The power pitcher is one of the most exciting players to watch in professional baseball. Because he relies primarily on the velocity of his pitches, sometimes at the expense of accuracy, there is always the potential that he will record a high number of strikeouts and walks and a low number of hits every time he appears in a game. An average Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher, for example, will strike out approximately 5 batters per 9 innings, whereas a prototypical power pitcher, such as Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, may strike out one or more every inning.
As a strength and conditioning coach in MLB for the past 30 years, I have had the opportunity to work with 3 Hall of Fame power pitchers, numerous pitching coaches, managers, and general managers. In addition, I have 20 years of manning a radar gun, charting pitches, analyzing data, and evaluating the results of approximately 500,000 pitches each year. With these experiences, I believe that there are 4 major components to becoming a successful power pitcher at the professional level (18,39). They are good pitching mechanics, mental toughness, genetics, and strength and conditioning.
Most professional pitchers, coaches, and scouts believe that if you have the talent to throw hard, the first step in achieving your true potential as a power pitcher is to develop proper pitching mechanics (31,33). Regardless of how much talent you have, how strong you are, how big you are, or how flexible you are, you will throw only as hard and accurately as your mechanics permit. When your mechanics break down, you will not be able to sum the forces to throw hard and accurately. Without good mechanics, most pitchers will “muscle up” to try to throw harder, fatigue, and increase their risk of injury (32).
Nolan Ryan was often credited with having near-perfect pitching mechanics (15). He pitched at the Major League level for 25 years and pitched 300 or more innings 2 times in his career (326 innings in 1973 and 334 innings in 1974). He pitched 299 innings in 1977 and 220 or more innings 14 times in his career. Ryan threw approximately 180 pitches per game for 10 years. He once threw 255 pitches in a 13-inning game and 100 pitches 100 miles per hour (mph) or faster in a single game. Remarkably, he accomplished all these with only 3 days rest between starts. Today's pitchers are allowed 4 days rest between starts. Ryan is estimated to have thrown 100,000 pitches at least 90 mph by the time he reached the age of 30 (31). During his 25-year MLB career, he never threw a fastball that was clocked at less than 90 mph. You cannot run a marathon with a rock in your shoe and you cannot throw as hard or for as long as Ryan did with bad mechanics.
Mental toughness, according to sport psychologists, is having the psychological strength to maintain focus, motivation, and self-belief when the going gets hard (19). For a pitcher, it is having the confidence that when he comes to a difficult situation, he does not give in. A mentally tough athlete will achieve relatively consistent performances regardless of situational factors. A mentally tough athlete will retain a confident, positive, optimistic outlook, even when things are not going well, and will not “choke” under pressure (23). They deal with distractions without letting them interfere with optimal focus, tolerate pain and discomfort, remain persistent when the “going gets tough,” and have the resilience to bounce back from disappointments (23).
Recent research has attempted to explore the concept of mental toughness in sport more thoroughly, and it seems that, although some people are naturally more tough-minded than others, people can be “toughened-up” with the correct approach to training (24). In the history of the American space program, for example, there has seldom been a heart rate greater than 100 bpm recorded on an astronaut during liftoff, splash down, or landing (21). NASA officials believe that thinking patterns are the result of repetition (rep), and they have designed programs that train both the body and the mind. One of their goals is to identify the thinking patterns that they want astronauts to use under pressure and then practice them over and over in a simulator so that when a difficult situation arises, the training will automatically kick in and the astronauts will not give in or “freak out” (21).
Sport psychologists contend that mentally tough athletes will play the way they train, and training should focus on building physical fitness, mental strength, and resilience. Jones (19), for example, found that mentally tough athletes were able to maintain technique and effort while experiencing physical (e.g., fatigue) and emotional pain resulting from failure. Dorfman (10) suggests that harsh experiences toughen one's spirit to endure the dilemmas of life, and success is achieved through effort. Therefore, by knowing one's limitation boundaries, realistic goals can be successfully accomplished, which in turn establish new goals leading to further success by developing mental toughness. A pitcher should train to compete by putting himself in very challenging situations where he has to work at not “giving in.” Pitchers should challenge themselves and develop the attitude that failure is not an option.
Loehr (23), a sport psychologist, says that “talent is your genetic potential and it's a gift. You can't take credit for it. You didn't earn it. You inherited it. Being born with talent is like winning the lottery.” Having talent, evens out a lot; however, there is no guarantee for success. Success depends on how you use your gift. If you take it for granted and are content with being on the team and making an occasional contribution, you will never achieve your true genetic potential. But if you work on your talent, even if it is marginal, you can reach your potential and be successful.
