Front Leg Strength Predicts Throwing Velocity

The findings from a recent really enforced the importance of a strong front leg assuming your goal is to throw a baseball really fast.  We already knew that the front leg is important but this study digs a lot deeper into exactly HOW and WHEN when you  this strength.  It’s some great information and I am excited to share it with you.

The best part about this study is that the researchers suggest some really great ideas for the practical application of this information.  I will share these with you along with a couple of my own thoughts and opinions at the end of the article.

Here is the study that I am talking about out of Ohio State University

ohio state

Stride Leg Ground Reaction Forces Predict Throwing Velocity in Adult Recreational Baseball Pitchers.

  • McNally MP1, Borstad JD, Oñate JA, Chaudhari AM. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Oct;29(10):2708-15.

These researchers used a very expensive pitching mound with four embedded force plates used to capture the ground reaction forces in 3D created by both the back and the front legs throughout the entire pitching delivery.

0R 6-7  ASSEMBLY

Using subjects that either pitched in high school or college they concluded that there was a high correlation between pitches with higher velocity and the amount of force being applied into the ground with the front leg.

Again the information that the front leg is important to help transfer energy isn’t new but what is interesting is HOW and even more importantly WHEN this force is being applied to the ground.

How the Force is Being Applied

What I mean by how the force is being applied is in what direction its being put into and redirected by the ground.  This picture of a runner shows you the different types of directions ground reaction forces can be applied.

barefoot-running-copy2

The vertical force is the easiest to understand.  If you stand on a weigh scale like the one pictured below and then pushed your feet into the scale as if you were about to jump you will see the scale go beyond your body weight.  What you’re doing is applying vertical force and if your goal is to jump higher than you need to put more force into the ground.

scale jump

When the front leg hits the ground during pitching there are vertical forces being applied to the ground and back up towards the ball. In fact one of the main biomechanical differences between fast and slow throwers in a study by Matsuo et al. (2001) was the ability to have the front leg go into extension after landing.  You need a lot of vertical force to go into extension rather than continue to go into more flexion. Here is an article about these biomechanical differences.

The most important direction however wasn’t the vertical but rather in the anterior/posterior direction.  Here is a direct quote from the study.

 “Force imparted by the stride leg against the direction of the throw appears to contribute strongly to achieve maximum throwing velocity”

The fact that the stride leg is applying force AGAINST the direction of the throw means that this force is being applied in a posterior direction.  The back leg gets our momentum going towards the plate in an anterior direction but the we must “slam on the brakes” and stop our momentum by applying force backwards with the front leg.  This catapults our body and ultimately the baseball towards home plate.

breaks

The coaching cue of “slamming on the brakes” was actually used in this study which I think is great because it provides coaches and athletes with a great visual analogy of what needs to happen.  It sure beats yelling out “when you land be sure to go into extension in a posterior direction!!!!”.

This “slamming of the brakes” by the front leg helps contributes to another of the biomechanical differences separating fast and slow throwers.  The amount of forward trunk tilt angle at ball release was again separated fast (36.7 degrees) from slow (28.6 degrees) throwers.  The only way to reach these kinds of angles is with, you guessed it, a strong front leg.

When you hear a pitching coach say “get out front and extend” this is what they are talking about.  If you are more upright, meaning your vertical tilt angle is smaller, at ball release you don’t have the ability to throw harder for a couple of reasons:

  1. you are letting go of the ball further away from home plate which gives the hitter more time to see the ball – not a good thing
  2. you don’t give your muscles as much time to develop force and speed since you are letting go of the ball sooner – not good either

When do You Hit the Brakes?

The main conclusion from this study that the researchers really stressed was the exact point in time during the delivery when the front leg applied the most force in this posterior direction.  Hit the brakes too early or too late and you have won’t reap the benefits from a strong front leg.  It’s all about timing.

pitching-motion-forces

The point when you need the most force according to this research is when the throwing arm is in it’s cocking phase.  The researcher’s used the term “window of opportunity” when describing the importance of peak amounts of force being applied into the ground in this direction due to the importance of timing and the sequential nature of pitching.

