Gary Vesper, Founder & Head Coach of Driven Fitness & Performance
No joint is more important for a baseball player than the shoulder. For players who compete regularly it is not uncommon for them to complain of shoulder pain. At Driven, we see a lot of baseball players and one area in which we are continuing to enhance our player development is our comprehensive approach to arm care. In the pursuit of optimizing our training we have found three consistent reasons for players experiencing shoulder pain.
- Global Weakness
Throwing a baseball is the single fastest motion in all of sports as the gleno-humeral (ball in socket) joint internally rotates at 7500 degrees per second. Throwing is also a coordinated effort that requires kinetic linking and force transfer from the foot, ankle, knee, hip, through the core and into the opposite shoulder. Because of the intensity of this action the body needs to have the collective strength to prevent over-compensation from passive restraints.
(A passive restraint is the tendons, ligaments, joint capsules that are not trainable to increase capacity.)
Throwing a baseball to optimize performance would require strong single and double leg strength, the ability of the core to prevent excessive extension (low-back arching) and rotation (losing control of your center of gravity) and upper back and rotator cuff strength and timing. All of these muscles (active restraints) need to work collectively and repeatedly so the player can maximize their throwing effectiveness, efficiency and safety.
When an athlete is not physically ready to handle the demands of extended throwing the passive restraints are left to pick up the slack. Over time, passive restraints wear down and lose the ability to center the gleno-humeral joint through repeated bouts of throwing. When this occurs players will complain of irritation in the front of their shoulder, which can lead to a variety of injuries down the road.
The key to prevention is to have the athlete physically prepared before the season begins. As global strength increases so does the ability of the player to throw with force, accuracy and without pain.
The best method to increase global strength is through proper execution of mature and appropriate exercises. Not all exercises are created equal and not all exercises are done properly. Athletes need to execute deadlifts, squats, single-leg exercises with proper joint position and force application. This means athletes need to know how to use their body to safely move the weight. Baseball players also need to learn how to properly train their upper back so that it counterbalances throwing. But upper back strengthening can be done very wrong with the improper technique and exercise selection so it is critical that athletes know how to stabilize their core, move their shoulder and which muscles need to feel each particular exercise.
Lastly, core training is not about how many sit-ups a player can perform. Sit-ups only engrain poor posture and movement and do not help to stabilize an athlete’s center of gravity. Effective core training allows the athlete to use their upper and lower limbs collectively and safely while keeping them balanced, powerful and resilient to injury.
Strength training for baseball is not about how much weight a player can move or how much they can bench press or Olympic lift. Instead, we need to take a calculated, scientific and purposeful approach to developing global strength that transfers to baseball performance.
- Inefficient Rotator Cuff
It may come to surprise you that throwing a baseball is rotator cuff training. During the wind up and delivery the rotator cuff is working very hard to center the humeral head throughout the motion. It controls excessive external rotation during layback, its fighting distraction forces during ball release and controlling internal rotation during ball release. Needless to say, the rotator cuff has a lot of very important jobs during each throw a player makes in the game.
So when people think of the rotator cuff the first thing that comes to mind is rotator cuff strength. While strength is important there is another reason why the rotator cuff is crucial to preventing shoulder pain; timing. Players can perform band drills until the cows come home but if the cuff isn’t trained to fire at the moments needed than strength will not prevent the humerus from sliding forward in the socket.
Timing is so important because the rotator cuff eccentrically (the slowing down motion) controls the internal rotation of the humerus during throwing. As the player comes through their throw the rotator cuff fires to control how the shoulder joint moves. Therefore, it is better to fire on time than be strong and fire late.
In order to maximize the ability of the rotator cuff we need to perform rhythmic stabilization drills that challenge the stability in different ranges of motion. Imagine your arm being tossed around in an ocean with waves hitting it from all angles and the rotator cuff firing to stabilize the joint each time a wave hits? This is essentially what needs to happen during every throw and it is a trainable quality that we can help improve. The alternative is being in that ocean and your arm getting tossed around by every wave without the ability to stabilize itself and remain balanced. One scenario is hectic but safe while the other is complete chaos. We like to create the former through our training program!
Rotator cuff timing is a very important concept and it is not common knowledge to enough coaches, parents, and players. The more “mainstream” this trait becomes the better chance players have to remain healthy and avoid shoulder pain.
- Ineffective Scapula (Shoulder Blade) Stability
“Stability is control in the presence of change.” Charlie Weingroff
This quote is exactly what scapular stability is all about; the ability to maintain control of the shoulder joint as it goes through movement, aka throwing a baseball! The shoulder blade is the stable base for the ball-and-socket (Gleno-humeral joint) to perform movement so the positioning of the shoulder blade is critical for the ball-and-socket to function optimally. Mechanically, the coordinated motion between the scapula and humerus, known as scapulohumeral rhythm, is needed for efficient arm movement, which maximizes the throwing potential of each baseball player.
The stability of the scapula all starts with positioning and alignment, which stems from posture. In today’s culture everyone sits far too long with a rounded posture. Because of this habit the scapula will never be in the right position. Compound that with the notion that everyone needs to bench press in the weight room and the scapulae is in a losing battle.
This is a key reason why athletes present with shoulder pain; their shoulder blade isn’t in the right starting position to throw repeatedly. We know the shoulder is blade is connected to the arm so it makes a lot of sense that they need to work together to throw. If the blade continues to be out of alignment because of our sedentary lifestyles and poor exercise technique and selection than it will only cause further damage as throwing continues.
In order to fix this we first need to teach the shoulder blade how to upwardly rotate properly. Upward rotation is the movement the shoulder goes through when you are reaching overhead in the kitchen or throwing a baseball on the diamond. Now this may seem like an easy task to perform but most people struggle to do so effectively. After re-training this pattern we then need to perform a collection of exercises that strengthen the muscles throughout the range of motion while preventing any compensation.
Combining quality movement, strength through the range of motion and than awareness of compensation is the three keys to creating a shoulder that works collectively with the other joints in the body.
This article was intended to be a little more into the details of the throwing shoulder. We know that rotator cuff, labrum and UCL injuries are more prevalent today than ever before so I wanted to shed some light as to the intricacy and details of what is going on at the shoulder.
Baseball players are in a unique position because of the repeated and asymmetrical action of throwing. It is our job as performance coaches to educate players, parents and coaches as to how we can better serve them to keep them healthy.
If you would like to learn more about our individualized and comprehensive approach to player development please call or email to set up a consultation.
All the Best,
Gary Vesper, XPS, FMS, Pn1, RBT, YSAS