The health of the rotator cuff muscles is crucial for the baseball player. The rotator cuff is composed of 4 small muscles connecting the shoulder blade to the upper arm bone. The 4 muscles are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. The primary function of the rotator cuff is to maintain the ball of the shoulder centered within the socket of the shoulder blade. Weakness, fatigue, or injury to the rotator cuff results in abnormal movement of the ball within the socket. For the baseball player, this may lead to pain, loss of throwing velocity, poor performance, and injury. Thankfully, exercise targeting the rotator cuff can reduce injury risk for the baseball player and improve performance.
The Rotator Cuff During Throwing
There are 6 sequential phases to baseball pitching. The rotator cuff is most active during the arm cocking through arm deceleration phases. These are the phases where the greatest stress is placed on the throwerâ€™s shoulder and elbow. Subsequently, most overuse injuries occur due to repetitive stress during these phases. A strong and healthy rotator cuff is essential to withstand these stresses.
A classic study performed by the late Dr. Frank Jobe and his colleagues revealed the activity levels of the rotator cuff during the different phases of pitching. The supraspinatus muscle is most active during the transition from the stride to the arm cocking phase. This muscle centers the ball within the socket as the arm is being raised. The infraspinatus muscle is most active during the arm cocking phase as the shoulder maximally externally rotates. The teres minorâ€™s primary role is to assist with decelerating the arm after ball release. And finally, the subscapularis is highly active as it contributes to arm acceleration.
The Rotator Cuff and Injuries in Baseball
Numerous studies have proved an association between rotator cuff weakness and injury in baseball players. A 2015 study showed baseball players with ulnar collateral ligament injuries had significantly less rotator cuff strength compared to healthy pitchers. An earlier study found high school baseball players with pre-season supraspinatus weakness were more likely to sustain arm injuries during the regular season. Research performed in Japan found rotator cuff imbalances were associated with shoulder and elbow injuries in high school pitchers. Finally, research on professional pitchers shows pre-season weakness of the supraspinatus and infraspinatus muscles are associated with in-season injuries requiring surgery.
Rotator Cuff Exercises for Baseball
For good reason, baseball players are encouraged to perform regular rotator cuff exercises as part of a year-round arm care program. The specific exercises performed are based on the scientific research showing which exercises elicit the highest activation of the rotator cuff. Baseball players are also creatures of habit and routine. The individual preferences of the athlete should always be considered when selecting exercises. Some athletes prefer exercising with resistance bands while others prefer more traditional free weights. The 4 exercises which follow can be performed with light dumbbells, usually between 2 to 8 pounds. In part 2 of this article, we will cover some of the most beneficial resistance band exercises for the rotator cuff.
Closing Thoughts on Rotator Cuff Exercises for Baseball Players
Arm overuse throwing injuries for the baseball player can be debilitating and derail a career. These 4 exercises are only a small sample of rotator cuff exercises for baseball players which can be helpful. They can be performed during any part of a year-round training program. Your physical therapist can perform an individual assessment and design an exercise program based on your deficiencies and goals. The objective is to increase the baseball playerâ€™s likelihood of a long injury-free and successful career. Contact us today if you questions about which exercises are right for you.