Source: Performance Conditioning
By Alan Jaeger
“In Season” Arm Conditioning and Maintenance Throwing Program:
Integrating Long Toss into Bull-pens and In-season Pitching
In the previous article, we addressed the importance of the timing and format of an “Off Season Throwing Program”, and the need of establishing a “rest” (2-4 weeks) and “rebuild” period (approximately 4 weeks) after a long summer. It was also mentioned how important it was to stay off of the mound for this initial 4 week, base building period. The idea was that the better you build your base in the Fall/Winter months, the better you are able to maximize your health, strength and endurance “in season“. As you may recall, the key to optimizing the health, strength and endurance of your arm “in season” is significantly reflected by how well you are able to maintain this base throughout the Fall/Winter months, and translate it into the Spring.
Once a pitcher has gone through the initial 6-8 week stage of resting his arm and rebuilding his base correctly through among other things, Surgical Tubing and Long Toss, there are 2 more stages to go through before pitchers transition into the “in-season” training or maintenance. Stage 1 involves the integration of mound work (bull-pens/game innings) into the Fall/Winter months leading up to the holiday break (the end of December), and Stage 2 addresses the Spring season, whether the pitcher is a starter or reliever.
The essence of this article is to understand the importance of maintaining your base and optimizing your recovery period once “mound work” is introduced in the Fall (and eventually Winter/Spring). This is best accomplished by understanding that your “mound work” is an extension of your Long Toss throwing program, rather than the focal point of it. In other words, Long Toss is the key to your work load each day and if you get on a mound on a given day, it is simply the culmination of your throwing program. As you will see throughout this article Long Toss is what most effectively replenishes the base and significantly improves recovery period after any form of “mound work”. Maintaining a strong base and optimizing recovery period are the key factors in optimizing health, strength and endurance throughout the year. This article has been written with this in mind.
Stage 1 - Fall into Winter: Bull-Pen Integration
Now that the arm has had a minimum of 4-6 weeks (September 1st to early/mid October) to rest and rebuild (free from the mound), the pitcher is ready to begin to integrate bull-pens into his throwing program. Because such a strong base has been built from the previous 4-6 weeks, bull-pens should have a dramatically less effect on the arm regarding swelling, soreness, etc. This allows the arm to recover faster, which in turn will allow the base to be minimally effected or “depleted”. This is a critical principle to understand because having great recovery is the essential ingredient to maintaining arm health, strength and endurance throughout the year.
In the case of a pitcher who has extended his Long Toss to 5 days a week leading into his first week of bull-pens (typically around early/mid October), the main priority on bull-pen days is for the pitcher to think conditioning/long toss first, and mound work second. Essentially, the bull-pen is used to “culminate” the workout, rather than be the focus of the throwing that day. The idea is that when the arm has the opportunity to “stretch out” through Long Toss it is most effectively prepared to throw off the mound. To put it another way, the focal point of each day is to condition the arm, and then use the bull-pen for pitching specific skills (ie mechanics, getting used to the decline). Many coaches make the mistake of “saving the arm” for the bull-pen by minimizing the amount of throwing on “bull-pen days”. This actually has the opposite effect on the arm -- it is telling the arm to throw aggressively before it has been properly stretched out and conditioned. It’s like running only a mile each day to “save your legs” for a marathon at the end of the week. This mentality of “saving the arm for the bull-pen” is the primary reason why recovery period worsens, and the pitchers base is depleted (the same principle also applies for in-season bull-pens and game situations).
How often a pitcher integrates bull-pens into the Fall/Winter months is a feel thing from player to player. But the bottom line is to integrate work load slowly and progressively into your bull-pen sessions just as you worked slowly and progressively into your Long Toss routine when you built your initial base. I would recommend 2 bull-pens a week through the Fall/Winter months, separated by as many recovery period days as possible. For example, a Monday/Friday is the most ideal format because you maximize your “off days” from bull-pen to bull-pen. These off days away from mound work allow the arm optimal time to recover and recondition itself for the next bull-pen. The amount of pitches thrown in the bull-pen and the intensity behind it again varies from pitcher to pitcher (and the work load that preceded it). The priority is that a the arm, through Long Toss, is stretched out thoroughly prior to any mound work.
