Preventing UCL and Shoulder Injuries with Better Mechanics

Top 10 Ways to Prevent a UCL Tear PitchersUlnar Collateral Ligament injuries, better known as the Tommy John injury, has become an epidemic in baseball. Players such as Jose Fernandez, Yu Darvish, Matt Harvey, Jacob Degrom and countless others have all gone under the knife recently. In fact, there were more Tommy John surgeries in 2014 than there were in the entirety of the 1990s. If that doesn’t grab your attention then consider that 25% of Major League pitchers and 15% of Minor League pitchers have had the surgery(1). It’s not just at the pro level either, according to the records from the American Sports Medicine Institute they have doubled the amount of surgeries done on youth pitchers since 2000(1). These injuries are happening at an alarming rate and threatening many kids careers and safety. Athletes are getting bigger, faster and stronger and they are throwing the ball harder and more often than ever before. Coaches and parents need to start educating themselves on the correct pitching mechanics, strength and conditioning, and the amount of throwing, to keep their kids arms healthy.

Pitching Biomechanics Increase Velocity And Protects The Arm

There are a lot of bad pitching coaches out there… A LOT! Most pitching coaches have no clue on how the correct biomechanics of pitching work or how to give any sufficient information to protect your arm and enhance your game. In a study called Baseball Pitching Biomechanics in Relation to Injury Risk and Performance by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews and leader in UCL injury prevention Dr. Glenn S. Fleisig. They found that proper biomechanics help minimize the risk of injury and maximize performance. Here is an excerpt:(2)

Knowledge of the mechanics that can improve performance and prevent injury is an invaluable resource for doctors, athletic trainers, therapists, coaches, and athletes.

The study goes on to explain how the lower half is the key to maximizing your mechanics and use the kinetic chain to increase velocity and decrease chances of injury. This shows us that we need to spend more time teaching kids how to transfer energy from their lower half to their upper half to increase performance and minimize injury. The majority of pitching coaches are not teaching 3x pitching mechanics to kids on how to load their drive leg, triple extend their drive leg and stabilize their front leg all while counter rotating the trunk to maximize the transfer of kinetic energy. This not only maximizes velocity, but decreases the chances of arm injury. Here is the studies findings on forces from the lower body transferring energy to the upper body to increase velocity. (2)

Much of the focus in the literature has been on the upper body, but the lower body is the foundation for baseball pitchers; pitching utilizes the kinetic chain to transfer energy from the lower body to the upper body. MacWilliams et al25 performed one of the first biomechanical studies to examine the contributions of the lower body to pitching. They found that maximum linear wrist velocity (used as an indicator of ball velocity) correlated highly with the maximal push-off force of the throwing leg in the direction of the pitch. Montgomery and Knudson29 demonstrated that decreases in stride length lowered velocity whereas increases in stride length increased velocity without affecting accuracy. The underlying mechanism was unknown. The push-off force supplies the initial forward momentum of the body, whereas the braking force that is applied by the lead leg during and after lead foot contact (FC) is actually the source of the energy that is transmitted up the body to maximize power output.25 

This study is telling us that high velocity pitchers are developing greater force from their lower half and transferring it up the kinetic chain from the ground to the wrist to increase velocity. Not only is it making them throw harder, but it is taking stress off the arm by using the whole body to produce velocity and therefore decreasing the chance of arm injury.

Maximize The Kinetic Chain With Power Development

The bigger, faster and stronger athletes are rising to the top as evident here. It is no different with pitchers and it is causing them to throw harder than ever. The problem is they need to translate their power more efficiently through their kinetic chain. This starts in the lower half, if a pitcher is not developing enough power from their lower half or not transferring their power well, they will force themselves to compensate by speeding up the arm to create high velocities. This places unnecessary strain on the arm and can lead to injury. In a study called The Kinetic Chain in Overhand Pitching by Shane Seroyer he supports this in his conclusion here: (3)

The baseball throwing motion is a complex and coordinated body event that culminates with a ballistic motion of the throwing extremity, exposing its muscular structures to supraphysiologic kinematic loads and motions. Kinematic, kinetic, and temporal variations in the throwing motion have been related to improved velocity and force generation. To generate high velocity, the overhand pitcher must optimize the coordinated use of muscle segments throughout the body to generate and sequentially transfer potential energy to the upper extremity for conversion to kinetic energy to propel the baseball toward home plate. Inefficiency or failure of the kinetic chain can increase the kinetic requirements of the shoulder to maintain top velocity and performance. Knowledge of the kinetic chain and key temporal parameters of the throwing motion can improve technique that can assist in performance enhancement, rehabilitation, and injury prevention.

