A New Way Of Looking At Mechanical Efficiency in Pitching
Much of the training at The Florida Baseball Ranch® is based on the Dynamic Systems Theory.
Within that system we try to avoid the inefficient verbal cueing that often corrupts the learning process. In our approach, we try to use motor learning strategies that create an environment for self-organization to occur. We use these motor learning precepts to nudge the athlete subconsciously toward more efficient movement patterns.
One of the most important strategies involves stabilizing the attractors. In every human movement, there are components that must be stable and other parts that can be variable. The stable components are known as attractors and the variables are called fluctuators. This idea was first posited by JA Scott Kelso in his book Dynamic Patterns: The Self Organization of Brain And Behavior and was expanded upon for a broad array of athletic movements in Frans Bosch’s book Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach.
Attractors can be identified by the following criteria:
- If parts of the movement present time pressures that require the skill to be performed in a particular manner to be successful, that component is probably an attractor.
- If failure to perform the skill in a particular manner increases your risk of injury, that component is probably an attractor.
- If the vast majority of elite performers execute the skill in a particular manner, that component is probably an attractor.
Over the past few years, we at The Florida Baseball Ranch® have worked to identify a list of attractors in the pitching movement. So far, we’ve come up with seven.
Attractors in pitching serve four functions:
- They remove muscle slack.
- They assist in the transfer of energy through the kinetic chain.
- They direct that energy toward the successful accomplishment of a goal.
- They help the athlete safely and efficiently dissipate the energy as the movement ends.
The first four of the seven attractors involve the production of isometric co-contraction of muscles around joints at key parts of the movement, thereby removing muscle slack.
Attractor number five allows the body to maximize the elastic energy of the torso to transfer energy through the kinetic sequence. Attractor number six helps to direct the energy toward home plate by producing a characteristic we call “late launch”. And, attractor number seven encourages a deceleration pattern that allows the athlete to safely and efficiently dissipate the energy after ball release.
What is Muscle Slack?
Muscles don’t rest on your bones ready to produce force. They sag off the bones like a clothesline. Imagine trying to pull a car with a rope. If the rope is sagging off the bumper, before you can get the car to move you must first remove the slack in the rope. This is how muscle slack works. Before any power or strength can be expressed, the slack in the muscles must be removed.
As I discussed in FBR SAVAGE Training, there are essentially three ways to remove muscle slack in the training athlete’s body:
- Countermovements — When an athlete makes a counter movement, that is, a movement in the opposite direction of the eventual intended movement, the eccentric or negative move automatically removes slack from the system. However, in movements like pitching and hitting where there are significant time constraints players don’t have the luxury of performing countermovements to remove slack. Furthermore, a recent study by Bosch, et al reported that when subjects are trained to use countermovements to remove slack and then required to perform skills that don’t allow time for countermovements, the effects of the training do not transfer. Thus, training with countermovements does not represent an option the baseball athlete has available to him in a game.
- Heavy load from above — Another method for removing muscle slack is for the athlete to shoulder a heavy load from above. In doing so, nearly every muscle below immediately tenses up, removing slack. However, the last time I checked, they don’t call your name over the PA system at the ballpark, then allow you to walk out to the mound or the plate with an Olympic bar on your shoulders. Therefore, at some point, after the athlete is “strong enough”, continued use of heavy load from above teaches him to remove slack in a way that is not available to him in a game. Indeed, continued use of this method of training can become corruptive.
- Forcing co-contraction — The best way to train an athlete to remove muscle slack naturally (in a way that is available to him during competition) is to force co-contraction. When we refer to co-contraction, we mean symmetrical isometric contraction of all the muscles surrounding a joint or a group of joints. Simultaneous contraction of agonists and antagonists stabilizes the joint and automatically removes the muscle slack so the athlete can create force or power. The best way to force co-contraction is through overhead instability. Keep in mind, we’re not talking about instability from below — such as standing on foam pads or therapy balls. We are talking about instability from above — the kind you get from unstable loads like hanging plates from elastic bands or water-filled devices that offer random perturbations that demand constant adjustment. Teaching athletes to remove muscle slack naturally by forcing co-contraction is a key component in our revolutionary SAVAGE training process.
