Seems the rage these days is about these new weighted ball things and how they increase velocity.
When we started using weighted balls as part of our process in 2009, in my community you
would have thought I was Jack the Ripper! Naysayers unfairly blasted me privately, and publicly to the point that I finally gave in and stopped using them for a few months.
I soon came to the realization that critics will be critics and accepting their slings and arrows is simply the price I must pay for the privilege of working with all the fine young men in my care.
As the Florida Baseball Ranch we are designed to be the rehab, recovery return to throwing wing of the Ranch. When our full Ranch team comprised of 6-8 of some of the best baseball minds I know in the business gets together – which occurs 10-15 tim s a year – a common topic of conversation is our current process of under and over load training. Commonly referred to as weighted ball training. Coach Wolforth has been implementing weighted balls into his training for nearly 20 years. That process has evolved significantly over twenty years, the first major delineation being Paul Nymans influence in 2003 and the most recent major evolution being Dr. Frans Bosch’s differential training in 2014.
Coach Wolforth’s concepts of “Start With the Pain” and Hyper-personalization have been a center piece of our training process since 2010 and guide everything we do at the Ranch. The challenge with any one process such as under load/overload training is that it will not be appropriate fit everyone all the time and implementing it universally to a population or to a random individual may have significant negative or unintended consequences.
Coach Wolforth and I both have sons who play baseball at the college level. We would never put our sons on such a program without first determining whether its an appropriate fit. And we feel compelled to view all of our clients with the same care and consideration as we would our sons. Being the rehab coordinator of the Ranch, coach Wolforth often turns to me and asks – Randy are we doing everything we can in our processes to meet the specific needs of where this athlete is today… and if not what do we need to alter or adjust?
Recent research by the ASMI has indicated that weighted implements may be helpful in creating highly adaptable arms through variable stimuli. They point out that the fear of weighted balls imparting increased force on the joints is unfounded. You see, the formula for Force in physics is F=MA where M is mass and A is acceleration. If the object weighs more the athlete moves it more slowly, thereby decreasing the acceleration part of the equation. The actual force on the joint remains unchanged, or might even be decreased.
Advocates often claim that the value of throwing variable weighted balls is that they produce “arm strength” and “arm speed.” I can neither confirm nor refute this claim, but I believe the most important benefit to weighted ball training is in creating highly efficient and adjustable arms through the construct of differential learning.
Recall that a “repeatable delivery” is a unicorn. It doesn’t exist. Every throw will result in a subtle deviation or error. As described by Dr. Frans Bosch, differential learning allows the athlete to develop a network of accessible neuromuscular pathways by training subconsciously with varied stimuli. When an error or deviation occurs, the athlete will have a reliable coping strategy already prepared. For example a heavier ball may closely simulate a situation when the athlete’s timing a slightly off and his arm is delayed, while a lighter ball would prepare him for the times when his arm is early. Differential learning creates highly adjustable arms and could also protect soft tissue from damage through more wide ranging preparation. For example, as a movement error begins to take the athlete toward the edge of connective tissue failure limits, a preformatted motor control strategy (myelinated through hundreds of repetitions with varying sizes of weighted balls) subconsciously stabilizes the joint and brings the movement back into a range of tolerance.
For the past 2 years, I have assisted my friends at The Tampa Bay Rays in designing and executing their off-season weighted ball program.2 winters ago the asked me to help them write a weighted ball velocity enhancement program for a sample group of their pitchers. We examined all of the most popular programs in the country and came up with what I viewed to be a sensible approach to the implementation of weighted balls as a part of their overall training process.. It was grounded in nine fundamental tenets we use in our approach:
1) The program must be individualized. Each athlete’s weighted ball program has to be customized specifically for him. This is why a universal, remote program may not be optimally effective, and could in fact be dangerous. Every athlete presents with a unique blend attributes and constraints that must be considered in the training plan. Customization is vital to the success and safety of any weighted ball program.
2) Every potential candidate should undergo a full physical assessment and any significant physical constraints must be corrected prior to entering the weighted ball program. Adding weight to underprepared or disorganized tissue may magnify the effects of the limitation. Just as adding weight to a squat exercise in an athlete who has hip mobility, ankle mobility or motor control issues may precipitate injury, adding energy or resistance on top of dysfunction is probably a bad idea. However, an argument could be mad that in the case of a physical limitations like a lack of shoulder external rotation, or thoracic mobility, a weighted ball could be used to provide a functional stretch while maintaining stability and motor control in newly gained ranges of motion. We have used weighted balls in this manner in our process. Again, individualization is the key here.