By developing power and coupling it with sound biomechanics you can consistently pitch at a high velocity and prevent injury. If a pitcher lacks the power or the mechanics he needs to be developing them through a proven program like the 3x Pitching Velocity Program that implements Olympic Lifts, heavy load training, plyometrics, mobility, nutrition and the correct biomechanics to maximize the potential energy in the kinetic chain.

Long Toss And Excessive Pitching Leads To Arm Injury

By far the biggest contributor to arm injury is overuse. Kids are pitching year round now and giving their arms little to no rest. That is a lot of stress being put on the arm that can lead to long term arm problems. In a study done by Dr. Glenn Fleisig and Dr. James Andrews called, Prevention of Elbow Injuries in Youth Baseball Pitchers they discuss four risk factors for pitchers: (4)

The scientific literature points to four main risk factors for youth baseball elbow injury: number of pitches thrown, pitching mechanics, pitch type, and physical condition of the player (3). Of these four factors, the number of pitches thrown has the strongest correlation of youth pitching injuries (11).

Kids need to take time off from throwing year round. Studies are showing that kids are throwing way too much and it is leading to arm problems. Playing multiple sports not only helps build a well rounded athlete and makes you a better baseball player, but it gives you valuable time to rest your arm.

Another factor to arm injury plaguing baseball is long toss. Many coaches swear by it as the go to exercise to increase velocity. However, long tossing completely changes the kinetic chain and puts excessive torque on the elbow and shoulder increasing the chances of injury tremendously. In another study done by Dr. Glenn Fleisig and Dr. James Andrews called Biomechanical Comparison of Baseball Pitching and Long-Toss: Implications for Training and Rehabilitation they conclude: (5)

Hard, horizontal, flat-ground throws have biomechanical patterns similar to those of pitching and are, therefore, reasonable exercises for pitchers. However, maximum-distance throws produce increased torques and changes in kinematics. Caution is, therefore, advised in the use of these throws for rehabilitation and training.

So, this shows us that flat ground throws while staying within good mechanics is beneficial for pitchers, but long tossing is putting unnecessary strain on the arm.

Steps To Prevent Arm Injury

Parents, coaches and athletes all need to educate themselves on what needs to be done to prevent arm injury. There have been far too many injuries stemming from overuse. Kids need to give their arm a break from pitching year round. At a young age, play multiple sports, not only does it make them better athletes when they are older, but it forces them to take a break from throwing. Starting in high school, kids need to use their offseason to train their lower half to develop power and learn the biomechanics to effectively transfer the power through their kinetic chain. Finally, perform flat ground throws with good mechanics and refrain from long tossing. The benefits do not exceed the consequences.

Baseball Injury References:

  1. “Pitch Smart.” Major League Baseball. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2015.
  2. Fortenbaugh, Dave, Glenn S. Fleisig, and James R. Andrews. “Baseball Pitching Biomechanics in Relation to Injury Risk and Performance.”Sports Health1.4 (2009): 314–320. PMC. Web. 6 Aug. 2015.
  3. Seroyer, Shane T. et al. “The Kinetic Chain in Overhand Pitching: Its Potential Role for Performance Enhancement and Injury Prevention.”Sports Health2.2 (2010): 135–146. PMC. Web. 6 Aug. 2015.
  4. Fleisig, Glenn S., and James R. Andrews. “Prevention of elbow injuries in youth baseball pitchers.”Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach(2012): 1941738112454828.
  5. Fleisig, Glenn S., et al. “Biomechanical comparison of baseball pitching and long-toss: implications for training and rehabilitation.”journal of orthopaedic & sports physical therapy41.5 (2011): 296-303.
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