Now that we understand slack, let’s get back to the business of further describing the 7 attractors in pitching.
- Co-contraction of the muscles of the back hip, knee and ankle, just prior to the first forward move. Creating isometric co-contraction of the muscles of the back leg is vital for removing the muscle slack necessary for the expression of power. To make this happen, we teach a crucial concept we call “the inverted iron pyramid.” This is an idea that was first presented to me by a guy named Matt Furey, a former collegiate national champion wrestler and eventually a world Kung Fu champion. We knew it was important for our pitchers to load their glutes more than their quads to facilitate rotation into the back hip. However, many of our students, on their first move, would shift their weight to the ball of the foot, activating their quads. This would project them toward the on-deck circle on their arm side, leaving them with one of two options. They could maintain course, land and throw across their bodies. Or, they could disconnect to get back on their line toward the plate. Typical disconnections deployed to correct the directional problem included opening the lead leg early, rotating the torso toward home plate prematurely or lurching the trunk toward the glove side, losing postural stability. In the gym, when you want someone to load their glutes, you cue them to push through their heels. So, it seemed reasonable to have our pitchers load through their back heel to activate the back glute and solve or avoid a directional problem. I was teaching this to Matt’s son one day when Matt casually mentioned, “Randy, I think you might be a little off in this whole ‘load through the heel’ thing. In Kung Fu, when we teach a fighter to punch or kick, we don’t tell him to go through the heel or the ball of the foot. Instead, we tell them you push through the entire foot. We call it “the inverted iron pyramid.'” Noting the look of confusion on my face, he said, “Hang on.” He bolted out of the door, sprinting to his car. Through the window, I could see him rummaging through his trunk and soon he popped up and proclaimed, “Here! I found it!” He raced back inside toting a tattered and worn paperback book. It was written totally in Mandarin Chinese, so I couldn’t read a word, but judging by the pictures it was some sort of kungfu instruction manual. He turned to a page that showed a picture of a Kung Fu man preparing for a kick. The view was from the side and most interestingly it showed from ground level what was happening both above and below the earth. Below the ground, you could see an upside-down iron pyramid. It was attached to the bottom of the foot which was above ground. The size of the pyramid was the length and width of his shoe and it reached a point approximately 4 inches below the ground. I don’t have the actual picture, but this picture is my best rendition. A few days later, I was watching a long drive golf contest on ESPN and the announcers broke away to an instructional segment on how long drive specialists produce better ground reaction force by keeping their entire back foot engaged with the ground, not allowing it to pivot to the ball of the foot until after the club has contacted the ball. Now I had basically the same movement being taught in two different movements from two vastly disparate cultures. At this point, I knew we were onto something important. The inverted iron pyramid makes total sense for pitchers in light of muscle slack considerations. If the entire foot is engaged — not the heel … or the ball … or the inside … or the outside of the foot — the athlete forces symmetrical and simultaneous co-contraction of the muscles of the hip, knee, and ankle. Muscle slack is instantly removed and the limb is prepared to express power. If the pyramid is shifted in any direction, co-contraction is lost and muscle slack is produced. What the athlete is left with is an unsteady base of support that forces him to perform the functional equivalent of shooting a cannon out of a rowboat. If you get the inverted iron pyramid right, the stage is set for a lot of good things to happen further down the kinetic chain. This is why the resultant co-contraction of the back leg is the first attractor. The iron pyramid is the only conscious thought we allow in our pitchers. After the pyramid is set, there is no more conscious thought about the pitching movement.
