Spare the Arm IV: Stretching/Warm Up

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Spare the Arm I: Intro and the odds aren't good.
Spare the Arm II: Pitching Mechanics
Spare the Arm III: Strength and Power Training
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Stretching Like Bread

Before I was born, bread was okay, by default. Then it was absolutely good for you as a staple of life. Then suddenly it was a horrible hazard, with all those miserable carbs. Then some types of bread were better than others and even good in certain amounts.

Now I stand in the grocery store paralyzed by too many options, waiting for morning news shows to tell me what I'm buying today. Bread is unhealthy for my time management.

Likewise, there was a time when few athletes gave flexibility much attention. Then they were told that stretching is essential in terms of injury prevention and increased performance (1). Then they discovered that stretching has no effect on injury rates and actually decreases performance in certain activities (5).
Since pitching is a power sport, pitchers should avoid stretching?


So then the typical jogging and stretching that pitchers do before practices and games is okay?

Well, that's not so great either.

We talk about stretching and flexibility like they are one thing that we've owned. Not so. Static and dynamic flexibility are both important, but not the same. We need to be specific. What kind of stretching to accomplish what purpose? Here's an attempt to keep you from being paralyzed by stretching, like me at the grocery store.

Admitting We Have A Problem

Most individuals have some degree of imbalance or tightness somewhere throughout the body. Years of being a desk jockey will do that to any person who doesn't make a considerable effort. Even if you manage to sit without becoming a hunchback and you have a fairly sound body structure, years of pitching will definitely create asymmetry.

Pitching places extreme demands on the body, and we can't afford to neglect the structural imbalance that pitching creates. Sure, there are issue with the throwing arm, loss of shoulder internal rotation being the most drastic and common (3, 4). But what about the congenital or acquired deficits elsewhere (especially the scapula, thoracic spine, and hips)?

Pitchers should be as concerned with sitting as they are with their rotor cup exercises and amino acid supplements. Do you sit in class or commute any distance? Do you watch movies or play video games? Are you reading this with the same crappy posture with which I'm typing?

Chronic prolonged sitting is the bad guy for a lot of people, and pitchers are no exception. Here are just a few ways that couch-chair syndrome causes adaptive changes all over the body:

-Cervical spine protrusion (forward head posture)
-Loss of thoracic spine and lumbar spine extension and rotation
-Shortened pectoralis major and minor, lats, and subscapularis (scapula protraction)
-Loss of hip extension and internal rotation

All of these can lead to a number of flexibility and stability problems, which absolutely promote strain to the arm during pitching. On the other hand, here are a few of the typical imbalances that pitching actually creates:
-Loss of internal rotation on the lead hip
-Loss of hip extension on the lead hip
-Loss of hip flexion on the back (push off) hip
-Pectoral and triceps tightness
-Protraction of the scapula
-Loss of shoulder internal rotation (throwing arm)
-Loss of elbow extension (throwing arm)

So what are you going to do about it?

Static Stretching

Static stretching and joint mobilization are essential for improving specific limitations like those listed above. Static stretches are not the best use of time right before games, but they are great for remodeling; creating actual changes in muscle length and joint function (5, 6).

It's no wonder that research has shown static stretching to have no immediate benefit to sports performance. A recent study that examined the effects of static stretching on pitching performance cites 23 other experiments that have shown it to either significantly decrease or not change various measures of strength and power (8).

Decreased performance in explosive strength/power activities have often been attributed to increased compliance of the muscle tendon unit as well as changes in the nervous system. It's like over extending a rubber band, making it more slack and less responsive and less sensitive to normal movements.

Good for camaraderie before the game, but that's about it.
The above noted study showed that static stretching of the shoulder had no significant adverse (or beneficial) effects on throwing velocity or accuracy. This is likely because throwing is a complex skill that involves a number of joints and muscle groups, and the stretches were only applied to the shoulder (8, 9).
Is it any surprise that a general static stretching program applied to athletes who have not been assessed for their specific flexibility deficits or imbalance has no significant effect on injury prevention (10, 11)? With that kind of study, the athletes end up stretching fairly normal tissue and unconsciously moving around tightness they do have.

The results would possibly be much different in a study that applied specific corrective exercises based on an assessment of individual structure and function.

For example, a coach or parent may note that a pitcher with elbow pain is "flying open" too early in the delivery. The player is frustrated when he struggles to correct his form like they want him to. When he is finally able to stay "closed" longer, the extensive adjustments needed to make that happen cause a large decrease in velocity and accuracy.

This is the "lessons" we're trying to avoid at GoWags.

Why is he opening up to soon? Is the thoracic spine tight? Is the scapula or lumbar spine unstable? Is the back hip lacking extension or internal rotation? The elbow problem may be coming all the way from the foot or ankle. A tight ankle can cause mistiming of torso rotation due to less loading and explosive triple extension off the back leg.
Any and all of these things can cause the "early opening" that promotes pain and suboptimal performance.

