By: Josh Staph
Stressed arms and shoulders are becoming a bigger problem among pitchers who are hurling balls faster than 90 mph. To prevent these stresses, a new approach has been established. The tested method focuses on the entire body, because a throwing arm’s health depends on more than just the arm and shoulder.
Paul Fournier, the Florida Marlins strength and conditioning coach, promotes this new system with a thorough flexibility regimen that works every region of the body. “If the hips and lower body are flexible and mobile, then it is going to transfer the force with a strong core to the upper extremity and is going to take stress off of this area and hopefully prevent injury,” he explains.
Fournier carries his experience as the medical coordinator for the Montreal Expos and Marlins at the minor league level into his current position as a strength coach. “Strength coaches these days are not just strength coaches, but they have become pre-habilitation specialists,” he says.
He marks flexibility as a top priority at spring training by implementing a range of motion test for pitchers. He tests for appropriate internal and external rotation in the shoulders and hips.
Fournier’s expertise was put to the test when he was assigned to rehabbing Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis from a serious shoulder injury incurred while pitching in the Marlins’ farm system. When Willis was healthy enough to begin training, Fournier emphasized lower half flexibility and range of motion.
He continues working Willis with this same regimen today. The results have been impressive. In 2004, Willis proved his new durability by logging an impressive 197 innings without injury. The program keeps pitchers on the mound while improving flexibility and emphasizing transfer of more force, which undoubtedly makes for a better pitcher.
Fournier’s program includes a variety of flexibility training methods by incorporating static, dynamic and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) training. Fournier has the Marlins follow this routine daily:
- Jog a lap around the field to get the blood flowing and loosen the joints.
- Perform some general static or PNF stretching, depending on the time of year. They use static stretches once games begin, but PNF throughout spring training.
- Run drills that incorporate an increase in speed over 60-, 120- and 150-feet distances—forward and backward.
- Warm-up with dynamic movements that target the hip region.
- Break into position-specific drill sessions.
- Reconvene as a team for conditioning.
Fournier cools the players down after conditioning with static stretching for 5 minutes. The Marlins then move inside for the weightlifting scheduled for that day. Fournier includes additional shoulder flexibility exercises his pitchers can perform voluntarily.
Static Stretching Routine
Static stretching is the traditional method of holding a stretch position for a set period of time. Fournier has his pitchers hold each stretch for about 8 to 10 seconds for two reps. The routine starts with non-static movements to loosen the shoulders and trunk region.
Keeping the stomach tight, rotate your trunk as far right as possible without moving your feet. Then, rotate left. Repeat for 10-second bouts.
Bending your torso to the right, reach upward with the left arm. Switch sides.
Arm Swing Routine (2 minutes):
Forward Arm Swings—Start with small circles, then slowly increase the size.
Over-Unders—Swing arms forward and backward parallel to the ground. Alternate which arm goes on top in front.
Reverse Arm Circles—Start with small circles and then slowly increase the size.
Alternating Arm Circles (forward/backward)—Work one arm at a time.
Put arm in a 90-degree abduction with elbow pointing to the sky. Use other hand to pull the elbow toward the back of the head. You should be able to feel some shoulder flexion.
Horizontal Shoulder Adduction
Place a straight arm across your chest. Use opposite arm to pull it into chest.
Place arm straight out in front. Use the other hand to pull back on your hand while keeping your arm straight. Hook your thumb to get a better forearm stretch.
Straddled Hamstring Stretch (right, left, middle)
Spread legs much wider than shoulder width and bend forward to the right, left and middle keeping your legs straight.
Seated Straddled Hamstring Stretch (right, left, middle)
Same technique as above but seated.
Sitting down, pull your heels toward your groin. Focus on pushing your knees toward the ground.
Lying Knee to Chest
Lying on your back, hug your knee into your chest while keeping opposite leg straight.
External Hip Rotation
Lying on your back, bring your ankle to the opposite knee. With both hands, hold the back of the knee the ankle is resting on. Pull the knee to the chest to force an external rotation of the hip. “With pitchers, there is usually a significant difference in range of motion between the push-off hip and landing hip, so we will emphasize this stretch on the push-off leg even more,” Fournier explains.
Fournier has the Marlins perform this style of stretching in place of the static stretching throughout the spring until the games begin. It is an effective way to get rid of early spring training soreness and improve range of motion. Remember to switch to static stretching once the season begins.
Complete the above program, but perform 2 contractions during the stretches. For instance, get into the hamstring stretch position and hold it for 5 seconds. Then, contract the hamstring muscle for 5 to 8 seconds and then relax it into a deeper stretch. Repeat the contraction once more and then relax into a final stretch of 5 to 8 seconds. When contracting, imagine you are pushing against the stretch. Perform 3 reps in this manner and then move to the next stretch. The arm swing and trunk movements do not change.
Dynamic (Active) Flexibility Training
These drills help improve flexibility and strengthen muscles in the hip region. Fournier has the players perform 4 drills over a 10-yard distance. Each exercise is performed twice.
Grab the knee with both hands and pull it into the chest. Simultaneously, raise on the toes of your back leg. Repeat with other leg. The drill moves forward in a walking motion.
Walking Lunge with Twist
Step into lunge position with back knee 1 inch off the ground and slightly bent. Rotate torso toward the front knee that should be bent 90 degrees. Do not allow the front knee to go over the front toes. Repeat with other leg. The drill moves forward in a walking motion.
With a fat back and low hips, shuffle feet laterally without crossing over.
Move laterally while bringing back leg in front of and behind lead leg. Work good hip rotation.
In most cases, Fournier finds pitchers have an internal rotation deficit with their throwing shoulder. These stretches can help correct this.
Marlins pitchers perform this shoulder stretch twice a day—once in the morning before activity then once later in the day on their own.
Lie on your throwing side with your scapula against the floor. Move your arm in a 90-degree abducted position so your hand points directly at the ceiling. Use your non-throwing hand to internally force your throwing hand down towards the ground. Hold this stretch for about 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat for 3 to 4 repetitions.
“By leaning on the scapula and not falling back, you will be able to work the posterior cuff and help the flexibility of that as well,” Fournier adds.
Lie on your back at the edge of a table so your throwing arm hangs off the side. Move your throwing arm in a 90-degree abducted position. Have someone stabilize your shoulder and move your arm to an internal rotation (as though the arm was following through after releasing the ball). Hold it for 20 to 30 seconds. Complete 2 reps of this motion.
Make sure the only part of your body moving during this stretch is the abducted arm. Fournier warns against forcing a stretch in the external direction and adds, “External rotation of the shoulder will be worked through normal throwing.”
Because this stretch moves the shoulder through the throwing arc, Fournier uses this as a range of motion test for pitchers. He looks for an external and internal throwing arc to be at least 180 degrees. He sets the minimum for internal rotation of the shoulder at 45 degrees.
You can also use this test to check for a deficiency in either direction. Get into position on a table. Have someone take your arm to an external rotation (as though your arm was cocking back to throw a ball) and measure the angle. Then, repeat with the internal rotation. Stabilize the shoulder to prevent any false readings. Repeat this test periodically to monitor improvements in your range of motion.