Baseball Pitcher Conditioning
What is "The New Mold" of pitcher conditioning? First, do baseball pitchers, or any baseball player for the matter, need to condition? Yes they do. However, that’s not the real question. The real question is whether baseball players should partake in long distance running/conditioning? Hell No! And when I say long distance conditioning or running, I mean at distances above 60-90ft! So to all you coaches out there who make your players run miles, run poles, or repeat 400 meter sprints, you are doing them a great disservice, and this is why:
Pitchers (and catchers) are of the most active players on a baseball team. Wouldn’t you agree? Narrowing in specifically on pitchers, their work to rest ratio is approximately 1 second of work (pitch from the mound) to 20 seconds of rest before the next pitch. This work-to-rest ratio happens throughout the entire game. It’s explosive movement, after explosive movement, after explosive movement and so on and so forth. Below I have laid out some research that will get your head spinning.
Common Practice: “I have my players run miles because a game can take a few hours, and they need the stamina to be able to go the distance. Plus it helps their arms recover in between starts.”
True, a game does take a few hours and players do need to be able to complete the whole game. If we narrow in on pitchers again, look at their work:rest cycle. One second of max effort to 20 seconds of rest, repeating for potentially up to 9 innings at the higher levels of play. When you tell a player to run miles, you are telling him to ‘not perform at max effort.’ This is directly antagonistic to how he plays the game. Therefore, training at lower levels than what is used in competition does not increase stamina because it is not sport specific enough. In fact, you are training your player to become a better distance runner, and to have better cardiovascular stamina/aerobic tolerance with lower-load activities. This is not how you should be training for baseball, as it is not even close to how you play the game. The game of baseball is played anaerobically/with minimal O2 consumption. Improved baseball stamina comes from simply playing the game over and over. Or, if you want to speed up the process a bit, train how you play; explosively and repetitively over longer and longer time periods. "Distance" running (aerobic activity) or prolonged anaerobic activity between starts has no bearing on an anaerobic athletes recovery.
“But wait! Long distance running makes my players mentally tough, like the military.”
I’ll defer this answer to a bit later in this post.
Decreased Power Production
Training the body non-explosively at lower intensities as with long distance running or any kind of prolonged training modality decreases power production. How does this happen? Training at lower intensities trains muscles to move slower, and its not just occurring at the legs; the arms have to swing, too. When muscles move slower with the primary focus for endurance, the transition from an eccentric to concentric contraction is prolonged (If you're unsure what this is, please read this short post on eccentric training and why it's vital to your success as a ball player). This transition time period is called the amortization phase. When you pull your arm back to throw a baseball, certain muscles are eccentrically lengthening (storing potential energy), then they must transition into a concentric or shortening contraction (using kinetic energy) to explode forward in order to throw hard. The longer that transition takes from eccentric to concentric, the less force or power is produced, and arm acceleration is lost. An article by Rhea et al in 20081 revealed these power drops in collegiate baseball players due to endurance training. Intense endurance training -- distances at greater than 60-90ft are detrimental as well. A study by McCarthy et al. in 19952 showed that if endurance training was performed at greater than 70% of Heart Rate Reserve (this is low), power production remained unchanged compared to a group undergoing strength training.
Weight Loss Concerns
What does the majority of the world (maybe just USA) do when they want to lose weight? They do endurance training: elliptical for 20 minutes, treadmill for 10 minutes, jogging, train for a 5k or half marathon, etc. But losing weight is not what we want to do as a pitcher, or any athlete that needs to move explosively. A study from 2008 by Werner et al.3 has correlated higher body mass to increased throwing velocity in baseball players. I can pretty much stop this argument here, except I want to touch on this just a little bit more. In my opinion, it’s really not the increased body weight that is correlated with faster throwing speeds; it’s the improvement in strength and power that you can produce since you have more muscle mass. For baseball players, speed of movement is important. You don't want to increase body mass too much or else you'll be slow. The key is to become more powerful with minimal body mass gain, which can easily be done with the right training methods. Werner’s study was performed on collegiate baseball players. It’s probably safe to assume these college baseball players were relatively lean with good muscle tone. I would also have to assume that if you replicated this study and compared those athletes of the same body mass; ones who are lean with good muscular build vs. over-fat pitchers, the more muscular pitchers would be able to throw faster because they simply have more muscle to use. Now onto the nutritional component.
“Post exercise immune function depression is most pronounced when exercise is continuous, prolonged, of moderate to high intensity and performed without food intake,” and this immune depression can last at least 24 hours4. We can probably assume that most ball players aren’t practicing or performing without food. However, the quality of nutrition that most players consume comes into question. A movement has begun in high schools for healthier nutrition, but I remember when I was in high school. When I packed my own lunch, it was many cookies and chips could I get in the bag. If you’re in college you likely have a meal plan; freshman usually gain the “freshman 15,” and its not all muscle. And if you’re traveling a lot in the major league circuit, your likely on a repeating circus train that looks like the following: game to long bus ride, to hotel, to a double header, to another long bus ride, etc. I bet your sleep cycles are nothing but stellar, with the utmost attention given to proper nutrition….right? Other studies have reported an increased incidence of upper respiratory tract illness in the days following prolonged exercise. Take your poor nutrition into account, and if you’re constantly getting sick…endurance training is likely getting the best of you.
What do you get when you combine a depressed immune system, poor nutritional intake, lack of quality sleep, a reduction in body mass throughout the season, and decreased power production?
Poor Mental Outlook
You find a baseball player that lacks confidence in himself, finds it hard to dig deep and “pull from within,” throws slower and less far throughout the season, generally under performs, responds to his coach/parents attempts to play better and get his head on straight and injures himself in the process by forcing performances. Doing things consistently opposite of what needs to be done harms you, and this won’t make you look too great as their coach. It’s the things people don’t tell you to your face that you can’t defend. So do the right thing from the get-go :)
What you should be doing:
When it comes to the sport of baseball it should be called “Strength and Conditioning Mobility." Mobility and flexibility are more important than conditioning, since most of baseball conditioning can and should be done in the gym and on the diamond itself. I’ll be discussing immobility and muscular tightness specific to baseball pitchers in a later post. So make sure you subscribe below to be notified when it comes out. I encourage you to check out the Monster Arm Program; a video based pitcher specific strength and mobility, and conditioning program for aspiring pitchers who are done with "the old," and want new direction to achieve success.
You’re probably reading this post because you’ve clicked on Throwing Harder 101. If you’ve read my other posts, you’re beginning to understand that throwing harder is multifactorial, and that you need the proper all-around-training and hard work to compete at a higher level. I know you’re a hard worker because you took the time search the web for ways to improve yourself. Congrats to you!
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- Rhea, M. et al. Noncompatibility of Power and Endurance Training Among College Baseball Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Jan. 2008 22(1) 230-234.
- McCarthy JP, Agre JC, Graf BK, Pozniak MA, Vailas AC. Compatibility Of Adaptive Responses With Combining Strength And Endurance Training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1995 Mar;27(3):429-36.
- Werner, S.L. et al. Relationships between ball velocity and throwing mechanics in collegiate baseball pitchers. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2008 Nov-Dec;17(6):905-8.
- Gleeson, M. Immune System Adaptation In Elite Athletes. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2006 Nov;9(6):659-65.