Chad Kofoed, PT, DPT, OCS, part of the Return to Throwing team at TRIA Orthopaedic Center in Bloomington, explains why throwing with your arm is actually hurting your baseball career.
“Wow, that kid has a great arm!” Whether it was said by a teammate, parent, or coach, we’ve all heard it a thousand times. As a physical therapist and throwing expert at TRIA, I can assure you this is not the message we should be delivering to our young throwers. More and more research over the years has shown that throwing is best performed with as much total body activation as possible, thus minimizing the stresses placed on an athlete’s arm as a whole. The diagram below helps us break down all the physical tools needed to perform an ideal throwing or pitching motion.
Starting with the wind up, one must briefly balance on their drive leg (right leg for a right handed thrower) as they prepare to generate as much energy as possible toward home plate. Take a second and let that sink in. The throwing motion starts with your legs. Many of our young athletes at TRIA are so concerned with arm speed, that they forget how much their drive leg, hip and butt muscles (gluteal) should be contributing to the motion.
Not only does a long stride toward home plate ensure the thrower activated an appropriate amount of push off or “drive,” but it also means their pitch will be delivered that much closer to home plate. This is always a big advantage for the pitcher. Aroldis Chapman, a Major League Baseball pitcher, gives us a great example of this long stride below.
Once the lead or landing foot hits the ground, it transitions into what is called the late cocking phase. At this time, all the energy created from driving hard off the rubber needs to be transferred up the chain toward our throwing arm. This is specifically done through important core muscles such as our abdominals. If pitchers are not sore, in both their drive gluteal and overall abdominal muscles when finishing up a bullpen session, they are probably missing out on a lot of velocity and also putting their shoulder and elbow at greater risk of injury. During the late cocking phase, a lot of pull should also come from the thrower’s glove arm. This helps create the rotational components of the throwing motion most of all.
Following the late cocking phase is the acceleration phase, which is really the final aspect of creating the throwing motion. Here is where one asks a lot out of their shoulder and arm as a whole. First of all, range of motion is critical. Not only do you need a great deal of shoulder external rotation to cock back and throw a ball, but in many ways it is more critical to balance this out with the appropriate amount of internal rotation needed to follow through.
In addition to the range of motion needed to throw a ball, the strength of the throwers rotator cuff and scapular muscles are put to test as the shoulder transitions out of the acceleration phase and into the deceleration phase. Most research on shoulder strength in the throwing athlete shows it is more important to develop great strength, stability, and endurance of the muscles that help slow down your arm versus the ones that help speed it up. All of these muscles can be found on the posterior, or back side, of your shoulder and shoulder blade.
Finishing off with the pitching motion is the follow through phase, where it comes full circle back on the “total body” focus of this discussion. The landing leg must now have the gluteal strength to control the body as it translates over our planted foot. Likely more important at this time, is the athletes landing leg hamstring strength and mobility. If poor hamstring flexibility is present (i.e. can’t touch your toes), mechanics will break down and one often compensates through the back. If poor hamstring strength is present, a thrower won’t be able to help slow down all the energy created throughout the earlier phases of the throwing motion, and ultimately a stressful impact of the arm against the body ends up occurring.
If you or your child is experiencing ongoing pain with throwing, set up a consultation with a Return to Throwing program specialist.