By Cameron Castro (@Castro_Turf)
I recently reached out to Josh about writing something for the Pitch Mechanics site and we settled on how to go about implementing a throwing program that uses weighted baseballs - ya know since everyone will be asking Santa for velo this year. Especially considering Dr. Glenn Fleisig’s newest paper on weighted balls, Biomechanical Analysis of Weighted-Ball Exercises for Baseball Pitchers. Soon to follow are the days of the “Completely Safe Weighted Ball Program” that is ‘guaranteed to add 5-10 mph!’ Heck, there might even be a holiday discount if we’re lucky.
All in all, I thought an article based on when to start a weighted baseball program and how to fit it in over the course of a college or high school season would be helpful. Now before diving into this, understand that there is no one way to do it. What I am about to lay out is simply what I would say if an athlete asked “How should I get started?” or a coach asked, “How should I fit it into my practice calendar?” Okay? Now here’s my disclaimer, if training with weighted baseballs is something you’ve never done before, I encourage you to read and educate yourself on the how’s and why’s before starting any program. Key word there, program.
For the record, if I were asked “How many mph should I expect to gain from this?” - I would almost certainly leave that question unanswered or I may say “Zero.” just to be repellent. The variables that go into individual velocity development are countless and those interested in a velo quick fix are not likely to sustain it. Understand that velocity development is not a linear growth pattern, like, not at all - it is typically filled with frustration, glove slams, and more than a few curse words before being sprinkled with some slight hope and glimmer, and then it quickly returns to frustration.
Okay, first things first, you want to start a weighted ball program, right? If you’re an athlete, have you self-assessed your mobility or sought professional advice from a PT or ATC? If you’re a coach, have you had your training staff put your players through a movement assessment to identify deficiencies? No? Alright let’s start there. The goal here is to see if high output, intent based, ballistic training is a good idea for you or your athletes .
Next, let’s assess the throwing fitness level you’re dealing with. Where are you at in your playing calendar? Are you a high school athlete just finishing summer ball? Are you a college coach whose team is starting winter workouts?
FYI, if you’re in the middle of your competitive season and looking to start a velocity program - my advice to you is simple, wait. Sorry but it’s too late, you need to go to work with what you have right now and address your development in the summer. That’s right, if you’re wanting to gain velocity in the spring then playing summer ball is probably not in your best interest. And if you don’t agree with that, then this isn't for you.
Let’s outline a general weighted ball program and examine two distinct situations: a high school athlete finishing his spring season and a college athlete finishing his fall season. Listed here is an overall template of the weighted ball program that our pitchers do and how it can break down over the course of a year:
● On-Ramping (4 Weeks - 3x per wk)
● Velocity Training (6-8 Weeks - 5-6x per wk)
● De-Load (2-4 Weeks - 3-4x per wk)
● Maintenance / General Arm Care Program (In-Season Program)
● Shut Down (TBD)
● Return to Throwing (4 Weeks - 2-4x per week)
● Rinse and Repeat
If you’re looking for a truly great starter program, click here. Oh and it’s free too.
Example A: High School Athlete (June Start)
For this athlete let’s assume a workload of approximately 35 innings pitched and no fall baseball played in the last calendar year. This means no shutdown time for this athlete, and it also means his throwing fitness levels are plenty high enough to start a training program along the lines of what we’re talking about here - so no RTT program needed.
This athlete slots into the on-ramping phase - this features a mix of constraint based training, long toss, and learning proper warm-up and recovery techniques. Most importantly though, getting the arm and body used to the implements you’re training with and conditioning it to handle a greater training load during the off-season.
After on-ramping, starting a more dense velocity development program that runs 6-8 weeks is the next step. Ideally this athlete’s program will last him the length of the summer (assuming no summer ball). The athlete spends 5-6 days throwing per wk continuing to use constraint training, long toss, quality recovery methods and then introduces high output weighted ball throws.
From here the athlete starts a de-load program, featuring low-intent constraint training, extension focused long toss, and like always, recovery. The de-load allows proper time for tissue stress adaptation. Now based on the timing of his on-ramp, the athlete finds himself at or around the end of the summer months and is close to returning to school and potentially training for another sport (i.e. football camp, basketball conditioning).