From a genetics (anthropometric and physiological characteristics) standpoint, I have come to 5 conclusions about power pitchers. After these are discussed, you will be able to examine tables that display a 4-phase, year-round strength and conditioning program for the power pitcher.
First, there are power pitchers and power throwers. A power pitcher can throw at least 95 mph, can locate his fastball, and has a fastball that moves. He never gives in to the hitter, can throw his second best pitch for a strike, can hit the corner of the plate with almost every pitch, and can throw a pitch for a strike when behind in the count. A power thrower, on the other hand, can also throw at least 95 mph, but he cannot locate the pitch. He cannot throw his second best pitch for a strike. He throws every pitch as hard as he can and tries to throw harder when behind in the count. The harder he throws, the less his ball moves (i.e., it tends to flatten out at higher velocities). This makes it easier for the batter to track the ball and hit it (10).
Second, power pitchers can be starters or relievers and can come in all ages, sizes, and shapes. They are young and old, tall and short, big and small, right handed and left handed, and U.S. and foreign born. Although there are no ideal height or weight requirements, scouts tend to favor taller pitchers with better leverage. Data in Table 1 indicates that, regardless of age, height, or weight, most power pitchers had no more than 12-13% body fat (8).
Third, pitching is an anaerobic power event (29). The act of throwing a baseball occurs in less than 5 seconds from windup to release. Once released, a 90- to 95-mph pitch will travel from pitcher's mound to home plate in approximately 0.40 seconds or less (8). The typical MLB pitcher will throw 15 pitches per inning, and starting pitchers are required to perform sustained high-intensity activity for 6-9 innings per game and will throw no more than 135-150 pitches in a complete game (6). Relievers perform high-intensity activity for a much shorter period (1-2 innings) but may pitch on consecutive days. MLB rules allow a pitcher to rest no more than 12 seconds between pitches when no runners are on base (25). Thus, the act of pitching relies primarily on the ATP-PC system for energy (3). A high level of aerobic fitness is not required. Average aerobic capacity of MLB pitchers is between 45 and 50 mL/kg/min (7). An adequate level of aerobic fitness is needed to help pitchers recover between pitches and to pitch into the later innings of the game (29). Research indicates that this level is better achieved through high-intensity interval training than through steady-state, long aerobic training (4).
Fourth, muscular strength is important, but power, symmetry, and local muscular endurance are more important than absolute strength (22). Pitchers need strength and power to throw hard on a given pitch and power endurance to throw hard 100-150 times per game. Symmetry in muscular strength, both contralateral and ipsilateral, will help ensure muscle balance and reduce the risk of injury (37). Because strength and size are related, some degree of hypertrophy is needed, especially in the legs. However, too much size, especially in the upper body, can limit range of motion and the ability to apply force in a controlled manner (17). In pitching, the body can be viewed as a 3-link chain. The forces involved in pitching are initiated in the legs and then transferred through the trunk to the shoulders, arms, forearms, and hands where they are applied to the ball (11,17,26,27). Data indicate that MLB pitchers possess more leg strength and less upper-body strength than position players (5). Major League pitchers can lift approximately 1.6 times their total body weight in the back squat and 3 times their body weight in the leg press but can bench press only 80% of their body weight (7).
Although authorities (8,14,30,35,36,38) agree that pitchers must have sufficient core (abdominal, oblique, and low back) strength to effectively transfer the forces that are initiated in the lower body to upper body where they are applied to the ball, no data exists to indicate how much core strength is needed. However, data suggests that if a pitcher's lead arm is strapped to the side of his body, prohibiting the ability to produce greater angular torso rotational velocities, throwing velocity decreased by 10% (16). Therefore, the hypothetical example in Table 2 illustrates the importance of core strength in helping a pitcher achieve maximum throwing velocity. Assume, for example, that it takes 1,000 pounds of force to throw a baseball 95 mph. If pitcher 1 can generate 500 pounds of force in his legs, 300 pounds in his core, and 200 pounds in his arm/shoulder and can synchronize the movements of these 3 segments, he should be able to generate 1,000 pounds of force. Pitcher 2 with similar leg and upper-body strength but less core strength should not be able to generate 1,000 pounds of force and should not be able to achieve a velocity of 95 mph.
Power pitchers do not have to be able to bench press 300 lb or squat 400 lb to be successful. The ball weighs only 149 g (5.5 oz). The primary focus should be on total body strength, not how much can be lifted compared with someone else. Total body strength should help the pitcher throw hard, locate his pitches, stay balanced, move efficiently, and resist injury (11,31).
