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Shoulders, Core and Legs: Keys to Great Throwing and Striking Sports Performance in Female Athletes


Trainers can have a significant positive impact on both performance and injury reduction by developing the appropriate strength training program for their athletes. Having effective strength and power is not dependent upon the strength of a single body part, but instead is a result of the coordination and strength of several parts of the "throwing chain." Producing powerful throws and strikes starts from the ground – up. No matter what sport you play, this axiom is true. Female athletes who play throwing and striking sports such as softball, tennis and volleyball must produce powerful overhead or throwing movements to throw-out a base runner, hit a winning serve in tennis, or strike a "kill shot" in volleyball. They all have one thing in common – the utilization of three important components to generate the needed power. These three components are the force production originating in the legs, the transfer of that force to and through the torso or core, and finally the speed and force produced by the arm and upper body musculature to effectuate the throw or strike. Racquet or arm speed is a product of strong legs, a strong core, and strong shoulders. To create the necessary power, these three parts of the kinetic chain need to work together. If any of these three links in the chain lacks the requisite strength to effectively contribute, poor performance, or worse yet, injury could be the end result. After all, as the saying goes, "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link." So, this two-part article will examine the female throwing-striking athlete, and some exercises that will help strengthen each of these important components in a way that will make your athlete more effective on the field of play.

Let’s take a look at developing the third link in this chain – the shoulders – since this is an area that tends to be the weakest for many athletes. As a result, it is often the source of injury or poor performance.

Shoulders

The shoulder joint is the most mobile and versatile of the human joints. It has been described as powerful, flexible, and fragile . When you produce an overhead motion to throw or hit a ball, your shoulder is forced to strike a delicate balance between mobility and stability; acceleration and deceleration. This places a great deal of stress on the shoulders. The powerful internal rotators that help accelerate the arm forward must work in conjunction with the relatively smaller, and oftentimes, relatively weaker external rotators, stabilizers and decelerators to not only affect a strong throw or strike, but also a safe one! A number of muscles, for example, the chest, rotator cuff, rhomboids, trapezius, and serratus anterior all have an important role in the throw or strike, whether it’s accelerating the arm, stabilizing the shoulder, or decelerating the arm after the release. Developing the necessary strength in each of these muscle groups should be an important part of every sports conditioning program for athletes. An exercise program that combines traditional shoulder strength training (e.g. weights, bands, body weight), along with plyometric work, to target the muscles that serve as accelerators, decelerators and stabilizers, will provide the female throwing-striking athlete with a well-rounded "shoulder" strength training regimen.

Traditional Strength Exercise

Most trainers are familiar with many of the traditional strength exercises for the shoulders and upper body such as, the chest press, lat pull, shoulder press, seated row, standard push-up, and single arm row. These types of exercises are the staple to a good shoulder training program, and are extremely important as they form the base upon which the entire shoulder conditioning program is built. With regular performance of these types of exercises, the athlete will develop and maintain the requisite base strength in the upper body.

Plyometric Exercise

Plyometric exercise is important to every athlete, but particularly so for throwers since the throwing or overhead striking movement is very dynamic. Plyometric exercise requires the athlete to utilize the "elastic power" of their muscles. It involves three phases: the eccentric phase which involves a rapid pre-stretch of the target muscle; followed by what is called the "amortization" phase which represents the time between the phase one eccentric phase, and phase three; and the third phase which is the concentric contraction (or shortening) of the target muscle. The idea behind plyometric exercise is to shorten the amortization phase (or the time between the pre-stretch and the final concentric contraction of the target muscle) of the exercise so that the stored elastic effects of the phase one eccentric stretch are optimized – think of the release of a pre-stretched rubber band. For a throwing athlete, this elastic power is very important in producing speed in the throw or strike, and it can be developed in a number of ways – for example, plyometric wall push-ups, or a medicine ball chest pass and catch.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of some of the exercises you can include in your shoulder conditioning program.

Exercises for the "Accelerators"

The primary accelerators for throwing are the chest muscles, latissimus dorsi, and serratus anterior. When the athlete accelerates into the throw the pre-stretched chest muscles begin to contract concentrically and the posterior chain muscles, such as the rear shoulder muscles, move from concentric to eccentric contraction. This action produces a powerful acceleration. Here is a plyometric exercise that will help train these accelerators.

This same exercise can be performed while seated on a stability ball. Using the stability ball will add a balance and core component to this exercise.

Exercises for the Stabilizers

Dynamic shoulder stabilization is a must for throwing/striking athletes! During the throwing motion, the scapula serves as the stable base of support between the arm and the trunk. The serratus anterior muscles, rhomboids, trapezius and rotator cuff muscles are all instrumental in stabilizing the scapula for the throw or overhead strike.

