular stabilizer proficiency at season's end, it's generally much lower.  As physical therapist Mike Reinold describes it, managing arm strength during the season is a "controlled fall."

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This underscores the importance of using the off-season (including a period with no throwing whatsoever) to improve rotator cuff strength and optimize scapular control.  Simultaneously, athletes gain passive stability at the shoulder as the acquired anterior instability (secondary to increased external rotation from throwing) reduces.

Now, we need more research to see if it's the case, but I think that one of the hidden benefits of throwing weighted baseball is that doing so essentially helps us blur the line between arm strength and speed, as I outlined in this presentation a while back:

Of course, it depends heavily on the volume, frequency, load, and type of weighted ball drills utilized, as well as the time of year at which they're utilized.  However, as I mentioned, it is somewhat of a noteworthy exception to the rule of throwing a 5oz baseball.  Weighted balls surely still take a toll on arm strength over the course of time, but that might be a "slower fall."

Regardless, when you're talking about a throwing program, feel free to say that you're building "arm speed" or "arm endurance," but let's all appreciate that you definitely aren't building "arm strength." 

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Baseball Development: What’s with All the Power Arms?

Written on July 8, 2013 at 7:28 am, by Eric Cressey

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine attended the Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis with one of his athletes.  For those who aren't familiar, this is an invitation-only event for the best rising senior baseball players in the country (in this year's case, the class of 2014).  At the end of the event, he texted me to comment on just how crazy it was that it seemed like dozens of kids were hitting 95mph on the radar gun at this event.  And, sure enough, in the post-event write-up, they commented on how over 100 kids topped the 90mph mark. 

That is a huge deal.

You see, if you backtracked just 10 years, 90mph was a huge feather in your cap – and it essentially meant that you'd be getting drafted out of high school.  Now, on a regular basis, we have dozens of kids nationwide consistently throwing 95mph+ even when there were only 35 major league pitchers in 2011 whose average fastball velocity was higher than 95mph!  As I've mentioned before, average fastball velocity is higher in Low-A than it is in the big leagues. 

The question, then, becomes, "Where are all these power arms coming from – particularly at the younger levels?"  That's a question I'll answer today.

1. More specialization.

One of my favorite strength and conditioning quotes of all time came from Mike Boyle when he said, "For every Tiger Woods, there are 100,000 kids who hate their father."

This funny quote obviously speaks to the fact that many kids burn out mentally trying to live up to someone else's expectations, and this can certainly be an issue with baseball, like any other sport.  However, baseball is particularly interesting because there is an extremely high likelihood of arm injury along the way.  In fact, according to a 2008 study from Oullette et al., 57% of pitchers suffer some form of shoulder injury over the course of a season.  And, that doesn't even take into account elbow issues, neck problems, core, and lower extremity problems.  It goes without saying that just about every player will have an issue or two (or 30) pop up over his four years of high school – and it's one reason why we don't see any more "clean" MRIs during post-draft physicals for high round picks. They're all damaged; it's just that some are worse than others, and we need to figure out which of the chips in the paint and rust on the hubcabs are clinically significant.

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When kids specialize in one sport at an early age and try to play it year-round, it's like betting your life savings on the roulette wheel – except your chances of winning are even smaller.  And, even if it works out and the kid manages to be the next star, you dodged a bullet – and he very well may just be waiting for problems down the road, as a lot of the early specialization kids actually have very "old arms" even if they aren't symptomatic. 

Not surprisingly, the rise in specialization (as evidenced by the growth in popularity of fall ball teams, showcases, and opportunities to play for multiple teams during the "normal" baseball season) has paralleled the rise in velocity and injuries.  Can long-term baseball development be successful without specialization?  In my opinion, absolutely – but you have to tie up all the loose ends, and that's what my next few points will all be about.

2. Video analysis

If you want your velocity to increase immediately, there is no quicker avenue to doing so than reviewing pitching mechanics on video.  Our pitching coordinator, Matt Blake, uses the RightView Pro set-up extensively at Cressey Performance for this very reason.  Many pitchers are visual learners, so this approach to coaching helps them to learn what needs to be corrected much more efficiently – and it's also of benefit to the pitching coach, as many movements in the pitching delivery occur so quickly that they really can't be spotted by the naked eye.

