One of the biggest problems I see in young baseball players is a lack of rotator cuff strength, which can leave their shoulders more susceptible to injury. The solution would seem to be simple: prescribe rotator cuff exercises and they'll be on their way to a stronger, healthier arm. Right? (Learn more about the rotator cuff.)
Well, it isn't quite that easy. The problem is that amateur athletes often do not have sufficient body control to perform some rotator cuff exercises correctly, especially when they're in a large group and not being individually monitored by a trainer.
Whether an exercise is appropriate for a young athlete depends on three factors: difficulty, muscle recruitment and self-coachability.
Difficulty to Perform
Many rotator cuff exercises that are appropriate for experienced ballplayers are simply too difficult for youngsters with poor body control and nonexistent rotator cuff strength. Asking them to perform these moves only reinforces bad movement patterns. (Avoid these weightroom exercises.)
Of the rotator cuff exercises that are easy to perform with regard to body control, the goal is to prescribe the ones that will most quickly clear up weaknesses, instability, and scapula asymmetries. Exercises that target external rotation, scapula movement In all planes, and scapula and glenohumeral (another shoulder joint) stability are good choices.
Exercises that self-coach are those that have regulating components, which force the athlete to pay attention to proper form and tempo. These could be isometrics, pauses, timed sets or partner exercises—to name a few. The goal is to recommend rotator cuff exercises that can be properly executed with relative autonomy.
Taking these factors into consideration, here are the six moves I recommend young baseball players perform to develop their rotator cuff strength.
1. Face Pull With Band
This is my absolute go-to exercise to lay the foundation for rotator cuff strength—easily performed and effective.
- Find a 41-inch strength band that is 1/4" to 1/2" wide, and loop it around a power rack or a fence post.
- Grab the band with your hands about 10 inches apart.
- Stretch the band sideways while pulling it to your forehead.
- Pause for one second and squeeze your shoulder blades together at the completion of each rep.
2. Scapula Table Slides
This exercise can be done at home in the kitchen with just a table and a towel. Table slides allow a young athlete to strengthen the shoulder blades while getting a feel for how they move, which provides the foundation for them to progress to more advanced exercises.
The move must be done slowly—which usually isn't a problem, since most people aren't inclined to breeze through these when they try them for the first time.
3. The Blackburns Circuit
Blackburns (also lovingly called shoulder burns) build tremendous scapula strength and stability.
- Use an interval timer (I like the GymBoss app for the iPhone), and raise and drop your arms to the beep. When it's done, you're done.
- Don't just lift your arms. The key is to squeeze your shoulder blades, hard, in all positions.
- There are 6 positions. Perform 10 reps with six-second squeezes at the top, resting for one second between reps. Be warned—the rest feels non-existent.
The ABC circuit can be easily performed with just a 5-ounce baseball or a 2-pound weight. Hold the object, keep your arm straight and spell out the letters of the alphabet, moving as quickly as possible.
The erratic movements train the shoulder in multiple planes, helping it to learn to stabilize the joint more efficiently. Because "erratic" is the point, it's virtually impossible to do this move wrong as long as the elbow is kept straight.
5. Side-Lying Dumbbell External Rotations
Through trial and error with many young athletes, I've found that Dumbbell External Rotations are much easier to perform correctly than Band External Rotations. To perform them, place a rolled-up towel under your throwing arm and rotate the dumbbell up to about 135° relative to your torso. Tempo should be slow and controlled. Work to maintain a 90° angle at the elbow.
6. Knee-Supported Dumbbell External Rotations
The knee-supported position of this move makes it so you don't need to worry about where your arm is in space. Only two major technique cues come into play: keep your elbow angle at 90°, and don't let your shoulder blade roll forward; squeeze it back. Very simple and highly effective.
Most baseball players and parents are now realizing that rotator cuff and arm care exercises are essential to long-term throwing proficiency and injury prevention.
Photo: Medical Center of Arlington