If you look in the media or the journals, you will find information about how to build power and how to improve pitching velocities. But what is really underneath all of that is the foundation, and if you try to charge ahead and just build strength or just power without building a strong foundation, it's a one way route to injury.
When I train pitchers, I think of the mobility/stability model I first learned from Gray Cook, which goes something like this: if a joint is created for mobility, it will be surrounded by joints created for stability. So the pitcher must be able to create force capitalizing on mobility at the hips while maintaining enough stability in the torso to transfer that force through the stable scapula and the mobile shoulder, finally arriving at the ball (1). In this article, I will share my top foundation exercise for each area.
It's not news to anyone that the shoulder is one of the key areas for a pitcher to train. Many athletes will tell me, “Yeah, I work on my shoulder. I do external rotation and internal rotation for my rotator cuff.” But there's much more to it than that. When I think of shoulder health for a pitcher or any throwing/overhead athlete, I think of the muscles of the mid back, because they really are the “core” of the shoulder. So if the shoulder had a core, it would be the rhomboids, the mid and the lower fibers of the trapezius and the serratus anterior (2).
If these muscles are not functioning properly, then you are lacking shoulder control. You will see when you try the exercise I'm going to show you, you may have a hard time finding these muscles or figuring out how to turn them on. For some of you frankly, it's going to feel like you're trying to wiggle your ears. That's how hard it will be for you to key in on these muscles and get them to contract.
If these scapular stabilizers do not have some strength and more importantly some smarts behind them, then you are going to be in real trouble because they are the ones responsible for controlling and decelerating the shoulder blade as you go through the pitching motion.
The only shoulder exercise I'm going to give you right now is the scapular squeeze. To do this exercise, you will lie face down with your arms at your sides. From this position, you are going to try to squeeze your shoulder blades down and in slightly, so down and towards your spine slightly with a gentle contraction (see in the photo below – squeeze where you see the yellow arrow).
Do not squeeze with all of your strength because you will end up bringing in a bunch of other muscles we do not want. Just squeeze with enough force that you could hold a big magic marker between your shoulder blades. Hold this position for three to five seconds and then slowly let it go. It's important that you slowly move into this position and that you slowly move out of this position as this will teach you scapular control through the range of motion. I don't want you to learn how to turn it on as hard as you can and then let it go. I want you to learn how to gradually bring it on and gradually let it go.
Coaches or trainers who use this exercise should make sure your athlete is initiating the movement from the rhomboids and mid/lower trapezius and not the latissimus dorsi. You can easily do this by placing your thumbs along the vertebral border of the scapula and your fingertips over the latissimus dorsi. You should feel the muscles beneath your thumbs activate first with a slight depression/retraction of the scapula. If you feel the muscles under your fingers engage first accompanied by a depression of the shoulders, then cue the athlete to reduce the force of the contraction and focus on the shoulder blades.
A progression of this exercise is to do the exact same thing, but as you hold the scapular squeeze position, you will lift the arms just one inch off the floor (see the turquoise arrow in the photo above). Hold that position for three to five seconds and then lower your hands back to the floor before slowly letting go of the shoulder blades. Complete 10 to 20 repetitions of this exercise.
Monitor yourself or your athlete. She should feel fatigue in the muscles between the shoulder blades. If she is feeling fatigue in the muscles that come from the shoulders up towards the neck or the upper trapezius, this tells you she is shrugging her shoulders, and you definitely do not want that. Elevating or shrugging the shoulders is a common compensation pattern, so really watch out for this. Those upper fibers of the trapezius need to be relaxed.
When working with athletes from a variety of sports, there is a common confusion between core or torso training and abdominal training. So when I say, “We're going to work on core,” they get excited because they think we're going to build a six pack, and that's not really the goal of the athlete's core training. One thing in particular for a baseball pitcher is training diagonal patterns during core work. This is what I'm going to focus on in this segment on stabilization for foundation training.
I'm not really interested in sagittal plane movements, which you perform with a crunch when moving forward and back. I'm interested in the diagonal pattern. The common tendency might be to think of the muscles in the front of the body, because we see those as generating power. When working with throwing athletes, there is also the tendency to think of high velocity rotary power exercises to enhance throwing performance (3). But for the sake of this discussion on building a strong foundation, I'm going to go against that, and I'm going to look at the muscles in the back of the body, the decelerators where many injuries can occur. I really like to make sure that those muscles are firing in a diagonal chain with, again, some smarts and some endurance.
So I'm going to go to a very basic exercise you've probably all done before, a hands and knees superman. From a hands and knees position on the floor, with a neutral back position, brace with the abdominals just slightly as if you were going to get a light punch in the stomach from a four year old. Hold that torso position. Then lift one arm and the opposite leg (see photo below). Reach straight through your fingertips from the arm and press through the heel of the back leg. Do not try to lift your arm and leg up high in the air because that's going to translate into a hyper extended back.