3) Every potential participant should receive a high-speed video analysis of his throwing pattern, and significant disconnections should be eliminated prior to entering the weighted ball program. We usually choose not to add resistance to a disconnected movement pattern, however, in some disconnections such as a linear deceleration pattern, weighted balls may actually help to create the feel of rotation in the upper arm, forearm and torso. Again this must be evaluated and implemented on a case-by-case basis.
4) The program must provide adequate ramp up prior to allowing full on effort in weighted ball throws.As with any strengthening program, the gradual introduction of stress is paramount. Soft tissue must be given adequate time to adapt to the novel stimulus. The program we wrote for the Rays involved a 2-3 week on-ramping phase. Then over the next 6-8 weeks we incrementally added volume and intensity.
5) The program must include variations of weight and drills to ensure differential adaptation across an array of movement deviations. We used a 2# ball, a 21 oz ball, a 14 oz ball, a 7 oz ball and a baseball to create a training environment rich in variation. We used the heavier balls only on our short distance deceleration drills. As we moved back away from the target, we downshifted the weight of the heaviest ball used on that drill. We used a 3 oz ball only sparingly, as the ASMI study reported that with an underload ball, it may be possible to create abnormally high acceleration moments that could add undo stress to soft tissue. Anecdotally, some of our own athletes have complained that the only stress they feel in the program is with the underload throws. We also cycled through 3-5 different drills forcing the athlete to change his organization frequently to avoid neuromuscular accommodation.
6) The program must allow adequate recovery days between max effort or high volume events. We cycled our plan so it would include a heavy day followed by a recovery day, a moderately heavy day, followed by another recovery day, and a light day followed by 2 off days.
7) The program must demand a focus on command and control throughout its execution. We refuse to sacrifice command to gain velocity. Every throw is charted and overall command percentages with each weighted ball is calculated. World-class command is about banging on your craft every day and insisting that every throw be directed specifically at a target. We never allow our athletes to simply throw to a space – even in warmups. Without adequate command, any reduction in pain or increase in velocity will be useless.
8) All throws must be measured and charted for velocity and command. We use a radar gun to measure and chart the velocity of all of our weighted ball throws. This ensures consistency of effort. Additionally, significant loss of velocity between, throws of a single weight, any unusually large separation in velocity between different weights, or a drop in over all velocity or over the duration of a single session or over several weeks can provide information on possible disconnection or fatigue. Tracking this information allows us to quickly adjust every program to its owner’s individual needs.
9) The program must include a healthy blend of regular baseball throws, modulating volume and intensity to ensure safe development and transfer of the training effect to mound performance. As athletes advance through the process, actual mound throws with a 5 oz ball must be introduced to ensure adequate transfer to game performance.
According to sources, The Rays chose 10 subjects in the first year of their weighted ball velocity program (they did not share the names or details of each subject with me). Participation was voluntary and some were chosen from a list of pitchers considered to be at risk for release if they didn’t improve. Their program lasted 8 weeks (a little too short for my liking). Several potential candidates were eliminated before entering the program due to variables discussed above. Of the 10 actual participants, one dropped out due to pain, 1 remained neutral, 8 gained significant velocity, and at least one made it from the scrap heap to the major leagues. At the time of this writing, my sources report that The Rays have expanded the program and will use it again in spring training.
The evidence is becoming pretty clear. Weighted balls are safe and effective as a TOOL for training prolific throwers… a TOOL… NOT a panacea… NOT THE Answer… A TOOL for creating more efficient, durable and powerful arms. At The Ranch, we use them frequently under the aforementioned conditions and have for years…
So this rage about these new weighted ball things? It’s so 20 years ago.
Wait until to you see the stuff we’re working on next!!
Want to learn more about weighted balls and how they can be used to develop an individualized program that fits you like a glove? It’s one of the segments in our Elite Performer’s Boot Camp. Come to our camp on Jan 21/22 get you started on a safe and sensible plan to integrate weighted balls and many other useful modalities into your training process.