A Big Windup

Contrary to myth, a sound conditioning program for pitchers works from the ground up.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 13.2, March 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1302/windup.htm

When people talk about pitchers, they usually talk about arms. “What a great arm he has!” “Look at his arm motion!” Sure, great pitchers must have great arms, that is a prerequisite. But at least as important, they must have great leg and torso strength. It is the legs and the torso that put the arm into the optimum position to deliver the pitch.

As I’ve talked about in these pages before, the body is a link system, and all the links must be timed to work together in an optimal sequence for athleticism to come forward. This is true for the pitcher as much as any other athlete. A sound pitching conditioning program will build from the ground up, segment by segment, training component by training component.

Perhaps no position in sports is surrounded with more myths and artificial limitations than pitching. Considering what we now know about pitching from a scientific perspective it is amazing to me how little progress we have made in conditioning the pitcher. Understanding the demands of pitching and basing your program on these demands will allow the development of the most effective pitching conditioning program.

The actual physical demands of pitching are somewhat simple, but with complex implications. Location and control are the main determinants of success, but velocity is often emphasized in a conditioning program.

However, a proper program takes into account not only the ability for a pitcher to increase the speed on his fastball, but also his ability to maintain a higher percentage of velocity on all his pitches as the game progresses. It should also strive to increase strength throughout the entire motion a pitcher uses, eliminate mechanical flaws in the pitcher’s delivery, lessen injuries, and improve the player’s agility. A complete pitching conditioning program should include all of the following components:

Balance: Dynamic balance is a key component of sound pitching mechanics. Without good balance the pitcher will have difficulty with consistent control. Good agility and body awareness are also necessary to be able to effectively field the position after the ball is hit. Improving dynamic balance can be accomplished during warmup and lateral speed and agility sessions.

Strength/Power: Successful pitching demands a high level of leg and trunk strength, along with arm and shoulder strength. In formulating workout plans, I break down strength work into four areas: lower body, upper body, plyometrics, and core strength.

Conditioning: Pitching is a high-power-demand activity that is alactate anaerobic in terms of energy system needs. That means that there is essentially no lactate buildup in pitching, contrary to common myth. The actual pitch occurs in a very short amount of time—there is only 0.15 seconds from the time the front foot contacts the ground until the ball is released. The primary source of fatigue in pitching is not metabolic but neural.

Therefore, distance running to build up endurance is not needed. In fact, it is counterproductive. Numerous scientific studies have shown that distance running significantly detracts from explosiveness, and a loss of explosiveness will result in a decrease in velocity. A better alternative is to build specific stamina for pitching using the following methods:

• Alactate Short-Speed Endurance: short, fast sprints with 45 to 60 seconds recovery.

• Intensive Tempo Endurance: runs at 80 to 90 percent maximum effort at lengths of 100 to 120 yards, with 45 seconds rest between runs. (The goal should be to bring the time of the run down each week while still maintaining the prescribed rest interval.)

• Extensive Tempo Endurance: runs at 70 to 80 percent maximum effort for 30 seconds. For example, have athletes complete a 30-second run at 70 percent effort, followed by a 30-second jog recovery. Build up to 12 to 18 of these. Finish with a 10-minute steady cool-down run.

• Strength Endurance: as the game progresses, the power endurance demand increases. Strength endurance can be increased through circuit routines.

Throwing: It is very important to build functional arm strength, and long tosses are still a great way to do this. My rule of thumb is two long toss sessions a week. In-season, the volume should be kept low. Note that the ball must not be lobbed, but thrown on a line with some force. Eventually a pitcher with a good strength and conditioning base should be able to effectively throw 10 to 15 times at 280 to 300 feet.

Some coaches use overweight and underweight baseballs to improve velocity. This method works, but I have found that it is most effective with pitchers who have a good training and work capacity base. It is not for beginners. Various studies have shown that the range of weights for the balls should be 10 percent over and under a regulation weight ball. That works out to be around four ounces for underweight and six ounces for overweight.

What about opposite arm throwing? Yes, it can help. If the pitcher is right-handed, have him occasionally play catch left-handed. There is a cross-transfer effect that will have a positive carryover to the dominant arm. We have used this with injured pitchers to allow them to keep throwing.

Injury Prevention: The pattern of injuries incurred by pitchers is very well documented—the shoulder and elbow are high-risk areas, followed by the low back and groin. Injury prevention should be accomplished through flexibility/mobility exercises and remedial shoulder exercises.