Here is Jeff Samardzija hitting the brakes.  The next time you see him pitch watch him jump off his front leg which is a sign that some energy has been sent back up from the ground.

jeff jump

I’ve seen a lot of pitchers with the use of high speed camera extend their front leg but only after the ball was released.  We want to have as much energy available to our throwing arm when it needs it, arm cocking phase,  in order to turn that energy into momentum that we can use to launch this ball out of our hand.

This is really hard to pick up with the naked eye and if you’re a coach this is where some slow motion video can come in handy as a tool to diagnose what is wrong with your pitchers mechanics.

**The front knee going into extension isn’t necessarily going to mean that the most force is being applied but unless you have a crazy awesome pitching mound with an embedded force plate or two this is pretty much all we can do.  The reason I say this is because you can apply a lot of force isometrically which means that your muscles are contracting but they aren’t moving thus making it impossible for us to see anything**

The Front Leg = Rate Limiting Factor

The fact that the highest forces were seen by the front leg doesn’t mean that the back leg isn’t important but it does tell us that the front leg is the limiting factor.

Think of it this way.  If the front leg is the brake’s that means that the back leg is the gas and you don’t want to be driving a car that doesn’t have good enough breaks to handle the amount of power you can produce with the gas pedal.  I know I wouldn’t.

Your back leg is responsible for initiating the forward momentum from a set position while the front leg has to catch the entire force created from your back leg and your body moving downhill.  This makes it pretty obvious why we see higher ground reaction forces from the stride leg.

So if you can increase your ability to apply the brakes with the front leg then you can start hitting the gas pedal harder and at least increase you ability to throw harder.  This combination of going faster and stopping quicker will really catapult the baseball out of your hard and past the hitter.

Practical Application

Like I mentioned earlier the researchers did a great job of providing the readers with practical drills and exercises that are not hard to execute and in my opinion are spot on.  I’ve added some of my own suggestions but here is how you can apply this information when you are:

Pitching

Think about this idea of slamming on the brake’s.  You have enough to worry about when you’re pitching (base runners, pitch count, etc) that if you think about much more than that you aren’t going to be able to use this information.

Bullpen

The authors suggested a throwing drill where you start on one knee (right knee for righties) and then try to stand up while making a throw to a partner.

Another idea might be to over load the slope of the mound making it more difficult for you to capture all that extra energy created with the steeper mound.  You need to have a portable mound that you can safely jack up the back of mound so if won’t move around on you.  Or find a mound that they haven’t changed since 1968 when they lowered the mound by 5 inches due to guys like Bob Gibson posting a ridiculous 1.12 ERA.

Bob-Gibson

The effect that I am going for here is to make your body realize the importance of the front leg by overloading it.  You don’t need to crank it way up because more doesn’t always mean better.  There might be some motor learning benefits to throwing off a slight higher mound rather than throwing off a standard mound 100% of the time.

On-Field Athletic Drills 

These can be done on field or in the weight room but here is a basic progression of drills.  The progression is important because we need to first learn how to land on the front leg before we can worry about landing and then jumping back again. Walk before you can run type stuff.

With any of these drills stress the fact that we aren’t trying to stop on a rigid leg which would cause a real jarring affect which is something that would make throwing a strike very difficult to do.  Use the term “absorb” or “catch your momentum” to describe what we want.

Start with a very small box and the goal is to absorb that added energy.  Make sure when viewing from the front that knee doesn’t want to dive in.

The faster you run and the higher you hop the tougher it is going to be on that front leg to absorb that extra energy/momentum.

This one looks the easiest but it isn’t.  Again absorb the landing then hop backwards.

In the Weight Room

My favorite thing about this study other than the fact that my research was referenced was their suggestion to do Bulgarian Split Squats.  Here is an entire article on this great exercise.

To take this exercise a step further you could add the variation of coming to a complete stop at the bottom of each rep.  The stop isn’t designed to be a rest but rather to force your muscles to adapt and build strength from a complete stop.

rfess

 

Other than Bulgarians along with a complete weight training program that involves exercises that don’t look anything like pitching (squats, deadlifts, rows, presses) I like a forward lunge.

