Let me start by saying this: this article isn’t about the pros and cons of weighted ball programs. It’s about the importance and reasons why you should consider (a) including and implementing a thorough assessment, (b) monitoring the dosage and (c) participating in an individualized strength and conditioning program in conjunction with the weighted ball program.
With the lack of evidence-based information out there on how to safely implement weighted baseballs, most coaches and facilities are basically flying blind, due in most part to a lack of knowledge in functional anatomy. Here’s how we have gathered information and implemented it over the past few years at Rockland Peak Performance, and with a good amount of success.
First and foremost, I am a believer in weighted balls. I think they work, and we use them with many of our guys. However, weighted balls are just one of the tools used in our throwing programs to help our athletes achieve a higher velocity ceiling. As with any protocol, the “dosage” (volume and intensity) and time of year is paramount to maximize their effectiveness safely.
The main prerequisites we utilize to decide if a pitcher is eligible to enter into our weighted ball throwing programs are as follows:
1. You must be at least 16 years old and anatomically mature (growth plates). Throwing a weighted ball stretches the shoulder into added external rotation. Even at 16, there is no magic age as to growth plates being closed, and young athletes will naturally get more external rotation (retrotorsion) from simply playing ball while the plates are still open. For young athletes with low humeral retrotorsion, it may be better to throw more with just a regulation baseball. This will develop more “lay back” to reach higher velocities, rather than using a weighted ball to expedite retrotorsion at the risk of injury later on.
2. You must be at an adequate weight to be able to disperse the stress of throwing weighted balls. The body mass chart below is a guide we use for eligibility based on height and weight. Please note that these numbers are the MINIMUM weight requirements to be eligible to participate in one of our throwing programs.
3. You must be pain free. You would think that this one is a no brainer, but I can’t tell you how many kids come in to get screened for our weighted ball program experiencing CURRENT anterior shoulder pain! You need to perform apprehension testing; many young kids will lie about pain!
4. You must have acceptable movement quality (assessment). One of the benefits of including a strength and conditioning program alongside a weighted ball program is that first and foremost it forces you (or at least it should) to perform a thorough initial assessment on the athlete’s baseline movement quality. At our facility, all athletes are taken through a comprehensive movement screen to identify movement deficiencies. This helps answer a few important questions that address the athlete’s durability to take part in a weighted ball throwing program. The screen includes but is not limited to the following topics:
- Do they have sufficient external rotation?
- Are they lacking scapular upward rotation?
- Can they get their hands overhead (flexion) without compensating in the lower lumbar?
- Do they have sufficient cervical rotation?
Assessing range of motion, while it is not the final word by any means as to physical preparedness, is the best we have to go on without any “imaging” and is a MUST for us to deem a young athlete eligible for the program.
5. You must have a decent foundation of strength (training age).
Absolute strength is the foundation for all other faster types of strength, it is paramount in any athletic endeavor. But in this specific situation, the analogy is that it helps increase the size of the cup that you can fill with other faster types of strength, as in with weighted balls. It is ideal for athletes to have one year of prior experience in the weight room and be able to have a one rep max deadlift of 1.5-2 times their body weight.
In addition to building muscle, strength training prepares the ligaments and tissue for further training as well, for the “faster types of strength” ahead. In addition, increases in lean muscle mass from strength training also help absorb much of the force that comes with throwing hard and in this case, with throwing weighted balls. Lighter, less muscular athletes can get into a “crash and burn situation,” as their bodies aren’t prepared to handle the force in their throwing deliveries.
Learning to perform movements like squats, hinges (deadlift), and lunges helps longer, looser athletes learn stability, while the shorter/tighter types increase their mobility. We have found that squats and hinge patterns have great transfer over to the mound.
6. You must get a daily serving of mobility and arm care.
All of our strength and conditioning programs include a 15-20 minute warm-up which focuses on soft tissue work and mobility. This will help ensure that all movement and mobility issues found in the initial assessment are being addressed daily, as well as helping to train the scapular stabilizers.
7. Individualized volume and intensity (dosage).
Several years before we met, my business partner paid $500 to a reputable nationwide outfit for a 12-week weighted ball program for his son. No questions were asked regarding his son’s age, weight, previous injuries, and or strength profile. The “dosage” in the program was simply based on how hard his son threw different weighted balls prior to starting the program. Think about that for a second!
As you increase the weight of the ball, you slow down the arm action. The more a ball weighs the less you can accelerate it. Less acceleration means less force on the ligaments and tendons. In other words, there is actually less force on the ligaments and tendons with a heavier ball. We do not however, go above 9 oz. for any drill that has a considerable layback component done at high velocity. The stress on the elbow is already high from being in such a provocative position, so no need to add weight to dysfunction.
Also, more is not always better. I believe many athletes, once they see velocity gains from say a 7 or 9 oz. ball, have a tendency to think, “if my velo went up 2 mph with a 9 oz. ball, it’ll probably go up more working with a 12 oz. ball. Unfortunately, this can be a recipe for disaster. Many metrics gathered from the assessment such as weight, age, strength and glenohumeral internal and external rotation MUST be taken into consideration when designing the throwing program. Sometimes we may reduce the weight of the ball (intensity) and add another day (volume). Alternatively, sometimes we may only go as high as a 7 oz. ball. All in all, we generally never go fully overhead with anyone over 9 oz.
Putting it all together.
Any effective throwing program should incorporate throwing, strength training and arm care as ONE program and not view them as separate entities. While strength and conditioning should never be out of the equation for pitchers in general, it should share the spotlight with the throwing side of the program such as correcting mechanical issues and high intent weighted throws.
This will allow us to focus more on (a) improving strength by utilizing heavier weights and focusing on mobility early in the ramp-up stage, (b) gradually increasing force production through lighter lifts, and (c) plyometric training as the higher intent throwing gets added. It will also allow the athlete to focus more energy on the ramped-up intensity and volume of the throwing portion. Remember when something gets added (throwing), something needs to be taken away (heavy lifting).
As a side note, we don’t wait for pain. Not only do we assess prior to starting, we do a brief re-assessment every 4 weeks as the program progresses. This is to stay on top of things, such as too much of a change in passive and active range, signaling that there might be a negative change in tissue resiliency, t-spine and cervical rotation, hip internal rotation, etc. The re-assessment also helps us keep tabs on changes in metrics as throwing continues to ramp-up. We can then adjust weighted ball dosage as needed, if necessary.
A throwing program utilizing weighted balls can and will help improve coordination of muscle contraction and the development of a more efficient kinetic chain in the throwing motion helping the pitcher stay connected. This combined with (a) increasing physical size and strength through weight training, (b) a thorough arm care program including soft tissue work, and (c) an adequate post-throwing routine is the best way to create optimal results while reducing the risk of injury.
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