Here’s an example of a good scapular stabilizing exercise. This helps strengthen some of the muscles responsible for providing this stable platform.

The athlete starts in the regular straight-body push-up position (Photo 1). Notice the two tennis balls in front of her. While stabilizing on one arm, the athlete reaches out and picks-up one tennis ball and places it to the side (Photo 2). She returns to the starting position and then repeats this with the other arm. After picking up each ball, the athlete then reverses the movement by individually replacing the balls to their original position.

Photo 1 Photo 2

Another good exercise for working on the shoulder stabilizers is this "Shoulder Step-Up with Resistance" exercise (Photos 3 and 4). This is a more difficult variation of the first exercise above because of the increased challenge placed on the serratus anterior muscles as they work to stabilize against the added resistance of the band. In this exercise, place a weight plate on the floor and assume the push-up position next to it as seen in Photo 3. With a resistance band around the wrists, "step-up" with the hand closest to the weight plate, while stabilizing the body with the opposite arm (Photo 4). Perform a prescribed number of repetitions using the same arm, and then switch to the other.

Photo 3 Photo 4

Exercises for the Decelerators

The deceleration phase of the throwing motion has been characterized by some researchers as the most violent part of the throwing motion. This phase entails powerful eccentric contractions in order to slow-down the arm and to dissipate any remaining energy not imparted on the struck or thrown ball. The rear shoulder musculature – rotator cuff – is really put to the test here! Exercises that target this area are essential to a shoulder program.

The double-external rotation exercise is one of the old-standby exercises in the world of shoulder rehabilitation, and has a definite place in your athlete’s conditioning. Comparatively speaking, the external rotators are often the site of muscle weakness and therefore, also injury in overhead throwing athletes. This exercise represents a great way to strengthen the posterior shoulder or rotator cuff area.

Photo 5 Photo 6

To start, bend the arms at a 90 degree angle, place the elastic band around the wrists as seen in Photo 5. Press the elbows close to the sides. The key is to ensure that the athlete keeps her elbows tucked in tight to her sides during the entire exercise. To ensure this, place a rolled-up towel between her elbows and her sides and instruct her to keep the towel pressed into her side throughout the exercise.

Perform the exercise by externally rotating the forearms out away from the body while at the same time keeping the elbows pressed to the sides. Have the athlete externally rotate as far as they can while maintaining proper form.

A more complex spin-off version of the External Rotation exercise and one that some researchers have reported as eliciting a higher muscle activity in the posterior rotator cuff muscles is the Prone Row with External Rotation. With this exercise, the athlete lies prone on an elevated table or bench. Allow one arm to hang down from the shoulder while holding a dumbbell as in Photo 7. The athlete then performs a single arm row, bringing the elbow up to shoulder height (Photo 8), pauses and then externally rotates the arm (Photo 9).

Photo 7 Photo 8
Photo 9

A Quick Word about Flexibility

The importance of shoulder flexibility for the throwing/striking athlete cannot be over-emphasized. Often times, throwing/striking athletes may develop flexibility imbalances; for example tight chest muscles (internal rotators/accelerators) created in part by the repetitive throwing motion. The trainer should make sure that care and time is taken to address any such tightness with targeted stretch exercises.

Conclusion

Although some of the muscle groups have been grouped under a certain category (for instance rotator cuff muscles as decelerators), it’s important to note that many of the muscle groups serve more than one functional purpose when it comes to their importance to the overhead throw or strike action. For example, the posterior rotator cuff serves a very important role in decelerating the arm, but, it also serves a very important job in stabilizing the shoulder joint. Therefore, by incorporating a mixture of exercises targeted to the shoulders and upper body, the trainer will help their athlete develop the requisite strength throughout the full range of functional requirements that this musculature must fulfill.

For more on training female throwing and striking athletes, see Cook’s e-Book "You Throw Girl: A Guide to Stronger Shoulders and Core for Female Throwing, Racquet and Overhead Athletes."

References

  1. Matsen, Frederick A. III, M.D. (2008). Rotator Cuff Failure. New England Journal of Medicine ; 358: 2138-47.
  2. Wilk, K.E., Meister, K. & Andrews, J.R. (2002). Current Concepts in the Rehabilitation of the Overhead Throwing Athlete. American Journal of Sports Medicine  30: 136-151.
  3. Pappas, A.M., Zawacki, R.M. & Mccarthy, Claire F. (1985). Rehabilitation of the Pitching Shoulder. American Journal of Sports Medicine 13: 223-235.
  4. Meister, K. (2000). Injuries to the Shoulder in the Throwing Athlete. American Journal of Sports Medicine 28: 265-275.
  5. Boyle, Michael. (2004). Functional Strength Training for Sports. Human Kinetics.