Pitchers should give attention to their hips in all planes of motion beyond their hamstrings; internal and external rotation, extension, and abduction. Scapular retraction and thoracic mobility work for extension and rotation is mandatory. If nothing else, pitchers need to frequently perform the internal rotation "sleeper" stretches and cross body shoulder mobilizations (with correct form) to counter the forces that cause posterior capsular tightness and actual twisting of the humerus.

As for the how to static stretch, three or four repetitions of twenty or thirty second is plenty (12). Do them s l o w l y after games and during or after workouts. Pay attention to correct alignment and immobilization of other joints, as I almost always see athletes unconsciously position the body in a way that follows the path of least resistance around tight areas.

So yes, pitchers should devote time to their flexibility. Ideally, they should undergo a head to toe assessment to identify and correct any specific impairments. Static stretching is a critical component of doing that, but it's unlikely to help (or hurt) performance on the spot.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching refers to calisthenic type movements. Jogging with high knees, lunge walks, and "butt kicks" are pretty typical in most sports. While dynamic stretches do not "lock in" specific positions to create specific alterations in joint motion, they are the best way to break a sweat before competition. They get the athlete moving with the entire body engaged.
Backward lunge with overhead reach
Pitchers may do mulitdirectional lunges with various upper body rotations and reaches to provide a non extreme stretch of multiple body segments. Inferior and posterior (shoulder) capsule stretches are even better when they're incorporated with lunges. The "fence hurdle/under" drill is excellent for hip and spine mobility.

The typical pre-game and practice routine is to jog a little then hang out over static stretches, many of them performed while sitting. So in effect, after athletes have sat all day at work, school, or traveling, they sit and relax, introducing slack before demanding repeat explosions of the musculoskeletal system.

Warming Up

Most athletes know that raising body temperature and increasing circulation to the the muscles and joints is the point of a good warm up. But don't forget that the nervous system is boss. You can raise body temperature and circulation any number of ways, but pitchers should do so in a manner that also primes the nervous system for explosive bursts of short duration activity.

You can jog around the field and still be half asleep, out in left field. But you must focus to successfully perform high speed arm and leg agility drills. Beyond the lunge variations and dynamic stretches mentioned above, pitchers can include some low repetition leaps, bounds, and high speed tubing work. Some coaches have advocated more creative warm ups like punching and kicking a heavy bag for short intervals.

And Now You're Ready

Pitchers should apply specific static stretches to their ankles, hips, trunk, and yes, shoulders too. Whole body dynamic flexibility movements and agility/quickness drills are best for breaking a sweat and priming the nervous system to mow batters. All these, with an appropriate strength/power training program as outlined in Part III, are needed to create and sustain optimal performance of the throwing arm.

For the record, I load up on BJs whole wheat bread. It's good for power, or something like that.

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1. Pollock ML, Gaesser GA, Butcher JD, Despres J, Dishman RK, Franklin BA, and Garber CE. The recommended quantity and quality of exercise for development of cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, and flexibility in healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc 30:975-91, 1998.

2. Kibler WB and Livingston B. Closed chain rehabilitation for the upper and lower extremities. J Am Acad Orthop Surg 9:412-21, 2001.

3. Tokish JM, Curtin MS, Kim YK, Hawkins RJ, and Torry MR. Glenohumeral internal rotation deficit in the asymptomatic professional pitcher and it's relationship to humeral retroversion.

4. Osbahr DC, Cannon DL, and Speer KP. Retroversion of the humerus n the throwing shoulder of college baseball pitchers. Am J Sports Med 30, 347-353; 2002.

5. Wilkinson A. ‘Stretching the truth: a review of the literature.’ The Australian Journal of Physiotherapy 38(4)283-7: 1992.

6. Zachazewski JE (1990) ‘Flexibility for Sports’ in B Sanders (Ed), Sports Physical Therapy (pp 201- 238). Norwalk, Conn: Appleton & Lange

7. Taylor DC et al (1990) ‘Viscoelastic properties of muscle-tendon units. The biomechanical effects of stretching.’ The American Journal of Sports Medicine. 18(3): 300-309

8. Haag SJ, Wright GA, Gillette CM, and Greany JF. Effects of acute static stretching of the throwing shoulder on pitching performance of NCAA DIII baseball players. J Strength Cond Res 24(2):452-7, 2010.

9. Burkhart SS, Morgan CD, Kibler WB. Shoulder injuries in overhead athletes: the
dead arm revisited. Clin Sports Med 2000;19:125–59.

10. Anderson K, Strickland SM, and Warren R. Hip and groin injuries in athletes. Am J Sports Med 2001; 29:521-23.

11. Orchard, JW. Instrinsic and extrinsic risk factors for muscle strains in Australian football. Am J Sports Med. 2001;29:300-03.

12. Mallac C. A physiotherapist's view on flexibility in Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching. 2004(8):1745-53.

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