For the shoulder exercises, use dumbbells that allow the athlete to work through a full range of motion with good control. There is no limit to the weight of the dumbbells—reps and rhythm of exercise determine the load. Here is a sample of remedial shoulder exercises:
• Prone Lateral Raise x 10
• 90/90 External/Internal (prone) x 10
• Side-Lying External Rotation x 10
• Supra Raise x 10
• Protraction/Retraction x 10
• Shrug x 10
• Dynamic External Rotation: 3 positions (prone, side-lying, upright) x 3

Testing & Evaluation: The guiding principle is to keep it simple but consistent. I use power tests like vertical jump, standing long jump, and over-the-back medicine-ball throws with a three kilogram ball, and a 5-10-5 agility test.

As with any strength and conditioning program, periodization is the key to the effectiveness of training pitchers. Traditionally the majority of a pitcher’s work has been concentrated in the off-season, with the in-season devoted to a minimal maintenance program. Contemporary thought, however, is that a planned program should distribute the work throughout the year to allow the pitcher to build and accumulate his training from phase to phase during the year.

The planning scenarios are slightly different depending on the level of competition and timing of seasons. The high school or college pitcher who only competes during the traditional spring season can build to a plateau where he is at his performance best in May or June (depending on the exact end of the season). But as more and more young players compete year-round (fall baseball, spring season, and summer league) the planning is trickier.

The first step is to determine which season has the greatest priority. Next, determine the number of projected starts, then look at logical divisions where the emphasis can be changed. For example, for the first third of the starts, the training can still have a volume emphasis; the next third, reduce volume and raise intensity; and the last third, keep intensity high and volume very low.

Context is a key element of the planning process. What you do today must be a logical extension of what was done yesterday and should lead to tomorrow’s workout. The same paradigm holds true from week to week and month to month in the context of the overall goals of the program.

Planned systematic variation is also essential to progress. One of the biggest problems with baseball is that there is virtually no variation in the routine throughout the year. Pitchers do the same thing each day. The movements are not as varied as other sports, and there is a lot of dead time between the action. Without programmed systematic variation the pitcher will soon reach a level of stagnation or fall prone to overuse injuries.

Variation can be accomplished by constructing rotating cycles in-season and sequenced blocks in the off-season. Each cycle in-season and block in the off-season should have a different theme and slightly different means of implementation to force adaptation.

Also be sure to take the individual athlete into account. The high school freshman will do less than the senior, and the role of the player on the team can be a factor. For example, a pitcher may play another position on the days he is not pitching. Some elements are the same but the volume, intensity, and frequency should vary depending on the particular athlete.

Here are some overall tips for developing programs during different cycles:

Off-Season: A typical off-season plan would run Monday through Saturday with Sunday off for recovery. Every day starts with a warmup, balance work, and core work. Warmup and core work are shown in Tables One and Two (at the end of this article). Balance work consists of:

• Pitcher prayer, hold 10 seconds.
• Dip and separate, 10 reps.
• Dip and touch, 3 reps at each position (side, front, back).

We do plyometrics and strength train the legs and back on Mondays and Thursdays. Strength training for the legs and back consists of exercises such as squats, lunges, step-ups (forward and lateral), jump squats, dumbbell rows, and front pulldowns.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, we work on agility and strength train the upper body. Upper-body work includes incline push-ups, combo I (curl and press), combo II (nose in armpit), dumbbell bench presses, rhomboids, front crosses, and swimmers; this is followed by a stretch-cord routine (reverse flys, nordic rows, pec flys, and punching), each x 20 in a circuit style.

We also do throwing work on Tuesdays and Fridays. The key is to make sure athletes are throwing and not pitching. Have them throw a variety of different implements, such as a softball, football, or even rocks. Whatever is fun for them! As the season approaches, obviously more work should be done on the mound.

Wednesdays and Saturdays are for conditioning. As mentioned above, this should include alactate anaerobic work.

Preseason: Our strength work in the preseason uses the same exercises done in the off-season but we increase the sets on some of them. When training the legs and back we place the squat, lunge, step-ups, and jump squat into a circuit. We start with two leg circuits and add one circuit per week until the athletes can do five circuits without stopping (20 reps on each exercise, except for jump squat, 10 reps).

