Sports Injury Prevention

The Kinetic Chain: Strength and Conditioning of the Baseball Athlete

It seems there is a big discrepancy between how professional baseball athletes train and how high school and collegiate baseball athletes train. Professional and collegiate baseball athletes work out year-round where the high school athletes only work out if they are individually motivated. Even then the type of training program they follow is arbitrary and based on bodybuilding at best. My goal with this article is to share with you all of the current information on strength and conditioning for the baseball athlete that I have used with great success.

Itís all about the Kinetic ChainÖ

baseball pitcher getting ready to throw baseball pitcher swinging arm back to throw baseball pitcher swinging arm forward to throw continuing movement of pitcher's arm after release of the ball

Figure 1

The Kinetic Chain is a term used by most sports medicine and exercise science professionals to describe a sequence or a chain of events (please excuse the pun) that take place in order for an athlete to throw (Figure 1). For a pitcher, the sequence of events start from the push off of the rubber on the mound to the follow through where the pitcher rolls off of the mound.

In Curt Schillingís Blog, www.38pitches.com, Curt states, ďI learned about the Kinetic Chain long before it was Ďen vogueí. The transfer of power from the point of your plant foot, to the tip of your throwing hand is a process that relies on strength, flexibility and range of motion in your foot, ankle, knee, thigh, hip, core, chest, shoulder, elbow, forearm, hand. Have a snag in any one spot and the transfer of power is diminished. Go too far astray and the entire chain becomes tangled.

Someone with easy repeatable mechanics is apt to hide the symptoms or problems much longer than others. This is basically whatís happened to me over the past year. You do not just lose 5 mph in a week or two span, barring an injury. I was concerned the entire season I had a labral tear. I donít. I basically have major clogs in the kinetic chain that are a direct result of limited, to almost non existent flexibility in my right ankle.

The major indicators are my left hip, which is tight, and my thoracic spine. Bottom line is Iíve lost flexibility in areas I cannot afford to. At 35 I could overcome them, or didnít have them. I canít now.Ē (Curt Schilling, 2007)

Whether you are 35 years old or 15, we approach the throwing athlete with the same concerns: flexibility first, balance/coordination second, strengthening of certain areas that help improve the kinetic chain, and overall conditioning. Often times we combine all of these areas together into one training program (see sample workout routine). Old ankle sprains that were never rehabilitated correctly, knee cap pain (patellar tendonitis), and other injuries can and will factor in to how well you can throw a baseball. If left undetected, these minor problems can manifest into bigger concerns at some point in time.

Flexibility

Itís one thing to be overall flexible. Itís another story to be flexible in specific areas that are important for the throwing athlete. Listed below are a couple of areas that we see often with injured throwing athletes.

GIRD (Glenohumeral Internal Rotation Deficit)

If your orthopedic surgeon has diagnosed you with GIRD have no fear. The name sounds worse than the actual condition and it can be improved with a simple stretch that you could do in your sleep. When you throw a ball your shoulder rotates approximately 3,000 to 6,000 degrees per second. As you reach back to start a throw your shoulder rotates into external rotation (Figure 2).

Just after the release of the baseball during the throwing phase, your shoulder rapidly changes from external rotation into the opposite - internal rotation (Figure 3).

If you have a deficit of internal rotation then you have a hard time slowing your shoulder down during follow through after your pitch. If you leave this unchecked you open the door to an increased possibility of a shoulder/elbow problem and this is a ďclog in the kinetic chain.Ē One of the first things that we do at UConn Health Department of Rehabilitation is to teach you the Sleeper Stretch.

pitcher about to throw baseball

Figure 2

pitcher after the release of the ball

Figure 3

The Sleeper Stretch

This simple stretch will improve the internal rotation abilities of your shoulder which will allow you to follow through better after the release of the ball when throwing.

Start this stretch by lying on a table or bed on your throwing shoulder. Keep your arm in a 90 degree position in front of you (Figure 4). Then use your other arm and gently push your throwing shoulder down slowly towards the table or bed (Figure 5). Hold each stretch for at least 20 to 30 seconds and perform this stretch 2 to 3 times a day.

starting position with throwing arm in front of body at a 90 degree angle

Figure 4

pushing the throwing shoulder down

Figure 5

Posterior Capsule of the Shoulder

Without getting too technical with medical jargon, the Posterior Capsule of the Shoulder is the back part of your shoulder. Sometimes this part of the shoulder can get tight which can throw off normal function of your shoulder. Again, we have a very simple stretch called the Cross Body Shoulder Stretch.

