Taking Care Of Your Arm: Three principles that are crucial to a long and healthy career
“As a baseball player your arm is one of the five major tools…so start treating it that way”
When you break baseball down to it’s purest form you think of playing catch. Yes, hitting home runs is exciting but throwing a baseball is what best represents baseball. It is playing catch with your father when growing up. Yet, it is this simple art of playing catch that has become lost on a baseball field. It seems to be about hitting and pitching, ground balls and fly balls. All very important aspects of the game. But what about playing catch? Why are we in such a rush to throw to “get loose” instead of throw to develop arm health, strength and accuracy. Why are we in such a hurry to get to our next station rather than “throw for the sake of throwing”.
Have we forgotten that our arms are our lifelines as baseball players? That the arm has to be cared for, developed and invested into like any other skill? Would we expect to maintain flexibility if we didn’t stretch? Endurance if we didn’t exercise? Strength if we didn’t lift? Then why would we expect the arm to maintain it’s health, especially when we know that throwing is an unnatural action that breaks down a vulnerable set of muscles…the rotator cuff muscle group?
The truth is that we are assuming that the arm will take care of itself because it hasn’t entered into our awareness that it needs attention unless it’s hurting. So, we’ve become “reactive” to an arm problem rather than proactive to developing a healthy arm. With this mentality we have also created the building blocks for a career threatening arm injury.
The choice is yours. Roll the dice with your arm (or your players arms) or do something about it and give the arm the attention it deserves. After all, your arm is either a weapon that can influence the game and complete you as a player or become a liability that’s a source of frustration that limits your career. It can inspire other areas of your game or it can bring you down and cause other areas of your game to struggle.
Positive vs. Negative Cycles
When I speak of the “state” of a players arm I break it down into two categories: Positive or Negative cycles. They are very black and white courses to take and once you are on one of these two paths they tend to have rather extreme consequences.
A negative cycle occurs when a player doesn’t do anything proactively to take care of his arm. He is basically “winging it”. His arm has never had a problem to speak of so in his mind his arm is “healthy”. He isn’t technically “in” a negative cycle at this point but has a false sense of security. Then, what tends to happen, especially with the amount of games that are played at the high school level (winter ball, summer showcases, scout ball, travel teams, etc…) is a player may begin to develop a “sore” arm. For pitchers, this is more common than position players.
Because the player doesn’t have a proactive arm care/arm conditioning program and he’s gotten buy with the status quo, he’ll try to throw through soreness. Once a player has soreness, irritation or pain in general his arm will tend to go down that path. Soreness begets soreness, pain begets pain and chronic problems may begin to occur. This is the most dangerous crossroad for a players arm because a lot of times he will try to throw through the pain. This is also the most dangerous time because the arm is more vulnerable to serious damage.
The sad part of this is that once a player (especially at a young age when long term damage can be done) gets into a negative he may be vulnerable to arm problems for the rest of his career. Obviously, if the problems get serious enough then surgery becomes an option. Ironically, once surgery is performed the training and exercises that will be part of the rehabilitation process are the same types of exercises that could have been proactively applied in the first place. This is called Pre-Habilitation. It is the foundation of what needs to be done now, along with a dedicated throwing program that can get you on your positive cycle.
A positive cycle is something that is never too late to get into. It’s all about being proactive and making a commitment to your arm. A positive cycle is the net result of two major principles: 1) An Arm Care program (surgical tubing exercises), and 2) A Long Toss throwing program. By following the steps laid out throughout the remainder of this article, you can not only learn how to get into a positive cycle but stay in a positive cycle.
Quantifying a Throwing Program
Though there seems to be a lot of information available about throwing programs in general there doesn’t seem to be a clear message as to how to quantify a throwing program. For example, many common questions I get are, “how much do I throw in vs. out of season“, “how often should I throw”, “when should I rest”, “how far should I long toss”, “Can I arc the ball”, “Should I throw the ball only on a line”, and so on.
The purpose of the remainder of this article is to share with you information that will give you an understanding of what to do, when to do, how often to do it and so on. Ultimately, to give you an opportunity to get and stay in a positive or healthy cycle throughout the year. I define healthy the following ingredients: “an arm that is injury free, efficient, durable, optimizes arm strength and has quick recovery period -- an arm that builds up versus breaks down due to continuous usage”.
This will be done by following the three key principles of our throwing program: 1) Listening to your arm, 2) Arm Preparation/Conditioning (Surgical Tubing/Long Toss, and 3) Eliminating time and distance constraints.
