In so many different cases within sports science we have seen methods that seem promising on paper, fail dramatically in real world application and scientific validity. In almost all cases, in comes down to athletic coaches trying to make everything “sport specific” with their movement practices during training.
Hockey players should lift weights in a skating motion.
Golfers should use cables and bands and swing against resistance.
Martial artists should put on ankle weights and then do a 100 kicks.
Boxers should hold dumbbells and then punch the air.
The list goes on and on with exercises that you think would strengthen the motor pathways to enhance performance, but instead lack a measurable indicator for overload and in many cases put the athlete at a high risk for injury utilizing resistance through unstable movements, as well as progressively increase injury risk due to repeating a familiar movement pattern too often.
Think about it like this, an office worker does not get carpal tunnel because typing is such an intense exercise. They get carpal tunnel syndrome because of the day-to-day repetitive nature of continuously performing that task does to the tissue structures responsible for executing that movement. This is why, in many cases, it can be beneficial to emphasize structural balance of the body within your training outside of your sport so that the added balance of your body from upper to lower, and left to right, will work to strengthen and prevent any injuries and will allow you to better perform your sports given task. Additionally, without applying a measurable overload stimulus, it can become impossible to generate any new stimulus to force your body to adapt to. This is typically when an athlete reaches a point where they are training a movement, but that movement isn’t getting any better on the field.
No overload, no adaptation.
No structural balance, no long term career longevity through effective injury prevention.
But, we can save the topics of structural balance and the principal of overload for another day. Today I want to invite you to the idea of properly using weighted balls in order to maximize your throwing potential. A somewhat rare occasion where we see a very sport-specific “mimicked” movement in the gym, actually play out to have excellent results within both the scientific research and out on the field (where it really counts!).
Although, there are some pre-qualifiers here. In order for an athlete to receive benefit from a weighted ball workout and/or program they need to first have already mastered the fundamentals of throwing a regulation baseball, they must also have already built foundation of strength and hypertrophy appropriate for their position.
There are plenty of things you can do as an athlete to improve your throwing potential before you will ever need to use a weighted ball, some of these include:
- Simply getting stronger (in both the upper and lower body)
- Simply having more muscle mass (to an appropriate degree of course, more is not better)
- Optimizing your throwing mechanics
- Improve mobility (spine, hip, elbow, shoulder, ankle, etc)
- Create structural balance between tissues
- Ensure you are stable throughout your active range of motion
- Increase total body power output
- Use an intelligent warm up
- Have the correct mindset
- Grip strength
- Core strength
- Monitoring fatigue management
- Improve lifestyle factors such as sleep, stress, and meal planning
Among MANY, MANY, other things…
If you fall short in one or more of these categories, consider doing a little groundwork first here before using a weighted ball.
If you’re a coach reading this, consider not giving the entire team a weighted ball routine (especially not the same routine) since so many factors separate your athletes from one another. Sure, everybody can do some warm ups, conditioning, and some speed work together—but that’s about where it ends as far as optimal training goes. From there, it needs/should be individualized to a greater degree to optimize results and minimize needless injury risk.
Put another way, the youngest athletes I have utilizing this type of programming are typically in their later teens and are already pretty advanced for their age. Whereas, I’m much more open to incorporating it sooner in a college, semi-pro, or pro baseball players as they have already (in most cases) checked all of the above boxes and then some.
Beyond this, there are still some further safety guidelines I like to recommend to a large audience.
- In most cases, most of the time, you won’t ever need to go above a 12oz baseball
- Throw the ball against a net that is only 5-8yds in front of you, no long throws here
- Do not play catch with weighted balls. I don’t think I need to say that, but, I think I do. Throw the ball at a net closely in front of you, walk forward, and grab it. Rinse and repeat
You might think that weighted balls are dangerous with all of this pre-cautionary talk, but they don’t carry nearly as much risk as you would think. American regulation footballs for example are 3x the weight of a baseball, and yet the injury risk is incredibly low. In more extreme examples, both discus and hammer throw have very normal injury rates, and those implements are MUCH heavier and are thrown at an “all-out” pace very frequently.
What happens typically is when an implement is heavier, you have to use more strength in order to move it (duh). But this increased requirement for strength also naturally slows down the speed of the movement, which in turn balances out the expected increase in injury risk factor. What would create a problem is if somehow you wound up and threw a 12oz ball at the same velocity as a regulation ball. This would create too much force/torque on the elbow which would result in a much higher risk for injury. But, it is the weight itself that slows down the movement and course corrects the probability for risk.
Although to make note here again, you must have a foundation in order to reduce this probability of risk due to your strength, tissue integrity, stability in the entire range of pitching motion, and excellent technique. Without these, the weighted ball can increase your risk for injury. Essentially, it’s not the weighted balls that are the problem, it’s people’s eagerness to use them too soon, or, a coach’s inability to properly prescribe a well-designed weighted ball program to an athlete.
Getting into some data, we see here that no participants reported shoulder pain or injury across a 10-Week program using both over and underweighted balls, additionally, both groups created statistically significant improvements in pitching velocity over the control groups (DeRenne, 1994)
Escammila in 2000, did a comprehensive review involving many different weighted ball studies and found that:
- 4/5 studies found that training or warming up with an overweight baseball resulted in increased pitching velocity
- No studies found that weighted ball training improved accuracy
- No injuries were reported during any of the trials
This is just a small scrape of the data out there involving weighted implements and increasing your throwing potential, but I’ll also confidently throw my own experience as a coach into the mix here as well. Independent of the supporting data I have provided, I can tell you from a real-world perspective that when a program is well-designed and implemented into an athletes weekly regime, I have seen greater improvements over the course of an offseason than when I don’t include it.
Essentially, yes it has data behind it, but, I’ve also proven it in the battlefield as well.
In the interest of time, I can’t go over everything you can do with a weighted baseball as the programs, exercises, and possibilities are endless. But, what does a standard/typical workout look like for the offseason/preseason?
- Get a good warm up in
- Set yourself up 5-8yds away from a net
- Create a “Contrast” training effect by going from heavy to light (and thus increasing your velocity when you come back to light
- Throw 2-4 throws at 5oz
- Throw 2-4 throws at 7oz
- Throw 2-4 throws at 9oz
- Throw 2-4 throws back at the regulation 5oz
Depending on the frequency and volume of your training plan, this can be repeated multiple times throughout the week or within the same day. It’s wise to keep the 5oz ball in the program to keep the athletes feel for what they will be using in a game always in check. One problem with technical equipment such as this is that it can rewire certain important neurological pathways that are responsible for our good technique in the throw. I’ve seen this issue in hockey players who use the fake-ice treadmills, it messes up their skating stride on the ice if they do it too much.
Same can happen here.
Keep it simple, keep it safe, and a contrast approach is an excellent way to break-in your use with a weighted ball.