June 29, 2011

    Are You Elastic?

    I am kneeling in the dusty heat of Texas Baseball Ranch, watching pitchers throw over and over again to focus on certain aspects of their pitching motion. In addition to the repetition, the cues are specific to improve the skill of pitching, particularly to throw harder. Yet, even more importantly, they are learning how to throw safely. This ideal combination of reps and focus creates a deep practice environment, where an athlete can efficiently improve his skills. But perhaps, the best outcome from this training is elasticity. You can see the video below as an example.

    Elasticity can generally be defined as the ability to return to shape, we see it as FORCE in our force plate analysis. This elasticity is crucial to coordinate the firing of muscles in fine motor movements like pitching. The simplest explanation of this coordination during explosive movement was presented in 1995 by Slobodan Jaric, who is currently at the University of Delaware’s Human Performance Laboratory. Jaric described the firing pattern in explosive movement as ABC.

    • First, there is a large ACTION burst of activity by agonists

    • Second, there is shorter BRAKING burst by antagonists

    • Finally, a short CLAMPING burst by agonists to complete movement

    Muscle agonists generally accelerate a limb due to their contraction (shortening of the muscle), while antagonists act in opposition to decelerate and protect the body by distributing the initial forces. This paper went on to show that resistance training decreases the interference between agonist and antagonist muscles. In other words, the movement was more relaxed due to a smoother transition from agonist to antagonist and back again. Great coaches see this phenomenon every day, referring to the improved flow as better coordination or movement synchronization.

    There are several avenues for you to improve elasticity outside your sport. Throwing a baseball all day or sprinting for hours is not the answer, as you’ll be exposed to overuse injuries and skill fatigue. So we use more explosive strength movements, such as plyometric or oscillatory squats, that isolate the stretch shortening cycle.

    This elasticity outside your sport is not for everyone though. Since we know Force = Mass x Acceleration, this elasticity can really benefit the acceleration side of the equation, but using the empty barbell shown above won’t do much for increasing mass. So it seems the tricky part is not just repetition and focus, but also choosing the right exercises for each individual.

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