Remember, recovery period is crucial because the better your recovery period, the more the arm is going to want to “stretch it out” from day to day -- stretching the arm out is what replenishes the arm. Having great recovery period leads to a “positive cycle” -- a positive cycle because the arm wants to throw more rather than less from day to day because it feels good. Essentially, the arm can sustain it’s base throughout the Fall/Winter and into the Spring because bull-pens and game action have a minimal effect on recovery period. If recovery period is poor and the arm is swollen or unusually sore the arm will need to rest more often which further deprives the base from getting replenished (this is what we call a “negative cycle” which exposes the arm to breaking down).
As you go through the Fall/Winter months the primary goal is to stay in a conditioning mode as you increase the pitch counts in bull-pen situations. As bull-pens turn into Fall/Winter game action, the principle doesn’t change. For example, lets say in week 5 (your first week of bull-pens after your base is built) you threw a 15-25 pitch bull-pen session on Monday and Friday, and by week 7 (mid/late October) you graduated to 35-45 pitch sessions/and or 1 inning of work in a game situation. Even as you approach week 9 (November) and add additional innings leading into the holiday break (end of December), the principles do not change. Bull-pens and game situations are interchangeable. So if you bull-pen/game situation on Monday/Friday, and you’ve worked up to 45 pitches in a game, your goal is to continue to Long Toss at least 1 other day thoroughly (remember, your bull-pen/game day are also relatively thorough Long Toss days).
The idea with this Fall/Winter mentality is to keep the focus on Long Toss as you increase pitch counts for bull-pens and game situations. Because a thorough Long Toss session is incorporated at least 3 days a week, the arm is best positioned to stay in a positive cycle through the end of December, despite the reality that pitch counts can elevate up to 45-60 pitches in game situations.
Note: Once a pitcher starts throwing bull-pens/innings in the Fall/Winter, he will find that the days he is going to throw off a mound are actually his best Long Toss days because he will have the most amount of recovery period days between mound work. With that said, it should be noted that the day after a pitchers mound work, Long Toss will probably consist of only the “stretching out” phase and the distance may only consist of about 50-75% of a pitchers normal distance. This is important to understand because Long Toss after mound work should be less aggressive with the focus being on “stretching” the arm out. If done right, the second day after mound work will lead to a more normal distance of Long Toss, and the “pull-down” or more aggressive phase of Long Toss can be added if it feels right. Remember, it always comes down to “listening to your arm” -- once mound work begins, your focus is on stretching the arm out each day. How far you go out and how aggressive you “pull down” from day to day depends simply on how your arm feels, and how good your recovery period is.
Phase 2 - Winter into Spring
Once the Winter Holidays come and go (this is traditionally a 2-3 week window) and players return back to school pitchers need to be able to spend at least 2 weeks off the mound to recondition their arm. For the same reasons why pitchers use the first 4-6 weeks in the Fall to stay off the mound to condition, players need to “rebuild” the base for the first two weeks without even thinking about mound work. This is essential to understand because these two weeks allows the pitcher to reconnect to the base that was built all Fall/Winter. Fortunately, because the arm was so well “built” in the Fall/Winter period, it only takes a couple of weeks to “re-catch” the wave (especially if the pitcher spent the Winter break doing his arm care program and playing some form of catch).
Once this 2 week period has been established the pitcher is ready to integrate bull-pens and game innings into his throwing routine. This too should come quickly. A pitcher should be able to go from throwing a 25 pitch bull pen in week 3 (late January/early February) to throwing 35 pitches in an inter-squad game by week 4.
Naturally, because High School and College seasons begin at different times, how you integrate bull-pens and game situations depends on a number of variables. The priority here is still about learning how to prioritize your conditioning off of the mound for 2 weeks after the Winter break so the base is reinforced and recovery period is effective once mound work is reintroduced. Remember, once the Spring starts getting close the tendencies are to ramp up the pitch count and prepare for game situations. This is an even greater reason to use the first two weeks for base building -- otherwise, you may be putting the pitchers arm in harms way.
Phase 3 - The Spring Is Here -- In Season Throwing and Maintenance
Once the pitcher has reconditioned his arm in this 2 week period after the Winter break, and has built his pitch count in the subsequent few weeks leading into the season, I would assume that by the first game of the season, the pitcher is now in a position to throw 60-75 pitches or the equivalent of 4-5 innings, and 75-90 pitches by his second game. The key here is that the innings have been increased by maintaining the pitchers Long Toss program throughout the week. What has changed in season is that the pitcher will learn to adjust his Long Toss based on how many pitches he’s made in a game, and how much recovery period he has until his next outing.
