Have you ever gone to practice as a pitcher, not really sure what you should be doing that day? Left to your own devices, would you be able to construct a plan for yourself that gets you better, gets you ready for your next appearance, and keeps you strong and healthy?
Last year, I wrote a blog on the proper protocol for pitchers the day after their start. After a lot of positive feedback, it seemed very worthwhile to spend some time creating an entire week’s plan to use as a reference. As pitchers, or any athlete for that matter, we want our practice time to be used as productive preparation for our next performance. By having a solid program, we avoid overuse injuries such as dead-arm, and limit performance plateau’s or even performance declines.
This is the general plan that I have used for the past seven years with my high school athletes as the team’s pitching coach with very good success. As with any plan or program, the important thing to note is that nothing is set in stone. Plans evolve and are tailored for the individual athlete. This is how programming becomes solid for everyone.
Day 1: The Day of the Start
Today is performance day; the day that you have been working towards all week, both physically and mentally. It is your most intense throwing day of the week, where you are giving it everything that you have. The key to this day is to develop thorough and consistent pre- and post-game routines to get the body ready for success and to begin the process all over again for your next start.
Your pre-game routine should get your body and mind completely ready for competition. This routine covers a vast number of tasks, from prepping the neuromuscular system to getting your arm loose to discovering what your pitches are doing that day. A good pre-game routine consists of the following:
Running Warm-up: Jog a couple of foul poles at a comfortable pace to prep your cardiovascular and muscular systems.
Dynamic Warm-up: You need a full and comprehensive movement-based routine that thoroughly warms up the entire body. Check out our pre-game and pre-practice warm-up routine here!
Throwing/Long-Toss Warm-up: I like to have pitchers complete the extension phase of their long-toss before games. (Click here for our long-toss programming!) The beginning throws are designed to loosen up your arm and to get the body ready for proper mechanical throws. Spend the first 15 throws focusing on simple mechanical movements, such as alignment or rotation, to prep the body for correct movements once you start cutting it loose. I use these three simple throwing drills to begin every single throwing warm-up.
Bullpen: Before you go out to the game mound, you need to throw a bullpen to get your arm and body ready for game-time execution. Your bullpen is a great opportunity to see what your pitches are doing that day. For example, if your two-seam fastball is running more than usual, and if you want to throw that pitch for a strike in certain situations, you may need to start it more over the plate instead of on the corner that day. You can examine any of your pitches this way. Before stepping on the game mound, you should know which pitches are working for you that day, where you need to start these pitches in various counts, and have a general game plan of how you are going to attack the hitters. Lastly, I like my pitchers to throw the last 5-10 pitches at game-speed. The first time you are cutting it loose shouldn’t be for the first batter of the game. Some guys like to throw to a batter or two in the bullpen as well, which helps them get off to a quicker start at game time.
Your post-game routine is all about getting the recovery process started immediately. View pitching as an intense workout: muscle fibers are worn and various metabolites have been built-up around your cells as a result of the heavy workload. You want to rebound as quickly as possible, and what your body needs is to engage your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This is effectively done by completing a full-body static stretch, in which you gently stretch your muscles in the opposite direction in which they were just contracting. Depending upon the length of your outing, you should shoot for at least 30-45 minutes of stretching time after your appearance. See our upper-body stretching routine and our lower-body stretching routine here! If you are a fan of icing, please ice after you stretch. Ice “cools-down” the muscles, limiting blood flow and therefore inflammation. However, it is important to note that oxygen-rich blood provides nutrients used by your cells for repair.
Day 2: The Day After the Start
As noted previously, I wrote an entire blog article on this very day itself. We will go over the process for the day below, but if you would like a more in-depth explanation, please click here.
The purpose of the day after your start is to continue the recovery process that your body begun the prior day. This can be done as follows:
Perform a full-body dynamic warm-up: This warm-up is similar to your warm-up before your start.
PNS running: You want your running to engage your PNS and not your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). When you run with too much intensity, you engage your SNS, which no longer results in the body spending time on the recovery process. (See "What's the Protocol for the Day After a Start?" article for specific running workouts).
Static stretching cool-down: After you run, you need to continue to show your muscle fibers love by performing a similar stretching routine that you completed after your start. Shoot for 30-60 minutes and watch how fast you recover!
