Baseball Exercises to Prevent Little League Elbow in Baseball Pitchers
How to Prevent Pitcher's Arm
Throwing a baseball is a fun activity for millions of kids (and adults) around the world, but repetition of the throwing motion can lead to arm soreness or more significant injuries. While there is no single definition for “pitcher’s arm,” it usually refers to soreness in the upper arm and shoulder area caused by strain and fatigue of the muscles. When you experience pitcher’s arm, rest is almost always the best treatment. However, there are steps you can take before, during, and after a pitching outing to significantly reduce your likelihood of having this condition.
Don't pitch through pain or soreness.You’ll sometimes hear professional ballplayers talk about pitching through a case of “dead arm,” which is vaguely defined as a general weakness that impacts pitching velocity and accuracy. However, big league pitchers know better than to risk their arm health (and earning potential) by throwing with a sore or painful arm, and ballplayers at every level should follow that same advice.
- Muscle soreness is your body’s way of indicating overuse, and may be caused by micro-tearing of the muscle tissues. Continuing to throw when soreness or pain is present is the greatest risk factor for experiencing a significant arm injury.
- When your arm starts to feel sore, stop throwing and rest. It will only become more sore otherwise, and will be at ever-greater risk for injury.
- There is no "magic number" for the amount of rest needed. As one example of a general guideline, though, Little League Baseball requires rest periods of one to four days based on the pitcher's age (7-17) and the number of pitches thrown in an outing.
Abide by pitch and innings limits.There is no “magic number” of pitches, innings, or rest time that guarantees prevention of arm soreness or injury. That said, increased awareness has led to common-sense (or even rule-defined) limits being established in youth leagues right up to the pro leagues. Know the limits for your league/level, and follow them.
- Recommendations and restrictions can vary, but some experts say that youth pitchers (age 9-14) should never throw more than 75 pitches in a game (or 90 if age 15-18); should not throw more than 600 pitches (age 9-14) or 100 innings (age 15-18) per year; and should not pitch in more than two games per week.
- You’ll have to personally keep track of pitches, innings, and rest between outings if you or your child is playing in multiple leagues (such as a high school team and a travel team) at once. Generally speaking, it is best for kids to avoid pitching on multiple teams in overlapping seasons anyway.
Keep tabs on velocity and intensity.One reason that pitch counts and innings limits can only be recommendations is that not all pitches and innings are created equal. A long, high-intensity inning ratchets up the levels of stress, intensity, and fatigue, making soreness and injury more likely. That is to say that three easy ten-pitch innings are less fatiguing than one stressful thirty-pitch inning.
- Watch closely for signs of a pitcher wearing down during a long or high-intensity inning. A breakdown in pitching mechanics is often a clear indicator of fatigue. A fastball that becomes consistently elevated in the strike zone usually indicates a breakdown in mechanics and fatigue.
- Not surprisingly, increased pitching velocity increases the chance for soreness and injury. Keep an especially close eye for signs of fatigue if a youth pitcher is throwing in a championship or other important game, in a “showcase” for college recruiters or pro scouts, or when a radar gun is being used to track velocity. The desire to dig deep for a little extra “oomph” on the fastball can lead to arm troubles.
Give a pitching arm a legitimate vacation from throwing.Traditionally, baseball has been a seasonal pursuit from late spring into early fall, leaving the rest of the year for other sports like football, basketball, or soccer. In the quest for college scholarships and multi-million dollar pro contracts, however, many youth pitchers have begun playing baseball year-round in multiple overlapping leagues. Such efforts, however, are probably doing more harm than good.
- Many experts recommend that youth pitchers should take off at least four months per year, with at least two or three of those taken consecutively. Extended periods of absolute rest from the arm motion of throwing a baseball are vital to muscle healing and development, especially for the growing bodies of young athletes.
Improving Technique and Conditioning
Strengthen a pitcher’s shoulder, leg, and core muscles.If you look at successful “power pitchers” with exceptional fastballs in the big leagues, you’ll notice that most of them have thick, muscular legs that they use to propel their bodies toward home plate. Leg and core muscles are stronger and more durable than shoulder and arm muscles, and all of these muscle groups should be developed and used in concert to get the best (and most arm-friendly) results out of pitching.
- Consult with experienced sports trainers, physical therapists, sports medicine doctors, or pitching coaches to develop a “global strengthening program” to increase muscle stability and strength in these key areas. For instance, the “Thrower’s Ten Program” uses resistance bands, dumbbells, and an exercise ball in a simple ten-step regimen intended to strengthen a pitcher’s shoulder, core, and leg muscles.
- Strength programs like the “Thrower’s Ten” are intended for use during baseball season (in this case, three or four times per week), but should not be used shortly before or after a pitching performance. Be sure to allow time for muscle rest and recovery.
Develop a consistent pitching motion that uses the entire body.Stronger leg and core muscles cannot help reduce the burden on the arm unless an effective, repeatable pitching motion is utilized. You want to be able to propel your whole body forward into the pitch instead of using your arm in a whipping motion. You also want to be comfortable with the motion and be able to repeat it consistently even as you begin to tire during an outing.
- There is no single pitching motion that works for everyone, but studying the mechanics of effective professional pitchers is a good starting point for developing your own motion. Use video to study others’ motions and your own. Rely on the advice of reputable pitching guides and coaches, but also listen to your body. If a pitching motion is painful or uncomfortable, it isn’t right for you.
- New technologies are being developed all the time to help in establishing and maintaining safer and more effective pitching motions. For instance, there are now arm sleeves that can track arm motion and record arm angle, elbow torque, and other key data.
Stretch and warm up properly.A good pitching motion utilizes major muscle groups throughout the body, so time should be taken to loosen and warm up more than just your arm before taking the pitching mound. That said, warming up your arm properly is essential to warding off soreness and injury.
- Start with dynamic stretching, such as doing jumping jacks or jogging for three to five minutes, to get your blood flowing and loosen up your muscles.
- Move on to static stretching, gently stretching all your major muscle groups from head to toe and holding each stretch for about thirty seconds.
- Finally, begin throwing the baseball, starting with “soft toss” (easy throws at a short distance). Slowly increase the distance and velocity, and eventually move on to throwing some warm up pitches that approximate the intensity and conditions of throwing on the mound.
Rest and recover between pitching outings.As mentioned elsewhere in this article, youth baseball leagues in particular are increasingly establishing required rest periods after a pitching performance (often based on the number of pitches or innings thrown). Always follow these rest protocols, but also follow common sense and listen to your body. If your arm is tired or sore, rest it until it feels better.
- Icing down a pitcher’s arm at the conclusion of an outing has been standard practice for decades in pro baseball, and icing does help to reduce the inflammation that can occur due to possible micro-tearing of muscle tissues. Apply ice to the shoulder and upper arm immediately after finishing a pitching outing, and then occasionally as needed thereafter.
- Anti-inflammatory pain relievers can help relieve soreness, but don’t try to use medications to mask arm pain in order to pitch again. This is a recipe for a potentially serious arm injury.
Video: Injury Prevention for Young Pitchers
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