Surprisingly, there are still a ton of college and minor league teams who don't have video available to their players.  Access to video can be a huge game-changer, and it's one reason that a lot of high school kids are throwing harder and harder.

3. Competition

Ask any coach what one of the best ways to motivate male athletes is, and he'll tell you competition.  Most teenage guys thrive on trying to beat their buddies, opponents, or records that are in place.  Nowadays, there are more opportunities to compete (and less preparation), and any player in the country can hop online and see how his velocity compared to other guys' at the last showcase.  Although commonly overlooked, these competitive opportunities are big motivating factors to players.

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4. Strength Training

I often tell athletes that "If you don't run fast, you won't pull your hamstrings." In other words, strength training can be a player's biggest asset, but also his greatist downfall if he doesn't approach it correctly.  You see, if strength training isn't approached correctly, it can do a world of harm – both acutely and chronically.  Obviously, the likelihood of getting hurt increases if you move with poor technique under external loading.  However, taking it a step further, strength training "solidifies" movement patterns.  This can be great in a rehabilitation context if you free up some new mobility and then want to create stability within that range of motion (or just maintain what you've got).  However, if you lift like a moron, you'll mostly just teach yourself to be better at moving like crap – and that's when chronic injuries kick in.

Unfortunately, casual observers to exercise physiology don't get that there is a huge difference between appropriate and inappropriate strength training for baseball players. And, this is why there are quite a few "old school" folks in the baseball world who attribute some of the high injury rates these days to lifting.  What they should be attributing the injury to (in part) is inappropriate strength training exercise selection, volume, and technique.  After all, there are just as many guys get hurt late in the season because they cut out lifting and lose strength!

Simply stated, strength training is helping guys throw harder; there's no doubt about it.  It's how that strength training is programmed and what's done to complement it that determines if the increased velocity will lead to an injury. Nothing happens in isolation.

5. More aggressive throwing programs

A decade ago, throwing programs were far from what they are today.  Nowadays, up-and-coming throwers are using weighted baseballs and long toss more than ever before.  No two pitchers are alike in how they respond to these modalities, but having them as tools at our disposal has certainly helped us to increase pitching velocity with countless throwers.

6. Less distance running

One of our minor league pitchers stopped in to check in with me over his all-star break a few weeks ago, and he came bearing great news.  He'd hit 98mph on the radar gun four times in a single inning a few nights earlier – after never having been above 94mph before this season.

Sure, we did a lot of things differently with his programming this off-season, from strength training, to throwing programs, to mobility and soft tissue work.  However, the single biggest change he made (in my eyes, at least) was that he started sprinting between outings instead of distance running.  I have seen this time and time again, and I'm happy to report that more and more coaches at all levels are starting to pick up on it, too. 

Everybody ran long distances back in previous decades.  Yet, we throw harder nowadays.  And, everybody seems to run long distances in baseball in east Asia.  Pitchers throw harder in the U.S.  Sure, there are a lot more factors that contribute to pitching success than velocity alone, but these observations are impossible to ignore.

7. More objective ways to quantify velocity

Have you ever wondered if pitching velocity has increased simply because technology has improved, and we therefore have more accessible means of measuring it?  The price of radar guns isn't as high.  Every stadium has a radar gun.  They make pocket radar guns, and there are even iPad apps to measure velocity. 

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Basic accessibility to this technology has likely contributed to kids pushing the envelope of what they would otherwise think they were able to do.

8. More peaks, fewer valleys

Remember when Justin Verlander hit 101mph on the radar gun in the 9th inning of his no-hitter in 2011?  You could call that a "peak" velocity moment.  In short, it's a lot easier when the stakes are higher, people are watching you, and the adrenaline is pumping.  Major League pitchers don't have as many of these because their professional seasons are a long grind: possibly 200 games in 230 days, if you include spring training and playoffs.

Younger pitchers, however, are more "excitable."  With shorter seasons, there are more "big games."  With showcases and tournaments each weekend, the stakes are higher. Heck, they get excited if a girlfriend comes to watch them pitch. In the lifting world, we call it the difference between a training max and a competition max.  A competition max may be as much as 10% higher because a lifter is deloaded from training stress and put into a higher pressure competitive situation. In young pitchers, everything seems to be a competition max.  It's great for demonstrating big velocity numbers, but may interfere with long-term health and development.

