When talking about building throwing arm strength, you can be sure the term "long-toss" is included. Coaches, athletes, and scouts are all advocates of long-toss, but what does a suitable program look like?
The goal of any athletic development program is to safely, efficiently, and effectively increase performance. This is the same for a constructive long-toss program that builds throwing arm strength and stamina, resulting in faster throwing velocity, longer throws with a perceived greater ease, and more consistent accuracy. This does not just happen by aimlessly throwing at arbitrary and varying distances, intensities, and repetitions on a sporadic schedule, which most athletes seem to prescribe to.
Factors that Determine a Suitable Program
There are several factors that go into choosing an appropriate throwing program in which we will take a closer look at below:
Age of the athlete: Depending upon the athlete's age, variables such as the number of throws per throwing workout, the intensity levels of various throws, the target distances thrown, the time spent building up base arm strength, and the amount of time dedicated towards recovery change drastically. It seems logical that you wouldn't have a Little League or even a high school aged athlete throwing on a MLB player's routine. Unfortunately, but not overly surprising, you can go to most high school and Little League practices and see athletes throwing high-intensity long-toss every day on top of playing three games a week. Overtraining, whether by overly strenuous workloads (having a 10-year old long-toss out to 180'), too much actual work (throwing 100 times at maximum effort and distance every throwing workout), or not enough recovery time (throwing every single day), is the number one deterrent in achieving athletic performance increases because soft tissues are never allowed to fully repair. Building in enough recovery time is crucial for the development of any muscular activity, including throwing. As a general rule of thumb, less is more when it comes to younger athletes as the neuromuscular and skeletomuscular systems of the body are not yet fully developed. We also have a longer timespan to consistently develop younger athletes. Even older and higher-level athletes need ample recovery time in between throwing sessions in order to achieve maximum throwing gains.
Skill level of the athlete: Even though athletes may be of the same age, that does not mean that the athletes are of equal skill level. Taking skill level into account is always crucial for any athletic plan as it dictates several aspects of a regimen, along with how successful any given athlete will be with a program in terms of improvement and accomplishment. As a coach, you work so that all of your athletes can experience success and as an athlete, you certainly strive to be as successful as you can. Understanding your own or your athlete's skill level allows for a proper program to be set up that allows for success. For example, if you have two 12-year old athletes:
Athlete One is fairly new to baseball or has played recreationally for just one season a year.
This athlete would participate in a program that is heavily focused on learning proper throwing mechanics. This program would start with basic throwing drills at shorter distances to promote new, correct habits (through neural plasticity creating new neural pathways).
The throwing program would require the athlete to perform numerous repetitions with careful attention to detail to make sure each rep is performed correctly. The more attentive we are at each rep, the faster the habit is learned and performed correctly.
Since the intensity levels of the throws are minimal due to the nature of the drills and distances thrown, this athlete can perform this program several times per week.
To keep the athlete interested (since the athlete may be more of a recreational baseball player), we could extrinsically motivate the athlete with mini competitions within each drill (i.e. see how many throws in the next ten throws the athlete can hit his spot).
Eventually, once the athlete has displayed proficiency in the skill set at shorter distances, we can gradually have the athlete move on to further distances with correct implementation of the throwing mechanics.
Moving on too soon results in two negative consequences:
The athlete will revert back to his old and incorrect movement patterns, negating any new learning habits.
The athlete will be aware of his lack of success, most likely resulting in discouragement, and a lack of willingness to continue the program.
Athlete Two has played baseball every Spring and Summer since Tee Ball, loves and is serious about the game, and is naturally more athletic than average.
This athlete would participate in a program that is more focused on developing arm strength to improve throwing velocity. This program would include basic throwing drills during warm-up throwing to positively reinforce correct throwing habits and to adjust minor flaws, followed by higher-intensity throwing.
The same attention to detail would be required during the warm-up throws to make sure the athlete is properly training correct throwing habits, however, the pace at which the athlete moves on to more advanced progressions and further throwing distances is expedited.
Since the intensity levels of the throws (further distances and faster velocities from increased force loads) are higher, a longer recovery time in between throwing sessions is required. Therefore, a program like this should be completed only a couple of times per week.
