- Efficient Mechanics
- Body Weight
- Throwing Volume
In today’s post – the third and final installment of this series – we will discuss the final three components that will be covered in this series.
7. Muscular Fatigue
Most of the factors addressed previously have a more insidious or gradual impact on pitching velocity. For example, strength and power are developed through progressive overload over the course of meso- and macrocycles (i.e. weeks, months, years), not usually microcycles (daily, or by the week). Mechanics are usually honed over time. Sustainable and safe body weight changes take lengthy periods of time as well. And, while flexibility can see acute changes, the less-transient mobility we are looking to develop takes time too. The final three factors discussed are those that have more of an impact on a day-to-day basis, or acutely.
The first we will cover is muscular fatigue. Local muscular fatigue can have an impact on velocity, both directly and indirectly.
In the more direct manner, muscular fatigue can reduce the amount of power that can be produced by the muscle through a couple of mechanisms. Muscle damage (for example, that which can be induced by eccentric-emphasis training/activity) is often accompanied by swelling around the muscle, which causes the soreness we feel. This soreness obviously elicits pain, which in turn can cause reflexes in the body to inhibit painful movement in order to avoid further damage to the muscle. Thus, you may not be able to reproduce the kinematics or kinetics of your normal delivery due to conscious or subconscious inhibitions.
We must keep in mind, though, that muscle damage isn’t always followed by soreness. Just because the muscle isn’t sore does not mean that fatigue has not accumulated. This is why it is vital to learn what training methods, routines, and throwing volumes impact your body in various ways. Over time, with a conscious effort and diligent self-evaluation, the pitcher can learn what training days have the greatest impact (positive or negative) on their throwing, and what schedules/routines best manage both their throwing and training regimens.
For example, a pitcher can learn to minimize eccentric-loaded or -emphasized exercises within a certain proximity of their next start or bullpen, thus minimizing eccentric-induced muscle damaged and delayed-onset muscle soreness.
Muscular fatigue can also come in the form of metabolic waste, which is essentially the cellular by-products of intense training and activity. For example, there is the burning sensation that we feel in our legs as we run up multiple flights of stairs, which is a result of acidosis occurring from a build up of hydrogen ions that are produced by glycolysis. Although this is less relevant to consider in baseball (as glycolysis isn’t a major energy-producer in the sport) it still must be mentioned as it can have a direct impact on pitching velocity. I see this being more of a concern in practice where intense conditioning could immediately precedes a throwing program.
This actually can happen; I have seen it in professional baseball, where the nature of a pre-game schedule sometimes requires that pitchers participate in their conditioning prior to throwing. There have been times where I have seen relief pitchers running multiple 300-yard shuttles right before picking up a baseball to work on drills, long-toss, flat-grounds, or a bullpen session. The muscular fatigue that has then accumulated can certainly impact their throwing velocity, as well as overall work capacity and quality for that training/throwing session.
More indirectly, though, muscular fatigue can impact throwing velocity by altering pitching mechanics. This is most clearly demonstrated in-game as pitcher fatigues from inning to inning, oftentimes losing velocity as well as command. Building up work general work capacity in order to a) withstand the demands of long outings, b) recover in between pitches and innings, and c) to recover from appearance to appearance, is important to the pitcher in order to delay muscular fatigue as long as possible. But, don’t get this confused with local muscular endurance. This isn’t something we can train for by doing 3 sets of 20 repetition squats (or any exercise) with 40% of our max. This is anaerobic power (ATP-CP pathway, aka the short-term energy system) and aerobic capacity for the sake of recovery.
Ultimately it is most important to understand that smart and judicious training, diligent self-evaluation, and a commitment to recovery all play major roles in minimizing muscular fatigue each inning, each outing, and each season. And, by minimizing muscular fatigue, we can maintain an optimal state of readiness each time we take the hill (whether it be in practice or in game), thereby allowing us to express our greatest potential velocity that day.
8. Neurological Fatigue
Muscular fatigue is not the only type of neuromuscular fatigue that can be accumulated over the course of a season or training cycle. The Central Nervous System (CNS) – which includes the brain and spinal cord – can become fatigued due to high neurological demands.