Wrap-up

Clearly, there are a ton of factors that have contributed to guys throwing harder at younger ages in today's baseball world.  They don't all apply to each thrower, as different athletes will generate velocity in different ways.  While this increase in average velocity has definitely made pitchers more dominant, it has, unfortunately, been accompanied by a greater frequency of injuries.  Understanding the factors that contribute to these velocity increases is the first step in determining how to keep kids performing at a high level while minimizing their risk of injury. 

For more information, I'd encourage you to check out 7 Reasons Pitchers Shouldn't Do Year-Round Throwing Programs Part 1 and Part 2.  Additionally, you can explore these topics in much greater detail with us at our Elite Baseball Mentorships.

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Should Pitchers Distance Run? What the Research Says.

Written on August 22, 2012 at 9:01 am, by Eric Cressey

Today’s guest blog comes from current CP intern, Rob Rabena.  Rob recently completed his master’s thesis research on the effects of interval training versus steady state aerobic training on pitching performance in Division 2 pitchers.  He’s in a great position to fill us in on the latest research with respect to the distance running for pitchers argument.

“Ok, guys, go run some poles.”

A baseball coach often voices this phrase during the season to keep his pitchers in shape. Utilizing distance running to enhance aerobic performance among pitchers has always been the norm, but do the risks outweigh the rewards? There is strong evidence in the scientific literature to support that coaches should rethink utilizing distance running with their pitchers.

Jogging Might Not be the Answer

The current practice utilized for conditioning is for pitchers is to go for a long run the day after a game to “flush” the sore arm of lactic acid, or minimize muscle soreness to recover faster for the next game. These theories are not supported by the current literature and the physiology of the sport.

In the current research study examining the physiology of pitching, Potteiger et al. (1992) found no significant difference between pre-pitching and post-pitching blood lactate levels of six college baseball players after throwing a 7-inning simulated game. Even though during an inning there is a slight lactate production of 5.3-5.8 mM, (which is not high, considering resting lactate is 1.0mM), it does not cause a buildup of lactic acid in the arm of a pitcher after a game. As a comparative example, a high lactate response would occur from squatting for multiple reps at about 70% 1RM; this might produce a lactate level of about 8-10mM (Reynolds et al., 1997). Furthermore, jogging to flush the arm of lactic acid after a start is unnecessary and not supported by the literature, especially since we learned all the way back in 2004 that lactate was not the cause of muscular fatigue ; even the New York Times reported on this in 2007! A lot of coaches simply haven’t caught wind yet – in spite of the fact that exercise physiology textbooks have been rewritten to include this new information.

Should Pitchers Distance Run?

When a person jogs at a pace where he/she is able to hold a conversation (at or below ventilatory and lactate threshold), the goal is to improve V02 and to enhance aerobic performance. For pitchers, this practice is utilized to enhance and maintain endurance during games, as well as to maintain body composition throughout the season
In the research study conducted by Potteiger et al. (1992), the researchers found that mean V02 only reached 20 ml. kg.min during the simulated game, and returned to 4.9 ml.kg.min between innings (resting is 3.5 ml.kg.min). The V02s of endurance athletes are approximately greater than or equal to 60 ml.kg.min. Based off this study, V02 does not seem to be a limiting factor for pitchers who want to pitch deep into games. Since a high V02 does not make a great pitcher, why are we training like an endurance athlete, when pitching relies predominately on the anaerobic system? While jogging may help you with body composition and endurance, it’s not going to help you throw more innings in a game. Our emphasis should be on building strength and speed, which are more anaerobic qualities.

Endurance Running or Sprints?

Still not convinced that sprint or anaerobic training is right for your pitching staff? Okay, coach, here are a few more studies comparing sprint training to aerobic training and their effects on pitching performance.

One study examined dance aerobic training (yes, dance training) to sprint training in baseball pitchers and found a significant improvement (p<0.05) in the pitching velocity and anaerobic power measures of the sprint groups (Potteiger et al., 1992).