Using weights that allow you to absorb and eccentrically control the load before redirecting yourself back to your starting position.

lunge

I hope that you found this information to be useful and if you did please send along to someone else who you think could benefit from reading this article.

Thanks,

Graeme Lehman, MSc, CSCS

 

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15 comments

  1. Tim McK

    great article – we always hear the benefits of a firm front leg in pitching and this study provides that saying has alot of merit………..another weigh room exercise that would also play into this firm front leg is a straight leg deadlift as that would also help to practice and improve that firm front leg. In addition to that doing one legged RDLs would practice the same movement.

    • Graeme Lehman

      There is never a bad time for one legged RDL’s – one of my favourite due to its self limiting nature but you can load it up with a lot of weight once you have mastered the movment

  2. Matthew C. Reppert

    Love it! I’ve looked into hitters and golfers (mainly Tiger, with his violent knee extension on the downswing), and figured it’d make sense for pitchers too. It’s good to see it coming out in research, since it’s a bit tough to sell, “Well, I think this might help” (though others do it all the time) if you’re any bit ethical.

    I’ll be adding in some of these tips as I wasn’t aware of them. Keep up the great work!

    MR

  3. Kevin

    Best article I have read in a long time. The deceleration drills/bulgarians are excellent choices not only for baseball but for almost any sport.

  4. Tom Sakata

    Graeme, Hope all baseball coaches, at the volunteer/high school level, read or subscribe to newsletter. So many are not aware of the bio-mechanics of things. It seems like they subscribe to the principle of “That is what they always have been doing” or this is what I was “taught”. I follow your new letter, even though my son has quit baseball because of his experience. Just lousy management and lousy coaching. I say lousy because they have shutter over their eyes like draft horses. Equally harmful is their ego. Graeme, it is interesting about pitching and hockey/fast pitch. I play hockey (not good at slap shots) so this article is interesting. The principles should be similar because when we take a slap shot the lead leg is planted and we follow through with stick and the trailing leg is the counter weight to the rotation of the upper body and posterior movement when the “lead leg brakes” are on. Thank you kindly for the update on the new development in base ball. Have a Merry Christmas. Tom Sakata

    Date: Thu, 3 Dec 2015 22:24:18 +0000 To: tomsakata52@hotmail.com

  5. Pingback: Efficient Front Leg Mechanics that Lead to High Velocity - Driveline Baseball
  6. Peter O'Doul

    Graeme you mentioned in this article that harder throwers had more forward trunk tilt. Studies have shown that in max long toss, there is a reduced trunk tilt. I value long toss a lot but am starting to rethink the high arc throws vs on a line throws. I’d like to hear your thoughts here. Since forward trunk tilt is an important velo factor and max long toss does the opposite by having a more upright trunk tilt because you’re throwing at an upward angle, do you feel like max long toss should be done on a line? I’ve read some of you’re posts on long toss but am not sure if this was mentioned. Do you think long toss should be done more on a line at max distance to better replicate what we want to achieve in the delivery with the forward trunk tilt, or is high arc max distance the better way?

    • Graeme Lehman

      Peter,
      I think that if a pitcher has trouble creating trunk tilt then long toss might not be that tool that best suits their needs. That being said it does provide some great training benefits and because the trunk tilt is the exact opposite of what is required when throwing from a mound you might the able to bring that to their attention since it is easier to dissociate between the two types of tilt. This hopefully helps paint a picture in their mind of what they need to do when they get on the hill.

      I also really like throwing on a line as well.

      Graeme Lehman

      • Reppert Chiropractic and Performance

        Hi Graeme,

        I just wanted to see if you could clear things up a bit. I think Peter was quoting the article above when he was talking about gaining trunk tilt.

        From the article:
        This “slamming of the brakes” by the front leg helps contributes to another of the biomechanical differences separating fast and slow throwers. The amount of forward trunk tilt angle at ball release was again separated fast (36.7 degrees) from slow (28.6 degrees) throwers. The only way to reach these kinds of angles is with, you guessed it, a strong front leg.