Remember, as with any program modification and flexibility are always an option. But this information is based on several years of direct experience with thousands of high school, college and professional players. The players who have stayed religious to this program have found that their arms have gained and sustained health, strength, endurance and a faster recovery period.
This throwing program is based on the support and input of a number of people that I deeply respect. They have impacted me as a teacher and student: Brent Strom (Washington Nationals), Jerry Weinstein (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), Ron Wolfforth (Pitching Central), Rob Bruno (NorCal Baseball), Tina Schwagger (Physical Therapist), Lou Pavlovich and my partner, Jim Vatcher.
Building A Base
As with anything in life you are as good as your foundation. The most opportune time to do this is in the “off-season”. The off-season provides you the time and flexibility to build your base right. If you build your base right you will put yourself in a “positive cycle”, if maintained, can last for the duration of your career.
Your starting point begins after ample rest from a long season. Once you pick your starting date, per se, November 1st, plan on spending the next 4 weeks conditioning. For pitchers, this means no bull-pens or game innings.
The purpose of these first four weeks is to do nothing but arm care exercises (Surgical Tubing, Stretching, etc…) and long toss. How your long toss progresses is also critical to building your base properly.
Principle 1: Arm Preparation/Arm Conditioning (Surgical Tubing)
Surgical Tubing (Arm Preparation): Our players do not, ever, pick up a ball with out doing their arm care program. A sprinter would not run a race without a thorough warm-up of his hamstrings. The rotator cuff muscle group are composed of delicate muscles. Why would you ever allow a player to throw without a proper warm up or thorough stretch?
We do a very thorough set of arm circles and surgical tubing exercise program. This not only help a player minimize injury -- it actually promotes a more efficient, effective and healthy throw that day. Where a lot of coaches and players worry that arm exercises tired the arm out, these exercises actually provide the arm with more strength, endurance and recovery period. This is why marathoners run 100 miles a week. They are not “using“ up their legs…they are conditioning for maximum efficiency and endurance.
Principle 2: Arm Conditioning -- Long Toss
Building your base through your arm care program is step one. Step two is building your “throwing” base through Long Toss. Long toss has two phases: Stretching out and Strengthening (Pulling down). For weeks one and two, your focus will only be on the stretching out phase. This is imperative. The reason why is because the arm care program is already setting the tone for a great base. By focusing on “stretch throwing” for two weeks, the arm can adapt to and calibrate with the arm prep exercises. Think of the first two weeks as conditioning muscles (strength will come shortly).
Now if we use the example of a college freshman pitcher who can easily throw 85 mph, the first day he may only stretch his arm out to 90 feet for 10 minutes. But if he goes out every day that first week and does his arm prep, by the end of the week he’ll be stretching his arm out to 200 feet or more. By the end of week three he may be pushing 300 feet or more.
Strengthening (Pulling Down)
The stretching out phase should last two to three weeks depending on your recovery period. By the end of the third week your arm should be very well conditioned. The stretching out phase not only lengthens your distance in a natural way, but it has also created a great deal of endurance. You will most likely notice that your arm needs twenty to thirty minutes of throwing a day.
Phase two is the strengthening or pulling down phase. This is where arm strength and arm speed are created. Pulling down or “compressing“ your throws is nothing more than taking the distance behind your peak throw that day (ie 300 feet) and taking the same effort into shorter distances. For example, after your arm feels that it‘s completely stretched out (it should feel good) you will come back toward your partner at short increments (10 feet or so). The idea is that you are still throwing the ball 300 feet as you get closer toward your partner. The only thing that is changing is your arc or release point. Because you are making a 300 foot throw at shorter and shorter distances your arm is forced to “accelerate“, otherwise the ball will tend to go over your partners head. In time, you will notice a number of beneficial things happening when you are able to take a 300 foot throw into 70 feet, without decelerating your arm. This is where a kind of arm action occurs that you won’t see on an arm that hasn’t done arm prep, or hasn’t opened up past 120 feet.
Pulling down not only helps to build strength but it is also a contributor to the endurance process. As you will see, where stretching your arm out to 300 feet created 20-30 minutes of throwing, stretching out and pulling down will often take you 30-40 minutes or more. It just depends how your arm feels that day.
