Throwing velocity has become a gatekeeper to the higher levels of baseball. Improving this quality is a complex endeavor, and one that I’m intimately familiar with as both a player and coach.
When I graduated college I wasn’t ready to give up on my dream of playing professional baseball, but with my velocity being what it was (up to 88mph), I didn’t have any opportunities. I knew I needed to throw harder, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about doing that. So, I buckled down and began researching, talking to coaches who had a track record of success with improving throwing velocity, and then experimenting on myself. Out of this process, I learned what did and did not work on my way to improving my own velocity to 94mph. Fast forward a few years, and I’ve helped many high school, college, and professional pitchers improve their velocities as well.Throwing velocity has become a gatekeeper to the higher levels of baseball, says @tyler_anzmann. Click To Tweet
This article will be about not only what works, but about why it works and how to apply it.
Program Design and Adaptations
Well-designed programs for velocity enhancement should involve some amount of high intensity throwing. This makes sense, as most people are intuitively familiar with the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands)—in other words, you need to train the thing you’re trying to get better at.
If you want to throw harder, you need to throw hard somewhat frequently. But beyond this obvious point, what’s going on as far as adaptations to this stimulus and how does it help increase throwing velocity? There are two basic types of adaptations that are important to understand when dissecting training methodology:
- Neurological adaptations
- Physiological adaptations
Both of these play a role in determining the output capability of a human being. If we use the analogy of a racecar driver, neurological adaptations would be akin to becoming a better driver, whereas physiological adaptations would be ways to increase the horsepower of the car. In order to throw at our highest possible velocity, both of these types of adaptations are important.
Neurological adaptations involve changes to the body’s software. If the software is too slow or out of date, even the best hardware will perform poorly.
The first neurological adaptation that’s important to understand is coordination. Basically, this means that muscle force is applied at the right time, in the right direction, in the right sequence, etc. In research on specific adaptations to weight lifting, one of the key determinants of velocity-specific adaptations (how good did the participants get at lifting light weights fast vs. heavy loads slowly?) was coordination.
The groups that lifted lighter weights got better at lifting weights fast, while the other group got better at lifting heavier weights and not quite as good at lifting light weights fast (Almasbakk and Hoff, 1985). This points to the coordination gained from specific types of training being important for the specific adaptations. This same process occurs with high velocity throwing and is one of the reasons pitchers who focus only on throwing strikes at low intensity don’t continue to gain velocity after puberty (when physical maturation alone can account for improvements in velocity).
2. Motor Unit Recruitment
The second neurological adaptation is motor unit recruitment. A motor unit is composed of the motor neuron (a nerve cell which passes impulses from the brain or spinal cord to muscle fibers causing it to contract) and the muscle fibers it innervates. Motor units can be divided into low- and high-threshold varieties.
- Low threshold motor units are recruited first due to the size principle. These are composed mainly of type 1 (or slow twitch) muscle fibers, which are resistant to fatigue but are not capable of very high outputs.
- High threshold motor units are composed mainly of type 2 (or fast twitch) muscle fibers. These are only called upon when the central nervous system determines that their assistance is required. This could be when heavy loads are being lifted, when light loads are being lifted in close proximity to failure, or when maximal velocity is intended.
Repeated exposure to maximal effort activities can help make more high threshold motor units available. Therefore, throwing at maximal effort somewhat frequently can be a helpful stimulus for increasing the ability to recruit high threshold motor units (more on this later).Repeated exposure to maximal effort activities can help make more high threshold motor units available, says @tyler_anzmann. Click To Tweet
For example, an early off-season high intensity throwing session will typically include:
- A warm-up involving a potentiating component
- Specific constraints drills tailored to that athlete’s needs in low volume
Video 1. Figure 8 Drill, example of specific constraints.
- Long toss, or catch play as needed to finish warming up
- Maximal effort throws with additional momentum (run-up, shuffle, walk-up, etc.)
- Over/underload balls may or may not be used depending on athlete development level, needs, etc.
- Every throw is measured
- A velocity drop-off is used (generally around 2%) to stop the session early if necessary
- Complete rest between throws to keep fatigue low
Video 2. Shuffle Throw.
3. Rate Coding
The third neurological adaptation is rate coding. Rate coding is the frequency at which motor units discharge action potentials to activate. Increasing the rate at which motor units are activated increases the potential for overall force output in shorter time frames.
High velocity movements have been shown to increase rate coding to a greater degree than heavy loading (Van Cutsem et al., 1998), which makes sense as this plays a larger role in high velocity force production than low velocity force production.
Heavy loading and high velocity movements both compete for significant recovery resources and therefore must both be carefully planned around and accounted for. This is just one reason why the assessment process is so critical. Depending on an athlete’s force velocity profile, training experience, and the time of year, more or less heavy loading may benefit that athlete. But, in a more advanced population, heavy loading plays a relatively small role in improving performance. This means a higher volume of sport-specific training (throwing in this case). More intensive ballistic and plyometric variations are used with contact times, velocities, and weights determined by the athlete’s profile.
4. Activation Level of Antagonist Muscles
The fourth neurological adaptation is related to the level of activation of antagonist muscles. Think of antagonists as the muscles that oppose the motion you’re trying to create (e.g., the triceps are the antagonist to the biceps as they extend the elbow while the biceps create elbow flexion).
Antagonist coactivation is important for joint stability, but if antagonist activation is too great it will limit the net torque produced by the opposite muscle. This coactivation has been shown to decrease as a result of high velocity training (Janusevicius et al., 2017).
