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Increasing Pitching Velocity: What Stride Length Means and How to Improve It – Part 3

Posted Feb 22 2012 9:06am

In part 1 of this series, I touched on some of the mechanical factors one must consider in relation to increasing stride length in pitchers.  Then, in part 2 , I got discussed physical factors – hip mobility and lower-body strength/power – that govern how far you can stride.  In wrapping up today with part 3, we’ll work our way up the kinetic chain to discuss three more physical factors that control stride length.

3. Rotary Stability – As I discussed in my recent article at T-Nation, What I Learned in 2011 , hip mobility “sticks” better when you have adequate rotary stability, so we’ve been doing more of our core stability exercises in more “extreme” positions of hip mobility.

If you’re going to push the limits of hip abduction, internal, and external rotation range of motion, you need to be sure that you have adequate rotary stability to be stable in these positions in weight-bearing and not destroy the spine.  Anybody can just get into these positions in slow speed, but not everyone can control the body precisely with a combination of isometric and eccentric muscle action at the high velocities we see with pitching.

Additionally, many of the big-time long stride guys rely heavily on controlling lumbar spine hyperextension as they ride the back hip down the mound.  This is something you’ll see if you watch the deliveries of smaller, athletic guys like Tim Lincecum, Tim Collins, and Trevor Bauer.  If they don’t maintain adequate anterior core function, they’ll wind up with extension-based back pain in no time.

4. Thoracic Mobility – Throwing and hitting (and really any rotational challenge like a hockey slapshot or tennis stroke) present a unique challenge to an athlete: the hips and shoulders are temporarily moving in opposite directions.  This creates separation, which allows an athlete to store elastic energy and create velocity via the stretch-shortening cycle.

The first issue to consider is that not all separation is created equal.  You can create separation with the hips and lower back – and jack up a lumbar spine over time.  The goal is to having adequate thoracic spine mobility to ensure that this separation occurs higher up (and engages the upper extremity well).

The second issue is that the more you push the limits of hip mobility, the more you must push the limits of thoracic mobility.  We’ve always heard “equal and opposite” when it comes to the throwing arm and glove arm, but the truth is that it probably apply to the lower half and thoracic spine as well.  You simply don’t see guys with terrible thoracic mobility getting way down the mound, as that lack of thoracic mobility would cause them to leak forward with the upper body.  I covered this in part 1, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that the head doesn’t stay behind the hips long enough, so throwers lose separation.

The third issue is that poor thoracic mobility will really interfere with getting an adequate scap load, so the arm speed will be slower.  Throwing with a poorly positioned scapula is like trying to jump out of sand; you just don’t have a firm platform from which to create force.

A very basic thoracic spine mobility drill that would be a “safe” bet for most throwers would be the quadruped extension-rotation.

This drill doesn’t crank the shoulder into excessive external rotation, which may be a problem for the really “loose” arms in the crowd. Progressions for the really stiff pitchers would be the side-lying windmill and side-lying extension-rotation.  I also like the yoga plex, a drill I learned from Nick Tumminello, as a means of syncing everything up with a longer stride.

Note: be sure to read this shoulder mobility blog on why not all thoracic spine mobility drills are created equal for throwers!

5. Quick Arm – When I say that you have to have a quick arm to have a long stride, I really just mean that you need some upper body power to make things work.  The longer the stride, the quicker your arm must be to catch up in time to create a downward plane and throw strikes.

You simply don’t see guys with long strides competing at high levels unless they have a quick arm that can catch up to the lower body.

When a guy’s arm isn’t quick enough to catch up to his lower half, you see him miss up and arm side.

This type of thrower would be better off shortening up his stride (at least temporarily) and spending more time on good throwing programs to increase arm speed.

This is one reason Justin Verlander is great.  If you watch him, he’s not an insanely long stride.  Rather, he’s shorter with it, and much stiffer on his landing leg to create an awesome downward plane.  Plus, he actually does have a ridiculously quick arm and outstanding secondary stuff.  A lot of pitching coaches would try to lengthen his stride – and while this might work, I don’t know about you, but I think overhauling a Cy Young winner’s mechanics is silly.

The “long stride, slow arm” issue is (in my experience) most common in young, lax players who have the joint range-of-motion and just enough stability to get a long stride, but don’t have adequate arm speed to catch up.  This is really common in the 14-17 age ranges, and I think it’s one reason why so many of these kids respond incredibly favorably to long toss ; it teaches their arms to go faster and keep up with their strides.

Conversely, as you start to deal with 18-year-olds and older (or kids who have grown quickly), you start to see that preparing everything below the arm is arguably more important than arm speed.  You don’t pitch in college or professional baseball unless you have a reasonably quick arm, and getting more aggressive with the lower half to stride longer is often exactly what guys need to make the big velocity jump.  Likewise, when guys don’t take care of the lower half, but continue on aggressive throwing programs, they often wind up with velocity drops, injuries, or control issues because they’ve lost the separation that made them successful.

Closing Thoughts

While a long stride can certainly be advantageous in the throwing motion, as I’ve shown in this series, forcing it when you don’t have the right physical preparation or mechanical coaching in place can actually hurt an pitcher’s performance and health.  Remember that the best changes are subtle ones; in other words, you might increase a stride by six inches over the course of a year, not in a single session.

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