Fact #1: The “inverted W” is a dumb term. Like so many other things in baseball, it’s an overcomplicated way to refer to something very simple. What is the dreaded inverted W? It’s when a thrower’s elbow travels too high during a toss. It looks like the above photo.
Does that look like an M to you? Me too. So why isn’t it just called “the M?” Who knows?
The issue with the inverted W (other than having a convoluted name) is the stress it places on the shoulder and the supraspinatus tendon of the rotator cuff. It impinges, or pinches, this muscle. When the arm is internally rotated with the elbow higher than the shoulder, the supraspinatus is pinched between the humeral head (upper end of the arm bone) and the acromion (the bone at the top of the shoulder).
Repetitive pinching of this muscle can cause tearing of it. Case in point: Mark Prior, a pitcher with an inverted W who broke down.
Fact #2: Even if a pitcher’s mechanics are textbook perfect, a hard thrower is going to stress the joints of his pitching arm. A guy who throws the ball as hard as Stephen Strasburg is at constant risk of injury. In fact, Strasburg is especially susceptible because his throwing elbow is very mobile.
Because his elbow moves so much, Strasburg has been unfairly (and incorrectly) given the inverted W label. Look again at the photo. You’ll see that his throwing elbow does seem to be crawling back toward his spine. But its height is fine. Inverted W averted.
Fact #3: The problem for guys like Strasburg—or any hard thrower, really—is that excessive movement at the elbow can put increased stress on the labrum.
A torn labrum was once the kiss of death for a pitcher, and even with surgical advances, the injury can be devastating. So pitchers, especially those with mobile elbows, should perform exercises that strengthen and reinforce their bodies against injury. The only problem? This isn’t as simple as it sounds.
5 Exercise Pitchers Should Avoid
Anything that has you picking up a heavy object and lifting it above your head, you can just skip. These types of movements are not appropriate for athletes with unstable shoulders.
You know, moves like the Snatch or Clean and Jerk?
Sure, they look cool—especially when some Eastern European guy is explosively tossing up huge amounts of weight during the Olympics. But these movements exert great stress on the joints of the throwing arm. Instead, use med ball work and bodyweight plyometrics to improve power and speed.
Excessive Rotator Cuff Tubing and Band Work
Especially on days when you’ll be throwing. Fatigue of the rotator cuff is a part of pitching.
Excessive Bench Pressing
Bodyweight exercises will get you just as strong yet place less demand on your joints. (Try The 8 Best Bodyweight Exercises.)
“Palms down” lifts
These include Upright Rows, Power Cleans, and Lateral Dumbbell Raises. When an athlete has his palms down and elbows above his hands, it impinges his rotator cuff muscles.
The Power Clean and the Lateral Raise can be performed safely, but their technical demands and the time required to learn proper form make it more efficient to train the shoulders and traps in other, less risky ways.
So what should you do? Try these exercises instead.
For Building Strength and Mass
For Functional Training
- Sprints for fitness
- Long toss for throwing (which helps you learn to create velocity without added effort—in much the same way a sprinter can float at top speed)
- Isometric and rhythmic stabilization exercises to train the rotator cuff
Other Training Ideas
- You can strengthen your traps by performing Shrugs with the trap bar.
- Farmer’s Walks will both strengthen your traps and improve your endurance.
- Try manual resistance to strengthen your rotator cuff muscles. Have a partner offer resistance as you try to move through various parts of the throwing motion. The goal is to hold your arm in the proper position. Hold each rep between 5 and 10 seconds in multiple positions. Ensure it is functional by placing your legs in various pitching positions. Use this technique to develop your elbow position at hand separation, and break the inverted W habit.
- To add power and correct timing issues, do the Med Ball Shot Put. With your throwing arm only as high as your shoulder (to prevent an inverted W during the exercise), fire the ball in the strike zone on a wall and follow through just as you would on a pitch.