Saturday, September 25, 2010

Effective Core Training For Softball Pitchers: Part 2

Can too many Crunches and Sit Ups hurt a pitcher's performance?

As I discussed in Part 1 of this series, this might seem like a pretty controversial question considering that almost everyone does these exercises on a regular basis. Some pitchers' core programs may even be completely based off of these movements. If you really think about the act of pitching, however, you will see that these movements have no real place in a well-designed core program for several reasons.

A Visual Comparison of the Crunch/Sit-Up Movement and the Power Pitching Positions

Generally speaking, the typical crunch or sit up (and all of their variations) will have the athlete round at the shoulders and flex their trunk towards the lower body (anterior trunk flexion),while lying on the floor or a fitness ball. Here are a few examples to that show the core's relative function during these movements:

Let's compare them to these pictures of some top pitchers in action - you might just recognize them:

Jenni Finch - Pitching Stud #1
Monica Abbot - Pitching Stud #2

I didn't choose these pictures because these ladies are Olympians and two of the baddest pitchers ever to play the game. Rather, these pictures demonstrate the position and relative function of the core during the two most important power positions of the pitching motion, the "drive" and "land" phases. Having a strong and well-trained core is critical in these positions because the pitcher is "creating" and then "reducing" power during the process of accelerating the ball towards the plate. Using McGill's conceptualization of core function from Part 1, Jenny's core musculature is "transmitting" her leg power into her upper torso to begin this process. In Monica's case, her core musculature is aiding her front leg in  "resisting" the motion of her legs, hips and trunk so her arm and the ball have a solid pivot point to rotate around and finish the acceleration process. In both cases, our stud pitchers' cores are most certainly exhibiting an abdominal "brace" in order to accomplish these actions and effectively link the upper and lower bodies into a coherent movement pattern. Clearly, we see no "crunching" or anterior core flexion occurring in either position. Using this very simple visual analysis, we can see why having pitchers perform a majority of their core work in this movement pattern is questionable. However, since the crunch and sit up have been the norm for so long and are so easy to perform, such a simple analysis may not be enough to convince some people to change their ways. Is there any research that shows the crunch/sit up as an ineffective training tool in the core programs of pitchers?

Anterior core flexion and throwing performance

While there isn't much research available that deals with the specifics of softball pitching, there is a significant body of research concerning a related movement pattern, the overhand throwing motion. While the softball pitching motion and the overhand throwing motion are obviously dissimilar in some ways, they both share similar demands on the core musculature in terms of function (i.e. core power transmission, core bracing, rotational control, etc...), which allows us to draw some useful parallels.

Lying Crossover Crunch
 A study published by Stodden et al. the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2008 examined the relative translation between 4 rotational core exercises and throwing performance (velocity) in collegiate baseball players through kinematic (movement) analysis of the trunk during the throwing motion. The researchers found that, while their exercise selections showed similar kinematics to the throwing motion, the rotational speed of these movements was insufficient to likely elicit a measurable effect on velocity. One of these exercises, however, the lying crossover, was found to have the least amount of rotational movement when compared to the other exercises and the throwing motion. Why is this seemingly minor detail important? The researchers noted that this finding was likely due to the spine's inability to rotate when flexed. Essentially, anterior core flexion limits spinal rotational ability, which can inhibit maximal power generation and transference during the act of throwing. Clearly, this situation is not advantageous to the pitcher for peak performance.

What is the implication of this finding when considering core program design for pitchers? The goal of good program design is always to select exercises that can improve performance based on the specific needs of the athlete. If an exercise does not meet this simple criterion, it should be eliminated or at least minimized. Using the findings of aforementioned study, a pitcher (softball or baseball) looking to improve their throwing performance should want a core program centered around exercises that improve trunk rotation range of motion, rotational velocity, and improved power transference (among others). Wouldn't a program that emphasizes anterior core flexion condition an athlete and their core to perform in ways that are counter productive to improved performance? Using our good program design test from above, the crunch and sit up need to have a very limited role (if any) in a pitcher's core program who is looking for elite performance.

Where do we go next with our core training?

A proper plank
Now that I have shown you that a great core-training program for the pitcher should involve a minimal amount of crunch-like movements, what exercises should we be focusing on instead? Before I can answer this question, the next part in this series will address another famous core exercise- the plank. As I mentioned in Part 1, one of key functions of the core is to transmit power between the extremities through a "bracing" effect and the plank is one of the best foundational basic exercises for teaching an athlete how to do this. Unfortunately, I have found that most athletes either can't do it properly or were not taught how to do it correctly in the first place, meaning their foundation to build on with a great core program is faulty from the start. From this perspective, a poorly performed plank hold is almost as bad as program full of crunches and sit-ups in my mind. The next article in this series will discuss the importance of the plank and how to do it correctly. Once this key "building" block in place, we can move onto some really fun and really challenging pitcher specific core programs.

Full Disclosure: I do occasionally use some anterior flexion movements in my core programs for variety's sake but they are never my primary core exercises - they are only used sparingly as a change of pace. Once I minimized the use of these movements, my athletes have experienced a huge shift in their performance abilities.

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 advanced 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

No comments:

Post a Comment