When Paul was about 15-years old, he and I went to Elon College and spent several hours with Rick Jones, Elon College’s head baseball coach at that time. Coach Jones is a tremendously nice individual and took the time to explain his approach to pitching mechanics and off-season conditioning. I was able to take a lot of basic ideas from that meeting and over the years I have continued to refine and expand those concepts for application to the players that come to me for instruction.
Off Season Throwing Program
Getting Ready for the Season
First, we should start by saying that all baseball players (particularly pitchers) need a period of time off from competition and hard throwing. The time off from the game develops enthusiasm to get back to work and helps the player mentally and physically. When Paul was playing he always took November and December off (except for a year where he played winter ball in Puerto Rico). He normally didn’t start getting ready for the new season until the end of December.
Getting a player’s arm and shoulder ready for the spring season is really a pretty simple process, but does require a regimented sequence of controlled throwing. The conditioning process should start at the end of December, aimed at being ready for February high school tryouts or spring league tryouts. Paul always started around Christmas day with his throwing program getting ready for spring training. Professional teams typically have their own throwing programs to follow, but an early season throwing program takes about 4-5 weeks to really implement properly. It doesn’t take a lot of time each day, though. The throwing should be accomplished even if the weather is cold. Simply make sure the player has a few layers of light clothing with a nylon outer layer and the temperature should not be a problem.
Many college teams begin playing games in late January or early February, so the throwing schedule for these players should begin earlier than late December.
Starting the first day, the player should throw about 50-60 throws at half speed (throwing nice and easy) at a distance of 50-60 feet (this distance would be typical of players 13 and older.) Keep the throwing distance shorter for younger players, insuring that the level of effort is down around 50%. If you are a mother or father supervising this activity, it should only last about 7-10 minutes, but that time should consist of steady throwing. The pre-season throwing should be performed three days in a row, followed by a day with no throwing. This four-day sequence should be repeated before any changes are made to the distance or time.
These early throwing sessions are really a great time to reinforce proper techniques. With the player totally focused on throwing, his throwing partner, parent or coach should be checking for any issues that are incorrect. If the player had been working on mechanical changes prior to shutting down for the winter months, some bad habits may return after the time off.
The second week of the off season schedule follows the above pattern very closely with three days throwing and one day off, but the time spent throwing should increase to about 12-15 minutes or 75-100 throws total. The distance should be kept around 60-75 feet and the player should still throw in the range of half speed or a little more.
During the third week, the throwing time should stay around 12-15 minutes, but the pace and distance can increase somewhat. Players should not be at maximum effort during this third week of throwing, even though they will probably feel very strong. It is important to continue to take one day off out of every four. During the third week pitchers should begin to lightly spin the baseball every day to condition the associated muscles and tendons. Again, when throwing the breaking pitch, it’s really important that proper technique is used with no undue stress on the elbow or shoulder.
The fourth and fifth weeks of throwing should expand the time to approximately 20 minutes and the distance to a maximum of 150 feet. (Again, the distance will vary with the age and strength of the player.) The important thing to emphasize is that the majority of the throwing time should be around 75% effort after the player is warmed up. Again, the player should take one day off out of every four.
With this type of pre-season program, a player’s arm should be ready for the spring season after about five weeks of preparation. For Paul, after five weeks he was ready to go on the mound and finish tuning up for the mid-February start of spring training.
High Arc Long Toss
After the player has been throwing in the pre-season program for at least two weeks, a long toss segment can be added to the workout program. This long toss day should replace one of the three normal throwing days and should be accomplished at a football or soccer field that is marked off for distance.
The long toss throwing needs to begin with a short running program that is aimed at getting the player loose and to the point that he has broken a sweat. I would recommend a half mile to 1 mile of distance (again, adjusted for the age and condition of the player) followed by 4-5 pickup type sprints in the 200 yard range.
When the player is good and warm, he should begin to throw to further loosen up the arm and shoulder. After a few minutes of close distance throwing, you should throw as you move apart farther and farther. A good estimate is about five throws at each 5 yard spacing (depending on the player’s age) that is achieved. The total throwing time should only be about 15 minutes and the distance should be increased the whole time. When the player is close to his maximum distance he should only be allowed to throw about five times. The player should cool down by throwing and continually shortening the throwing distance.
For the long toss throwing program, the player should do a jab step behind for each throw; including warm up throws. By stepping behind, the weight will be kept back and the upper and lower body will be closed. These are important factors in order to keep the focus on throwing the ball with the body rather than exclusively with the arm.