This is where in season training gets a little tricky based on whether or not you are a starter or a reliever. So in order to address the “in season’ training mentality for both starters and relievers, I’m going to break them down into 2 categories. This way, whatever your role is as a pitcher you will have a clearer understanding of how to keep your arm in optimal shape throughout the year.
Starting Pitchers - 5 or 7 Day Cycling
Where a reliever has to play with some unknown variables as to when and how much he is going to pitch from day to day starting pitchers have it much easier in season. Starting pitchers know exactly what day they are throwing each week and therefore can plan the other 6 days (amateur) or 4 days (professional) around their game day. For this reason, setting up a starter with an “in-season” routine is much easier than a reliever. Below, I am going to go through the format and work load for a basic 7 day routine, considering that more players are at the amateur level. Also, once you understand the principles to the 7 Day routine, adjusting to the 5 Day routine will be relatively similar. Keep in mind that the first priority is to always listen to your arm.
In Season, 7 Day Routine (Cycle)
In order to make this routine very simple to follow I’m going to pick “Monday” as the reference point as to when you are scheduled to start your game. By establishing our “game day” we can then focus on how we maintenance (cycle) the arm back in shape most effectively for your next start, the following Monday.
Monday, Game Day (Long Toss Day) -- this is ironically your best Long Toss day “in-season” because you’ve had 6 days to rest, recover and rebuild leading into your game day from your previous start. As a simple example, if you have been long tossing out of season in the 250 foot range (~85mph), then that’s about how far your arm is going to want to stretch out to the day of your start. In essence, your game day is very similar to your best out of season long toss day, except that you may cut down on the amount of throws your making in both the stretching out (going out away from your partner) and pulling down phases of Long Toss (coming back toward your partner). If you feel like cutting a little distance out of your throwing (ie it’s later in the season) or you feel like cutting down on your aggressive throws coming back in toward your throwing partner, that’s fine. But if you conditioned your arm well throughout the off-season, your arm is going to really want a pretty thorough long toss session the day of your start.
Tuesday, Day 1 after start (Recovery/Stretch) -- Depending on how many pitches you made, Day 1 is all about blood flow, ranger of motion and “stretch throwing”. If you threw 90 pitches the day before you may only want to go out to 90-120 feet of really low impact, light catch. If you only threw 50 pitches, your arm may want a distance closer to 150-200 feet. Again, the priority is RECOVERY. The focus is on positioning the arm for the next day, and in fact, the next start. There should be little to no “downhill” or aggressive throwing on Day 1.
Wednesday, Day 2 (Recovery/ Stretch) -- Ironically, Day 2 is when most pitchers are the most sore after a start. Thus, Day 2 is a “continuance” of the stretch out, low impact mentality. Again, keep in mind that your arm is going to tend to have tremendous recovery period in general due to your off-season throwing program, but to be safe, I tell players to let the arm breathe again on Day 2, and if it wants to stretch out further, per se, 150-200 or 200-250 for harder throwers, great. Again, I would suggest to minimize downhill or aggressive throwing unless the arm tells you differently.
Thursday, Day 3 (Extension, Pull Downs) -- Day 1 and 2 have now set you up for a more normal Long Toss session on Day 3. This is the beauty of having a 7 day routine -- you can use an extra couple of days to recondition your arm in season. The arm is positioned on Day 3 to both stretch out to it’s normal out of season Long Toss distance and to “pull down” relatively aggressively. How far you go out again depends on the individual, but for someone who throws 85mph, your looking at about 250 feet. Harder throwers again are looking at 300 feet or more. So we’re both extending the arm on Day 3, and we’re beginning to integrate the pull down or aggressive phase of Long Toss. The key here is to still use Day 3 as a conditioning day and to prep for Day 4, which is your bull-pen day.
Friday, Day 4 (Long Toss/Bull-Pen) -- Now that you’ve used the first 3 days after your start to do nothing but progressively and effectively build the arm back into shape you are now set up for your bull-pen day. The key here is to not “save your arm” by minimizing your throwing prior to the bull-pen -- it’s actually to do the opposite. You have set your arm up for another great Long Toss day, and that is your priority. Again, your bull-pen tops off your work-out as opposed to being the focal point of it. It doesn’t mean that you have to have an epic Long Toss before you bull-pen…it just means to be sure that you have a pretty thorough Long Toss prior to getting on the mound. Remember, your arm is programmed now to condition before it gets on a mound…and that’s the way you want it to be.
