Olympic Lifting blows out elbows! This is what most conventional pitching coaches believe about pitchers and olympic lifting. The problem is there is no science to support this claim. The science actually shows Olympic Lifting to protect the elbow by strengthening it.
Most information about weight training and pitching is misleading or completely false. It is completely void of any science. There is this school of thought in baseball that weight training is Kryptonite for the baseball pitcher. Even though some of the elite pitchers of today and yesterday used it to build their careers, like Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Dylan Bundy and Bryan Wilson, to name a few.
In this article, I will go over the studies that list the biomechanics of the pitchers elbow and the issues of the UCL. I will also go over the studies that prove Olympic Lifting to be the most effective way to improve muscle, bone and tendon strength in the upper arm. I will also go over the critical benefits of Olympic Lifting to enhancing performance, joint mobility and integrity and pitching velocity for the pitcher.
The Biomechanics of the Pitchers Elbow
Once the throwing arm is cocked and begins its acceleration towards the target, the shoulder joint begins to externally rotate which is the arm rolling back towards second base. This is the stretching of the muscles in the shoulder and arm to then internally rotate and fire the ball towards the target.
The problem is when the shoulder is externally rotating, to prevent the arm from spinning around the shoulder the central nervous system will internally rotate against this force which places a valgus load on the elbow. This is stress on the inside or medial side of the elbow. The elbow is not built to move in this direction. This creates a problem for the pitchers elbow. Here is a study on the biomechanics of the elbow to help you understand how the elbow protects itself during external and internal rotation of the arm (3).
To stop the arm from externally rotating too far, an eccentric internal rotation torque was needed (1). As the arm rotated back, a varus torque (Figure 2C) to prevent valgus extension was needed. The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is believed to contribute to this varus torque, but preliminary cadaver work indicated that the UCL is not strong enough to withstand this torque by itself (2). Contraction of the wrist flexor-pronator group (Figure 2D), which originates on the medial epicondyle, also provided varus torque. The anconeus and triceps were active during this phase as well (Figure 2D) and may have helped in minimizing the stress seen on the UCL by compressing the joint and adding stability.
The reason so many pitchers tear their UCL's and have Tommy John surgery is because of the violent external and internal rotation of a high speed arm. This study is stating that if the muscles of the throwing arm are not strong enough then the UCL is vulnerable to damage.
Olympic Lifting and the Pitchers Elbow
The question is does catching an Olympic Clean put a similar amount of valgus stress or force on the arm as occurrs when pitching? No studies have set out to answer this question but we have one study that set out to find who had more tendon, muscle and bone strength between an Olympic Lifter (OWL) and an untrained individual (UNT) in the upper arm (4). Here is the results from the study:
The comparisons between the weight lifters and untrained subjects on the lean cross sectional area (CSA) ratios of site to site and muscle CSA ratios of flexors to extensors indicated that the weight lifters had achieved a high relative distribution of lean tissues in the arms and a dominant development in elbow and knee extensors......
Yet in a comparison between OWL and UNT in holding and thrusting the barbell overhead in the snatch and jerk lifts, respectively, there may be stimulus enough to induce a marked difference in the CSA of elbow extensor muscles.
This study proves that Olympic Lifting develops superior elbow strength. There are also no studies that I have found that shows any pattern of injury of the elbow for Olympic Lifters like the pattern of arm injuries for pitchers.
If you look at the picture at the top of the page of Billy Wagner the Pitcher and Kendrick Farris the Olympic Lifter you can see the orientation of the arm during the valgus load. The Pitcher is in maximum external rotation which is where the UCL stress is the greatest and the Olympic Lifter is in maximum elbow flexion which has no link to excessive UCL stress. The weight of the bar is resting on the upper chest and if the weight was too much for the arm the lifter would just drop the weight or remove the arm from under the bar. The pitcher does not have this luxury.
Most coaches and players who have the opinion that Olympic Lifting is bad for the pitchers elbow is those who have never performed these lifts correctly. They have also never read these studies which proves them wrong. Olympic Lifting is the cure to the weak arm. This style of training will build a stronger arm and a more explosive pitcher.
The Benefits of Olympic Lifting for the Pitcher
Olympic Lifting is beneficial to pitching because it is the most effective way to enhance power output within a 1 second interval. The high velocity pitcher can generate more power/ force to the ball in less that one second. This is why a low velocity pitcher, who does not produce a lot of power/force to the baseball in less than a second, will extremely benefit from Olympic Lifting but you do not have to take my word for it. Check out this study and its claims of the benefits of Olympic Lifting for throwing athletes:
Olympic-style lifts and their derivatives (e.g., power clean, snatch) are also considered the best training exercises to maximize muscular power and dynamic athletic performance because they are multijoint exercises, they do not have the problem of deceleration phase, and they produce some of the highest average human power outputs of all the resistance-training exercises (5). Because of the potential of these lifts to produce high-power outputs and their movement- and velocity- specificities to many sport activities (e.g., jumping, running, throwing), Olympic-style lifts are considered as some of the best training exercises to maximize dynamic athletic performance (5).
The 3X Pitching Velocity Program uses a Olympic Style strength and conditioning program specifically developed for the pitcher to not only enhance ball speed but joint mobility and integrity.
Olympic Lifting, because of the low squat and start positions puts a high demand on hip mobility and integrity. This same demand is also put on the high velocity pitcher. To learn more about hip mobility for the pitcher read my article called, Studies Prove Hip Mobility Link to High Pitch Velocity.
In conclusion, any baseball player, especially a pitcher, should feel confident that Olympic Lifting is safe and beneficial to the game of baseball. For more information on Olympic Lifting and the pitcher checkout these articles below. If you have any questions or concerns about this style of training for the pitcher please post in the comments below.
- Olympic Lifting Safe & Greater Performance Benefit for Children
- MLB Promotes Olympic Lifting for All Baseball Players
- Baseball More Dangerous Than Olympic Lifting
- Study Proves Olympic Lifting Critical for Training 3X Power
- Pitchers Don’t Believe the Lies Olympic Lifting is Safe
- Studies Prove Olympic Lifting Has Less Injuries Than Major League Baseball
- Pitchers Remodel More Fast-Twitch Muscle with Olympic Lifting
- Smutz WP, Dillman CI, France EP, Werner SL, Andrews R, Kupferman SP, Pavlatos C: Valgus extension overload injuries in pitching. Unpublished report. Orthopaedic Biomechanics Institute, Salt Lake City, UT, and American Sports Medicine Institute, Birmingham, AL, 1990
- Fleisig CS, Dillman C, Andrews R: Proper mechanics for baseball pitching. Clin Sports Med 1: 15 1 - 170, 1989
- Werner SL1, Fleisig GS, Dillman CJ, Andrews JR. - Biomechanics of the elbow during baseball pitching. - J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1993 Jun;17(6):274-8.
- H. Kanehisa Ph.D,*, S. Ikegawa, T. Fukunaga - Body composition and cross-sectional areas of limb lean tissues in Olympic weight lifters. - Article first published online: 3 FEB 2011 - DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.1998.tb00482.x
- Kawamori N, Haff GG. – The optimal training load for the development of muscular power. - Department of Kinesiology, Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas 76308, USA. - J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Aug;18(3):675-84.