The Cross Body Shoulder Stretch

The Cross Body Shoulder Stretch can be performed seated or in a standing position. Simply hold your throwing shoulder with the opposite arm and gently bring your throwing shoulder across your body bringing it into your chest or as close as your flexibility will allow (Figures 6 and 7). This stretch should be performed gently from start to finish, followed with a 20 to 30 second hold in the ending position (Figure 7). This stretch should be performed 4 times, 2 to 3 times a day.

holding throwing shoulder with opposite arm

Figure 6

bringing shoulder across body into chest

Figure 7

Pectoralis Minor

Whenever someone mentions that they are working out, one of the common questions asked is ďHow much can you bench?Ē  Somewhere along the way someone seemed to think that having a big chest qualifies you as being a great athlete. That is far from the truth. In fact, most major league baseball organizations will not allow their pitchers to bench press at all! Why? When your chest becomes tight from all of the bench pressing and chest workouts you lose the ability to reach back to throw. When your chest (pectoralis major and minor) becomes tight, the tightness will change the way your shoulder works when throwing a ball. One of the stretches that we use is a Wall/Corner/Doorway Shoulder Stretch.

Wall/Corner/Doorway Stretch

Shown below is a wall stretch where you place your throwing shoulder up on the wall or doorway creating a right angle (Figure 8). From this position, gently move your body forward until you feel a comfortable stretch. The doorway stretch can also be done with both arms (Figure 9).

man demonstrating the doorway stretch

Figure 8

man demonstrating the doorway stretch with two arms

Figure 9

DO NOT lean into the stretch with your body weight and DO NOT force yourself or bounce while doing the stretch. Each stretch should be just a gentle hold for 20 to 30 seconds, 3 to 4 times each time you stretch, 2 to 3 times a day.

How We Train the Kinetic Chain

The training program of a throwing athlete should incorporate flexibility, balance, coordination, aerobic conditioning (pitchers), and anaerobic conditioning. Baseball is short, explosive movement patterns with long periods of rest in between each performance (pitchers have different periods of active and rest periods). Having said this, baseball is twisting, lunging, and pushing. The baseball athlete must twist their bodies first in order to throw or swing a bat. Then they lunge along with twisting and eventually push the ball forward in a throwing manner (pushing the ball in pitching language is much different than the type of pushing we are speaking of when it comes to movement patterning of baseball).

Isolate Then Integrate

When it comes to strength training of the throwing athlete we tend to isolate a certain area to strengthen it first, then we integrate this strength into a complete, total body workout routine. In general, most baseball athletes are imbalanced. They have tight pectorals and weak back muscles. So we create a routine of imbalance to help fix an imbalance. For every 1 chest exercise, we have our athletes do 3 back exercises. This 1 to 3 chest to back ratio will help to stretch the chest out and improve back strength which is ideal to help decelerate the shoulder/arm once the ball is released from throwing. We isolate the back, abdominal, and hip area first as a way to develop a strength foundation of the key components in the throwing kinetic chain. Then we integrate this strength into usable strength with exercises that mimic throwing, thus strengthening the kinetic chain.

High Rows 3 to 4 sets of 15 to 25 repetitions
Mid-Level Rows 3 to 4 sets of 15 to 25 repetitions
Low Rows 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions
Shoulder Lateral Raises 4 sets of 10 repetitions
Shoulder Full Can 4 sets of 10 repetitions
Shoulder Front Raises 4 sets of 10 repetitions
Shoulder Swiss Ball Lís 4 sets of 10 repetitions
Shoulder Swiss Ball Tís 4 sets of 10 repetitions
Shoulder Swiss Ball Yís 4 sets of 10 repetitions
Shoulder Swiss Ball Iís 4 sets of 10 repetitions
Trunk Bends 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 20 repetitions
Trunk Bends with Rotations (Discos) 3 to 4 sets of 15 to 20 repetitions each side
Hip Ball Against the Wall 4 sets of 20 to 30 repetitions
Cable Wood Chops High to Low 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions
Cable Wood Chops Mid-Level 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions

This workout routine should be divided into two separate workout days (example listed below).