The CNS – and nervous system as a whole – experiences great demand and recruitment from high intensity (heavy load) training, as well as high-speed movements. Both require the CNS to conduct electrical impulses at a very rapid rate, and utilize many motor units (each muscle fiber and the nerve cell that controls it); the only way to move a heavy object or move something at a rapid rate is to recruit as much of the muscle as possible, with as much coordination, speed, and efficiency. While this may not always lead to a burning or fatiguing sensation in the muscle itself, it will however impact performance – both in the weight room and on the field. And, it is important to understand that CNS fatigue can result from the convolution of many factors.
This is one reason why you can’t expect to throw 95 mph every single time you take the mound, even if you are capable of reaching this velocity. So many factors contribute to the readiness of the CNS (such as sleep, nutrition, workload, stress). Thus, on any given day, your nervous system may not be ready to fire at the optimal rate or efficiency.
Another example is in weight training: have you ever tried to hit your one-rep max on a certain exercise, say the back squat, multiple times in a week or two? You may hit it today, but then if you tried a few days from now, you may not come close. So many factors contribute to your readiness that day. The CNS just may not be as “primed” for that kind of intensity on that particular day.
This is exactly what makes periodization so difficult especially in season. If you did not have to factor in CNS fatigue/readiness, you could simply do high-intensity lifting (to stimulate strength and power adaptations) with very minimal volume of (e.g. 1-2 reps per set, with the goal of avoiding muscular fatigue) all season long. But, strength and conditioning coaches know that neural fatigue does actually exist, thus they must periodize training accordingly in order to create stress/overload, and then allow adequate rest and recovery to promote supercompensation (aka positive adaptation).
Finally, this is also why athlete readiness monitoring is becoming such a prevalent practice in weight rooms around the country. Strength and conditioning coaches are looking for ways to best determine if their athletes are ready to perform at their optimal level. By using questionnaires and surveys, force plates, heart-rate variability, sleep monitors, nutrition trackers, etc. the strength coach can piece together a picture of how training is affecting not just the muscles, but the athlete’s nervous system.
The biggest takeaway, though, is that the athlete must, again, be diligent in monitoring their training habits, recording their outputs (whether it be actual numerical metrics like velocity, or more subjective measures like, “How did I feel today?”), and reflect upon what works best for them. Recovery, too, from the standpoint of sleep, nutrition, and off/rest days must also be emphasized in order to illicit a parasympathetic response (in other words, a calming effect) out of the entire nervous system, which will allow for better overall recovery.
I know that this was a lot of scientific jargon, but the idea if for you, the athlete or coach, to at least be cognizant and aware of the Central Nervous System and its affect on readiness and throwing velocity. In this way you should have even greater reason to monitor your daily training, throwing, and recovery habits.
I will very openly admit that I don’t know sports psychology well enough to throw a ton of science or literature at you. But, I know enough about pitching, having been a pitcher, and training performance to tell you that intent is everything. Your strength, power, mechanics, body weight, mobility, readiness, etc. will mean nothing if you have no intention to throw the ball hard.
I won’t spend much time on this one, but from a physiological stand-point, it is important to understand that, much like sprinting, if you are not actively trying to move with purpose, speed, and intensity, not only will you lack purpose, speed, and intensity, but you will certainly not be stressing the neuromuscular system to make any kind of adaptation toward throwing with a high velocity. It goes back to the SAID principle discussed in Part I and Part II: Specific Adaptations occur in response to Imposed Demands. Thus, if you want to throw hard, you actually have to throw hard at some point.
I’ll let someone more well-versed in psychology expand upon this topic with literature and studies that illuminate the importance of intent and purpose-driven action when it comes to performance. But, for now, just know that intent is a prerequisite for throwing hard.
This concludes the 3-part series covering nine key factors that strongly influence pitching velocity. While I tried to be as thorough as possible, it is important to note, however, that many more factors (countless, really) have an impact on ball speed.
In fact, when combined with the infinite degrees of freedom that make up human individuality, the sheer number of components that contribute to throwing velocity and pitching performance make these highly-valued athletic qualities vastly unpredictable. Regardless, it is still beneficial to know some of the influential factors that do seem to make an impact, and I hope that I illuminated at least some of these for you in this piece.