Baseball pitchers continue to push the ceiling of throwing velocity, Steven Strasburg’s notorious 100 mile an hour fastball is quickly being reproduced by other players. The trend is similar to Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile, followed shortly a month later by others that discovered this feat was actually possible. However, these record breaking velocities have their consequence. In the case of baseball pitchers, the limiting factor seems to be the elbow joint, as shown by Strasburg’s recent injury that required Tommy John surgery.
One of the best ways to protect your elbow is to have full range of motion (i.e. being able to straighten your arm). At Sparta, we use overhead lifts, as these exercises allow an opportunity to focus on fully extending the elbow and shoulder. By using the muscles that extend the arm (i.e. triceps) and relaxing opposing muscles, (flexors such as the biceps), our athletes “teach” their arms how to maintain a full range of motion while also getting stronger. For overhead athletes, this ability to get full extension and avoid early shortening is crucial to avoiding joint stress.
In addition to the open chain exercises, we also employ large, closed chain movements (particularly pushup and pull-up variations) rather than trying to isolate the smaller muscles of the forearm and wrist. Study after study continue to suggest that these smaller muscles provide a limited ceiling of strength, and therefore little effect on high intensity sports such as baseball. While traditional rehabilitation exercises might isolate these small muscles, larger exercises still result in greater activation due to the higher intensity nature that requires more muscle activity for success. The concept is very similar to sport; a baseball player doesn’t mostly rely on his flexor carpi ulnaris (i.e. a small muscle of the forearm) to throw a fastball, but this muscle does play a small role.
Like every movement, it is crucial to focus on the right cues to maximize gains and avoid creating more problems or injury risk from the tightness generally associated with muscle gain. For upper body movements, such as the pushup, the most important cue is a full range of motion, touching the chest to the ground and fully locking the arms out at the top of the exercise. Another important cue is trying to keep the elbows relatively close to the sides of the torso to minimize stress on the shoulder and avoid relying too much on the chest muscles instead of the intended target of the elbow.
So if you are an overhead athlete, make sure you’re balancing pushup and pullup variations in your program to protect that elbow. But if you’re competing against our athletes, just stick to the small muscles because you’ll never have elbow problems with that 70 mile an hour fastball.