For most baseball players, the winter months can be a drag as the snow and cold weather force you to stay indoors. Sure you can do some cage and tee work and go to the weight room, but there’s something authentic about being on the grass and dirt and hitting/throwing outside. As a former player looking back on my career, I now see just how truly important the baseball off-season is.
The baseball “off-season” really shouldn’t be called that—rather, the winter months should be termed “the non-competition” season. That’s because these months are the foundation for the upcoming competition months, and not just by honing your skills and getting stronger in the weight room.
I’ve seen various approaches to the offseason, ranging from doing no baseball activity to starting a weightlifting and long-tossing program the first day of the offseason. I think, like most things, the optimal approach is a balance of the two. Now don’t misunderstand, no baseball activity is not to be confused with no activity. It just means giving your body a break from the specific movement actions that have been taxing the body day-in and day-out for the last 6+ months. Everything in baseball tends to be unilateral or to one side. Right-handers always rotate to the left when they throw or swing. Obviously, the arm is highly stressed during the throwing motion. As the American Journal of Sports Medicine found, throwing for greater than eight months out of the year increases your risk of an injury by five times.
Benefits of non-specific activity
Non-specific activity can be playing some pick-up basketball or playing soccer. Even something such as tennis—while still being a rotational sport—can be beneficial as the backhanded swing can help your body learn to rotate in the opposite direction of your usual direction. These non-baseball activities can help diversify your movement capabilities, which is very important to preventing injury. Baseball movements are specific and specialized, and your adapts precisely to them. As a result, it “forgets” how to handle moving in other ways. If/when you need to move in a way that isn’t typical for you, your risk of injury is exponentially increased if your body isn’t trained to move in a variety of planes of motion. Think, on a check swing or trying to slide into a base in a twisted manner to avoid a tag. Or a pick-off play.
The number one predictor of future injury is past injury
Another important aspect of baseball “off-season” training that goes overlooked is the recovery and mobility component. A lot of baseball players focus on improving the amount they can squat or deadlift, upping their bench, or increasing any other strength indicator. While this is all great, it’s only a small piece of optimizing your performance. The most important aspect of the off-season is to work on any past or lingering injuries. Even if you are asymptomatic, now is the time to clean up those underlying issues. The number one predictor of future injury is past injury. These may include scar tissue build-up, joint restrictions, or stability issues—deficits that your body may be compensating for. In the short term, these compensations may allow you to continue to perform, sometimes even at a high level, but will ultimately lead to breakdown. By staying engaged and giving attention to your past issues, you can help prevent these issues from re-occurring in future seasons.
Use the baseball off-season to address injuries, imbalances, and asymmetries
In addition to working on past injuries, the off-season provides the time needed to reverse the effects of the grueling season. Just as a car needs regular maintenance every certain number of miles to keep it performing optimally, so does your body. Even if you get through a season injury-free, I can almost guarantee that your body will have imbalances and asymmetries. Swinging and throwing are violent motions and always occur in one direction (to the left for a righthander). You’ll have areas of tightness and looseness, as well as areas of strength and weakness. I mentioned above that the number one predictor of future injury is past injury. Well, the second-best predictor of future injury is asymmetry in the body. After the competitive season, it is typical for a baseball player to:
- lose shoulder internal rotation of their throwing shoulder (limiting the player’s ability to decelerate the arm during throwing and leading to rotator cuff injuries)
- lose strength of the rotator cuff (particularly the external rotators)
- flatten their thoracic spine, thereby decreasing the ability of the shoulder blade to move properly
- lose elbow extension of the throwing arm (increasing risk of “Tommy John” injuries)
- lose hip internal rotation of the lead leg (limiting how much torque can be generated when throwing or swinging)
- display lumbopelvic asymmetries such as an anteriorly rotated and forward tipped pelvis (particularly on the left side, which can limit the hip extension crucial to creating power and speed, and will lead to back pain or increased strain placed on the elbow/shoulder)
By addressing past injuries and asymmetries in the offseason, not only are you optimizing your chances of staying healthy in the upcoming season, but improving your performance as well. Things like improving your core strength or gaining more shoulder rotation, elbow extension, hip internal rotation or hip extension range of motion not only can decrease your risk of injury, but can also increase your throwing velocity or bat speed.
A personalized plan to help you reach peak performance
The most important thing I can recommend for any baseball player is to get a thorough assessment at the beginning of the off-season. This builds the foundation for your off-season program, providing structure as to what needs to be worked on and addressed. Otherwise, you’re just crossing your fingers and hoping that what you put together will be beneficial. Physical therapists are trained to perform these thorough assessments. We’ll work with you to determine your body’s movement capabilities, limitations, and adaptations, and create a personalized plan to get you ready for the upcoming season.
Bonus for all you baseball fans: Check out the story of how EXCEL treated Yankees legend Gary Sheffield for a wrist injury.