This typically might be a time for a brief shutdown, but if you’re a senior who aims to play college baseball and is struggling to sit 80+ mph then shutting down is probably not the best thing for you (abrasive ideology I know). Continuing to train on a maintenance program throughout the fall and waiting to shutdown until late September is the way to go. Follow a return to throwing program in November, on-ramp in December and start throwing fuego in January.
Example B: College Athlete (Mid November)
In this example, let’s assume the athlete in question is a junior and has just completed his fall season throwing 10 innings. He’s also coming off a summer ball season where he threw 38 men’s league innings and a spring season in which he tossed 12 innings of 82 mph fuzz. Looking at his last calendar year he’s thrown 60 innings. His coach decides to shut him down for 4 weeks right after fall ball, reasonable I suppose, but the timing of shutting down college arms is a complex topic and something we’ll let be for right now.
Following the line of thinking outlined above, the athlete starts on a return to throwing program followed by an on-ramp totaling 6-8 weeks (this assumes a slight reduction of RTT based on throwing fitness levels going into the shutdown). This takes us to the end of December (ironic timing) and into the beginning of velocity dense training.
The athlete’s playing season likely begins mid to late February and he’s probably expected to be bullpen ready by end of January. Cause ya know, you need to be able to throw 80-100 pitch pens before the first game of the year. So that leaves us 4 weeks of quality velocity training, not ideal, but better than nothing.
Since he’ll be rolling right from velo work into bullpens he can skip the de-load and go right into an in-season maintenance program. Maintenance work in this case would include moderate intent constraint training, long toss/catch play, command work, arm care and guess what? Recovery.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Recovery is key.
From here on out, the athlete should be all right to follow the guidelines of the general program listed above - with decisions to be made about the athlete’s summer plans soon to follow. College pitchers sometimes lose sight of the fact that they have TWO off-seasons available to them, a luxury they will not get if they are fortunate enough to play pro ball. Automatically chalking up the summer to playing summer ball, even in a collegiate league, leaves the athlete just three months in the winter to train. Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-summer ball - heck I coached it for two years in the Northwoods League and have already placed some of our pitchers for this summer. But it is not the recipe for all - there are others we are holding out in lieu of training or resting.
A pitcher’s calendar can be broken down into three categories: Competing, Training and Resting.
In our program, these three things are done independent of each other and are never combined. If you’re competing, then compete. If you’re training, then train! And if you’re resting, well, you get the idea.
Another thing to keep in mind is how the athlete trains in weight room, yep, I am a proponent of lifting AND throwing weighted balls. Crazy, I know. The focus in our program is on correcting individual deficiencies and blending that with a weight training program steeped with compound lifts and functional accessory work. This is a recipe than can lead to the foundation of strength needed to foster development.
Our goal is to couple that with intent-based training, constraint led movement pattern improvements, and a focus on quality warm-up and recovery modalities. I want to be clear, throwing weighted balls is taxing, but then again so is pitching. Pitching is inherently stressful, so we aim to train the body at slightly higher levels of stress than what is experienced in competition - this, this is beneficial.
This was written by a former colleague of mine, Michael O’Connell, R&D Assistant at Driveline Baseball, and he may have said it best. Training pitchers [in the off-season] to experience less stress than they compete at [in-season] is illogical and fundamentally incoherent. To read more on Michael’s thoughts and reaction to the lengthy ASMI study, read his lengthy blog post. Seriously, read it.
Let’s examine an age old adage:
● Everything Works - Try Something New
● Some Things Work Better than Others - Find What Works Best for You
● Nothing Works Forever - Adapt, Make Changes, Experiment, Learn and Grow
Point is, if you’re hesitant to try a weighted ball program...well you’re probably not reading this anymore, but if you are - I encourage you to try it, experient, see if it works for you. Find a program or coach that can help you make adjustments when needed, cause remember, this isn’t a linear process. Or better yet, take it upon yourself to learn and understand that process - after all, it is your career.
Reaction? Please feel free to send your comments and questions to me via Twitter or Email.
Cameron Castro is the Head Baseball Coach at Lake Erie College (NCAA Division II) in Painesville, OH. Castro was previously a trainer at Driveline Baseball in Seattle, WA - a pitching research company that designs programming and facilitates data-driven development for 75+ professional clients, countless collegiate programs and multiple MLB organizations. Castro also spent a brief time at Division II Augustana University (SD) and close to four years at Defiance College (OH) as well as the IMG Baseball Academy and the Northwoods League.