Day 1 Day 2
  • High Rows: 3 to 4 sets of 15 to 25 repetitions
  • Mid-Level Rows: 3 to 4 sets of 15 to 25 repetitions
  • Low Rows: 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions
  • Shoulder Lateral Raises: 4 sets of 10 repetitions
  • Shoulder Full Can: 4 sets of 10 repetitions
  • Shoulder Front Raises: 4 sets of 10 repetitions
  • Trunk Bends: 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 20 repetitions
  • Trunk Bend with Rotation (Discos): 3 to 4 sets of 15 to 20 repetitions each side
  • Hip Ball Against the Wall: 4 sets of 20 to 30 repetitions (can be done both days)
  • Shoulder Swiss Ball Lís: 4 sets of 10 repetitions
  • Shoulder Swiss Ball Tís: 4 sets of 10 repetitions
  • Shoulder Swiss Ball Yís: 4 sets of 10 repetitions
  • Shoulder Swiss Ball Iís: 4 sets of 10 repetitions
  • Hip Ball Against the Wall: 4 sets of 20 to 30 repetitions (can be done both days)
  • Cable Wood Chops High to Low: 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions
  • Cable Wood Chops Mid-Level: 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions

High Row

Using a sport cord that is attached to a high position (the top of a closed door) or a cable machine set at a high position, pull the sport cord or cable towards your chest squeezing your shoulder blades together at the same time. As shown in the ending position photo, keep your elbows along the side of your body and do not pull your elbows past your body when rowing. You can vary the exercise by rowing with one arm at a time or as pictured with both arms at one time.

high row starting position

Starting Position

high row ending position

Ending Position

Mid-Level Row

Using a sport cord that is attached to a mid-level, chest height position (the middle of a closed door) or a cable machine set at a mid-level, chest height position; pull the sport cord or cable towards your chest squeezing your shoulder blades together at the same time. As shown in the ending position photo, keep your elbows along the side of your body and do not pull your elbows past your body when rowing. You can vary the exercise by rowing with one arm at a time or as pictured with both arms at one time.

mid-level row starting position

Starting Position

mid-level row ending position

Ending Position

Low Row

Using a sport cord that is attached to a mid-level, chest height position (the middle of a closed door) or a cable machine set at a mid-level, chest height position; pull the sport cord or cable towards your thigh keeping your shoulder blade back and down in a retracted and depressed position at the same time. As shown in the ending position photo, keep your arm along the side of your body (thigh) and do not pull your arm past your body when pulling.

low row starting position

Starting Position

low row ending position

Ending Position

Shoulder Lateral Raises

Using a pair of dumbbells (nothing heavier than 5 lbs.), start with your arms at your side. Then as you raise your arms out to the side rotate your arms so that the palms of your hands are facing up toward the ceiling. Only raise your arms up to shoulder height. Then bring your arms back down toward your sides while rotating your arms back so that the palms of your hands are facing toward your thighs. The important part of this exercise is to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the same time as you raise your arms.

shoulder lateral raises starting position

Starting Position

raising arms up to shoulder height

Raise Arms Up to Shoulder Height

Shoulder Front Raises

Using a pair of dumbbells (nothing heavier than 5 lbs.), start with your arms at your side. Then keeping your shoulder blades back, raise your arms in front of you to shoulder height. Then bring your arms back down toward the front of your thighs into the starting position. The important part of this exercise is to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the same time as you raise your arms.

shoulder front raises starting position

Starting Position

raising arms in front of body up to shoulder height

Raise Arms in Front of Body

Shoulder Full Can

Using a pair of dumbbells (nothing heavier than 5 lbs.), start with your arms at your side. Then as you raise your arms out in a 45 degree angle, keep your thumbs pointing toward the ceiling. Only raise your arms up to shoulder height. Then bring your arms back down toward your sides into the starting position. The important part of this exercise is to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the same time as you raise your arms into the 45 degree position.

shoulder full can starting position

Starting Position

raising arms with thumbs pointing up toward ceiling

Raise Arms With Thumbs Upward

Shoulder Swiss Ball L's

Lying on a Swiss Ball (Physioball) on your chest, begin this exercise by squeezing your shoulder blades back together. Then bring your elbows straight back like a row exercise. Keeping this position, slowly rotate your shoulders into a 90 degree angle (the position would look like the doorway stretch position with your shoulders). Then just do the reverse order back to the starting position: rotate your shoulders back to the row position, lower your arms back towards the floor. The weight of the dumbbells to be used during this exercise should not exceed 5 lbs.

