By Matt Bourdeau PT, DPT
My previous blog post for youth baseball players was all about athleticism, strength, and quality of movement. While this foundation for youth players will always be at the core of our treatment principles, I wanted to take a deeper look into the strength realm, more specifically Leg Day! For baseball players, our legs are not just there for decoration and sporting the newest UA kicks (unless you’re rocking the newest Bryce Harper cleats). Your legs can generate a massive amounts of force to help rocket the ball down the mound and into the catcher's mitt.
Weak Legs Can Lead to Injury
I’ve treated large volumes of youth baseball players over the years, and the common factor in many injuries seemed to be lack of leg drive. I continued to see more and more kids with really strong arms, but weaker legs and poor velocity coming down the mound.
“Arm throwing” is the quickest way to land you on the bench and in the physical therapy office, because the arm and shoulder girdle physically can not handle the violent motion of throwing alone. In my last post, we talked about how throwing has enough force to dislocate the shoulder. Yes, that is how aggressive throwing is on the body. Learning to channel and control this force is a product of starting from the ground up and transferring force from the legs, hips, core, shoulder blade, and the arm at the youth level.
Timing and Mechanics
I don’t want to put all the blame on skinny legs, because sometimes the missing link is timing and mechanics. While these two terms go hand-in-hand, they can also have very separate meanings as well. The timing of your throwing mechanics begins the moment you initiate movement and start into the wind up phase. You must have a consistent and steady balance point that is reproducible each time you pitch. If you don’t, your timing will be off from the beginning, and you will not be able to generate consistent and purposeful force from the legs.
Leg Strength and Physical Therapy
Leg strength is only meaningful to a pitcher if you can apply it through the entire range of motion (ROM) of your hips. We sometimes hear different coaches refer to this as “getting in and out of the hips.” This simply means having the appropriate ROM in your hips to allow for force to transfer from the back leg to the front leg.
How do you know if you have the appropriate hip ROM? How do you know if you will be able to use your legs to increase your velocity? This is where the physical therapist comes in as part of your performance team. Maintaining your body in an uninjured state and having regular physical therapy check-ups can help monitor your range and reduce the risk factors we discussed previously: Poor throwing mechanics, overuse, and fatigue. Over the course of a baseball season, the volume of throwing and lack of maintenance on the body can cause a decline in strength and performance for youth players. I like to think of baseball and its training cycles as a steady roller coaster.
At the start of the season, you should be in peak shape from a properly-designed off-season strength and conditioning program. Any muscular dysfunctions and joint limitations should have also been treated by your sports medicine team. As the season progresses and you slowly reach the end, you will be at a gradual decline due to the shear volume of throwing—only to start your off-season programming and physical therapy routine to reset for the next season. Make sure you have a plan in place from a preventative approach as this will be the determining factor that makes you more durable as a player.
Where Do I Begin With My Legs?
There is no simple answer for where an athlete’s strength-training program begins. The amount of philosophies and approaches that a strength coach or physical therapist can apply to your program is never ending. The key word in that sentence was your program. Designing strengthening routines for athletes is not a simple cookie cutter approach.
The most important part of any program is your assessment and continual reassessments with your sports medicine team. When it comes to youth athletes with very little training history, I tend to lean toward the philosophy in the previous blog post about improving athleticism. When you understand how to use and control your body, it allows us to tailor your program more toward your sport. Do not leave your preparation for athletics up to guessing or someone who “did it this way when they were playing.” Instead, reach out to a qualified strength coach or sports medicine professional to improve your performance and keep you on the field.