In-Season: Strength and conditioning during the season should build on what has been developed in the off-season and preseason, then stabilize as you get toward the end (see Table Three, at the end of this article).

Warming Up
No matter what cycle of the year, a pitcher’s warmup is absolutely essential, both to prevent injury and enhance performance. It should be active, involve the whole body, and take a minimum of 15 minutes. However, it can be an individual routine that each pitcher develops. (See Table One below.)

Perhaps the biggest mistake young pitchers make is to throw to warm up. The idea is to warm up to throw, not to throw to warm up. The warmup should include core work, a tubing routine, and coordination and movement exercises to warm up the whole body. Once these steps have been completed then the pitcher is ready to begin throwing.

The cooldown is also important after pitching. When I began as Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox in 1987, icing was very prevalent. It seemed every time a pitcher picked up a ball he had to ice afterwards. I noticed a common complaint the next day—they were stiff and sore. As I began to question the efficacy of icing I could find no research basis for icing a healthy limb.

Gradually, over the next few years, we began to discourage icing and replaced the ice with a structured cooldown designed to improve blood flow to the shoulder and elbow to speed recovery. This consists of 10 to 15 minutes on a stationary bike or a light 10-minute run, and remedial shoulder exercises, one set of 10 reps. If dumbbells are not available, three to four tubing exercises would work. We found less soreness and quicker recovery.

All that most people see when they watch an outstanding pitcher is a great arm. But the best way to give them that arm is to develop their skills in a well thought out program. By considering all the components, and fitting them into an effective year-round plan, you’ll get the best out of your pitching athletes.

TABLE ONE Getting Warm
The following is a sample warmup program for a pitcher:

General Warmup

Jog three to five minutes
Mini-band routine
walk: forward/back
monster walk
Hip mobility
hurdle walks
Basic rotations
walking wide twist x 20
walking tight twist x 20
walking over the top x 20
walking figure eight x 20
Leg swings
Skip 2 x 30 yards
Sidestep 2 x 30 yards
Carioca 2 x 30 yards
Backward run 2 x 30 yards
High skip 2 x 30 yards

Specific Warmup To Throw Using Tubing

Dynamic protraction/retraction
Dynamic scarecrow
Back stroke (swim)
Backhand (tennis)
External rotation (90/90 standing position), 1x 10 regular, 1x 10 plyometric
Triceps extension (standing from wrist flick position), 1x 10
Finger flicks

TABLE TWO Med-Ball Routines

The following core work is done every day in the off-season and preseason. Follow a similar routine in-season, but with a lower volume.

Med-Ball Total-Body Throws
Single-Leg Squat & Throw x 10 each leg
Over the Back Throw x 10
Forward Through the Legs x 10
Squat & Throw x 10

Med-Ball Wall Throws
Overhead Throw x 20
Soccer Throw x 20
Chest Pass x 20
Standing Side to Side x 10 each side (cross in front)
Standing Cross in Front x 10 each side
Around the Back x 10 each side

Med-Ball Rotations (with partner)
Standing Full Twist x 10 each direction
Standing Half Twist x 10 each direction
Half Chop x 10 each way
Seated Side Throw x 12 each side
Solo Med-Ball Sit-Up (two positions, right & left) x 5 reps

TABLE THREE: In-Season Work

The following is a suggested in-season program for an athlete pitching every fifth day.

Day One
Warm up to pitch with med-ball and tubing exercises
Pitch in game
Cool down with remedial shoulder exercises

Day Two
Core Work: med-ball rotations
Structured Long Toss: just get loose
Aerobic Work: 20 minutes, choice of modes
Strength Training: legs & back (work the legs heavy on this day in order to allow more time for recovery before the next start)

Day Three
Warm up to pitch
Bullpen day
Lateral Speed & Agility
Repeat Crossovers
Shuttle Runs (5-10-5)
Footwork (Ladder)
Forward 2 In
Forward 1 In
Lateral 2 In
In/In, Out
Remedial shoulder exercises to cool down
Strength Training: upper body
Core Strength: med-ball wall throws

Day Four
Core Strength: total-body throws
Alactate Short-Speed Endurance
3 to 4 sets of 4 x 50 yards at 85% to 90% on 60-second cycle, 3 minutes between sets
Tuck Jumps
Side to Side
Ice Skater
Cycle Jumps
Pitcher Squat Jumps
Strength Training: legs & back (low volume)

Day Five
Core Work: rotations and twists
Strength Training: light upper body