One of the most popular aspects of baseball performance training right now is pitching velocity enhancement. To oversimplify, pitching velocity can be enhanced by focusing on four main areas of development:
- Age and maturity (something you can’t control)
- Strength and conditioning programs
- Arm care programs
- Proper mechanics and throwing programs
Improving all four of these areas have been shown to enhance velocity. Unfortunately many baseball players are cutting corners and jumping straight to velocity programs without establishing a proper foundation. Essentially they are worried about the frosting before they bake the cake.
We are putting a lot of faith into velocity programs being marketed on the internet that have not been validated scientifically to be safe or effective used controlled and unbiased research. We are at the infancy of our understanding of how these programs enhance velocity, and the effect on the body. I think we are "overdosing". I see people promoting these programs guilty of the following:
- Trying to implement these programs on their own without thought or a clear understanding on what is safe and effective. They are not selecting the appropriate dose.
- Implementing the same velocity program for everyone, often on a team-wide basis, not individualizing the dose for each individual.
- Getting greedy. Many people think if a 1lb ball can help them gain 3 MPH, than a 2lb ball can help them gain 6 MPH! They are overdosing.
We have a very limited understanding of the science weighted baseball, long toss, and other baseball training and velocity programs, but research is starting to come out. Below is what we currently know regarding weighted ball and long toss programs.
If you are going to start a pitching velocity training program yourself or with your athletes, you MUST understand the science.
The Science of Weighted Ball Velocity Programs
Weighted ball training programs work. We have enough evidence to know that weighted ball training helps to increase pitching velocity. We've known this for decades. But the real question is, “at what cost?”
I can tell you from my experience as the person on the other side of the equation, I hear this comment all the time from injured baseball players: "I started a weighted ball training program this winter, gained 3-5 MPH on my fastball, and then hurt my arm for the first time during the season."
I can't tell you how common that is at Champion every day. This is all I do every day and it’s getting worse. We still don't know how safe these programs are and, more importantly, what the effective "dose" should be to increase pitching velocity. What I mean by this is, how heavy, how light, how many throws, how often per week, and how much during the year among other questions. We still do not know the safest and most effective "dose" for pitching velocity programs, just like medicine, more is not better.
The first study to look at the biomechanics of weighted ball programs has been published by Dr. Glenn Fleisig and ASMI. Their study looked at mound vs. flat ground throwing of 4, 5, 6, and 7oz. balls. Although limited in what was evaluated, they showed that throwing balls less than a 5oz regulation ball increased the amount of stress on the arm.
What tends to happen with overload balls is less stress but over a longer period of time, and for under-load balls it's more stress over a shorter period of time, which is a bad combo. The 7oz. throws were less stressful than a regulation ball, however, we still don't know if this changes as the balls get heavier or if they change with more intense run-and-gun or turn-and-burn style throws. These were not studied. I think they do.
We are finishing up a new study at Champion PT and Performance where we have teamed up with Dr. James Andrews, Dr. Glenn Fleisig, and Motus Global to research a 6-week weighted ball program. In the first phase of the study we are using knee throws, rocker throws, and run-and-gun throws using between 2oz and 2lb balls. Our study agrees, weighted ball training does increase velocity, however also change some of the characteristics of the arm. Essentially we showed that the amount of layback of the arm (shoulder external rotation) increase by 5 degrees after a 6-week weighted ball program.
Weighted ball programs using weights more than 5oz are effective at enhancing velocity. I believe this may be because it causes such a quick and dramatic increase in external rotation, or layback. Increasing this layback correlates to greater velocity.
Weighted baseball training programs may be changing our anatomy.
Scientifically, this gain in external rotation is not from a muscle stretching or the bone adapting. It wouldn't happen that fast. What is likely happening is that the static stabilizers that are supposed to prevent excessive external rotation are being damaged. This could be the capsule, labrum, or even rotator cuff. These are not injuries that you want. Plus, as layback increases, so does stress on the Tommy John ligament. This is why many people do not get hurt during a weighted ball program, but end up getting hurt down the road. They've pushed past their normal anatomy to increase pitching velocity. So weighted ball programs have two potential concerns:
The Science of Long Toss Velocity Programs
- Overweight balls may be causing damage to the tissue of the shoulder to allow more layback. This gain in layback may also increase the strain on the Tommy John ligament.
- Underweight balls increase the amount of peak strain on the arm.
In addition to weighted ball programs, we have also seen an increase in baseball long toss programs designed to improve pitching velocity. Long toss is nothing new, but throwing maximum distance and trying to extend this distance over time has become more popular.