Pitchers also need muscle symmetry and flexibility to help improve function and protect against injury (11,17). Flexibility increases the range of motion over which force can be applied by each link in the kinetic chain. Pitchers tend to have increased external rotation and decreased internal rotation of the throwing shoulder when measurements are taken at 90° of shoulder abduction (32).
Fifth, pitching is a multiplane activity. The ball is thrown in the sagittal plane, but most of the movements at the hip, trunk, legs, and arms that drive this action occur primarily in the frontal and transverse planes (11,17). Fielding movements also occur in all 3 planes. The primary movements in pitching are flexion, extension, and rotation. The dominant muscles involved are the gastrocnemius, soleus, quadriceps, hamstrings, gracilis, gluteals, psoas, iliacus, sartorius, rectus femoris, obliques, erector spinae, splenius capitis, intransversarii, interspinales, pectorals, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior, rotator cuff, pronator teres and quadratus, supinators, flexor carpi, flexor digitorum, profundas, extensor carpi, and extensor and flexor pollicis (17,28). These muscles work both concentrically and eccentrically to produce force, reduce force, and stabilize the joints from windup through follow-through (40). Pitching, according to Pappas et al. (26), “is a total body activity with sequential activation of body parts through a link system which, in a right-handed pitcher, goes from the left foot to the right hand. Through the coordinated action of all body segments, ballistic energy is applied to the baseball resulting in the greatest velocity at the time of release.”
YEAR-ROUND STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING PROGRAM
Proper conditioning is what allows a power pitcher to get maximum use of his talent inning after inning, game after game, and year after year. It is not uncommon to see a young pitcher with talent and perfect mechanics throw hard for 3-4 years and then become a finesse pitcher. Their career as a power pitcher can be summed up by what Mozart wrote as he was dying at age 35, “I have come to the end without having had the enjoyment of my talent” (34).
Why do young pitchers lose velocity? Specificity of training-“Use it or lose it”. We know empirically that sprinters cannot maintain speed by jogging and shot putters cannot maintain power with circuit weight training. Likewise, a power pitcher cannot maintain his velocity by doing 3 sets of 10 reps with 70% in the weight room and jogging for 20 min/d. Power pitchers must train for both strength and power and throw the baseball maximally with good mechanics.
On the basis of the professional experience of the author and current trends in research, the year-round strength and conditioning program outlined in Tables 3-8 is designed to help prepare the power pitcher for a season of professional baseball. The reader will note that there are no heavy chest exercises, overhead lifts, or some competitive weight lifting exercises, such as power cleans and snatches included in the program. Research suggests that most professional pitchers have some degree of shoulder instability (12). Adding heavy chest and overhead lifts could increase shoulder instability and increase the risk of posterior impingement syndrome (20). Although there is no question of the inherent value of strength training exercises as tool to increase explosive power, they have a high technical demand and require more supervisory personnel than most professional baseball teams have. They also require a training background level of proficiency that most professional pitchers do not possess.
The year-round strength and conditioning program is divided into 4 training phases: postseason, off-season, preseason, and in-season (5,8). Each phase has specific fitness and performance objectives and is more difficult and more sport specific than the previous one. The annual program contains workouts designed to allow the athlete to warm-up and improve flexibility, core strength and stability, muscular strength, local muscle endurance, power, metabolic fitness, flexibility, and mental toughness. Workouts are designed to get the pitcher in “game shape” by opening day, reduce the risk of injury, and maintain a high level of fitness and performance throughout the season.
Workouts in each phase start with a dynamic warm-up to increase body temperature, allow full joint range of motion, reduce the risk of injury, and increase the chance for optimal performance. They end with exercises designed to improve flexibility (9,14). Core strength and stabilization are trained in each workout. These exercises will vary from phase to phase to allow for development of all core and stability muscles.
The strength training program follows a periodization model in which the training year starts in the postseason with a 3- to 4-week period of active rest. The off-season training phase is 12 weeks in length and consists of an initial 4-week conditioning (cycle I: preparatory) cycle followed by a 4-week strength (cycle II) and a 4-week power (cycle III) cycle. The preseason is a 6-week strength and power phase (spring training) designed to prepare the athlete for opening day. The training year ends with a 16- to 20-week in-season (maintenance) phase. Training variables (frequency, duration, intensity, volume, rest, and recovery) will vary in accordance with the specific goals and objectives of each phase.