Review game charts: Charting is a great way to objectively review how your performance went. What did you do well? What do you need to work on? Without an honest assessment and a subsequent plan of action, we are just blindly guessing at how to improve.
Day 3: Return to Tossing Day
Today is the day in which you get to return to baseball activity, i.e. throwing. If you spent the proper amount of time assisting in your body’s ability to recover, this should be easy to manage. You will begin this day like the previous two, with a full-body dynamic warm-up. After which, you can complete the extension phase of your throwing program. By completing the extension phase today, you get the arm and body back into throwing without over-extending yourself. We use the act of throwing as a tool to increase blood flow and movement to the areas that need it the most.
After your throwing is completed, you can spend time on towel drills that address any mechanical issues you may have, footwork drills to improve your pick-off game, or PFP’s (pitcher’s fielding practice) to work on situations from bunt coverages to covering first base on a ball hit to the right side of the infield.
Lastly, you want to spend some time conditioning. The length of your last outing and your level of conditioning will determine what kind of running you will complete. If you had an especially long outing or aren’t in the best shape (which generally means it will take your body longer to recover), you may have to engage in more running that involves the PNS. However, if your outing wasn’t overly strenuous or if your body has recovered optimally, then you can shift your running to more intense, cardiovascular work. Interval sprints are a great place to start.
Day Four: Bullpen Day
The bullpen day is the most intense practice day of the week. We are replicating game-like intensity but over a shortened period of time. Bullpen days consist of your pre-practice dynamic warm-up, the extension phase of the long-toss program, and are followed by the actual bullpen itself. Bullpens should be used to work on aspects of your game that need improving. This is a great time to get game-like repetitions in or to start progressing on learning new skills, such as developing a new pitch or a current pitch to a new location.
Remember that game chart that you reviewed the day after your start? Go back to that chart and see what you wrote down as areas that you want to work on. That is a way to plan for your bullpen. Once you have established some bullpen goals or focus points, let it rip! However, don’t forget to track what you are doing so you can assess how your plan actually went. Click for our bullpen chart here! I have our athletes throw bullpens in pairs: one athlete is throwing the pen while the other is tracking, then they switch roles once the bullpen is completed.
If you notice, our bullpen chart only tracks 20 pitches. I believe bullpens really shouldn’t last more than 20 pitches, if we have an effective, efficient, and intense bullpen session. The only reason someone should throw an extended bullpen in-season is if they missed a start and want to simulate an actual game-experience. Other than that, use these 20 pitches as focused repetitions that train your body and mind.
After the bullpen is complete, it’s time to get your sprinting done. View these sprints as a continuation of the bullpen itself; you only threw 20 pitches, but you still want to condition your body for extended intense action. My athletes run various shorter, yet explosive sprints, with longer, passive recovery times. For example, you can run an all-out, 40-yard sprint that takes you 5 seconds and walk back to the starting line which takes you 30 seconds (1:6 work to rest ratio). Repeat this as many times as you can until your sprint speed starts to decrease noticeably. If needed, you can increase the recovery time by a few seconds to keep your sprint speeds and repetitions up.
Lastly, you need to complete your full-body static stretching routine as a proper cool-down, preferably for at least 30 minutes or so. Once your running is done, we essentially want to start our body’s recovery process immediately, just like you did after your in-game pitching appearance. During the time you spend stretching, take five minutes to review your bullpen charts and write down any thoughts you may have.
Day 5: Active Recovery Day
Much like your first recovery day after you start, this recovery day begins the same way with a dynamic warm-up. However, we can still toss today, but very lightly. I have my pitchers just complete their three lead-up drills for throwing, as an opportunity to continue to work on their body mechanics. Since there is not a lot of throwing going on today, there are great opportunities to continue to work on mechanical towel drills, PFP’s, foot work drills, controlling the run game drills, defensive drills, etc. Much like every other day thus far, a full-body static stretch is required for at least 30 minutes.
Day 6: Workout Day
Once a week, my pitchers perform a neuromuscular workout to maintain off-season strength and mobility gains. Click here for more information on neuromuscular training. One of the biggest downfalls I see in athletes is that once the season starts, that don’t make time to work out. Although time becomes more constrained with the season in full-tilt, it is crucial to continue your training to maintain your performance and health. It is important to note that the dynamic of your workout will change from the off-season to in-season. Off-season training can be more intense and focus more on building and developing while in-season training should focus more on maintenance and preparation.