In a similar study that compared sprint training and long, slow distance running in-season, Rhea et al. (2008) found a significant increase in lower body power for the sprint group, and a drop in power for the distance group. Do we want our pitchers dropping in lower body power? I don’t think so!  Would you like to see their power production increase? Absolutely!

My Research

My Master’s thesis, “The Effects of Interval Training on Pitching Performance of NCAA Division II pitchers”, examined the in-season steady state exercise and interval training on pitching performance. Prior to collecting data, I hypothesized that I was going to find a significant difference in pitching velocity, WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched), 30m sprint time, fatigue index and muscle soreness.

The results of my thesis study found no significant difference (p>0.05) in any of the hypotheses. However, there was a very strong trend (p=.071) for the distance training group presenting with more soreness based off a 0-10 scale. The distance group did not drop in velocity, get slower, or decrease pitching performance like the previous studies suggested. When examining the results of my thesis study with the current literature, I continue to question if there is an appropriate place and time to implement distance running for pitchers within a training cycle, and if so, when would it be most efficient to do so?

Now What Do We Do?

Most of the research available supports that assertion that pitchers should stop distance running or not make it a focal point of their baseball strength and conditioning program. Distance running trains the aerobic energy system, where pitching is purely anaerobic in nature. I’m not totally bashing distance running because it does have its benefits for certain populations, just not for the performance goals of pitchers.

Now that we know what we shouldn’t be coaching, what should pitchers be doing for conditioning instead of running poles during practices? There are few things to consider when designing sports specific conditioning for pitchers:

● What should the rest periods be between sprints?
● What distances should pitchers sprint?
● How many days a week should pitchers actually condition, and does this fit into the overall training program?

The time between pitches is 15-20 sec (Szymanski, 2009), or longer for guys who are known for working slow on the mound. This can really help coaches when implementing interval sprints. Based off research and my time spent at Cressey Performance, anything 40 yards and under for 4-8 sprints, 2-3x a week is recommended. This, of course, depends on time of year (in-season vs. off-season). At the end of a workout, if the equipment is available, a lateral sled drag, farmers’ walks, or sledge hammer hits are always a plus to increase the anaerobic energy systems, which for a pitcher are most important.

Training pitchers out of the sagittal plane is another key consideration often overlooked with training baseball players; for this reason, using rotational medicine ball exercises is extremely valuable. Check out this study by Szymanski et al, (2007), which compared a medicine ball and resistance training group to resistance training only. Researchers found an increase torso rotational strength for the medicine ball group.

This explains why med balls are a great option for baseball players to not only develop rotational power, but also to blow off some steam. With that in mind, during a movement/conditioning day for pitchers, exercises like band-resisted heidens and lateral skips should be incorporated, along with the more traditional straight sprints mentioned above.

Conclusion

Based off the literature, long distance running should not be implemented for pitchers. When it comes down to it, a well-developed training program that incorporates strength, movement and conditioning is the most efficient way to enhance the way your athlete moves and plays on the field.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to leave comments below, as this is the start of a process and something that coaches need to further consider and discuss to improve the efficiency of the conditioning programs for pitchers.

About the Author

Rob Rabena M.S., C.S.C.S, is a strength and conditioning coach who is currently interning at Cressey Performance. Rob recently earned his M.S. in Exercise Science with a focus in Strength and Conditioning. Prior to his graduate work, Rob obtained his B.S. in Exercise Science with a focus in Health Promotion from Cabrini College in 2011. Although Rob has a particular interest and experience with coaching collegiate athletes, he also enjoys working with clientele of diverse backgrounds and dictates his coaching practice to making his clients feel great, both physically and mentally, while placing a strong emphasis on the specific goals of the client. Feel free to contact Rob Rabena directly via email at robrabena@gmail.com.

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References

1. Fox EL. Sports Physiology (2nd ed). New York, NY: CBS College Publishing, 1984

2. Potteiger, J., Blessing, D., & Wilson, G. D. (1992). The Physiological Responses to a Single Game of Baseball Pitching. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research , 6, 11-18.

3. Potteiger, J., Williford, H., Blessing, D., & Smidt, J. (1992). The Efect of Two Training Methods on Improving Baseball Performance Variables. Journal of Applied Sports Science Research , 2-6.

