Baseball Fit – Preventive Exercises for a Winning Season

As weather warms and winter sports wind down, attention turns to the promise of a new baseball season and the championships ahead.

Now is the time to begin preparing.High School baseball

At the core of a successful team are strong players – physically strong, well rested and well conditioned.

Baseball is one of the few sports played almost daily throughout the entire season.  For young players beginning in little league, this amounts to a lot of plays by high school.  The frequency of repetitive stress injuries in youth baseball have increased over the years, particularly with the rise in special “elite” teams and extended seasons. This is most evident in young pitchers, on which much research has focused and for which Pitch Count guidelines have been developed.

Although baseball is not considered a contact sport, injuries can result from contact with the ball and other players, as well as poor form/technique, or an awkward movement during a play.

Some of the most common baseball injuries include:

  • Injuries in the shoulder and elbow (Little Leaguer’s Shoulder, Little Leaguer’s Elbow)
  • Knee injuries
  • Muscle pulls
  • Ligament injuries
  • Fractures (Finger, Distal Radius/Wrist)
  • Concussions 

While some injuries resulting from collision with another player are getting hit by the ball cannot be avoided, exercise can aid in reducing risks or preventing many repetitive stress related injuries.

Repetitive injuries are the result of repetitive use, stress and trauma to the soft tissues of the body (muscles, tendons, bones and joints), which are not given adequate time for proper healing. They are sometimes called cumulative trauma, repetitive stress or overuse injuries.

To avoid such repetitive stress conditions and muscle fatigue, players should have a dedicated fitness program – ideally one that is also specific to the position they play.  This should include overall strengthening and endurance, along with specific exercises to equally strengthen the muscles of the limb(s) most used. Such fitness programs should also include stretching and rest between play.

Exercise programs should also be age appropriate. Young, developing players are encouraged to build strength through resistance rather than weights. Involvement in other seasonal sports such as swimming and running can also provide excellent overall strengthening and endurance.

Strength and Conditioning Exercises – Upper Body

As a throwing sport, exercises for baseball concentrate heavily on the upper body – arms and shoulder. Core strength is also essential for pitching velocity, hitting power and running speed.

The key to any exercise program is the balanced/equal strengthening of muscle groups. For the upper body, this includes triceps/biceps, trapezius, rotator group, and deltoids.

Some Effective Arm, Shoulder and Core Exercises Include:

  • Resistance bands – These can be effective in building arm and shoulder strength. (View video on how these bands are used in exercise programs.)
  • Push ups – Traditional push ups are very effective in building upper body strength (arms, shoulders, back and core/abdominal muscles).
  • Pull ups – Using your own body weight/strength these work on the biceps, upper shoulder and back, upper abdominals and obliques.
  • The Plank – strengthens the core, lower back and oblique muscles. (View video demonstration of the Plank.)

Exercises to Improve Leg Strength

Lower body strength and conditioning is as important as upper body training for young athletes. Leg strength impacts throwing velocity, bat speed/force and running speed.

Squats, lunges and running are among the most effective ways to strengthen the lower body.

Stretching

Stretching is a very important part of an exercise program for athletes in any sport. During exercise and play muscles contract. When muscles contract, they produce tension at the point where the muscle is connected to the tendon. Stretching helps lengthen, relax and restore muscles to their natural state.

Stretching following activity is as important as stretching while warming up before practice and play.

Some easy, yet effective stretches include:

  • Elbow Pulls – Raise the right arm as though asking a question and drop the forearm behind the head though leaving the elbow in the air. Pull the elbow to the left with the left arm until you feel the stretch, hold briefly then repeat several times. Do the same on the opposite side.
  • Cross Body Arm Pulls – Straighten your right arm and pull it across the front of your body, cradling the forearm and elbow with the left hand, pull the arm towards the left across the body until you feel the stretch. Hold the stretch briefly, then repeat on the opposite side.
  • Shoulder Stretch – Lay face down on a floor mat and stretch arms overhead to form a “Y,” with palms facing down on the floor. With forehead on the ground, retract shoulder blades while lifting arms off the ground (still outstretched). Hold for a couple of seconds while squeezing the shoulder blades together. Be careful not to “shrug” the shoulders up. Return to starting position and perform several sets of 10 repetitions. To work the back a little differently, perform this same exercise with the arms straight out to your sides, forming the shape of a “T.”
  • Runner’s Lunge – Position into a deep lunge on your right leg, drop the knee of your left leg and lean forward over the right quad until you feel the stretch, hold for several seconds. Repeat on opposite leg.
  • Hamstring Stretch – Stand flat on the floor with feet a little less than hip width apart. Lean forward and place palm of your hands flat on the floor just in front of your feet, hold for several seconds.

TOP PREVENTION TIP

Resting is as important as any of the components in a successful training program.

Track and Field Hand & Upper Extremity Injuries and Conditions

As track season sprints past, we begin to see some common overuse injuries and conditions in these athletes.  While the vast majority of those seen in track and field affect the lower body, there are several common hand and upper extremity injuries and conditions seen in throwing events such as the javelin, shot put, hammer and discus.

Between weekly practices and weekend competitions, overuse injuries and conditions in throwing events account for most upper extremity injuries in track and field. These overuse conditions often affect the rotator cuff and shoulder labrum. Overuse conditions are those resulting from the repetitive use of a particular limb/joint(s) and are frequently seen in baseball, swim and tennis as well.

