Weighted Ball Training For Pitchers Grows In Popularity
This article originally ran in the Jan. 1, 2005 issue of Collegiate Baseball
By Lou Pavlovich Jr.
Editor/Collegiate Baseball Newspaper
HOUSTON, Tex. — One of the most controversial training devices for pitchers is weighted baseballs.
For every coach who preaches the benefits of training with such balls, a dozen others, usually with no direct knowledge of the utilization of these aids or partial information, will criticize their use by proclaiming they are a safety hazard to the health and welfare of pitcher’s arms and shoulders.
After years of shunning the use of weighted baseballs, a small revolution is taking place in the game by some highly respected pitching coaches to utilize these implements to achieve greater velocity and also keep pitchers’ arms and shoulders healthy.
Spearheading this drive is Ron Wolforth from Houston, Tex. who has devised a special training program called The Athletic Pitcher.
He has achieved some startling velocity increases in pitchers in a relatively short period of time while also keeping pitchers healthy – a dynamic one-two punch that pitching coaches have been waiting for.
“We have the Can-Am Sports Academy located in Houston which specializes in elite pitching instruction and training. Prior to last fall, we had 96 kids in our program. Of those, 36 were playing at all levels of college baseball in addition to a number of high school pitchers.
“We had 23 of these kids throwing 90 mph or higher. We also had 27 throwing above 88 mph. The average gain in velocity for our kids has been 7.8 mph since we began charting their progress 16-18 months ago. Typically, most of the gains are in the first 6-9 weeks.
“The reason our kids throw harder is because of their intent to throw harder. This is crucial. We push the envelope and make the body more efficient and dynamic. Most of the time, pitchers don’t have that intent. Several of our pitchers have increased their velocity from 90-93 mph. To get an extra bump from 90-93 mph is just as impressive to me as someone gaining 10 mph from 69 mph.”
Within Wolforth’s intensive system, a workout may last 2 ½ hours beginning with the start of warm-ups to the conclusion of bullpens.
Integrated in this training program is an assortment of training drills that allow every part of the body not only to be warm but exercised prior to utilizing weighted balls.
It all begins with a full body warm-up. Then a series of tubing exercises take place which are followed by a medicine ball series of throws with both hands. The next step is the use of a body blade (6-foot small diameter pole that vibrates when shaken in the middle by the throwing hand) which prepares the arm, elbow and shoulder for greater intensity ahead. A number of professional pitchers utilize this device.
Then a weighted ball arm care series takes place with eight specific drills with the use of two pound balls for most of the drills for high school and college age kids. A four pound ball is used with other drills in this series.
Following this, back shaping drills are utilized on a decline beam with weighted balls in three specific drills. This is followed by rhythmical step behind and inside load drills.
Then long toss is done followed by bullpen work.
“When you complete our pitching workout, it takes 2 ½ hours,” said Wolforth. “You leave with your underwear wet.”
Arm Injuries Down
The hard work has not only proven to increase velocity but also keep his pitchers healthy.
“Of the hundreds of pitchers who have gone through our program, very rarely do we ever have anyone with a shoulder or elbow injury. I can only remember two kids who had some type of injury. You can’t ever eliminate injuries to shoulders and elbows. But I feel this program can certainly reduce arm problems. We have found that this program helps recovery time as well.”
Wolforth said that different weighted balls close to the size of baseballs are utilized.
“When we get to the weighted ball series of exercises in the back shaping drills, we utilize a two pound ball, 21 ounce ball, 14 ounce ball, 7 ounce ball, regulation 5 ounce ball and then a 4 ounce ball and throw in the sequence of heaviest to lightest on an incline/decline beam. This beam helps pitchers with balance as they perform these drills.”
Wolforth was asked how he came up with the concept of utilizing a two pound ball – a figure that will send shivers down the spines of many pitching coaches.
“What is a baseball? It is five ounces and is a weighted implement. Would there be fewer injuries today if a baseball was six ounces instead of five ounces? There probably would be more injuries if the ball weighed four ounces. By throwing only baseballs, has there been fewer injuries over the years or more? I am absolutely convinced that our training practices are helping pitchers here in Texas throw with greater velocity and stay healthy. Those who are using it across the nation also are agreeing with me.
“A football is 15 ounces, and quarterbacks routinely throw 50 and 60 yards with over 100 passes a day in practice. When do you hear about quarterbacks having arm trouble? About the only time I hear of quarterbacks going in for Tommy John surgery or rotator cuff surgery is when a quarterback has his arm or shoulder driven into the ground by a person on defense.
“By training the pitcher with heavier balls, muscles, ligaments and tendons in the elbow and shoulder are strengthened. I feel this is a great recipe for the reduction of arm injuries. I would be flabbergasted in 25 years if everyone isn’t training with weighted balls to strengthen arms.”
At last count, 80 college baseball programs were using Wolforth’s system, including programs such as LSU, Washington, Vanderbilt, Cal Poly SLO, Louisiana-Lafayette, Michigan St. and Illinois-Chicago.
“When you begin working with a heavier ball, the body realizes that it can’t throw it as hard as a regulation baseball. The body has a physiological response that adapts to this weight. Keep in mind that this is a precise system that starts with a full body warm-up, tubing exercises, medicine ball throws, the body blade set, a weighted ball arm care series and then back shaping drills with the weighted balls on an incline/decline board which is followed by long toss and bullpens.”
Leery Of Weighted Balls
The irony of Wolforth’s use of weighted balls is that he was never a big proponent of utilizing them until he started doing some research on the subject.
“When I started out, I was extremely leery of using weighted balls, and I started utilizing them begrudgingly a couple of years ago. Then I listened to the comments of my students who were telling me their arms and shoulders felt better than ever. By listening to students and trying new things and seeing the results, coaches can evaluate if it really does work or not.”