4. Reynolds, T., Frye, P., & Sforzo, G. (1997). Resistance Training and Blood Lactate Response to Resistance Exercise in Women. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 77-81.

5. Rhea, M., Oliverson, J., Marshall, G., Peterson, M., Kenn, J., & Ayllon, F. (2008). Noncompatibilty of Power and Endurance Training Among College Baseball Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 230-234.

6. Szymanski, D. J. (2009). Physiology of Baseball Pitching Dictates Specific Exercise Insensity for Conditioning. Journal of Strength and Conditioning , 31, 41-47.

7. Szymanski, J., Szymanski, J., Bradford, J., Schade, R., & Pascoe, D. (2007). Effect of Twelve Weeks of Medicine Ball Training on High School Baseball Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 894-901.

8.Torre, J., & Ryan, N. (1977). Pitching and Hitting. NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.


9 Reasons Pitching Velocity Increases Over the Course of a Season

Written on June 4, 2012 at 7:06 am, by Eric Cressey

As we enter June, we hit the time of year when young pitchers are transitioning from school baseball to summer baseball, but this isn’t the only change that’s occurring.  June is usually the time of year when pitching velocity tends to go up or down – and often quite significantly.  To that end, I wanted to use a two-part series to outline the reasons why this occurs in both the positive and negative directions. In today’s installment, I’ll cover nine reasons why pitching velocity increases over the course of a season.

1. Increased external rotation

Over the course of a season, pitchers acquire slightly more external rotation at the shoulder (roughly five degrees, for most).  Since external rotation is correlated with pitching velocity, gaining this range of motion is helpful for adding a few ticks on the radar gun as compared to early in the season. However, this added external rotation comes with a price; it is usually accompanied by increased anterior instability and, in some cases, a loss of internal rotation.  As such, you need to stabilize or stretch accordingly.

2. Optimization of mechanics

Many pitchers integrate subtle or dramatic changes to their mechanics in the off-season and early in-season periods, but these changes won’t “stick” until they have some innings under their belt.  June is often when those corrections start to settle in.

3. Transfer of strength to power

Some pitchers build a solid foundation of strength in the off-season, but take extra time to learn to display that force quickly (power).  In short, they’re all the way toward the absolute strength end of the continuum, as described in this video:

4. More important game play

Some guys just don’t get excited to pitch in games that don’t mean much.  While that is an issue for another article, the point here is to realize that a greater external stimulus (more fans, playoff atmosphere, important games) equates to a greater desire to throw cheddar.  Right now, the high school and college post-seasons are underway, so you’re seeing some of the big radar gun readings more frequently.

5. Warmer weather

Many pitchers struggle to throw hard in cold weather.  Pedro Martinez was a great example; during his time in Boston, he was undoubtedly one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, yet his Aprils never held a candle to what he did during the rest of the year (good thing his change-up was filthy, too).

Warmer weather makes it easier to warm up, and many guys – especially the more muscular, stiff pitchers – need to lengthen the pre-game warm-up early in the season.  If you’re a guy who typically doesn’t see your best velocity numbers until you’ve got several innings under your belt, extend your pre-game warm-up, dress in layers, and don’t pick up a ball until you’re sweating.

6. New desire to prove oneself

For many pitchers, summer ball is a new beginning.  This might be in the form of a Cape Cod League temp contract, or a situation where a player is transitioning from a smaller high school that doesn’t face good competition on to a program that plays a challenging summer schedule.  Again, that external stimulus can make a huge difference, as it often includes better catchers, better coaching, more fans, better mounds, and more scouts behind the plate. 

7. Mechanical tinkering

Piggybacking on the previous example, some pitchers may find their mechanics thanks to help from summer coaches.  So, a change in coaching perspective can often bring out the best in guys.

8. Freedom to do one’s own thing.

I know of quite a few pitchers who’ve thrived in the summer time simply because their pitching coaches haven’t been in the way.  Usually, this means they can go back to long tossing rather than being restricted to 90-120 feet all season.  It’s a great way to get arm speed back.