Similar to weighted ball programs, we are starting to see studies published quantifying the stress observed on the throwing arm during long toss throwing. You have to take the science of long toss into consideration. Dr. Fleisig and ASMI evaluated the stress observed during long toss programs in past studies. One of these studies, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, studied the difference between pitching off a mound and long tossing at 120 feet, 180 feet, and at maximum distance. Long tossing to 120 feet had similar stress on the arm as pitching on the mound. Throwing to 180 feet had greater stress. However the most alarming finding of the study involved throwing maximum distance. When subjects were asked to use a crow hop and throw as far as they could, the stress on their arm increased by 10% more than pitching off the mound (and their mechanics changed too...)! It should be noted that the mean distance thrown was 264 feet, less than what many people throw.
Another recent study publish in the American Journal of Sports Medicine by Dr Elattrache of the Los Angeles Dodgers showed no significant difference between pitching off the mound and long toss throwing between 60 and 180 feet. Let's be really clear on this one, the amount of stress on the shoulder and elbow were the same as pitching off the mound AND throwing flat ground from even as short as 60 feet, despite a significantly lower velocity during the throw. Perhaps throwing flat ground is less biomechanically efficient.
It is apparent that the longer you throw, the more stressful it is on the arm, even more so that pitching off the mound. Long toss is important. But again perhaps we are using the wrong dose. I for one have worked with many players that love long toss and many players that hate long toss. I've worked with MLB All-Stars and Cy Young winners on both sides. I have worked with some that can easily throw 250+ feet without any sign of altered mechanics, while others labor at 180 feet. Perhaps our issue is more related to the fact that one magical long toss program doesn't exist.
Trying to say that a certain distance is recommend for everyone is very disadvantageous. Everyone is different. Think about it this way, should a 5'8" tall pitcher and 6'6" tall pitcher throw the same distance? Should a sidearm pitcher throw the same distance as someone more over the top? Should a 15 year old skeletally immature kid throw as far as a 30 year old big leaguer?
Long toss programs need to individualized for each person. Similar to weighted ball programs, we now know that the stress on the arm exceeds pitching off the mound.
Are Velocity Programs to Blame for the Rise in Baseball Pitching Injuries?
I don't think velocity programs directly to blame for the rise in baseball pitching injuries. It's not the program, it's the dose. So what we know right now is that both weighted ball and long toss programs produce more stress on the arm than pitching off a mound. Again, this is acceptable if applied appropriately, and in fact this may be desired. But let me ask you a couple of big questions:
- Would you throw a bullpen 6x per week?
- Would you throw bullpens all year around?
I hope you said "no" to both of those questions. If not, you have a lot of reading to do. Remember, pitching for more than 8 months per year has been shown to result in a 5x greater chance of injury. A staggering number. Most coaches know this and have started to throw less bullpens with their pitchers over the offseason. However, bullpens are being replaced with weighted ball and long toss velocity programs. Some are even doing this all offseason, while others continue to do this during the season. So if the science is showing that both weighted balls and long toss place MORE stress on the arm than pitching off a mound, why would you do this 6x per week and why would you do it all year round?
We aren't resting enough.
We aren’t preparing the body enough. Remember what we said before, throwing a baseball is bad for your body. You need to build in proper rest for recovery. Your body does not care what or how you are throwing. It just cares about the stress that is being applied to the tissue.
There is a place for weighted ball and long toss velocity programs, our programs we have built at Champion PT and Performance include these training techniques. But these should be individualized and applied appropriately using what we know scientifically about these programs. We also focus on all 4 areas of velocity develop and don’t cut corners.
I believe many are overdosing on these velocity programs and this is one of the main reasons that despite all our advancements in baseball training programs, injury rates in baseball continue to rise. It's not the program that is the problem, it's how these programs are being implemented. It all comes down to "dosage." We all know that medicine is effective. But there are side effects to all drugs and, more importantly, you can overdose and cause more harm than good. I wrote this article because I work with injured baseball players all day, and it pains me to do so. I sincerely want to be put out of business. I am worried that we are hurting our youth and I see this trend only getting worse.
Remember, pitching velocity can be enhanced but focusing on four main areas of development stated previously in this article.
A solid velocity program will work towards enhancing each area and building a solid foundation prior to aggressively trying to gain velocity with weighted balls or aggressive long toss.
About The Author
Mike Reinold, DPT, SCS, CSCS is the owner of Champion PT and Performance, a baseball development center just outside Boston, MA that trains athletes ranging from youth to MLB All-Stars. Mike was previously the Head Athletic Trainer and Physical Therapist for the Boston Red Sox and has work with noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. He has a popular website at MikeReinold.com and recently started EliteBaseballPerformance.com where he hopes to help provide cutting edge, yet trustworthy, information to enhance baseball performance.