A good workout, no matter what the type, should have a comprehensive warm-up and all-inclusive stretching/cool-down routine to ensure athlete safety, health, and development.
Lastly, this is a non-throwing day! Let the arm and body get strong using different motions other than throwing today.
Day 7: The Day Before the Start
The day before the start is all about some final preparations for tomorrow’s big day. This day is different for each pitcher; however, the purpose of this day is for you to feel good about your start, both physically and mentally. We assist this feeling by creating a modest routine that is consistent throughout the season.
Each of my pitchers will do some light throwing on this day, mainly the lead-up drills. By reviewing basic throwing movements, you can easily experience success today while prepping the body to execute your mechanics for tomorrow’s game. After throwing, you can do some light sprints. Something as simple as completing a hand-full of build-up runs (as described in the "What's the Protocol for the Day After a Start" blog) is a great way to get the body moving and ready for higher intensity movements tomorrow. You should round-up the rest of your physical preparation with a full-body stretch for a good 30 minutes. During your stretching time, you have a great opportunity to mentally prepare for your start. We want to start getting focused for the game the night before, not the day of. Visualize yourself on the mound, in the game, dominating. Come up with an effort-based goal or focus point for your start that you stay with during your performance tomorrow.
Remember, you have prepared yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically all week, so you are strong and ready. Forget about your mechanics when on the mound and pitch. Trust that your work has prepared you to succeed and focus on what you can control, i.e. your execution.
A Word on Two-Way Players
At the amateur level, many pitchers also play a position and are expected to play during the week. With this in mind, the above plan can be altered to fit this in while safely preparing the athlete for their next start.
I always recommend that a pitcher who threw for an extended outing, should not play in the field the following day. What constitutes an extended outing varies on variables such as athlete age, conditioning of the athlete, and time of year. For instance, an extended outing for the first appearance of the year may consist of 55 pitches whereas an extended outing in mid-summer may be 90 pitches. Hence, good judgement is needed here.
Once the pitcher has gone through the recovery process, they are in a much better place to perform safely at a higher level. Throwing days during the week can be replaced with in-game throws. Bullpens can be moderated or even eliminated depending on how many games the athlete has been playing this week. Listed below are two sample schedules for pitchers who also play games during the week:
Example 1: 3 Games this Week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday)
Monday: Day of the start; threw 80 pitches
Tuesday: Recovery day; no game
Wednesday: Plays position in game; easy warm-up throws before game with limited game-intensity throws
Thursday: 20-pitch bullpen in practice to prepare for next week’s start*
Friday: Plays position in game; easy warm-up throws before game with limited game-intensity throws
Saturday: Off day from throwing; good day for a workout
Sunday: Day before the start preparation (assuming next start is tomorrow)
*The less intense the bullpen on Thursday, the more intense Friday’s game performance can be
Example 2: 4 Games this Week (Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday)
Saturday: Day of the start; threw 80 pitches
Sunday: Recovery day; does not play in game (can be used as a DH)
Monday: Return to throwing day at practice
Tuesday: Game day; substitutes bullpen for in-game throws*
Wednesday: Game day; plays regular position in-game*
Thursday: Off day from throwing; good day for a workout. If there was no bullpen or relief appearance this week, go through your dry mechanical work to stay sharp.
Friday: Day before the start preparation (assuming next start is tomorrow)
*Since the bullpen is being skipped this week in order to play in the mid-week games, the athlete can expect to be 100% ready and able to throw game-intense throws without worry. The bullpen can also be substituted for an inning of relief work as well. Please note, that if the pitcher throws an inning on Tuesday in lieu of the bullpen, that Wednesday’s game-intensity should be lighter than if no bullpen was thrown.
The most important aspect I can stress here is that plans need to be fluid and open to change. So many variables contribute to how the week should be executed. Whether you are an athlete or a coach, honest assessment and communication is critical for developing a constructive plan. This plan is not just a science, but an art. Absolutely, there are components in this plan that are scientifically proven and necessary, but how the athlete feels and how their body responds will dictate what they should do next. Like anything, it takes dedicated practice and experimentation to hone in on effective adjustments.