Friday, September 17, 2010

Effective Core Training for Softball Pitchers - Part 1


Introduction

I wanted to start this blog series off with a few questions...

1) Do crunches (and all their variations), sit ups, seated twists, leg raises, and poorly performed planks make the majority your core work?

2) Are these exercises really that effective in helping you to become a better pitcher?

3) If there were exercises out there that were more effective and efficient than the ones previously mentioned, would you do them?

Regardless of your answers to those questions, the intent of this series is to show you (pitchers, coaches, parents) that there really is a better way to train your core for elite pitching success. There is so much great training information out there for pitchers to utilize but no one seems to have taken the important step of specifically applying it the art and science of softball pitching. There have been a few performances coaches in the softball community that have touched on these concepts in the past but I don't think they have gone into enough detail nor have they made the information accessible enough to be useful. My goal is to do just that and show you how to supercharge your pitching performance with some innovative and "new school" core programs. Before I can get into the nitty gritty of how a pitcher should train their core, we need to understand the anatomy and the function of the core musculature so we can see how the concepts actually apply to pitching.

What is the "core"?  

Realistically speaking, outside of the sport performance community, who really knows or understands what the "core" is truly comprised of? In my conversations, many athletes and parents still think it's the classic "abs" (think 6 pack). Some might add the low back muscles into their definition. Others still, if they have read some magazines or done some personal training, will tell you that you can't forget about those "little inner back muscles - you know the ones you have to suck in". Occasionally, and this is very rare, I will talk to someone who will mention how important the glutes (i.e the butt) are to a strong core. Finally, I have yet to talk to someone who will add the hip flexors or lats to their defintion. In reality, the most comprehensive definition you could create of the "core" musculature from reviewing the literature would include all of the above. With this wide range of answers about what the "core"  actually consists of, it is not hard to understand why great core training programs are hard to find. For the rest of this series, when I refer to the "core", here is the definition in my head:

The "Core" - the inter-connected system of the muscles of the hip/pelvic area (front and back), lower torso (superficial and deep), and upper torso (the lats).

The "core"
This is a pretty broad and complex definition isn't it? I think this inherent complexity is why so many core programs really miss the mark and why training the core for elite performance is a such a challenging task. Once you start breaking down how the core functions, however, and then begin to apply these concepts to the pitching motion, the process becomes much simpler, leaving room for immediate and dramatic improvement for the athlete.

How does the core work?

Fitness bunny core work!
When trying to design an elite core development program, it is critical to understand why many of the basic core programs out there are poorly designed and ineffective for superior athletic performance. This statement is especially true if your core programs come from most of the "girly" fitness magazines out there or bodybuilding magazines of the 1990's, or even worse, late night infomercials. While the programs of the mainstream media have been getting better of late, their collected body of work over the years has led the average person to believe that the core's primary function is to flex the trunk forwards. As Mike Robertson relates in his excellent two part series on core training (Part 1, Part 2), this is technically true if we only consider the Rectus Abdominus muscle (the classic 6 pack muscle), as this is one of this muscle's primary functions. However, considering our definition of the core above, focusing on just one muscle or one movement pattern doesn't tell us much about what we need to do to train the core effectively for pitching dominance.

To really understand how to apply "new school" core training methods to pitching, we need to go to one of the main sources of the methodology, Professor Stuart McGill. He has written countless articles and several books on the subject of lower back/core training and has probably forgotten more about the topic than most of us will ever know. Here are some statements from Prof. McGill on the various functions of the core from his comprehensive article in a recent N.S.C.A journal published in June 2010.

1) "The core muscles often co-contract, stiffening the torso such that all muscles (of the body) become synergists." (pg.33)

2) "The core, more often than not, functions to prevent motion rather than initiating it...Good technique in most sporting, and daily living tasks, demand that power be generated at the hips and transmitted through a stiffened core." (pg.34)

3) "The core is never a power generator as measuring the great athletes always shows that the power is transmitted through the stiffened core. They also use the torso muscles as anti-motion controllers, rarely motion generators." (pg. 44)
    I'm guessing that if you aren't a performance specialist, the above statements were a bit dense so I will attempt to translate for you below.

    The body performing as a "one"
    Translation #1 - The muscles of the core and body are always "linked" together during movement and do not function in isolation. To train the core for high performance, you must think of the core and how all of its muscles function together along with the rest of the body. Attempting to isolate a specific muscle in the core (the RA from above) or specific function of the core (the draw in) is largely ineffective as it relates to human movement.

    Translation #2 - Your legs and arms are responsible for creating the power behind movements in athletics and daily life - not the core. The core functions to funnel or transmit the power created in the the limbs into coherent and effective movement patterns.

    Translation #3 - Exercises that train the muscles of the core to initiate movement (crunches, sit ups, certain types MB throws) do not train the core in a manner consistent with athletic movement.

    Hopefully, my translations put those intense concepts into more friendly language and you can see that most mainstream fitness core routines fall well short of being effective for improved and effective sports performance. Considering our new definition of the core and its function, we can now start applying these concepts to designing new school core programs for elite pitching performance.

    But first, considering the above information, I want you think about your typical core training routine and then consider your answers to the three lead off questions again, particularly #2 and #3.  Now that you have a better understanding of how the core really functions, how does your routine stack up? Do you still think that it is really helping you to be a better pitcher? My guess (and hope) is that you answers may have changed a bit. If you are not convinced yet and want some more support, the next article in this series will tackle two mainstays of old school core training, the crunch and the sit up and why they have little place in a high performance core training program for pitchers. I will also discuss why performing the "plank" exercise correctly is the critical first step in understanding the concept of core "stiffness" or "bracing".

    Note: Coach Green is the Director of Fury Performance Training and been helping softball players of all ages and ability levels reach their potential for the past 8 years. In the past year, he has helped 7 high school pitchers (and counting) increase 1-3 mph on their peak and average velocities, including one who hadn't pitched in 12 months due to injury. The one constant for all of these pitchers was that they "re-engineered" their core training to be more specific and effective for pitching. Coach Green is available for consultations and custom performance programs. Please contact him at bggrndg@yahoo.com.

    2 comments:

    1. This is some really great stuff. I cannot wait to use some of your ideas for my hitting lessons!

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    2. Nice piece of work Coach!!!!!!

      ReplyDelete