- Co-contraction of the muscles around the front hip, knee, and ankle at weight-bearing foot plant on the lead leg. When the lead leg is in flight, it has no role. It truly does nothing. It should lock into connection with the pelvis and ride along until the pitcher’s back hip rotates, turning the front leg open. The connection prevents the front leg from pulling the hips and torso open prematurely, which would disrupt the timing of the kinetic chain, thereby robbing the athlete of velocity/command and adding unnecessary stress to his connective tissue. However, when the front leg hits the ground, it must go to work. A research paper by Canadian baseball instructor, Graeme Lehman reported the importance of the lead leg in producing high-velocity throwing. At weight-bearing foot plant the front ankle, knee and hip must stabilize and prevent the knee from leaking forward. Further investigation reveals that in elite throwing athletes, the lead leg doesn’t only absorb the forces created upstream, but it also adds to that force, essentially catapulting the athlete forward like a slingshot. We call it exhibiting a “negative Y”. In pitching laboratory studies, when a force plate is positioned under the landing foot, forces can be shown in three directions. “Z forces” push directly into the ground from above. Any lateral or side-to-side force is labeled an “X force”. Forward and backward forces are called “Y forces” and are considered positive if the vector is forward and negative if it points backward. Elite throwers tend to exhibit a negative Y force at ball release, shortly after weight-bearing foot plant on the lead leg. A Frans Bosch concept known as “foot plant from above” increases the likelihood of achieving a negative Y. This precept emerged from observation of elite sprinters around the world. When high-level runners impact the ground, they don’t slide into their landing on a horizontal plane, but rather they land from above. Just before foot strike the air born swing leg is pulled backward (hip extension) causing the foot to land as it is moving rearward. This produces a clawing action that adds energy and propels the athlete forward. In pitching, the momentum of the body tends to project the center of mass forward of the lead leg. If the front knee gives way and leaks forward of landing position, the athlete is unable to achieve symmetrical isometric co-contraction around the ankle, knee and hip. Muscle slack remains and he is unable to add power to his movement. The “negative Y” reverses the momentum of the body over the knee and forces the isometric co-contraction that removes muscle slack from the lead leg, thus allowing it to express power and make a significant contribution to the overall energy of the movement. The result is usually increased velocity. This “clawing action” of the lead leg has recently achieved a degree of attention on the internet. This is not to be interpreted as a movement that occurs independently in the lead leg and the front knee doesn’t actually have to lock out. In fact, if the athlete doesn’t possess adequate hamstring flexibility, attempting to lock the lead leg can cause premature hip and trunk flexion which disrupts the sequence, synergy and timing of the kinetic chain and can result in a loss of velocity. In actuality, foot plant from above and the negative Y effect are achieved by riding the inverted iron pyramid on the back leg, engaging the backside glutes and then rotating the back hip. This produces lead hip extension just prior to front foot contact and prevents the front knee from leaking forward. The resultant “negative Y” reverses the momentum of the lead leg and creates isometric, symmetrical co-contraction of the muscles around the front ankle, knee and hip. Thus, the negative Y displayed by elite throwers is actually the product of backside power and rotational efficiency. Attempting to achieve the negative Y by forcing the front knee into extension is a flawed approach that could erode performance and arm health.
- Co-contraction of the arm side rotator cuff and periscapular musculature at weight-bearing foot plant on the lead leg. When the front foot hits the ground, the angle between the humerus (upper arm) and the torso should not exceed 90 degrees. However, many athletes are taught to “get the elbow up” in an attempt to create backspin and a “downhill plane.” This is bad teaching because it puts the rotator cuff and the muscles around the shoulder blade in a disadvantageous mechanical position. Let me explain. Every muscle or group of muscles has a length at which they are optimally strong. For example, when your elbow is completely straight, your biceps is weak because it is too long. On the other hand, when your elbow is completely bent, your biceps is weak because it is too short. However, positioning the elbow at about 90 degrees places the biceps in its strongest position. In muscle physiology, this is known as “the length-tension relationship.” Your rotator cuff in the shoulder consists of 4 muscles — one in the front, one on the top and two in the back. It’s job it is to suck the head of the humerus into the socket. This position allows co-contraction of all the shoulder muscles, removes muscle slack and stabilizes the shoulder and the elbow. When the elbow is above the shoulder, the length-tension relationships of the rotator cuff, biceps and the muscles around the scapula are disrupted and pitchers aren’t able to isometrically co-contract. If the muscles around shoulder girdle don’t co-contract, muscle slack cannot be removed. This could lead to erosion of performance, acute pain or even catastrophic injury.
