Strengthening the Scapular Muscles: A Vital Pitching Component
By As Published in Collegiate Baseball Newspaper
Revealing The Missing Link For Arm Care
“Boston researchers are gaining insights into the causes of baseball shoulder problems — which derail more major leaguers than just about any other injury. Working in the shadow of Fenway Park, and with a grant from Major League Baseball, the researchers have found a common denominator that, they say, is a likely culprit in some of the most common shoulder injuries among pitchers — a misaligned scapula, better known as the shoulder blade.”
The emphasis given to strengthening the scapular muscles in throwing athletes is under-valued and immensely under-addressed. These scapular stabilizing muscles control the position and movement of the scapula which are vital to arm health and performance. Clinical and field testing from the youth level to the professional ranks has proven that most throwing athletes have weak scapular stabilizing muscles and many of them suffer from scapular dyskinesis, meaning that either the position and/or movement of the scapula is dysfunctional.
In fact, the latest research indicates that most injuries at the shoulder are a direct reflection of a misaligned scapula. Additionally, scapular dyskinesis negatively affects energy transfer from the body into the arm resulting in reduced throwing velocity. By exploring traditional arm care programs and the scapular biomechanics when throwing, we can paint a clear picture of the deficiencies and necessity for a practical, structured, and efficient arm care program for every baseball player.
Traditional Arm Care Programs Do Not Address The Scapula
How did arm care come about? If you go to a rehab facility and ask them for an arm care program, you might get some weird looks. Arm care is a term that was coined by the baseball community to help prevent shoulder and elbow injuries. The origin of these preventative tubing exercises were extracted from shoulder rehab programs. These rehab exercises were designed to be completed in a clinical setting as many elements require the use of therapy tables and dumbbells.
Coaches recognized that arm care exercises needed to be completed on the field as they would not get done off the field. Therefore, the only exercises that were selected from the shoulder rehab programs were the ones that could be performed on the field with rubber tubing. This presents a problem in that the selected exercises primarily isolate the rotator cuff muscles and poorly address the scapular stabilizing muscles.
Functional Anatomy of the Shoulder Complex Simply Stated
The scapula, or shoulder blade, is the triangular shaped bone in the upper back that is the critical link between the arm and rest of the body. The shoulder is a ball and socket joint, with the socket being a part of the scapula. The rotator cuff muscles originate at the scapula and attach to the humeral head (ball). Their primary function is to stabilize the humeral head in the socket. The scapular stabilizing muscles attach the scapula to the body. Their primary function is to make the scapula a stable yet mobile foundation as it moves in sync with the arm.
This relationship has been compared to a seal balancing a ball on its nose. The seal‘s head represents the scapula as he follows the ball with his nose to keep it balanced. This is similar to how the scapula and arm work together in harmony. If the scapula does not follow the humeral head properly, it leads to shoulder instability.
The scapular stabilizing muscles that connect the scapula to the body, when working properly, prevent the scapula from winging out (shoulder blades poking out) that is typically seen in most young athletes. This condition is also frequently found at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. It is often referred to as scapular instability or scapular dyskinesis and could result in injury as well as loss of throwing velocity.
Biomechanics of the Scapula During the Throwing Motion:
To fully understand the scapula’s role during the throwing motion, there are three concepts that you need to understand:
- The scapula moves three dimensionally to follow the movement of the arm. When raising your arm fully over your head, 2/3 of the motion occurs at the shoulder and 1/3 occurs at the scapula.
- As the scapula is moving, it needs to remain a stable base of support for the arm.
- When the scapula’s movement is dysfunctional, the arm motion has to be altered in order to compensate.
During high velocity throwing, the speed of the arm is moving faster than any other athletic movement ever measured (exceeds 7,000 degrees per second. The scapular muscles fire to maintain stability while the scapula is moving like a gyroscope to follow the arm at extreme speeds. Through the cocking and early acceleration phases of the throwing motion, your scapula will retract (pinch together) in the scap load position.
As your arm starts to accelerate and your shoulder bends fully backwards into external rotation, your scapula smoothly abducts (moves away from your spine), protracts (moves forward along the contour of your rib cage) and internally rotates (think of opening a door away from your spine). At ball release, your scapula continues to be supported by your scapular muscles. Following the release of the ball, your scapula moves around the side of your ribcage allowing for proper deceleration patterns to reduce stress at the shoulder and elbow.