        From your last comment:
        I think that if a pitcher has trouble creating trunk tilt then long toss might not be that tool that best suits their needs. That being said it does provide some great training benefits and because the trunk tilt is the exact opposite of what is required when throwing from a mound you might the able to bring that to their attention since it is easier to dissociate between the two types of tilt. This hopefully helps paint a picture in their mind of what they need to do when they get on the hill.

        Are we talking about two different scenarios here? Is that the reason for the mix-up?

        As for long-toss, I guess it depends on how you use it. If it’s used as a pissing contest, that may not help everyone (not sure here, but I think we’ve got better information than “throw it as far as you can”). If you’re aware of numbers where max distance does indeed predict better pitching (I think I saw something about velocity), then I’d be for it. But, if that’s just an incidental finding, it doesn’t mean training high-arc, max distance is going to carry to the mound.

        Even then, finding the best angle is great and all, but can you get a pitcher to hit that angle during practice? When it comes to throwing on a line, considering the angles involved with flat ground throwing, it seems like it would better match throwing from a mound with a bit of upward angle. How much, I don’t know. But, I assume stride length, and many other factors would come into play.

      • Graeme Lehman

        Matthew,

        What I was trying to say is that long toss won’t be the best tool for getting someone to create forward trunk tilt since throwing the ball as far as you can requires much more of an upright trunk to maximize distance. It all comes down to how you use the tool. They could still use long toss as a tool but they would have to implement another one that does promote more of a forward tilt – I’ve played around with elevating the mound and/or bring their throwing target in closer to force them into this.

        As far (pardon the pun) throwing distance goes here is a quick thought. I think that throwing for max distance can be something that pitchers can work on until they can reach a certain distance where they experience diminishing returns, where that distance is exactly? I don’t know. What I mean by this is that if you take someone who can only throw the ball 175 feet and work them up to 225 feet I bet you will see an increase in their throwing velocity. But I don’t think you will see that same kind of return on investment if you try to go from 300 to 350 feet. This would be the point of diminishing returns and you are only risking injury since you have already achieved what you can from this particular exercise. The same could even be said about a weight room exercise like squats. Go from 100 to 200lbs I bet you will see some pretty significant MPH gains but you will not see this same kind of return going from 300 to 400lbs. This is something that Bondarchuk talks about with his shot putters where he has discovered some weight room strength standards that when achieved the athlete is better suited to work on more specific exercises in order to see improvements in their actual sport performance. How far should we be able to throw? How much weight should you be able to squat? I am not sure about these answers and I think they differ depending on what kind of pitcher you are. Definitely a topic to continue to explore.
        Hopefully this rant answers your question a bit.

  7. Reppert Chiropractic and Performance

    Thanks Graeme,

    That’s what I was thinking. Long toss is just a tool and to be quite honest, I think training long-toss and front-leg strength are highly beneficial. But, like everything else, they have a greater effect up until a certain point. At that point, they can become a waste of time, or worse yet, they may be pushing hard enough that problems begin to pop up. The key is balancing what we can gain from a given training modality with the risk involved. However, if you ask what we’re definitely missing at a young age, I’d go with strength. Many players play on at least one team, take some lessons, and attend some camps. It doesn’t mean they’re mechanically sound (practice does not always make perfect), but I think there comes a point where strength is needed to get into positions required in sport, and the addition makes sense (fill in the weak points, literally).

    Add to that the late start most players have in the weight room, and I think early education on weight room principles could be huge. Some of your drills (awesome job by the way), could be implemented as on field work, but adding in some actual base strength is another key to the puzzle. The Bondarchuk example is a perfect parallel for your response. We’re not creating power lifters, and we’re not creating javelin medalists. We’re making better ballplayers, and strength is only used to improve baseball performance. Nothing else really matters. It’s all about windows of opportunity. Improving in various areas just leaves fewer weaknesses to exploit.

    Thanks for clearing that up!

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