Are Weighted Baseball-Throwing Programs Safe?

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The weather is getting cooler, and we’re inching closer to the winter season. Football and basketball dominate the sports landscape this time of year, but for those of us who love and follow baseball, its season is just around the corner!

Now more than ever, players participate in off-season training programs geared to build strength, speed and agility – all in the hopes of hitting the ball farther and throwing the ball harder. After all, “championships are won in the offseason,” right? While this mantra is certainly true to some extent, not all off-season training programs are created equal, and there’s a concerning trend towards more aggressive programs. Injury rates continue to soar in baseball, most notably at the youth and high school levels, and now is as good a time as any to discuss injury prevention.

Advertised on the internet as the “wave of the future,” weighted ball throwing programs have become popular among pitchers looking to enhance shoulder strength, arm speed and pitch velocity. Very little is known about the efficacy and safety of these programs and perhaps, as the quotable Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Preliminary findings from a recent randomized controlled study in high school pitchers comparing a 6-week weighted ball offseason throwing program to the same program with a standard regulation 5 ounce ball are concerning. The weighted ball program yielded a 3% increase in velocity (2.2 mph) on average, but 20% of those pitchers had no change in velocity, and 12% actually had a decrease. The weighted ball program did not improve rotator cuff strength or arm speed and appeared to possibly inhibit future strength gains. More importantly, 24% of pitchers in the weighted ball program sustained an injury during the program or during the subsequent season, while 0% were injured in the standard ball program.

My take-home recommendation is “buyers beware” on these programs. Performance maximization training is key. When done safely and effectively, it should not increase risk for injury.

Satchel Paige once said, “My pitching philosophy is simple – keep the ball away from the bat.” Rather than focusing on increasing velocity this offseason, work to build sound mechanics and better pitch control through rotator cuff, shoulder blade and core muscle strengthening, as well as core flexibility and shoulder stretching exercises.

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