The unique demand of throwing a baseball places a great deal of stress on your arm bones, muscles, and soft tissues.¬† Therefore, shoulder and elbow injuries are common among baseball players of all ages.¬† Repetitive throwing leads to adaptations in bone and muscle around your shoulder.¬† Some adaptations are necessary in order to perform at a high level.¬† Other changes, specifically those related to muscle tightness, can increase your risk of sustaining an elbow or shoulder injury.¬† Therefore, it is important for baseball players, coaches, and parents to understand the rationale and best methods for arm care stretches in the overhead athlete.
Range of Motion in the Baseball Pitcher
The amount of shoulder external and internal rotation range of motion receives a great deal of attention in overhead athletes. ¬†Repetitive throwing during a young player’s period of peak growth causes changes to the structure of the upper arm bone.¬† The middle portion of the arm bone actually rotates backward in relation to the upper end of the bone.¬† This is termed retroversion and it is a necessary and beneficial adaptation.¬† Retroversion allows the baseball player to achieve greater amounts of shoulder external rotation, or layback, during the arm cocking phase of throwing.
Retroversion of the humerus will cause an increase in the amount of shoulder external rotation but a decrease in the amount of available internal rotation.¬† Again, this is a necessary change to improve performance.¬† Research suggests that the total arc of internal and external rotation range of motion is what becomes important.¬† The total arc of motion between the throwing and non-throwing shoulder should be within 5 degrees of each other (shown in the illustration below).¬† ¬†Stretching exercises help restore symmetry between sides when differences are large.
The Basics of Arm Care Stretching for Baseball Players
Baseball players lose range of motion throughout the course of a single game and over the course of a season.¬† This loss of range of motion and flexibility typically occurs in the shoulder and elbow muscles.¬† Common muscles prone to tightness in baseball players include the rotator cuff, lats, pecs, biceps, and triceps.¬† A regular stretching routine, performed 3-5 times per week, helps restore lost range of motion.¬† Also, a basic 10-minute stretching routine may improve performance and decrease your risk for an arm injury.¬† The stretching exercises presented here are a few baseball players should be familiar with.
Five Arm Care Stretching Exercises for Baseball Players
- ¬†Cross-Body Stretch: This stretch addresses the posterior shoulder muscles which are prone tightness in overhead athletes.¬† The infraspinatus, teres major, and teres minor muscles become shortened from repetitive throwing.¬† Perform this stretch lying on your involved side with your hips and knees bent.¬† Position your involved shoulder and elbow in 90 degrees of flexion.¬† Next, grasp your elbow and gently pull it across your body.¬† Hold for approximately 30 seconds.¬† Perform this stretch 2-3 times each session.
- Sleeper Stretch: The cross-body stretch is superior to the sleeper stretch for improving shoulder range of motion in young baseball players.¬† However, the sleeper stretch is the more popular of the two stretches.¬† For this stretch, assume the same starting position as the cross body stretch.¬† However, with the sleeper stretch, your wrist and forearm are gently moved down towards the table.¬† Once a mild stretch is felt on the outside or back of your shoulder, hold for 30 seconds.¬† Perform this stretch 2-3 times each session. For most athletes, both the sleeper and cross-body stretch do not need to be performed.¬† My personal experience, and the best available evidence, suggests the cross-body stretch is the most beneficial of the two.
- Bench T-Spine Mobilization: Extension of the upper back is necessary to achieve the arm cocking position needed for throwing.¬† Without an adequate amount of extension, unnecessary stress will be placed on your shoulder or elbow. ¬†This exercise also provides a nice stretch to the lattisimus dorsi and triceps muscles.¬† This muscles, when tight, limit overhead mobility.¬† Start by assuming a kneeling position facing a bench.¬† Place your elbows on the bench in front of you holding a PVC pipe or dowel with your palms facing up.¬† Sit back, push your buttocks towards your heels, and keep your spine relaxed, until you feel a stretch in your upper back.¬† Engage your abdominal muscles to prevent excessive arching of your low back.¬† (I could have done a better job of this in the video below). ¬†For an added stretch you can bend your elbows further past your head.¬† Hold this position briefly, and exhale fully. ¬†Reverse the motion to return to the start and repeat 6-10 repetitions.
- Thoracic Spine Windmill: This is a great dynamic mobility drill to restore thoracic spine rotation and improve the flexibility of the lattisimus and pectoral muscles.¬† Begin on your side with both arms outstretched in front of you.¬† Place a foam roll under your top leg with your knee and hip bent to 90 degrees.¬† Your bottom knee and hip remain extended throughout the exercise.¬† ¬†Reach forward with your top hand and then complete a large circular windmill motion with your entire upper body.¬† Keep reaching as if you are lengthening your entire arm.¬† Follow your hand with your eyes to ensure proper thoracic spine and rib cage movement.¬† Your top knee and leg should remain in contact with the foam roll.¬† Perform 6-8 repetitions on each side.
- Side-Lying IR/ER: This is a more advanced dynamic mobility exercise targeting the thoracic spine, rib cage, lattisimus dorsi, and pectoral muscles.¬† Start in a side-lying position.¬† Place a foam roll under your top leg with your knee and hip bent to 90 degrees.¬† Your bottom knee and hip remain extended.¬† Initiate the movement by reaching with the lower arm up towards the sky.¬† Hold this position, reaching upwards, throughout the drill.¬† Your arm to be stretched is then placed overhead with the thumb pointing down towards the floor.¬† Exhale fully at the top and then reverse the movement by bringing the arm down to your side.¬† As the arm is lowered the thumb position changes so it is pointing down towards your back pocket.¬† It is important that both elbows remain fully straight during the drill.¬† We generally perform 6-8 repetitions on each side.
Closing Thoughts on Arm Care Stretching Exercises
These 5 arm care stretching and mobility drills address typical muscle flexibility problems in baseball players.¬† As always, an individualized approach is always superior to ready-made one-size fits all programs.¬† Building arm strength through resistance training is also important for improved performance and resiliency in the baseball player.¬† Before engaging in any exercise program, those with a history of arm problems or those currently experiencing pain should first be evaluated by a physician, physical therapist, or athletic trainer. ¬†Some players may require additional arm care strategies such as passive stretching and soft tissue mobilization techniques.¬† Give us a call if you would like more help.
- Bailey LB, Thigpen CA, Hawkins RJ, Beattie PF, Shanley E. Effectiveness of manual therapy and stretching for baseball players with shoulder range of motion deficits. Sport Heal A Multidiscip Approach. 2017;9(3):230-237. doi:10.1177/1941738117702835.
- Hibberd EE, Oyama S, Myers JB. Increase in humeral retrotorsion accounts for age-related increase in glenohumeral internal rotation deficit in youth and adolescent baseball players. American Journal Sports Medicine. 2014;42(4):851-858. doi:10.1177/0363546513519325.
- Keller RA, De Giacomo AF, Neumann JA, Limpisvasti O, Tibone JE. Glenohumeral internal rotation deficit and risk of upper extremity injury in overhead athletes: A meta-analysis and systematic review. Sport Heal A Multidiscip Approach. 2018;Online:1-8. doi:10.1177/1941738118756577.
- Mine K, Nakayama T, Milanese S, Grimmer K. Effectiveness of stretching on posterior shoulder tightness and glenohumeral internal-rotation deficit: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Sport Rehabil. 2017;26:294-305.