Baseball has transpired from a spring/summer sport to year-round play. With nearly 25 million youth participating in various leagues and play levels, the time for the offseason has diminished. The one piece of equipment that remains constant from year to year is their body.
Episodes of arm injuries have been reported as high as 25% of youth baseball population each year. These rising numbers have caused much alarm among health care providers and representatives of Little League baseball.
As with any offseason program (and in-season program), the best form of training is prevention and education.
Offseason/In Season Education
As with our youth, it is of utmost importance for the parents/guardians to be active advocates. They are discussing any issues/injuries (past or current) upfront with the coach. Withholding information can increase the risk of injury. It is also essential to know if the athlete is participating in other leagues, either baseball or various sports, at the same time.
Pitch counts were developed to protect the arms of our youth. Currently, there is not a way to track pitch counts across various leagues. This has to be done individually by athletes and parents.
Another variable in pitch counts is the total throw volume. Pitch counts only account for pitches thrown in gameplay to a batter. This ignores total throw volume, such as throws to warm-up, bullpen pitches, between-inning pitches, throws in the field, and does not account for the stress level of pitches (example: 2 pitches with base runners, close games, and facing opponent’s better hitters).
There is a need for rest. Appropriate rest can be 3-4 months downtime without throwing, more specifically pitching off a mound. This time can be dedicated to another discipline or sport, avoiding the early specialization model. Various sports can place demands on similar structures but frequently develop other energy systems, coordination, and motor systems’ long-term development. During this downtime, working with a pitching/baseball coach to address mechanical issues (non-throwing) and a Strength & Conditioning Specialist is crucial. Discussion to follow on Strength & Conditioning in the next section.
Each year athletes spend thousands of dollars on new equipment while ignoring the one piece of equipment that is used the season to season; their body. Working with a Strength & Conditioning Specialist (or Physical Therapist/Athletic Trainer specializing in Performance Training) offers a full assessment and individualized programming.
The initial assessment should involve a history intake, current screening and health questionnaire, movement assessment (such as the Functional Movement Screen), and performance metrics (running speed – 40-yard dash, vertical jump, and agility test).
The Functional Movement Screen is a systematic approach to fundamental movement patterns. Each test is scored on a pass/fail while accounting for painful movement patterns. The first hierarchy to clear up is any painful movement pattern, which would require a referral to a Physical Therapist/Chiropractor/Orthopedist—next addressing mobility restrictions. Hindered mobility will lead to faulty movement patterns, hindered sport-specific tasks, and increased likelihood of injury. If a movement pattern scores a passing mark, then these movement patterns have the integrity to be loaded. The Strength & Conditioning Specialist will then design the training program.
- Aerobic Capacity/Endurance
- Movement Economy/Integrity/Mobility
- Speed/Sport Specific/Anaerobic Capacity
- Mental Endurance
Each component listed above has a time and place in the training program. There is often a need to establish a baseline movement awareness and aerobic capacity to handle the training. Follow the general rule that soreness does not equate to a great workout. This can actually be caused by overtraining or poor programming/movement prep. If an athlete misses a training day due to excessive soreness, then that is a missed opportunity for them to improve. Generally, the soreness should be alleviated with proper recovery, including but not limited to, proper nutrition and hydration, stretching, and adequate sleep.
Off-Season Training Program
An offseason training program should better prepare your body to handle the sport and season demands, allow for quicker recovery and make the body more durable to the sport’s stresses through strength, mobility, agility, and endurance. Below is a 3-day sample of a training program covering each aspect mentioned above.
Most movements have either a progression or a scaled option.
- 5-minute light jog/walk/bike
- A1) Goblet Squat 4 x 8-12
- B1) Push-ups 4 x 15
- Band pull apart (horizontal abduction) 4 x 15
- C1) Low Skipping
- Power Skips
- 50% base running x 3
- 75% base running x 3
- 90-95% base running x 3
- (use 60-90 foot base path distance)
- 5-minute light jog/walk/bike
- A1) Deadlifts – med ball/sand bag/kettlebell 4 x 8
- B1) Arm Care:
- Flex T’s (arms in field goal position / pinch shoulder blades together): 3 minutes while walking
- Flex T’s alternating external rotation/internal rotation
- Fastball grip: palm forward
- Curveball grip: palm neutral (facing ear)
- Change-up grip: palm rotated outward
- Flex T’s (alternating karaoke directions): 3 minutes
- Arm Circles:
- 10 small / 10 medium / 10 large each position/each direction
- palms neutral/palms rotated upward/palms rotated downward
(LACTIC ACID build up in shoulders is normal – should remain pain-free, alleviating after exercises stop)
- 5-minute light jog/walk/bike
- A1) Walking Lunge + Overhead reach 4 x 10/leg
- B1) Low Skipping
- Power Skipping
- 4 x 30 feet
- C1) Broad Jumps 4 x 5
- Med Ball Chest Passes 4 x 5
- D1) Vertical Jumps 4 x 5
- Med Ball Overhead tosses 4 x 5
- E1) Skater Hops 4 x 15/side
- Alternating jump lunges 4 x 5/side
Choosing a weight for exercises can be the most challenging portion. Pick a weight that is both challenging and allows for proper movement patterns.
When choosing a Med Ball weight, want to ensure that the participant can maintain good form and create a quick movement to generate power. Using a weight that is too heavy will slow the movement pattern down, thus not challenging to a power system.
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Following an appropriate movement assessment, they often discover limitations in both overhead mobility, especially shoulder external and internal rotation range of motion (ROM), and thoracic mobility. Thoracic spine mobility is greatly hindered due to poor posture, increased sitting time, increased screen time, and less play/activity of our younger generations.
Both of these limitations correlate to underlying issues that arise in our youth baseball/softball players who have developed arm pathologies or are at risk for developing arm pathologies.
Weighted ball programs have gained popularity in recent years. While there is a time and place for weighted ball programs, there is a greater need for baseline mechanics, strength, and education. Focus on the proper throwing mechanics before loading the throw. Ensure that there are no underlying movement limitations before implementing a throwing program of any magnitude.
Always remember: The best ability that any athlete can and will possess is AVAILABILITY.
Place the health of our youth before athletic success, and we will set them up for a bright future.