Hold this position for 30 seconds and try to minimize your wiggle. I'll tell my clients that if it I put a bucket of cold water on their backs, they should not spill a drop. There will be some movement, but use your muscles to stabilize and minimize that. Remember, your hips must stay level and your back should stay in that neutral position. If you're not sure whether or not you're maintaining this position, try placing a DVD case across your low back just above your hips. Then go through the exercise completing two repetitions on each side, holding each position for 30 seconds. If that DVD cover is falling off, then you know you're tilting side to side.
The Hips, Legs and Balance
There are so many things we can do for the hips, but I thought I would pick psoas activation, since this muscle is a key component of the wind up. And if you are wondering how important the leg lift is, try pitching without lifting your lead leg. Research has also show a positive relationship between unilateral stance balance and pitching velocity (4), so the following exercise is a nice way to benefit both movement mechanics and balance.
There are two major hip flexor muscles, one of which crosses both the hip and knee. This is the rectus femoris, and it is a quadriceps muscle that extends the knee and flexes the hip, in addition to providing deceleration to the opposite movements.
Then there's the iliopsoas, which is actually two muscles: 1) the iliacus, which originates from the pelvis and 2) the psoas major, which originates on all lumbar vertebrae. Both insert on the upper thigh (4).
Any time we have something that attaches to the spine, we're not assuming that it is attached there for convenience. We have to think that the hip and the spine are meant to work as a unit. And if we have a breakdown in one area, we can see how that can affect or create difficulty for the other area.
The psoas major comes into action when one is trying to lift the thigh above perpendicular to the torso. And I've been amazed at how many athletes are not using their psoas to complete this action. Often, an athlete will round her lumbar spine a bit, or she will lean her body back a bit to try to make it look like she is getting the proper movement, even though she is not using the proper muscles. So before doing anything else, make sure you are able to activate the psoas with this very simple exercise.
Stand with your foot flat on a bench, chair or coffee table, something with a height that allows you to place your foot on top, with your thigh in a position where it's roughly parallel to the floor. Stand up tall and maintain a neutral back position. I usually place one hand on my stomach and the back of my other hand on my lumbar spine to make sure I'm not rounding my back or leaning back as I complete this exercise.
From this position with your foot flat on the bench and a neutral spine, lift your foot off the bench by flexing at your hip (see photo below). This will bring your thigh above parallel to the floor using the psoas. If you find that you want to lean back or round your back, this is a real cue that there is difficulty using the psoas.
If you are having trouble, the solution is fairly easy. Try sitting on a bench with your knees and hips bent to 90 degrees. Again, you will sit up as tall as you can while maintaining a neutral back position and try to lift one foot off the floor.
If you still can't get the foot off the floor without losing your neutral back position, then try using your hands to assist the leg lift. Once you have lifted the leg, try to activate the muscles in the front of your hip to hold it in that position. You will use your arms to help lift the leg but then move your hands away and try to use your psoas muscle to hold it in that position and slowly lower it back to the starting point.
Doing this a few times may be enough just to prime the motor pattern and get it flowing a little bit better. Whichever one of these progressions you are able to complete perfectly, do five to 10 repetitions on each side holding for three seconds each. Once you can perform this psoas activation from a standing position while maintaining your balance and neutral spine, try completing your repetitions with your eyes closed (5).
Remember that building a better athlete is like building your beautiful dream home. You need to start from the foundation up. Although the foundation is not the sexiest part of the job, it really is the most important part. You can put all of your time and effort into exercises that look cool, but if you don't take the time to build that foundation, you or your athlete will eventually crumble. I suggest working on these skills for a few weeks before heading into the gym for strength training. They may also be used in season as a part of your injury prevention program or dynamic warm up/muscle activation.
- Cook, Gray. The Athletic Body in Balance. 2003. pp.28-29.
- Cools, A.M., Witvrouw, E.E., Mahieu, N.N., and Danneels, L.A. Isokinetic scapular muscle performance in overhead athletes with and without impingement symptoms. Journal of Athletic Training. 2005;40(2):104-110.
- Stodden, D.F., Campbell, B.M., and Moyer, T.M. Comparison of trunk kinematics in trunk training exercises and throwing. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2008; 22(1):112-118.
- Kendall, F.P., McCreary, E.K., and Provance, P.G. Muscle testing and function. 4th Edition 1993. pp.214.
- Marsh, D.W., Richard, L.A., Williams, L.A., and Lynch, K.J. The relationship between balance and pitching error in college baseball pitchers. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2004; 18(3):441-446.