The athlete could perform light to moderate levels of throwing a couple of days a week along with this program, working on translating these more intense throws into position specific throws, but should have at least two days off per week with no throwing.
We would not have this athlete participate in the program that Athlete One is undergoing as Athlete Two would most likely:
Become bored with the constant repetition of a skill already learned.
Become frustrated without any seen growth or improvement, resulting in a lack of willingness to complete the program.
A major error in coaching and training is having everyone on the same exact program and attempting to move everyone onwards at the same time. Athletes do not develop at the same rate. Coaching, whether other athletes or yourself, is work. It takes a disciplined approach to be constantly aware of progress, plateaus, when to implement more recovery time, and when to push harder.
Goal(s) the athlete has pertaining to throwing and their athletic career: Do you want to throw harder, build stamina, increase throwing accuracy, or a combination of the three? An athlete's goal, or reason for participating in a throwing program will also dictate how the program is set up. If velocity gain is the primary goal, more intense throws are required during the week, perhaps with the aid (performed under extreme prejudice and care) of weighted balls. If building throwing stamina is the goal, a gradual increase in the number of throws over varying distances and intensities is required along with proper recovery weeks built in. If increased accuracy is desired, the program must include biomechanical work and throwing progressions, especially in the beginning stages to allow for an eventual change in throwing movement to be successfully performed at all distances and intensities. In choosing your motivations and goals as an athlete, it is important to understand why you desire such an end result objectively. Do you aspire to be a Division I pitcher, but as a right-hander only throw 84mph? (Generally, most DI programs look for right-handers who throw 87mph or faster, but of course, many more factors go into the recruiting equation.) If this is the case, focusing on a program that supports increased velocity is most desired whereas if you throw 90mph with the same goal to play DI baseball, a program supporting increased throwing and pitch accuracy through a biomechanical shift in throwing mechanics may be better suited.
Position of the athlete: The primary position of an athlete plays a large role in how a good throwing program is structured. A pitcher should go through a throwing program that builds up arm strength and stamina in the beginning, working on improving velocity or command, both through biomechanical work, then work on transferring the positive results to the mound. A positional players program should also work on arm strength and stamina in the beginning, much like a pitcher's program, however, the plan should graduate to working on position specific work. Catchers should be implementing progress to improving pop times to second and third, along with the ability to throw the ball to first on covering bunts. Outfielders should be implementing progress to outfield throws to second, third, and home, from fly balls, charging ground balls (do or die plays), or balls in the gap (double cuts). Infielders should be implementing progress to throws in the infield from fielding ground balls with proper mechanical footwork for efficiently transitioning from a fielding position to a throwing position.
Timing of the program: Depending upon the time of the year, athletes can (and should) adjust their training approach and regimens. An in-season program will differ from an out-of-season program as we need to take into consideration workloads from practices while making sure an athlete is 100% prepared for games. Off-season programs are simple in the fact that there can be a set schedule of throwing days, recovery days, mechanical days, etc. whereas in-season plans need to be flexible. The key to success in any program is flexibility; being emotionally attached to following a program verbatim is detrimental to success. We need to be able to adjust on the fly, using any program as a guideline for development. During any in-season program, it is crucial to avoid over-training as athletic performance will surely begin a gradual decline. Remember, the point of any athletic training regimen is to increase on-field performance in a safe, effective, and efficient manner. Training in the off-season can be more aggressive as athletes do not have game or practice obligations where we are using the same throwing muscles and functions constantly, and we have more time to participate in the recovery process. While in-season training can certainly be intense when proper recovery time is observed, athletes can easily over-train since they are consistently throwing during training, practices, and games. More times than not, in-season programs focus on maintenance of strength, stamina, and athletic conditioning, however, it is possible to seek athletic gains in-season. Please note that these gains tend to take longer in-season than out-of-season so a disciplined and long-term approach is required. Any short-cuts or goals looking for immediate increases in performance usually result in athletic performance decreases or injury. Even success in the short-term is short-lived and not sustainable as we did not properly build up the neuromuscular system.
The Importance of Tracking
Now that we have looked at factors that influence how a program is set-up, we should discuss how we monitor progress so that the program we choose to perform is working for us. Far too often as a coach, I see athletes perform the same programs, drills, and practice routines that do not translate to positive results on the field, however, these athletes continue to do them as they believe or have been told that that's what you are supposed to do. But why would they continue to do something that doesn't work for them? As crazy as it sounds, the answer is that most athletes just aren't aware that what they are doing isn't helping them.