- Co-contraction of the glove side rotator cuff, and retraction of the glove side scapula toward the middle of the spine. The dual purpose of glove side efficiency is to remove muscle slack and to optimize the length-tension relationship in the torso. Glove side scapular retraction (pinching the shoulder blade toward the spine and downward toward the back pocket) allows the muscles around the lead shoulder (the rotator cuff and the deltoid) to co-contract. This component assists with the timing and synergy of the hip-to-shoulder separation and subsequent rotation of the torso around the front hip. If isometric co-contraction of the lead arm rotator cuff and scapular muscles is not achieved, muscle slack will remain and the lead shoulder girdle will not stabilize enough to anchor torso rotation and/or deceleration. The elastic properties of the muscles of the upper torso will not be optimized and the athlete will not reach his full potential.
- Transfer of elastic energy through the torso by means of well-timed hip to shoulder separation. When the front foot hits the ground, the back hip should have rotated the hips toward the target. This lower half move coupled with glove side scapular retraction and co-contraction of the muscles around the lead shoulder serves to remove the muscle slack from the torso. It also helps to place all the trunk muscles in the perfect length-tension relationship to transfer power from the lower body to the upper body and ultimately to the arm. Every pitcher must find the exact amount of hip-to-shoulder separation they need to maximize the length-tension relationship of his trunk musculature while still creating a stretch that capitalizes on the elastic properties of the connective tissue of the torso. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean that every pitcher should be trying to achieve the highest degree of hip-to-shoulder separation and thus the most amount of “stretch”. For energy to be efficiently transferred from the lower body to the upper body, the torso muscles must stretch and contract at just the right time. More is not necessarily better. The timing of the separation of the hips from the shoulders is probably more important than the degree of excursion achieved. In addition to separatin the hips from the shoulders in a 2-dimensional view, another key peice of the trynk attractor is “chest out while rotating.
- Internal rotation of the back hip to force the backside foot to roll toward the outside of the little toe. At ball release, high-level pitchers tend to have their back foot in contact with the ground. They remain on their iron pyramid until the front foot has almost landed. At this point, the back hip rotates, transferring energy up the kinetic chain. This causes the back hip to move to a position parallel to or ahead of the front hip and places the arm-side shoulder ahead of the glove side shoulder. The resultant release point well ahead of the front leg is known as “late launch” and directs the energy of the arm and the release of the ball straight toward the catcher. Represented here are 6 decades of elite pitchers. Notice that at ball release all of these hall-of-fame caliber pitchers have rotated into late launch. Their trail hip has rotated to parallel with the lead hip. Their arm side is well ahead of their glove side and they are releasing the ball significantly out in front of their bodies. The presence of this movement characteristic in so many high-level throwers makes back hip rotation at ball release attractor #6
- Rotational deceleration with the elbow loose and bent and the throwing elbow never crossing the midline of the body. Remember that attractors can be identified by looking for patterns that might put an athlete at risk. For this reason, a rotational deceleration pattern is an attractor that must be stable to allow safe and efficient development. Your body will not speed up what it doesn’t believe you have adequate brakes to slow down. Additionally, to ensure optimal health and durability of the arm, the movement pattern after ball release must be rotational and not linear. I’ll explain. Muscles can contract in one of 3 ways. Concentric contractions occur when a muscle is shortening as it produces force. A muscle contracts eccentrically when it lengthens as it produces tension. And in isometric contractions, the muscle length does not change. Eccentric (lengthening) contractions produce more force than either concentric (shortening) or isometric. As confirmed in my discussion with Frans Bosch years ago, eccentric contraction