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The game's on the line. The other team's best hitter is at the plate. You peer in for the catcher's sign, twirling the ball between your fingers behind your back. Your heart races faster as the hitter's glare meets yours. The catcher flicks down one finger—fastball. Now's the time to reach back for a little something extra.
With so much at stake, are you confident your fastball packs enough heat to punch out your oponent?
Everyone wants to throw harder, but few know the best way to acquire more velocity. We know we have to throw. Long toss, bullpen sessions and flat ground technique work are essential for improving performance on the mound and bumping up velocity. But if that's all it took to throw gas, triple-digit fastballs would be a dime a dozen.
Throwing harder requires a combination of strength, power, mobility and stability. Strength training is the best way to develop these traits. When we lift weights, our muscles get stronger so they can produce more force. When we express that force quickly, we develop power. With the proper mobility in certain joints and adequate stability in others, we have a launching pad for this power, leading to a harder fastball. That's not just an old gym rat's tale. Research consistently shows a strong correlation between muscular strength, body mass (which increases as a result of gaining muscle) and throwing velocity.
A strong fastball starts with strong legs
Ask anyone how to throw harder and they'll say, "Strengthen your arm." They'd be only partially right. Take a look at Major League flamethrowers like Roger Clemens, C.C. Sabathia and Justin Verlander. What do they all have in common? That's right—a set of thunderous thighs and gargantuan glutes.
Want proof that you need strong legs to throw hard? Try throwing from your knees or while sitting down. Take away the legs and you take away the heat.
Pitchers generate tons of power from their lower bodies, using their hips, glutes, quads and hamstrings to transfer force from the ground through their torsos and to their arms. Studies show that pitchers with stronger quads land with a stiffer stride leg, resulting in increased velocity. Thus, if pitchers want to throw harder from the mound, they need to perform exercises in the gym to build up their lower bodies.
Here are four exercises to help you throw harder this season.
Deadlifts build lower-body strength unlike any other exercise, and they should be the go-to movement for any pitcher looking to throw harder. Besides adding muscle to your legs and teaching you to apply force into the ground, Deadlifts challenge the core and upper back to maintain proper spinal alignment, which are key for pitchers who want to stay injury-free. To top it all off, heavy Deadlifts build incredible grip strength, and a strong grip is closely linked to throwing harder.
Block Deadlifts are just like Deadlifts from the floor but with the weight plates elevated on wooden blocks, rubber mats or a couple of plates stacked together. Block Deadlifts make it easier to get into a proper starting position, especially if tightness in your ankles, hips or hamstrings prevents you from safely deadlifting from the floor.
- Elevate the bar so it sits somewhere between mid-shin and just below your knees in the starting position.
- Set your feet just inside shoulder-width and stand with your shins pressed against the bar.
- Without bending your knees, push your hips back until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Bend your knees until you can grab the bar with your hands just outside your legs.
- Brace your abs, squeeze your shoulders back, pull your chest up and take a big breath of air into your belly.
- Drive your heels into the floor and straighten your legs to get the bar moving, making sure to keep your chest up and the bar against your legs the whole time.
- Push your hips into the bar and squeeze your glutes to lock out the weight and return the bar to the block by pushing your hips back and lowering the bar under control.
Deadlifts require a strong core to protect the lower back and mobile hips and hamstrings to get in a proper stance—just like pitching. As your core strength and lower-body mobility improve over time, lower the height of the bar until you can safely deadlift from the floor.
Goblet Dumbbell Split Squats
Deadlifts hit the glutes and hamstrings, which leaves Squats to handle the quads. Pitchers need strong quads to create a firm foundation when their stride leg lands, allowing them to drive toward home plate and fire a sizzling fastball.
Unfortunately, Squats with a barbell across the back can be problematic, especially for pitchers with shoulder or arm injuries. The Goblet Dumbbell Split Squat is a challenging alternative that requires increased coordination and stability, because you work one leg at a time, just like when you throw a baseball.
- Grasp the top of a dumbbell with your elbows bent, palms together and thumbs pointing toward you.
- Hold the weight at chest height, as if lifting a cup to your mouth for a drink.
- Standing in front of a bench, carefully reach one leg back and place your foot on the bench with laces down.
- Place your front foot far enough in front of you so that when you squat down, your front hip passes lower than the top of your front knee when the back knee touches the ground.
- Keep your abs tight and your chest up, and lower down under control.
- Pause for a second at the bottom, then drive through your heel to stand back up.