9. Different pitch selection

There are quite a few college coaches who have guys throw 75% sliders in their outings – and wind up ruining plenty of elbows in the process.  Summer ball is a chance for many guys to take a step back and really work on commanding their fastballs, so it’s not uncommon to see a few more mph on the radar gun.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll outline the reasons why pitching velocity may decrease over the course of a season. 

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Baseball Strength and Conditioning: What to Do With an Extra Day Between Pitching Starts

Written on April 24, 2012 at 5:12 pm, by Eric Cressey

Q: I read your series, A New Model for Training Between Starts, and love the ideas you introduced.  Since eliminating distance running between outings, I’ve noticed a big difference in how I feel and how I pitch.  I did have one question about the weekly rotations you outlined in Part 2.  What happens if I have an extra day between starts due to erratic scheduling or just a rain out?

A: This is a great question – and one I have received several times – so I’m glad I’m finally getting around to answering it here on the blog!

I usually look for guys to do a “bridge” training session.  Basically, these sessions are all about leaving the gym feeling refreshed; you work, but not so hard that you’re exhausted.

In the typical in-season baseball strength and conditioning program we use with professional pitchers on a five-day rotation, here’s how we’d schedule it:

Day 0: pitch
Day 1: challenging lower body lift, push-up variation (light), horizontal pulling (light), cuff work
Day 2: movement training only
Day 3: Single-leg work, challenging upper body lift (less vertical pulling in-season), cuff work
Day 4: low-intensity dynamic flexibility circuits only
Day 5: next pitching outing

However, if the next outing isn’t until Day 6, we will integrate one of two options:

The first option would be to simply split the Day 3 training session into two shorter sessions: one upper, one lower.  These sessions might only be 10-12 sets in all. Then, Day 5 would be the low-intensity dynamic flexibility circuits.

The second option would be to keep the strength training component as-is, but perform some medicine ball circuits on Day 4, then use Day 5 for the low-intensity dynamic flexibility circuits.

Both options keep you training hard without interfering with the subsequent pitching outing.  Particularly in professional baseball, there are more days off early in the season, so it’s important to be able to roll with the punches like this.

At the college and high school levels, the 7-day rotation is usually implemented.  If a pitcher starts on Day 0, I like to see him strength training on Day 1, Day 3, and Day 5, with Day 5 being a lower-intensity lift (Days 2 and 4 are movement training, and Day 6 is low-intensity dynamic flexibility).  If there is an extra day on the end, we simply treat our Day 5 lift like we did the Day 3 option in the 5-day template from above; it can either be split into upper and lower body sessions, or we can do it as-is, and add medicine ball circuits on Day 6, taking Day 7 for dynamic flexibility before starting again on Day 8.

That said, as in my experience, guys rarely get that extra day in high school and college; they’re more likely to have their starts pushed up.  In this case, we just drop the Day 5 lift.

Getting training sessions in between starts is incredibly important, but that doesn’t mean that one must be rigid in the scheduling of these sessions.  In fact, one must be very flexible in tinkering with that scheduling on a week-to-week basis to make sure that guys are getting in their lifts, but not at the expense of their performance on the mound. Hopefully this blog provided some strategies you can employ when weather or scheduling throws you a curveball!

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Opening Day Musings: Are You Willing to Put in the Work?

Written on April 5, 2012 at 7:56 am, by Eric Cressey

Earlier this week, Cressey Performance athlete Ryan Flaherty was named to the Baltimore Orioles opening day roster for today.  Ryan and I share a common trait in that we were both born and raised in Southern Maine, so we’ve had some good conversations about what it takes to compete on a national scale when you start out from what isn’t exactly known as a baseball capital of the world.  When I heard the great news about Ryan, the logical first choice for reading about it was our hometown newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, in this article.

One of the things that stood out for me about this article was the quote about how Orioles manager Buck Showalter still got so excited to tell guys they made the big league roster – because, unfortunately, it’s a conversation he gets to have much less often than the “You’re cut” interaction.

Being successful – and, even moreso, world-class – is very difficult.