Dysfunctional Positioning & Movement (Dyskinesis) of the Scapula While Pitching
If the scapular muscles are weak, which is demonstrated by scapula winging, the scapula is excessively internally rotated during the protracted ball release/deceleration phase of pitching. The misaligned scapula causes the shoulder angle to become hyper-angulated (severe angle). Consequentially, the rotator cuff becomes pinched between the humeral head and the back side of the shoulder joint (internal impingement). The further the scapula is protracted, the greater the pinch.
Studies show that scapular dyskinesis is involved in 68% of rotator cuff problems and 100% of shoulder instabilities. The scapula allows or disallows proper throwing mechanics. When the scapula is dysfunctional, the arm has to make up for what the scapula was supposed to do one step prior in the kinetic chain. This produces added stress to the shoulder and elbow.
Velocity & Energy Transfer
Kinetic chain is a term used by medical and sports performance professionals to describe how your entire body is interconnected.
It is a series of links that act in a coordinated, sequential fashion from the ground up to generate and amplify force.
This chain in the throwing athlete, includes but is not limited to the legs, hips, core, scapula, shoulder, arm and hand (see image on the right).
Throughout the kinetic chain, weak links will inhibit energy transfer from one body part to another, but will have the most profound impact on areas closest to the weak link. The weakest link in the kinetic chain for most throwing athletes is at the scapula. This weak link reduces the energy transfer from the body into the arm resulting in decreased throwing velocity.
Kinetic energy transfer can be compared to shooting a cannon out of a canoe. If the scapula is not stable, in this case the scapula is represented by the canoe, the loss of energy will result in the cannonball being fired with less velocity. Moving the cannon from the canoe to a more stable platform anchored to the ground, will enable the cannonballs to fire at higher velocities with greater distance and accuracy. The scapular stabilizing muscles need to be strong in order to fortify a solid platform for maximal energy transfer.
The Best Method For Activating Your Shoulder Complex Prior to Throwing
Activating the rotator cuff and scapular muscles prior to throwing not only makes the arm more resistant to injury, but it also increases power output and thus performance. The method of warming up the shoulder complex can mean the difference between free, smooth throwing and the tight, “something is catching in my shoulder” feeling that most players experience periodically during the season. This tight feeling that occurs while throwing is usually a mild case of shoulder impingement and is common among throwing athletes.
The arm activation phase in the Crossover Symmetry System effectively activates muscle groups in a specific order. The sequencing of the exercises is called Scap-Cuff Activation. Implementing Scap-Cuff Activation in the shoulder dynamic warmup means you will be activating the muscles that control the position of the scapula before anything else. When properly activated, the scapular stabilizing muscles will retract, externally rotate, and posteriorly tilt the scapula. We call this “setting your scaps.” This significantly reduces the risk of shoulder impingement. Once you have “set your scaps,” then you will activate the rotator cuff muscles to stabilize the ball in the socket. This can and should be done every day prior to throwing.
Through our experience on the field and in the clinic, athletes experiencing shoulder impingement have been pulled out of impingement by simply performing one set of Crossover Symmetry’s arm activation phase. In one simple five minute routine, we are able to reproduce the same or better results than manual stabilization or scap taping by activating the key scapular stabilizers.
It is important to note that the resistance used when performing Scap-Cuff Activation is critical. In our experience, it takes a reasonably heavy resistance to “wake up” these sporadically stubborn scapular muscles. Using the same resistances that you would use to activate the rotator cuff muscles is not adequate to effectively activate the scapular muscles. This is why the Crossover Symmetry System requires a minimum of two different resistance sets of cords, one light and one heavy, to properly activate both the rotator cuff and scapular muscles.
IRON SCAP: Scapular Strengthening Program
Four years ago, we identified the need for additional scapular strengthening after consistently seeing weaknesses and asymmetries. Scap-Cuff Activation has been invaluable, however a critical component was still missing. There needed to be a higher intensity scapular strengthening program. We researched and developed the most comprehensive scapular strengthening program that can be practically completed on the field.
Arm activation with Crossover Symmetry prior to throwing is still the most important part of arm care. However, throwing athletes need to vigorously strengthen their scapular stabilizers several times a week. We launched IRON SCAP in 2012, following a year of testing and the early results of scapular stabilization have not only been impressive, but frequently dramatic.
The latest research points to the misaligned scapula as the culprit for many shoulder and elbow injuries. Traditional arm care methods do not address these key scapular stabilizing muscles. Proper implementation of a comprehensive arm care system will significantly reduce the risk of injury while improving throwing velocity.