Training Athleticism in Pitchers

By Nunzio Signore (BA, CSCS, CPT, NASM, FMS)

Training Athleticism in Pitchers - Part 1 Top

In order to effectively train a pitcher as a complete athlete we first need to:

    1. Understand Key Points in the Delivery – Understand the key points in the delivery and how to develop effective power by training it in the weight room
    2. Addressing Energy Leaks – Identify and fix energy leaks (mechanics / disconnects)
    3. Customizing Throwing and Strength Training Programs – Be able to assess what “type” of pitcher we are dealing with in order to effectively train them to produce optimum power to throw a baseball

Let’s get started…

1. Key Points in the Delivery

Graeme Lehman does a great job of comparing a pitcher to shifting gears through the delivery much like a race car. These are not all, but what I believe to be the key points (gears) I look for when analyzing video. I’ve included what type of strength training is associated with each phase in order to maximize our time spent in the weight room. 

    • 1st gear: Loading Phase/Glute Load – Absolute Strength
    • 2nd gear: Stride Phase (Back leg Power/ timing) – Strength/Speed
    • 3rd gear: Back hip rotation/hip and shoulder separation timing – Speed/Strength
    • 4th gear: Acceleration Phase – Speed
    • 5th gear: Ball Release/deceleration – Speed

For more on the strength speed continuum please click here.

2. Addressing Energy Leaks

While energy leaks are not solely associated with the lower half, I believe that most upper half leaks are directly related to what’s happening down below. For today, we’re going to deal with the “Gas”, the “Brakes” and “Hip Rotational Power”.

A. The Gas – Back Leg Drive / Timing (begins as soon as the lead leg lifts and ends at foot plant) – The key is timing hip rotation just before front foot contact and the ability to drive the center-of-mass over a strong, stable back leg. This is not to be confused with “fake” glute load which is merely a result of creating a counterbalance from opening up the front leg prematurely (left).

Training Athleticism in Pitchers - Part 1 Mid Joint - Copy

Remember, more force into the ground equals more force FROM the ground which translates into a higher velocity ceiling.

B. The Brakes – Strong Front Leg Stability – The back leg (gas) will only put out as much force as the front leg (brakes) can handle. This includes the ability to decelerate the front leg causing the front knee to extend from first foot strike to ball release in order to more efficiently finish hip rotation as well as transfer force up the leg, through the core and into the arm (right). On the top, we see a less stable front leg combined with over striding, creating too low of a position to get out of from foot strike to ball release.

Training Athleticism in Pitchers - Part 1 Bottom 1 - Bad

(Less Stable Front Leg)

Training Athleticism in Pitchers - Part 1 Good

(Stable Front Leg)

C. Hip Rotational Power (hip and shoulder separation) – In regard to hip/shoulder separation, more is not necessarily better. Improving the timing between when the hips shoulders rotate is even more important than the amount we’re creating.

While it’s crucial to get a good “pre-stretch” from the back leg glute and the front side lat, when it happens is where the magic lies. This will help create the extra torque necessary to bring the throwing arm further into lay back thus helping to create a harder throw with less effort from the athlete and more importantly less stress coming from the arm. (Note: Be careful, too much or too little hip rotation many times is the main cause of these timing issues in the delivery).

3. Customizing Throwing and Strength Training Programs

This is first and foremost about creating a profile.

Nothing works for everyone. Great athletes go about creating good power and mechanics in different ways and different physical factors make each pitcher unique.

Building a profile helps us know where the weaknesses may be, as well as guide us to the best way to train in the weight room. Here are some of the main factors we look at, height (short / tall), bodyweight (heavy or light), mobility/flexibility (tight or loose), strength (strong or weak) and elasticity (muscle or tendon speed).

A. Height… Short or Tall

Would you tell a short pitcher to throw the same way you would a tall pitcher? Let’s be perfectly clear…

Tall pitchers (approx. 6’2” and taller) generally…

        • Have longer limbs
        • Have more mobility /flexibility (laxity)
        • Are much weaker strength-wise… these guys need to lift!!

Shorter Pitchers (approx. 6’1” and under) generally…

        • Have shorter limbs
        • Have less mobility
        • Much stronger in the weight room…these guys need extra mobility work!!

Training Athleticism in Pitchers - Pitcher HeightsRandy Johnson – Tall                        Tim Collins – Short

B. Body Weight… Heavy or Light

Surprisingly, according to Fleisig & Andrews (1999), rotational power does not vary much from high school pitcher to pro. The main difference is the amount of weight that they are rotating with. This is a great example of the importance of lean muscle (not body fat!!), and its relationship to a higher velocity ceiling. Increasing muscle mass is also directly related to how much force can be applied and safely dispersed throughout the body at foot strike.

In other words, nothing will be a bigger deal breaker for throwing harder and helping reduce the risk of injury than getting stronger by putting on more muscle!

If you want to know where you stand in regards to muscle mass, here’s a great reference for average weight ranges among young, high level pitchers based on height (Courtesy of Ben Brewster):

Brewster Lean Body Mass

If you’re not within 10-15 lbs. of the minimum end of the above range for your height, you need to get in the gym and also take part in a nutrition plan to put on weight (please click here if you would like more info on this topic).

C. Mobility / Flexibility… Tight or Loose

This tells us about many things, such as stride length. For example, if an athlete is tight, over striding could be counter-effective due to creating too much knee flexion at foot strike, creating too low of a position to get out of.

D. Strength… Weak or Strong

Strength/Speed (power)in the pitching motion runs right through the continuum (refer to Point #1 earlier). In general, taller pitchers (6’2” and above) tend to be flexible but weaker whereas their less tall counterparts (6’1” and under) tend to excel more in the weight room and be less flexible. We generally assess an athlete’s strength by getting a 3RM (rep max) on various exercises to determine strength levels.

E. Elasticity… Muscle or Tendon Speed – Fast or Slow?

Fast guys – Longer tendons, quicker, straighter back knee at glute load, rely more on the tendon’s length and “elasticity”, need extra emphasis on strength training than plyos.
Slow guys – Shorter tendons, slower more back leg knee bend at glute load, rely more on the muscle size and “strength”, need extra emphasis on mobility work and plyometric training.

Summary:

The bottom line is that when it comes to pitchers there is no “one size” fits all. Make sure you fully understand and assess each one to be able to pull the right tools out of your toolbox. Anything less is simply bad training.

See ya’ in the gym…

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