The goblet version is easier on the shoulders than holding dumbbells by your sides. Constantly pulling the shoulder blades "down and back" during exercises like Rows, Presses and Deadlifts helps stabilize the "ball" of the shoulder joint into the socket. Do this too often, however, and you can create a perpetually depressed shoulder blade position that makes it hard to get your arm overhead to throw. The goblet grip keeps the shoulders more neutral, making this a great exercise to use during the season when throwing volume is highest.
Building power in three dimensions
We know we have to get strong before we can be powerful. You can't express force quickly if you don't have much force to begin with. But when most people think of power exercises in the weight room, what comes to mind? Cleans, Snatches and Box Jumps probably top the list. Olympic weight lifters and jumpers are the most powerful athletes on the planet, so we should train like them, right?
Not so fast. Research shows that power is plane-specific, meaning we only develop power in the direction that we use it. Cleans and vertical jumps only build power in the sagittal plane (front to back), whereas pitchers also need power in the frontal plane (side to side) as they stride toward the plate, and in the transverse plane (rotational) as their hips and shoulders rotate to throw the ball.
A recent breakthrough study proved that straight-ahead power movements like jumps and overhead medicine ball throws do little to improve throwing velocity. In fact, only two exercises had significant carryover to a pitcher's fastball: the med ball scoop toss and the lateral jump. Pitchers need to skip the vertical jumps and Cleans and focus on these two power movements to throw harder.
Med Ball Scoop Toss
The Med Ball Scoop Toss builds rotational power to throw harder without the wear and tear on your arm that you get from long toss.
- Grab a light medicine ball (4-6 pounds if you're a beginner, 8-10 pounds if you're more experienced) and stand perpendicular to a durable wall space—like you were throwing from the stretch.
- Holding the ball underhand at your hips, rock back onto your rear foot and coil your hips and shoulders away from the wall.
- Explosively rotate toward the wall and throw the ball underhand as hard as you can, shifting your weight to your front leg as you release the ball.
- Catch the ball and repeat for the prescribed number of reps, then switch sides.
You'll know you're doing it right if your chest faces the wall when you release the ball on each rep. The key is to aggressively shift your weight from your back hip to your front hip, using your glutes to power through toward the wall. Most importantly, throw it like you mean it! Try to knock down the wall with each rep.
Throwing is just one aspect of the pitching process. To throw hard, you have to initiate the pitching motion with a controlled leg kick and an authoritative stride toward the plate. Lateral jumps build this powerful movement while opening up the hips and creating stability in the knee and ankle.
- Start in an athletic stance and gently shift your weight to your right foot.
- Using your arms to create momentum, immediately push off your right foot and jump as far as you can to the left.
- Stick the landing by sitting back into your hip, making sure to keep your hip behind your knee and your weight on the balls of your feet.
- Land softly and explode back to your right.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Get the most out of Lateral Jumps by keeping your hips back to use your glutes and hamstrings. Land softly from each jump, but minimize ground contact time by quickly pushing off to reverse directions.
Increase the intensity of the exercise by holding a light medicine ball. You can also loop an elastic band around your waist and attach it to a power rack at hip height, jumping away from the rack to increase the tension of the band as you land.
Putting it all together
These four exercises make up the bulk of a solid strength training routine. Here's an example of how to program them into a lower-body workout:
A1. Med Ball Scoop Toss - 5 sets of 4 reps per side (4-to-6-pound med ball)
A2. Lateral Jumps - 5 sets of 3 jumps per side (jump as far as possible)
B1. Block Deadlifts - 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with a weight you can lift 6 times
C1. Goblet Dumbbell Split Squats - 3 sets of 8 reps per side with a weight you can lift 10 times
D1. Reverse Ab Crunches - 3 sets of 12-15 reps
Perform this workout two times per week, alternating with an upper-body workout. Aim to increase the Deadlifts and Squats by 5-10 pounds every week. With hard work and enough patience, the strength you gain in the weight room will have hitters trembling when they see the newfound heat on your fastball.
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Katsumata, Y., Y. Kawakami, and T. Fukunaga. "Relationships between Throwing Velocity and Muscle Strength Measures in Japanese Baseball Players." NSCA 2006 E40 (2006).
Lehman, Graeme, Eric J. Drinkwater, and David G. Behm. "Correlation of Throwing Velocity to the Results of Lower-body Field Tests in Male College Baseball Players." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27.4 (2013): 902-08.
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