of the biceps is devastating to the arm health of a pitcher. One would think the biceps would be the most active in the high cock position when the elbow is flexed. But EMG studies reveal that the biceps is most active at ball release. At this moment, if the deceleration pattern the biceps is resisting 3 movements: long axis shoulder distraction, humeral head elevation, and terminal elbow extension. In many throwers, when the body no longer senses the stimulus of the ball in hand, the muscles of the rotator cuff and the posterior shoulder surrender, like a guy losing a tug-of-war. This leaves the biceps alone in trying to resist the 3 motions mentioned above. But, there’s a problem. If you trace the long head of the biceps up to its origin, you’ll find it attached to the labrum. The labrum is a ring of fibrocartilage that encircles the socket of the shoulder, providing depth and stability. If the biceps continually rages eccentrically, it can actually pull part of the labrum right off the socket. This is known as a SLAP tear (Superior Labrum Anterior to Posterior). This picture shows an arthroscopic view of a labrum tear that has happened as a result of this all-too-common eccentric tugging from the biceps. To prevent this from happening, you must turn off the biceps when you throw. The biceps is inhibited when you internally rotate the shoulder. Try it. Hold your arm up and flex your right biceps, as if you’re showing someone how many curls you’ve been doing in the gym. Now take your left hand and rest it on the muscle belly of your right biceps. So you feel the muscle contraction? Now, with your left hand still on your right biceps, take your right arm through a throwing motion but internally rotate your shoulder as if you’re dumping out a cup of water on your shoes. Did you feel the biceps tone disappear under your left hand? This is neurologic principle known as “reciprocal inhibition.” When you train your body to “get extension” with drills like the ever popular “towel drill” you reinforce a linear deceleration pattern that fails to turn off the biceps and could lead to significant injury to the biceps, the labrum, the rotator cuff, the posterior shoulder and even the UCL. For this reason, a rotational deceleration pattern is included as the seventh and final attractor in the throwing motion.
When attractors become stable, the body automatically begins eliminating fluctuators and the movement becomes more efficient. However, we must proceed with caution. If our training lacks variability, we risk allowing the attractors to become too stable. If the attractors become too stable, nearly ALL fluctuators are eliminated and the athlete loses adjustability. Under these conditions, if the movement begins to veer toward patterns of tissue stress or failure, the athlete has no pre-rehearsed adjustment options available. Ironically, the “perfection” of his mechanics renders him unable to protect himself. The essence of movement efficiency is to have attractors that are stable, but not too stable, and to have some fluctuators available, but not too many. Stabilize the attractors and add variability in your training to develop just enough of the necessary fluctuators to allow for adjustability.
I am thrilled and honored to announce that we will be joining our friends from the Dutch Baseball here at The Florida Baseball Ranch® to host the Florida Baseball Ranch®/Dutch Baseball Skill Acquisition Summit. This epic conference will feature some of the most brilliant and influential thinkers in coaching and motor learning science.
World-leading skill acquisition scientists will lay out the details of the dynamical systems theory, then premiere coaches will bridge the gap and provide actionable plans for application of the science. The information presented will empower coaches and medical professionals with the knowledge and practical tools to design practice experiences that optimize development while limiting injury risk.
This conference will be a game-changer — guaranteed!
We’ll see you at the Ranch.
Randy Sullivan, MPT, CSCS
1) All things Strength and Wellness podcast Episode 100 Interview with Frans Bosch 4/13/2017
2) Kelso JA, Dynamic Patterns: The Self Organization of Brain And Behavior The MIT Press Cambridge Mass, 1995
3) Bosch F, Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach, 2010 Publishers, 2015
4) Leheman Graeme, “Front Leg Strength Predicts Throwing Velocity”, Lehman’s Baseball, https://lehmansbaseball.wordpress.com/2015/12/03/front-leg-strength-predicts-throwing-velocity-great-research/