Saturday, Day 5 (Stretching/Optional) -- Day 5 is a bit like Day 1 after your start. You’ve been on the mound the day before, you’ve had a lot of workload leading up to this point in the week so I advise pitchers to go lighter on Day 5. Again, listen to your arm, but you may find that you are only interested in a minimal amount of throwing, or you may find that you want to stretch it out to 120-150 feet without any aggressive throwing, or you may want another good day of stretching the arm out pretty far. This day is dictated by how you feel and what stage of the season you are in. Listen to your arm.
Sunday, Day 6 (Stretching/Rest/Optional) -- The day before any pitches start can truly be a personal preference. So, I always advise pitchers to do what’s comfortable. Some pitchers like to take the day off, some like to play light catch, and some like to stretch it out to about 75% of their max distance, but with little to no aggressive throwing down hill. It is the core principle of our program to listen to your arm, and this day is no different. Do what feels right.
Monday, Day 7, Game Day (Long Toss) -- Now you can see how your “start day” is actually your best day to Long Toss. You’ve spent the previous 6 days resting, recovering and rebuilding in the most optimal and effective way. You’ve allowed the arm to
build itself back into shape and positioned it for what it wants most -- a great Long Toss/conditioning session prior to getting on the mound.
Relief Pitchers - “Opening The Door”
Because relief pitchers don’t have a set rhythm throughout the season, it can be a little bit more difficult to figure out when to Long Toss and when to rest from outing to outing. As you will find with our approach, “listening to your arm” is always the first principle to keep in mind because there are so many variables. For instance, you may have made 40 pitches in relief the previous day, or you may have not thrown in a game situation for a week. In either case, your plan should be to go out each day to do your arm care program (surgical tubing, etc.) and stretch your arm out. This sensation of stretching your arm out is what I refer to as “opening the door”, meaning, you are allowing your arm to get the benefits of stretching, blood flow and range of motion each day, regardless of whether or not you are pitching that day. What you’ll begin to realize is the arm wants to stretch out every day (unless it needs a total rest), and that some days the arm will want to stretch out further than others. In fact, if a pitcher has gone more than 3-4 days without pitching in a game, the arm will probably want to not only “open the door” to a long distance, but it will want to come back in toward your throwing partner and “pull down” aggressively just like a normal, out of season Long Toss session . This feeling of wanting to “close the door” after a number of days off of the mound is essential in keeping the base strong throughout the season (note -- having an aggressive Long Toss session may be critical for your base even if you are going to pitch in the game later that night. Remember, the point is to “condition” first when the arm needs it. Besides, you will probably throw harder and have better recovery period even if you do get into the game on a night that you had a relatively aggressive Long Toss session).
In short, relief pitchers should come to the field each day to “open the door” or stretch out the arm. How far, how long and whether or not you “pull down” aggressively depends on how much throwing you’ve done the previous day or days. The key is to always go out with the intention of stretching your arm out because, quite simply, your arm has been built this way from the off-season and it is looking to condition, even in season.
Remember, the ideal way to maintenance (strengthen) an arm “in season” is to have a great base to in place from the “off season”. This off season base is the key to having great recovery period, which in turn allows the arm to recondition itself most effectively as bull-pen/mound work is integrated into the Fall/Winter months, and eventually into the Spring season. This ability to maintain good recovery period and a Long Toss program as bull-pen/game situations are integrated is the key to not only maintaining a healthy arm throughout the Fall/Winter, but actually positioning your arm to get more durable and possibly even stronger throughout the Spring (in season).
Finally, always “listen to your arm”. Only it knows from day to day what it needs and what it wants. Because you have learned to condition and maintenance it so well the reality is you will probably find yourself wanting to stretch your arm out (Long Toss) more often than you are used to -- but this is a great sign. It’s a reminder that the body responds best to activity rather than inactivity -- the body (arm) wants to regenerate, not degenerate. And when the arm gets into this “positive cycle”, the arm is in the best position possible throughout the year to stay healthy, strong and durable.