Not a day goes by that I don’t get a flurry of questions about the “latest rage”… weighted baseballs (ironic that the “latest rage” began nearly 30 years ago).
With process development and advocacy from a cadre of progressive thinking instructors and coaches, and support from several high level programs, a a throwing modality once considered radical is rapidly becoming mainstream.
Last winter the Tampa Bay Rays approached me for advice on implementing an off-season weighted ball velocity enhancement program.
I was intrigued.
As you might expect, they had done their research, reviewed all the available scientific data and had investigated several very popular weighted ball programs from around the country.
When they showed the template of what they were tentatively planning I expressed my concern.
Don’t get me wrong. The program they had designed was very good. It had all the elements of a superb strengthening and performance improvement process – an adequate ramping on phase, graduated advancement of soft tissue stress and a world class recovery plan,
I saw 3 major problems:
1) It was only one plan. All players were expected to make the same number of throws with the same resistance at the same time in their training process. To me that’s an immediate red flag.
In a one-size-fits-all program, you tend to see bell curve results. For 20% of the subjects involved, the plan is exactly what they need and they see massive improvements. For about 60%, they’ll work just as hard, but since the plan doesn’t match their specific needs, they see little or no improvement. And for an additional 20% the plan is the exact opposite of what they need. These players will tend to regress in ability, but more significantly the might be at increased risk for injury.
2) It didn’t involve any assessment of individual throwers’ physical constraints and/or biomechanical throwing patterns.
Adding energy to a bad movement pattern is a recipe for disaster.
It would be like having a car drastically out of alignment, and dropping in a new high-powered motor.
Fix the alignment first.
Then add the motor.
3) The proposed program only allowed for 6 weeks of training time, including the ramp up period, and a brief strengthening phase. during the last 2 weeks of spring training, pitchers had to get ready to compete in games.
I didn’t think it was enough time. I was worried that any gains seen would be solely neurologic and that later in the year, the subjects could experience negative consequences.
As I’ve stated on multiple occasions, “Velocity enhancement is a dish best served slowly over time.” Connective tissue requires time to adapt.
So we went to work on creating a screening process to eliminate candidates with severe physical constraints and/or biomechanical disconnections, and the Rays sent a preparatory program to all selected participants so they would ramped up and ready to go when they reported to Spring Training.
The Rays ultimately implemented a sensible velocity enhancement program involving a combination of weighted ball training and long toss.
The early results have been pretty astounding. Earlier this year, they were featured in a USA Today article highlighting their "unorthodox" off-season program.
Here are the 3 most common questions I get about weighted ball programs:
1) Are they safe?
2) Do they work and if so, why do they work?
3) Is it for everyone?
The answer to question # 1 is “It depends”. If the athlete’s delivery is connected (all body parts are working synergistically around a stable spine) then throwing weighted balls is no more risky than throwing a 5 oz ball. If you consider the physics of joint forces, F=MA (force = mass x acceleration).
The more a ball weighs, the less you can accelerate it, so you cannot physically create more force in the ligaments or tendons with a heavier ball.
In many cases, a weighted ball training plan may actually improve the efficiency of a movement pattern. For example, if we have a student with a linear deceleration pattern, we can usually find improved deceleration patterns when throwing weighted balls from short distances.
For question #2, I believe weighted balls can facilitate improved velocity, command, and arm health. I think you’ll find my answer as to why they work a little surprising. Most weighted ball advocates propose that heavier weighted balls train arm strength and underload balls develop arm speed.
Maybe... It sounds good I guess...
But I don't think the efficacy of weighted ball training has all that much to do with arm strength or arm speed.
I think the value of varied weighted ball training is in the differential training component it presents.
You see, many pitchers fall prey to the myth that pitching consistency is all about finding a “repeatable delivery”.
But the repeatable delivery is a unicorn!
It doesn’t exist!
Every pitch is a snowflake, unique unto itself and will present subtle errors or deviations requiring subconscious, real time adjustments to achieve the desired goal.
Training with varied stimuli, like the typical weighted ball series, allows for the robust development and preparation of a vast matrix of neuromuscular pathways to account for nearly every possible contingency.
That creates a more efficient and prolific thrower, and that improves velocity, command and arm health.
I would also add that weighted ball training (if you're connected) provides a functional end-range stretch to gain range of motion that is otherwise unattainable.
So we've got that going for us too.
By the way... I have similar take on Long Toss...
Because every throw is a different distance with a different release point, in my mind, the differential training component of long toss is its most valuable attribute.
And for question # 3, if you know any thing about me, you know my answer already.
Nothing is “for everybody”.
If you have severe physical constraints, disconnected movement patterns, or if your soft tissue hasn’t been prepared adequately, I would not recommend you go anywhere near a weighted ball program.
Weighted balls are a not a panacea.
Weighted balls are a valuable tool that can be an important cog in a well-designed, multidimensional training plan.
So if you're connected, ramped up, and well prepared...
BALL OUT BABY!!!!
We still have some openings in our July 23/24 Elite Performance Boot Camp.
Or call us at 813-655-3342 to get information about our Precision Strike One Day Evaluation and Training Session
We’ll help you solve your arm pain, add some velo, and improve your command and off speed stuff...
See you at the ranch!
Randy Sullivan, MPT
CEO, Florida Baseball Ranch