shoulder swiss ball L's starting position

Starting Position

squeezing back the shoulder blades

Squeeze Back the Shoulder Blades

bringing the elbows back

Elbows Back (Like a Row)

rotating the shoulders outward

Rotate Shoulders Outward (External)

Shoulder Swiss Ball T's

Lying on a Swiss Ball (Physioball) on your chest, start this exercise with the dumbbells in front of you (toward the ground). Keeping your arms straight out, bring your arms back into a reverse shoulder fly position while squeezing your shoulder blades together (your body forms a letter "T"). Slowly return the dumbbells to the starting position.

shoulder swiss ball T's starting position

Starting Position

shoulder swiss ball T's ending position

Ending Position

Shoulder Swiss Ball Y's

Lying on a Swiss Ball (Physioball) on your chest, start this exercise with the dumbbells in front of you pointing toward the ground. Keeping your arms straight out, bring your arms up with your thumbs pointing toward the ceiling and your arms spread apart so that your body forms the letter "Y." Slowly return the dumbbells to the starting position.

shoulder swiss ball Y's starting position

Starting Position

shoulder swiss ball Y's ending position

Ending Position

Shoulder Swiss Ball I's

Lying on a Swiss Ball (Physioball) on your chest, start this exercise with the dumbbells in front of you pointing toward the ground. Keeping your arms straight, bring your arms up and straight out so that your body forms the letter "I." Slowly return the dumbbells to the starting position.

shoulder swiss ball I's starting position

Starting Position

shoulder swiss ball I's ending position

Ending Position

Trunk Bends

Starting in a single leg standing position, slowly bend at the hip keeping your back flat. Only bend forward as far as your hamstrings will allow you to without rounding out your back. Then return to the starting position of standing on a single leg. It is best to perform this exercise one leg at a time for each set.

trunk bends ending position

Ending Position

Trunk Bend with Rotation (Disco)

Starting in a single leg standing position with the opposite arm positioned as if you were throwing a ball, slowly bend at the hip keeping your back flat and rotate your upper trunk as if you were trying to touch your elbow to your knee. Then return to the starting position of standing on a single leg. It is best to perform this exercise one leg at a time for each set.

trunk bend with rotation starting position

Starting Position

trunk bend with rotation ending position

Ending Position

Hip Ball Against the Wall

Standing with your hip against a small ball (basketball, 45cm Swiss Ball, gym ball), place the ball against the wall and lean your weight into the ball. Keep all of your weight focused on the outside leg. Move the inside leg toward the wall and back to the starting position. The key of this exercise is to keep your upper body upright and your hips level and straight while you are moving your inside leg towards the wall and back. You should feel a slight discomforting muscle burn on the outside of your weight bearing leg.

hip ball against the wall starting position

Starting Position

hip ball against the wall ending position

Ending Position

Cable Wood Chops High to Low

Using a cable machine (set at a high position) or a sport cord that is attached to the top of a closed door, start this exercise with a wider-than shoulder width stance and keep the knees bent. Grab the handle with one hand and overlap it with the other hand. Keeping your arms straight begin pulling the cable or sport cord from a high position (starting location) down to a low position. While you are pulling the cable or sport cord, transfer your weight from the back leg to the front leg at the same time as you twist your trunk. Then slowly return back to the starting position. Try to draw in your abdominals as you are pulling the cable or sport cord from start to finish and back. This exercise should be performed on the opposite side as well. 

grabbing the cable with one hand and overlapping it with the other hand

Grab Handle

pulling the cable from the high position

Begin Pulling

pulling the cable down to a low position

Pull to Low Position

Cable Wood Chops Mid-Level

Using a cable machine (set just below chest level) or a sport cord that is attached to the middle of a closed door, start this exercise with a wider-than shoulder width stance and keep the knees bent. Grab the handle with one hand and overlap it with the other hand. Keeping your arms straight begin pulling the cable or sport cord from a mid-level position (starting location) across to the end position. While you are pulling the cable or sport cord, transfer your weight from the back leg to the front leg at the same time as you twist your trunk. Then slowly return back to the starting position. Try to draw in your abdominals as you are pulling the cable or sport cord from start to finish and back. This exercise should be performed on the opposite side as well.

grabbing the cable with one hand and overlapping it with the other hand

Grab Handle

pulling the cable from the mid-level position

Begin Pulling

pulling the cable across to ending position

Pull Across

Information provided by Chris Blake, M.A., L.A.T.C., C.S.C.S., New England Musculoskeletal Institute, UConn Health.