Only 3% of guys ever drafted into professional baseball ever make it to the big leagues.  When you factor in free agent signings, it’s likely a 1 in 50 success rate.  Taking it a step further, if you look at the 118 first-round draft picks between 2004 and 2007 who actually signed, only 84 (71%) of them ever made it to the big leagues.  In other words, even if you are among the most coveted 30 prospects in all of the U.S. and Canada, you still have a long way to go, and a lot of time to fall flat on your face.

I hear it all the time from kids:

I want to make varsity.

I want to play in college.

I want to get drafted.

I want to make it to the big leagues.

While the goals are certainly incremental and far apart, the response needs to be the same: “It won’t be easy, and you need to be willing to work for it – not talk about it.”

Ryan was no exception.  He was one of the best athletes – football, basketball, and baseball – in the history of the State of Maine.  Then, he was a three-year standout at Vanderbilt, one of the best college baseball programs in the country, before being drafted in 2008.  Three years of hard work in the minor leagues later, he’s getting his shot in “the show” today.  Tim Collins was a great example from last year – and Tim had to work his butt off to keep his roster spot in the big leagues going in to 2012.

It would have been very easy to be one of the 98% who failed, though. There are thousands of ways in which kids go astray from their goals today, whether it’s due to apathy, poor coaching, overassertive parents, drug use, behavioral issues, or simply not being honest with themselves about how much they need to improve.  And, it’s getting worse with every participation trophy that’s handed out, and every time that a parent races in to school to contest a grade on a report card.

In the former case, the rewards should be the excitement of competition, the outstanding feeling that comes from being part of a team, the physical activity that comes with participating, and the character development that comes from dedicating oneself to a goal and working toward improvements to make it a reality.  What are we saying to a kid when he busts his butt and looks the coach in the eye every time they talk, yet we hand him the same participation trophy that we gave to the kid that shows up late to practice, refuses to pick up equipment, gets in the coach’s face, and dogs it through drills?

In the latter case, the parent has missed a valuable opportunity to teach a valuable, yet dwindling characteristic in today’s young kids: accountability.  When parent could be teaching a kid that “you reap what you sow,” instead, he/she instead chooses to show that you can cut corners in life because there will always be someone around to clean up your mess.  I’m all for standing up to your kids – but I think a lot of people today need to stand up TO their kids, too.

It isn’t just about showing up. It’s about genuinely caring about what you do, honestly evaluating where your abilities are, having a passion to become a better person and make the the world a better place, and acting accordingly – while being humble, punctual, diligent, and respectful.

Don’t get me wrong; we absolutely, positively need to encourage all kids, not just athletes – and overbearing parents absolutely crush kids’ confidence.  However, there is a happy medium between the two; I think we do them a disservice when we aren’t realistic with them about what it actually takes to be successful.  Only then can they appreciate the day-t0-day behaviors and practice they’ll need to be successful: the process for their ultimate destination.

Along these lines, over the years, I’ve had dozens of parents come up to me and say that one of the reasons they love Cressey Performance so much is that young athletes get to interact with and train alongside professional athletes so much.  The hard work they see from the pro guys does a better job of demonstrating what level of commitment it takes to succeed better than anything a parent could ever put into words.

I love seeing college and professional athletes involved with clinics for younger athletes, as well as charitable endeavors. It doesn’t just help the kids and charities, but also the athletes themselves.  It gives them not only a chance to give back and an opportunity to reflect on how far they’ve come and the hard work it took to get to where they are.

It’s important to not just discuss the drive and character it takes to succeed, but give kids visual examples of it. What better day than opening day, when dreams are coming true all over Major League Baseball? It’s a great starter to a conversation you ought to have with your kids and the players you coach; why not today?

Related Posts

Strength and Conditioning Program Success: The Little Things Matter
Four Factors that Make or Break a Baseball Strength and Conditioning Program

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Exercise of the Week: Box Jump with 1-leg Landing

Written on February 9, 2012 at 8:43 pm, by Eric Cressey

For this week's exercise of the week, I had some help from Miami Marlins pitcher and Cressey Performance client Steve Cishek, as well as Stack.com and New Balance Baseball.  Check it out:

A lot of folks do lower-level single-leg plyos and bilateral jumping/landing variations, but many folks never get around to combining the two.  This is a great option for those looking to take things to the next level.  Just make sure you're conservative with box height, for safety sake.

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