Shoulder strength and stability are maintained year-round through the use of the prone shoulder circuit (8). Because these exercises recruit a small musculature, it is not necessary to use a heavy resistance to stimulate the overload needed to gain strength (13). Shoulder exercises are performed 3-5 times per week after exhausting the major muscle groups first or after throwing. This sequence allows concentration on the small muscles of the rotator cuff when lifting and avoids rotator cuff fatigue before throwing (1). The prone shoulder circuit starts in the postseason with 2 sets of 8 reps of each exercise with no weight and no rest between exercises. Participants will add 2 reps per week, up to sets of 16 reps in each position (64 total reps). When 64 reps can be completed, the participant will return to sets of 8 with 3-5 lb dumbbells or tubing throughout the remainder of the training year.
The forearms and hands are trained at the end of the strength workout to ensure that the participant has sufficient grip strength to perform the strength training exercises. Workouts are held 3-4 times per week during the off-season and preseason and 2 times per week during the in-season using a superset format. Wrist flexion and wrist extension exercises are paired with radial flexion (deviation) and ulnar flexion (deviation) exercises. Wrist roller exercises are paired with wrist twist exercises. Weights are held in the hands, not in the fingers, to ensure that the small finger muscles do not fatigue too soon. Workouts conclude with grip exercises and rice drills to improve grip and finger strength.
Plyometric drills are started in the second cycle of the off-season phase after the athlete has developed a sound fitness base and continued throughout the year. Drills start with simple box jumps and in-place jumps to teach basic takeoff and landing procedures and proceed to multidirectional hurdle jumps and hops and medicine ball throws. Workouts are held 2 times per week in the off-season and preseason and once per week during the in-season phase.
Metabolic fitness is developed and maintained year-round with on-field running drills and bicycle work using an interval training format designed to improve both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Training starts with a preparatory period of primarily endurance training. Over time, distance is gradually replaced with days of interval training in which volume (distance) is reduced and intensity is increased. Shuttle runs introduced in the second cycle of the off-season phase to improve lateral speed and agility. Jungle drills are introduced in the third cycle of the off-season phase to improve mental toughness (Table 6). Each workout concludes with a 10- to 12-minute cooldown period in which the athlete performs a series of static stretches (daily dozen) to restore tissue length and prevent long-term overuse injury (2). Each stretch is held for 6-10 seconds and is performed 3-5 times.
Phase I (Table 3) is a postseason phase that begins immediately after the conclusion of the regular season. It is a 4-week recovery cycle designed to help the athlete recover both physically and mentally from the stress and strain of the previous season. Workouts are held 2-3 times per week and are designed to help the athlete maintain general fitness.
Each workout starts with movement preparation exercises and ends with flexibility exercises. Core training consists of 2 sets of 10 reps of the daily core circuit. Core stability is developed by performing bridging, plank, quadruped, and prone exercises. Strength training utilizes a circuit weight training format. Athletes perform 2 sets of 8 reps of 5-6 exercises designed to work muscle groups that provide balance and support in week 1, move to 3 sets of 10 in week 2 and 3 sets of 12 in weeks 3 and 4. Resistance is provided by dumbbells and/or body weight and will not exceed 70% of the athlete's 1 repetition maximum (1RM). Shoulder strength and stabilization are developed by performing 2 sets of 8 reps of the prone shoulder circuit with no weight and no rest between exercises. Metabolic fitness is maintained with running and/or cycle workouts. Static stretching exercises (daily dozen) are used to maintain flexibility.
Phase II (preparatory phase) is the first part of the off-season annual training program and consists of three 4-week training cycles. Cycle I (Table 4) is designed to help the athlete achieve a base level of conditioning, improve exercise technique, and prepare the neuromuscular and cardiorespiratory systems for the harder work to come in the weeks that follow. After completing the movement preparation exercises, the athlete will use the daily core circuit and stability ball exercise circuit to enhance core strength and stability. Strength training utilizes a circuit weight training format and participants will complete 3 sets of 8-10 reps of each exercise with a load not to surpass 80% of 1RM. Shoulder exercises consists of 2 sets of 8 reps of the prone shoulder circuit with 3-5 lb dumbbells. Wrist and hand exercises will be superset for 1 set of 10 reps of each exercise. Each workout will end with running drills and flexibility exercises. Running consists of tempo running and interval drills to develop a base of sprint-related conditioning.
Cycle II (Table 5) is designed to improve total body strength. Participants will be trained 4 times per week. After completing the movement preparation exercises, participants will work the core. Core exercises include the daily core stabilization circuit (2 × 10) plus alternate days of medicine ball exercises that work the core in flexion, lateral flexion, or rotation (2). Plyometric exercises will be introduced in this cycle, with participants performing box jumps (jump up and walk down) and in-place jumps on alternate days.