Principle 3: Listening To Your Arm
If you truly listen to your arm you will know how far to stretch your arm out each day. You will also know when to rest. If you are religious with your arm prep and listen to your arm you will more than likely find yourself throwing just about everyday. Once you begin the pulling down phase it gets a little tricky. This is because your arm is going ot feel good and you are going to want to pull down a lot on the first day. Therefore, you must gradually build your pull-down up just like the stretching out phase. The reason why is if you try to pull down to much too soon, you may effect the recovery period of your arm for the next day.
Bottom line is listen to your arm. Even if you did pull down too much on a Monday, Tuesday, your arm will still feel good…it just may just want to stretch out that day.
If you follow the most important principle of this article (listen to your arm) you will have your own barometer from day to day. You will know how far to go out, how long to stay at your max distance and how many throws you want to pull down that day coming back to your partner (if at all).
The beauty of this approach is that the arm begins to respond well to daily throwing…it’s in a positive cycle because the arm has been built correctly. It has a very deep base through the arm prep and long toss base built over the first month. Now it’s all about maintenance…and maintenance is about listening to your arm.
Post Throwing Conditioning
Get into a habit of doing some form of cardiovascular immediately following throwing. This will help you with blood flow, oxygenation, and faster recovery period. Also, a light set of surgical tubing “external rotation exercises” for your decelerators will also help your recovery period.
Eliminating Time And Distance Constraints
Every player is different…every arm is different. What works for some may not work for others. However, there are three musts to this program: 1). Build your base correctly, 2). Listen to your arm, and 3) Never have a time or distance constraint. Only your arm knows on a given day how much or how far it wants to throw. Time and distance limits conflict with the most rudimentary laws of nature….expansion. There is freedom both mentally and physically to the arm stretching out, to the muscles stretching out. There is athleticism in throwing the ball long distances with accuracy. There is unparalleled strength and endurance happening from an arm that’s used to throwing 300 feet or more for 40 minutes a day vs. 12 minutes at 120 feet.
Here are a few case in points: Leo Mazzone told me for an article I wrote in Collegiate Baseball (Long Toss Programs Needed - 1999), that it doesn‘t matter to him what a one of his pitchers does to prepare himself -- he can throw as much as he wants, whenever he wants -- whatever it takes for him to be comfortable and feel prepared. This past summer, I spent an afternoon watching Jerry Weinstein’s (CPSLO) take one of his pitcher through over a half of an hour of demanding arm exercises prior to 40 minutes of distance throwing. Barry Zito spent 10 weeks in the Cape Cod League (1997) doing an arm circle, surgical tubing and long toss program (300 feet or more) on a daily basis -- that includes the day before, the day of and the day after his start. Mark Rogers, the first high school player taken in the 2004 draft spent the month of March doing arm circles, surgical tubing and long tossing to at least 350 feet…he hit 98mph his first start and threw 10 innings his second start. By June, it’s safe to say that scouts were pleased with the finished product.
Put rather bluntly, as my friend Steve Springer would say, “I’d like to take a player who has conditioned himself for a month to throw the ball 300 feet (with arc) and see what he looks like when you bring him into 120 feet. Then, I’d like to take a player who has been told not to throw the ball over 120 feet (on a line) for a month and bring him out to 300 feet”.
Though this program has some structure the bottom line is that only you know on a given day what to do with your arm. The good news is if you build your base correctly, your arm will respond well to the grind of a lot of practices and games. If you’re a pitcher, that means you have a chance now to recover more quickly and effectively from bull-pens and game situations. This keeps you in a positive cycle. If you’re a position player your arm will thrive on throwing daily because it has been conditioned to it.
Remember, negative cycles happen to players who don’t know how to take care of their arms and don’t have a solid base (arm prep/long toss) and is dramatically more prone to a major arm injury because he’s throwing on a vulnerable arm. Again, having to “throw through” or “get by“ with a vulnerable arm is the most effective way to severely injure the arm. Get into a positive cycle and maintain your program to stay in a positive cycle. At the first sign of a negative cycle, do whatever you have to rest the arm and build it up again correctly. Your arm is your lifeline as a baseball player. It’s time to train it with that in mind.
About the Author
Alan Jaeger has worked privately with several professional players and has consulted with several college/high school programs including Cal State Fullerton & UCLA. Long time students include All-Stars Barry Zito & Mike Lieberthal. His mental training book “Getting Focused, Staying Focused”, Arm strength and conditioning throwing program, “Thrive on Throwing” (Video/DVD) and surgical tubing bands (J-bands) are available at http://www.jaegersports.com or 310-665-0746.