Other track and field injuries include ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tears of the elbow (also known as a Tommy John injury) and thumb.  Also metacarpal (hand) fractures are seen resulting from repeated stress on the small bones of the hand.

Rotator Cuff Injury

There are four tendons and muscles that make up what is known as the “rotator cuff,” providing coverage around the shoulder joint at the top of the humerus. The rotator cuff holds the arm in place and allows it to move with the broad range of motion we demand not only in everyday activity but also in many throwing sports. This broad range of motion, though, predisposes the shoulder to injury.  Repetitive stress on the rotator cuff can cause partial tears and swelling in the tendons.  A “high impact” stress, such as the powerful force required in these track and field throwing events, may cause one of the tendons to pull away from the bone or tear.rotator cuff injuries cropped

Rotator Cuff Injury Symptoms and Diagnosis

While most rotator cuff injuries can be slow to develop – producing nagging pain in the shoulder and arm, shoulder weakness and difficulty lifting the arm overhead – sometimes they can be quite sudden. In this case, athletes may feel a “pop,” followed by strong pain and a weakened arm.  An orthopedic specialist will assess the injury initially with a physical examination and review of the activity leading up to the injury.  This may be followed by a shoulder x-ray, MRI and/or arthrogram.  Treatment depends on the severity of the condition and will include a period of rehabilitation therapy. Conservative, nonsurgical treatment is often considered initially.  Surgery may be indicated if shoulder instability persists or there is a complete rotator cuff tear.

Shoulder Labrum Tear 

Another common track and field throwing injury is a shoulder labrum injury.  Among the most commonly diagnosed shoulder labrum condition in athletes involved in throwing sports is known as a SLAP (superior labrum, anterior to posterior) tear. The labrum works to keep the arm bone in the shoulder socket. When the ring of firm tissue that helps to make the shoulder more stable becomes stressed, it can result in a SLAP tear, compromising shoulder stability.    Often damage to the labrum occurs in those athletes who are also suffering from rotator cuff injury or weakness.slap-tear-1

SLAP Tear Symptoms and Diagnosis

Some of the common symptoms associated with SLAP disorders include a popping, clicking or catching in the shoulder during throwing activity, aching pain and feeling of weakness.  Beyond a physical examination, a diagnosis may include an MRI and/or an arthrogram.  Occasionally minimally invasive arthroscopy may be used to confirm a tear.  If a tear is confirmed, the surgeon may choose to repair it at the same time.

UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament) Injury

Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) injuries of the elbow frequently occur in javelin as a result of the throwing motion and stress on the elbow.  Also known as a Tommy John injury, it is similar to the stress placed on the elbow in baseball.

The elbow is basically a “hinge” joint allowing not only bending and straightening but also rotation from palm up to palm down.  Several important ligaments in the elbow joint facilitate this range of motion, connecting the bones (ulna, radius, humerus) and forming part of a lubricating joint capsule.UCL of elbow

Two of the key ligaments for elbow joint stability  include the lateral collateral ligament and the UCL, which is also known as the medial collateral ligament because of its location on the elbow (inside).

When overuse of the joint (force on the soft tissue exceeds that of the structure’s tensile strength), such as in a throwing sport like javelin, places stress on the UCL, tears can develop.  The ligament stretches and lengthens to the point that it can no longer hold the bones tightly enough during throwing activities.

UCL Injury Symptoms and Diagnosis

Athletes suffering from this type of overuse condition may experience pain along the inside of the elbow, which is worse during the “acceleration phase” of throwing.  There may also be swelling, reduced range of motion and feeling of instability in the elbow.  Throwers may also have tingling or numbness in the “pinky” and ring fingers and experience difficulty throwing.

Diagnosis includes a physical examination, x-ray and an MRI.  Treatment is initially conservative and may include rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medications, along with physical therapy to strengthen surrounding muscles and compensate for the injured UCL.  Following this, or in more severe cases, a UCL reconstruction may be indicated. Also known as Tommy John surgery (named for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher who first underwent the surgery), the procedure entails taking a tendon from another area of the patient’s body and replacing the injured UCL with it.

Metacarpal (Hand) Fracture

While less common than overuse injuries and conditions, hand fractures can result from the repetitive stress and force placed on the small bones of the hand.

With a total of 27 bones in the hand (14 phalanges, five metacarpal, eight carpal), more than half of the bones making up the entire upper extremity,metacarpals fractures are inevitable in sports placing extreme and repeated stress on the hands.

One such fracture is known as a metacarpal fracture, which affects the bone at the base of the finger closest to the wrist.

Metacarpal Fracture Symptoms and Diagnosis

Metacarpal fractures will cause immediate pain and possibly visible deformity. The injured finger(s) may swell, and there may be some bruising.

A physical examination and an x-ray Metacarpal hand fracture repairwill identify the location and severity of the fracture.  Treatment is determined based on whether the fracture is “stable” or “unstable” and the extent of injury.  More severe cases may require surgery and internal fixation (K-wires or plates and screws), followed by a period of splinting and hand therapy.

Prevention and Treatment

Understanding that adequate rest between practices and events is as important as the training will help reduce the likelihood that an overuse condition will result in a tear or stress fracture. Maintaining balanced strength and conditioning of opposing muscle groups is also an important prevention component.

When symptoms are addressed early, the injury often responds well to conservative treatment.