Strength training utilizes a 4-day split routine with alternate strength workouts for the lower and upper body. Athletes will start with 4 sets of 10 reps for multi-joint exercises and 3 sets of 10 reps for single-joint exercises. As the program moves through the strength phase, athletes will drop reps for multi-joint exercises to 6-8 reps and single-joint exercises to 8-10 reps. The load will not exceed 85% for multi-joint exercises and 80% for single-joint exercises. By the end of the strength cycle, the athlete will be prepared to enter the power cycle, which will again require an increase in load while decreasing the reps per set. Metabolic training (aerobic and anaerobic fitness) will be expanded to 5 times per week including 2 days of interval running and 2 days of shuttle runs (days 3 and 5) designed to improve lateral speed and agility and help build mental toughness.
Cycle III (Table 6) is a 4-week power phase. Core workouts are similar to those in the previous cycle plus a day of explosive multiplane movements (slams). Plyometric workouts use alternate days of forward and lateral jumps and hops and explosive medicine ball passes and throws. Strength training continues to use a 4-day split. Repetitions will be reduced to 3-6 for multi-joint exercises with loads of 85-90% of maximum and 6-8 reps for single-joint exercises with loads of 80-85% of maximum. Loads will continue to increase for the duration of the cycle until the athlete peaks just before the conclusion of the cycle. Metabolic training continues to occur 5 times per week with an increase in the intensity of the 2 workouts (days 1 and 4) designed to build mental toughness.
Phase III (Table 7) is a 6-week preseason strength and power phase designed to get the pitcher game ready for opening day. Workouts are expanded to 6 times per week utilizing a 4-day split for strength training and 6-day program for all other activities. Core exercises include a series of daily exercises designed to stabilize the core plus 4 days of medicine ball exercises designed to work the core in all 3 planes of movement. Plyometric training is reduced to 2 times per week. Strength training utilizes 4 sets of 6-8 reps of multi-joint exercises and 3 sets of 8-10 reps of single-joint exercises, with loads not to exceed 85 and 80%, respectively. Metabolic training is performed 6 times per week with 3 days (days 1, 3, and 6) devoted to activities designed to help improve mental toughness.
Phase IV (Table 8) is a 16- to 20-week in-season program designed to maintain the improvements in fitness developed during the previous phases. Because most starting pitchers at the professional level will pitch every fifth day, this phase utilizes 4 workouts between each start. The first workout will be held the day after the participant pitches in a game (day 1) and the last workout will held the day before the next start (day 4). Each workout will start with a warm-up and conclude with a cooldown/flexibility period. Participants will perform 1 set of 10-20 reps of core stabilization circuit each day and a set of 10 reps of different medicine ball exercises that work the core in multiple planes on days 1 and 2. Most starting pitchers will also throw a bullpen session on day 2.
Strength training workouts will be held on days 1, 2, and 3, with days 1 and 3 devoted to lower-body exercises and day 2 devoted to upper-body exercises. The training load for days 1 and 2 will be 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps of multi-joint exercises and 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps of single-joint exercises, with 70-75% of maximum. Day 3 consists of body weight lower-body strength exercises and/or in-place plyometric jumps and hops and medicine ball throws and slams.
Starting pitchers run 4 times between starts. Running drills mimic the physical demands encountered in game situations. Day 1 consists of 10-15 minutes of interval running to facilitate recovery. A jungle drill is performed on day 2 to help improve mental toughness. Day 3 consists of higher intensity intervals and short sprints to maintain and/or improve game fitness. Day 4 is a download day with workouts limited to warm-up, shoulder and core stabilization, short sprints, and flexibility training.
Many relief pitchers in professional baseball who are power pitchers tend to work the last 2-3 innings of the game. Their roles are usually to pitch the eighth inning to set up the closer or to pitch the ninth inning to close the game. The preparation for a starter and reliever is very similar from the postseason through the preseason. The major difference is in the frequency of their training workouts during the season. Relievers tend to work out 3-4 hours before the start of a game using the same warm-up, shoulder, core, and strength workouts as starters. Strength workouts are performed using a split routine after a 2 day on and 2 day off routine. Relievers will use the same metabolic training drills as starters but will perform approximately one-half the volume.
Power pitching is an explosive action. It requires a comprehensive high-intensity/explosive training program for the total body. Positive or appropriate thinking patterns, used by NASA astronauts and endorsed by sport psychologists, are the result of repetition. Power pitchers should train both the body and the mind by using drills that simulate the intense pressures required during game situations. The strength training, conditioning, and various drills detailed in Tables 3-8 should help the power pitcher or any athlete “train to not give in.” Failure to adequately prepare the power pitcher can inhibit optimal performance and increase the risk of injury.
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