All long toss throwing should be executed on level ground and every throw should be made at about 30-40 degrees elevation. In other words, the player should not be throwing the ball on a line, but rather should be throwing with a significant arc on the flight of the ball. If you are at a baseball or football field, the ball flight should start at the top of the light towers. The increased elevation angle helps the player to stretch the shoulder, back and arm muscles, helps keep the weight back and helps to guarantee that the finish of the throwing action is long and pronounced.
When Paul was in high school we would do the long toss throwing on a football field so we had a solid understanding of the distances he was executing. If you are a parent and are having difficulty throwing the same distances as your player, an idea is to take a bat with you to hit balls to the player. I certainly had trouble throwing with Paul after he was out quite a distance, but a fungo bat could do a good job of stretching my returns.
In addition to the rotator cuff strengthening exercises that are included in this section, a discussion of the benefits of distance running to the shoulder (and the rest of the body) needs to be presented. I’ve been a serious distance runner for more than 45 years.
I attribute a nearly unlimited ability to throw batting practice (and recover quickly) to a combination of good throwing technique coupled with all the distance running. The repeated swinging action of the arms in the shoulder socket generates a high level of blood flow and creates constant, day after day shoulder exercise.
This segment is not intended to suggest that young players become distance runners, but it does suggest that there are significant benefits to players who implement regular distance running a couple times a week. The recovery after heavy throwing workouts is just one of the clear benefits of a running program. There are also obvious conditioning benefits to the legs and cardiovascular system. These benefits show in a player’s ability to practice longer and harder.
I’ve told many of my students and players that baseball isn’t a game that requires great conditioning to play (especially position players). However, baseball requires a tremendous number of repetitions to achieve performance improvement. An athlete needs to be in exceptional condition to accomplish high numbers of quality repetitions. This is true for throwing, fielding and hitting drills.
The importance of sprint drills to build explosive strength in the legs complements the distance training and the work done to increase rotational quickness. This specific workout is aimed at teenage guys and older and would need to be adjusted downward for younger players.
The best technique that I’ve found for explosive conditioning combines sprints and slow jogging for recovery. To best implement these speed drills, players need to warm up and stretch first. After getting warm they should start by jogging about 20 yards and then sprinting 20 yards. At the end of the 20-yard sprint, the player should decelerate over several yards and again jog 20 yards and sprint 20 yards. This jog-sprint-decelerate-jog-sprint sequence should be repeated 10 times before the distance is increased to 40 yards.
With the sprint distance increased to 40 yards, players should jog about 30 yards before sprinting the 40-yard distance. At the end of the sprint the player should decelerate over about 10 yards and then jog 30 yards more before repeating the 40 yard sprint. After 10 repetitions at 40 yards, the player should repeat the 20-yard jog, 20-yard sprint sequence again.
If this sequence of 30 sprint-jog runs is executed at a high level of effort, two times a week, a player’s leg strength and overall conditioning will significantly increase. The combination of distance work and explosive sprint work will dramatically improve a player’s overall conditioning and therefore, his ability to perform better quality throwing drills. The result will be an ability to throw harder.
One of the major concerns I have with players in the 14-18 year old age range is their tendency to fall in love with weight lifting. There are still a lot of strength coaches that expect baseball players to train exactly the same as the football players; that is, the more weight the better in all lifts. It is my opinion that throwing athletes need to be very careful about the lifting that they do relative to the shoulder joints. I do not like to see players maximizing their effort on the bench press, the military press, overhead pull downs or upright rows. These exercises, if they are going to be done at all, should be performed with relatively light weight. The goal should only be to achieve a level of toning, rather than significantly increasing strength.
The problem with heavy weights and these exercises is that the shoulder joint is being stressed. The bench and military press put forces to push the arms through shoulder down and back out of the socket while the pull downs and rows attempt to pull the arms through the shoulder and out of the socket to the top and front. Any of these exercises can cause impingement or other injury to the throwing athlete if done with very heavy weight.
If injury does not occur, the large muscles in the chest and back will gain mass and shoulder flexibility and laxity will typically be reduced as a result. For throwing athletes, weight training should focus on lower body and trunk strength and quickness.
Weight training can be implemented to strengthen the biceps, triceps, forearms and wrists, but even these exercises should concentrate more on toning than maximum mass building. As we have stated many times, velocity in throwing the baseball is achieved with relaxed, flexible arm that can be whipped by a strong and quick lower body and torso.