Tracking is vital to any athletic program as progress can be objectively marked. Whether we see improvements, plateaus, or declines, tracking gives us real-time feedback. In turn, we can decide whether what we are doing is working or if we need to make adjustments in intensity levels, recovery time, or approaches. As mentioned above in the paragraph on timing of the program, a willingness to be flexible in making adjustments is crucial to success and programs should be used as strong guidelines, not absolute truths. No two athletes are exactly the same, so if taking off or limiting the intensity of throws on a scheduled throwing day is necessary for one athlete to achieve positive results, then do it. A different athlete may follow the plan exactly on that same day of throwing and achieve similar positive results as the other athlete, which is also great.
Several variables should be tracked for any long-toss program. Throwing dates and recovery times (be it active recovery days that include stretching/mobility or complete rest days where we do nothing at all) should be noted so that we know what we have done every single day of the program. The number of throws at each distance needs to be taken so we can quantify throwing improvements, plateaus, or regressions. Perceived intensity levels are recorded so we can see how our body responds to different workloads. Please note that perceived intensity levels may sometimes be tough to gauge as athletes do not always do the best job being consciously aware of how hard they are going after a drill or rep, so please pay close attention to this! Notes on what we are working on that day and how our body feels during the workout and the days after are vital pieces of information to track as well. These notes allow you to individually adjust your program schedule week-by-week, if necessary. Without this information, we are just guessing.
Proper Warm-up, Post Stretching, and Arm Care
Any good long-toss program is so much more than just throwing and should include proper warm-up, post stretching, and arm care. The actual throwing portion of a throwing program is only half the battle with the other half being muscular health and proper functional muscular development of the entire body, biomechanical development, and mental approach (a lack of confidence in one's ability to throw hard will result in an athlete not throwing as hard as they are physically capable). Throwing is a full-body exercise, with hundreds of muscles contracting and extending at various points of the throwing motion to provide power, stabilization, and explosive movement. As a responsible athlete, we need to take care to warm-up these muscles before endeavoring in throwing. Any dynamic movement or callisthenic is a good place to start. We also need to properly cool-down our muscles after throwing to begin the recovery process. Performing static stretches in which we gradually increase the amount of time we hold each stretch for is suitable for post-throwing work. Increased flexibility is key for maintaining muscular health, ensuring proper movement patterns of muscles, allowing muscle fibers to utilize their full strength during any exercise or movement.
During our light and non-throwing days, we are supplied with a great opportunity to complete shoulder rehab exercises to properly strengthen and mobilize the stabilizing muscle groups in and around the shoulder (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis, etc.). As the shoulder joint and rotator cuff experience heavy amounts of stress from great force loads from throwing, we want these stabilizing muscle groups to be able to function properly, ensuring they are doing their jobs to support our larger muscle groups (deltoids, pectoralis major and minor, latissimus dorsi, triceps brachii, biceps brachii, etc.) which are also heavily involved in throwing. Completion of shoulder rehab exercises should be a part of any throwing program to ensure athlete health and performance.
Any athletic program takes time and effort to complete if you are looking for true athletic performance increases. This is especially the case for a long-toss throwing program. Several factors, ranging from age and skill level to athlete goals and when the program will be performed, determine which program is the right program for each athlete. Tracking proves to be an invaluable tool in objectively monitoring progress or a lack of it, leading to assistance in what to adjust in your program. We, whether as coaches or athletes, want consistent development through moderate progressions over the long-term. This long-term success is not achieved by ignoring the importance of recovery time for our neuromuscular and skeletomuscular systems and throwing every day for a week or two. We need our muscle fibers, or the muscle fibers of our athletes, to rebuild fully to gain strength and stamina, resulting in improved throwing performances on the field. Proper warm-up, active recovery stretching, and shoulder rehab provides support for this growth. The next time you decide to throw, or have your athletes throw, take a moment to decide if what you are doing will really help you and your team on the field.
To start you out, please see our free four-week throwing program on our website that is designed to help you easily manage the beginning stages of building up throwing strength for your upcoming baseball season.