One concept that allows this program to work well is Wolforth’s insistence on using a radar gun for different throwing activities – even with the weighted balls.
“How can a pitcher receive subjective feedback if a coach is telling him that he looks great? What does that mean? We have found that utilizing a radar gun is the ideal device to give subjective information to those pitchers. And we use radar for many of the throwing drills that take place. Then we know if a student is throwing harder or not and can track his progress.”
Wolforth, who studied kinesiology in college and motor learning, was an average college pitcher in his playing days. He could never understand why he could not throw in the upper 80s more consistently and have a quicker recovery time.
“I had chronic arm problems, and it took me forever to recover after pitching outing,” said Wolforth.
“If I threw, it would take me seven or eight days before I could fully recover and gain my velocity back again. Over the years, I have searched for answers why pitchers continually don’t recover quicker and don’t maintain their velocity while maintaining their arm and shoulder health. It has been a never ending process.”
Special Success Stories
Wolforth explained some of his success stories at the Can-Am Sports Academy concerning his Athletic Pitcher program.
“A right-hander named Cody Lott was at Spring H.S. a couple of years ago and only threw 78 mph going into his senior year. He was the No. 3 pitcher on his high school team, and there was not much chance of pitching professionally any time soon or even pitching on the college level. He spent the next year training with us four days a week. By the time Christmas rolled around, he was throwing 92 mph.
“Some people will say that he had a growth spurt and matured late while we were training him. But without a lot of work, you just don’t improve from 78 mph to 92 mph in a year. It doesn’t happen by accident or in a vacuum. He now is a freshman at Sam Houston St.
“John Wooden always said, ‘Nothing will work unless you do.’ And Cody is a great example of what hard work will do if you stay with it.”
Wolforth had several other success stories.
“RHP Jesus Mendoza from Regan H.S. is another young man who came to us. As a junior, he threw 69 mph. He was not a big guy, but he wanted to pitch in college. I told him that I love him a great deal, but it might not be in the cards. He went to work in our program and hit 86 mph the other night. He now has received several college offers. RHP Raymond Garcia from Aldine H.S. is another example. He also started out at 69 mph and just hit 80 mph. He has been with us since June.”
Wolforth said one of the keys to pitchers improving their velocity in his program also centers around the drive to hit 90 mph.
“Everything we do pushes players to reach their maximum potential. We believe in our facility that every young person can throw 90 mph. Some people may laugh at that notion, but that is our goal we set for all our kids.
“Most people view velocity in concrete terms whether a pitcher is gifted genetically. We view velocity and arm care as an equation made up of many different variables. Functional strength is a variable. We try to hit every variable and then train extremely hard.
“If our program had a bunch of guys who threw 90 mph and then were hurt, that is not what we are after. We want velocity, command of pitches, movement of pitches and also healthy arms and shoulders. The problem we have today in pitching is that many coaches are in a command mode and are only focused on having their pitchers hit spots. Pitching is about hitting spots, but not just that. Pitching is not simply gaining velocity. Common sense tells us that we must have an all-encompassing program to bring all of these aspects together.”
Changes Pitching Concepts
Up until six years ago, Wolforth said he taught the same mechanics and techniques that have been handed down for generations to pitching coaches.
“I got involved with Tom House, and then that is when I started seeing things a bit differently. Then I met Paul Nyman and made additional changes. Brent Strom had a phenomenal influence in what I do.
“So often pitchers are not viewed as athletes. They have lost some of their athleticism over the years. The greatest pitchers of all time are just as good of athletes as anybody else. Look at John Smoltz, Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan. Our goal is to have our pitchers be as dynamic and athletic as they can on the mound. Many times pitchers in practice are shoved aside, do long toss, a little pitchers’ fielding practice, hit fungoes to outfielders and then go home.
“They need to work hard. Many pitchers are under prepared for the demands required in the game. We want to go the other way by pushing the body where it needs to be.”
Wolforth said another key to his program is cycling different intents into the program on a daily or weekly basis.
“Day one might be a velocity intent where we utilize weighted balls in the back shaping drills. Day two might be a command day where pitchers hit their spots and typically only use a baseball. The third day might be movement and work on curveball, fastball movement, splitter movement, etc. The fourth day would be velocity plus command.
“We would take 90 percent velocity and attempt to hit a spot. We chart how well we hit our spots as well as use a radar gun for velocity in all these intent days.
“The fifth day might be a rhythm, tempo and deception day. We want the fastball, curve and changeup all thrown with the same tempo so it makes it look like the same pitch is coming every time to the hitter.
“Then on the sixth day, we would have a video day. We look specifically at what mechanical efficiencies are showing up and correct them. Each kid has a unique style and unique signature. We never try to change their style.”
Training For Marathon
Wolforth said it is important that people realize his program is geared to help pitchers over a long period.
“It would be silly for me to run 26 miles my first day out if I am training for a marathon. What you must do is systematically increase the intensity over time and have the body adjust and accommodate and prepare for stress and demands of the race. The same thing is true with throwing.
“Sometimes people go out and long toss and are sore the next day. They may be reluctant to do it again because their body was not ready. You gradually build up so that the body can adjust. If you go from the couch to a strenuous activity, you will be sore the next day.
“In the martial arts, you go from a whit belt to different belts along the way until you become a black belt.
“I want to emphasize to people that this program is not a magic bullet or pill that people can take. It is an equation and system that helps take the natural abilities of young people and pushes the envelope so they can be the best they can. Some kids would have gained 7.8 mph without us. But most would not. Some would have only gained 1-3 mph. But more importantly, the health of our pitchers is taking a big upward turn in our program. And I am excited about that.”