Along with neurological adaptations, physiological adaptations to high velocity throwing are also critically important. Think about this as the hardware to the neurological software. Low quality hardware won’t be able to take advantage of all of the amazing features of even the best software.
1. Fascicle Length
The first physiological adaptation is a change in muscle fascicle length. Increased fascicle length is important as it is associated with faster contraction velocities. Longer fascicles mean a greater number of sarcomeres (the smallest functional unit of muscle tissue) in series and all of these sarcomeres shorten at the same time. If a greater number of sarcomeres in series shorten at the same velocity, a greater distance has been covered in the same amount of time. This equates to higher shortening velocity.
It has been shown that faster 100m sprinters have longer fascicles than their slower counterparts (Kumagai et al., 2000). This can be applied to throwers as well. The way sprinters train generally involves relatively frequent high effort sprinting, plyometrics, and gym sessions tailored to their specific needs. Throwers should be trained similarly. Throw at high intensity one or two times per week, use intensive and extensive ballistic and plyometric variations, and tailor gym sessions to the athlete’s needs.
2. Fiber Type Shifts
Muscle fiber types are something that everyone is familiar with. There are two broad categories: fast twitch and slow twitch. Beyond this basic level of familiarity, there is more that can be gleaned from understanding some important differences between the fiber types and subtypes.
Within the fast twitch (type 2) muscle fibers there are two important subcategories: type 2a and type 2x. Type 2x fibers have the fastest shortening velocities (~5-6 fiber lengths/second), while type 2a are still very fast (~3-4 fiber lengths/second) but are a bit slower than type 2x (Beardsley, 2021), and both types are significantly faster than type 1 fibers (0.5-1.0 fiber lengths/second) (Beardsley, 2021).
Depending on the type of training performed, fibers can shift their type from 2a to 2x, and vice versa. The more fatigue that is present in a training program, the more likely a shift is to occur from type 2x to type 2a. This may or may not be a problem depending on the force-velocity profile of the athlete, but as strength standards and basic body composition requirements are met, this is worth keeping in mind when programming. Type 2a can shift to 2x provided that the velocity is high enough and volume is relatively low.Type 2a can shift to 2x provided that the velocity is high enough and volume is relatively low, says @tyler_anzmann. Click To Tweet
This is just one reason why distance running and high volume, low to moderate intensity training programs tend to be incompatible with a goal of maximizing throwing velocity. If you want to maximize throwing velocity, high intent and low fatigue during training sessions are musts.
3. Stiffness and Connective Tissue Adaptations
Muscles and adaptations related to them are incredibly important when it comes to maximizing throwing velocity, but there are limitations to a purely muscle-focused approach. Concentric muscle actions are limited in that as the shortening velocity increases, force decreases—so at very high shortening velocities, very little force is produced. At the highest movement velocities, it may not even be possible for muscles to shorten fast enough to help in a meaningful way. This is why elastic energy storage and release is so important in high velocity movements, including throwing. Tendons play a large role here. They can be thought of as amplifiers to our muscle power. When tendons are stretched, they store elastic energy to be released later, producing output much greater than muscles alone are capable of.
In order to increase the amount of force that is transferred from a muscular contraction and increase the amount of elastic energy that can be stored and released, tendon stiffness often must be improved. Stiffer tendons require more force to be stretched, but they return more elastic energy. Compliant tendons, on the other hand, change length without requiring as much force to be exerted on them. Think about trying to pull a heavy stone using a very stretchy rubber band; this would be like a very compliant tendon in that force transfer (greatly inhibited). Next, think about pulling that same heavy stone with a chain; this would be like a stiffer tendon in that force transmission (better and more immediate).
Research has shown that elite 100m sprinters have stiffer Achilles tendons and stronger calves to go along with those stiffer tendons (Arampatzis et al., 2006). Stiffer tendons require stronger muscles in order to stretch them, so this makes sense. Similar adaptations occur at the shoulder and arm in overhead throwers. These adaptations occur as a result of high velocity training (sprinting) and also help to increase their sprinting proficiency. Throwing at high velocities has a similar training effect and these adaptations have similar performance implications for improving throwing velocity as well.Research has shown that elite 100m sprinters have stiffer Achilles tendons and stronger calves, says @tyler_anzmann. Click To Tweet
4. Muscle Pennation Angle
The final physiological adaptation involves the pennation angle of muscles. This is the angle of the muscle fibers relative to the longitudinal axis of the entire muscle. The greater the pennation angle, the fewer sarcomeres in series, but the greater the number in parallel. This means that a greater, or more obtuse, pennation angle means that the muscle is capable of generating higher forces, but lower velocities. Due to the shortening velocity being slower, more cross bridges can form, generating higher force. When higher velocity training is used, the pennation angle of a muscle tends to be reduced or more acute.
When it comes to throwing and other complex movement patterns involving proximal to distal sequencing, the more proximal muscles will generally have a greater pennation angle and the more distal muscles will have a reduced pennation angle. This makes sense, as the demands on those structures are different. Proximal muscles tend to be used more for force production and have more time to do so, while distal muscles tend to be exposed to much higher velocities and be involved in energy transfer.
In order to maximize an athlete’s opportunities to play at the highest level, throwing velocity must be maximized as it offers a powerful advantage on the field. However, maximum intensity throwing can provide benefits as a powerful means of training as well as an arrow in the quiver of a pitcher when used appropriately. The neurological and physiological adaptations that occur as a result of this stimulus help raise the ceiling for a thrower’s velocity potential. Once coaches understand the adaptations that can be created through a program involving high velocity throwing, a thoughtful program can be implemented based on their existing understanding of program design and periodization.
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