Weighted baseballs have played a role in the development program of many pitchers. But despite the success stories, their use remains a hot topic in baseball circles.
Weighted ball training comes in many shapes and sizes.
There is underload, using balls that are less than the traditional 5 oz. baseball, and overload, which uses heavier balls.
Some of the leaders in weighted ball training have been the Texas Baseball Ranch and Driveline Baseball.
Both research and anecdotal evidence have revealed an elevated injury risk when weighted balls get involved in a player's training. While pro-weighted ball coaches claim most injuries are related to an uneducated approach, others aren't so sure.
Although I believe weighted ball training can be a useful addition to a baseball athlete's program, I also believe it isn't right for everyone.
If you're debating taking up weighted ball training, you should first ask yourself a few key questions.
Have You Gone Through a Consistent Throwing Program?
Baseball players love jumping directly onto pitching mounds right after taking 8-12 weeks completely off. Sudden increases or decreases in a training program can spell disaster for a pitcher's health.
If you're debating weighted balls, make your decision after you've proven that you can adhere to a structured 8- to 16-week throwing program with incremental increases in throwing volume and intensity.
You and your coach should discuss weighted baseballs once you've established a solid regimen. Throwing a weighted ball should not be your first introduction to maximal effort throwing during a preseason training phase.
Have You Gone Through Puberty?
Throwing weighted balls introduces varying forces on a throwing arm. While these are not always higher or more dangerous than throwing a normal 5 oz. baseball, it is important to know what you're doing to your arm. This is more critical if you are still experiencing growth at vulnerable joint structures. Many experts strongly recommend that athletes wait until after puberty before seriously considering starting a weighted ball program.
Is Throwing Harder One of Your Key Goals?
The major benefit of proper weighted ball training is increased pitching velocity.
Just about every pitcher wants to throw harder, but some will benefit significantly more from doing so than others.
Weighted ball training does carry some risk, so you need to make sure the juice is worth the squeeze in your case.
If you've answered these questions and believe you're still ready for weighted ball training, let's talk about why it might make sense.
Why Train With Weighted Balls?
Weighted baseballs can serve many purposes, from improving throwing velocity and mechanics to de-loading the athlete from a standard 5 oz. baseball. I've occasionally hear players talk about improving their arm path or strengthening their "decelerator" muscles.
However, it's chasing velocity that tends to reign supreme.
Athletes largely train with weighted balls in hopes of throwing harder.
It's possible to find articles claiming 100-percent success rates in weighted balls improving velocity when examining a variety of research articles. That's an exciting prospect, so why wouldn't someone train with weighted balls?
Why Not Train With Weighted Balls?
Although benefits have often outweighed the risks in the eyes of players and coaches alike, it's important to understand what an athlete can be exposed to when implementing weighted balls.
Some research points to weighted baseballs introducing less torque at the elbow and less dislocation-related forces at the shoulder, which is often cited by pro-weighted ball coaches and players, while other research points to increased torque at the elbow. Although it appears there is more research supporting the less torque claim, simple torque and force data does not create a clear picture of what is happening to the athlete.
In a study from Mike Reinold et al., 38 healthy teenaged pitchers were randomized into either a control or experimental group. The experimental group performed a 6-week weighted ball throwing program. An excerpt of their methods:
Pitch velocity, shoulder and elbow PROM, shoulder strength, elbow varus torque, and shoulder internal rotation velocity were measured in both groups. The experimental group then performed a 6-week weighted ball throwing program 3 times per week using balls ranging from 2 to 32 ounces while the control group only used a 5-ounce regulation baseball. Both groups performed a strength training program. Measurements were then repeated after the 6-week period. Injuries were tracked over the 6-week training program and the subsequent baseball season.
Reinold found a 24%t injury rate among players introduced to a weighted ball program (with two athletes suffering injuries during the training program and 2 more suffering injuries during the subsequent season) compared to zero athletes suffering injuries in the control group.
Yet pitch velocity also increased by an average of 3.3% in the weighted ball group.
Weighted balls increased throwing shoulder external rotation by more than 4%, meaning that weighted balls can change joint dynamics in both positive and negative ways.
Keep in mind that the Reinold study was done with healthy pitchers. Previous injury history, which is common in older pitchers, completely changes the game when deciding what methods to use to improve velocity, arm path, etc.
Reinold is a believer in weighted ball training, but as he explains here, the risk can outweigh the reward when athletes overdo it and don't individualize the dose to the individual. Since many young pitchers are extremely eager to increase their velocity, this happens more than you might think.
Should You Do Weighted Ball Training?
That is a question that only you can answer. What's important is that you educate yourself on the details of weighted ball training prior to making any decisions and that, if you do decide to give it go, you find a program that's right for you.
Although I believe certain athletes can benefit from weighted ball training, there are some general rules that have been shown to produce the best results. They are no different than successful strength and conditioning principles:
- Adhere to a plan.
- Use a progression-based approach to your throwing.
- Track as much data as you can.
I believe you should progress from heavy to light, always returning to a 5 oz. baseball. I believe training load should be monitored closely. I believe you should never pick up any weighted ball and throw it at 100% effort during your first throw.
If your weighted ball program goes straight into underload training with lighter baseballs, fails to monitor training loads, or demands that you throw varying weights at 100% intensity right out of the gate, I think you should ditch it. Go find yourself a competent pitching coach. They're out there.
Photo Credit: Artur Didyk/iStock
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