Next up in this series I am going to look at elasticity and the role it plays in customizing mechanics and training. Elasticity plays a huge role in throwing hard so this is going to end up the first of a couple of articles about how it contributes to throwing velocity.
First off we need to clear up what I am talking about when I refer to “elasticity”. This is the body’s ability to store and release elastic energy from connective tissues, namely the tendons. Elastic energy is one of two sources of energy that our bodies can use to produce power. The other being energy produced from our muscles contracting which I will cover in the near future.
Athletes that can produce a lot of elastic energy are what I would call “springy” and to show you what I mean we are going to look at the athletes with the best “springs” in the world, high jumpers.
These athletes launch their entire body nearly 8 feet in the air. Yet when you look at the typically high jumper they don’t look like they have a ton of muscle mass that allows them to produce the type of power needed to achieve these crazy feats of athleticism.
So how do they do it? The answer is a combination of elastic energy and great mechanics. This is a similar recipe that a lot “skinny” pitchers use to throw hard.
The best example of elasticity in the world is Stefan Holm who won the 2004 Olympic gold medal. Below is a GIF from one of my favorite YouTube videos of all time where he effortlessly clears consecutive hurdles that are almost as tall as he is at 5’11”.
This is crazy!! What makes it even crazier is that he is reported to only having a standing vertical jump of around 24 inches which isn’t very good. And when you consider that he can get his entire body over top of a bar 94 inches tall it really makes you wonder what’s going on.
This huge discrepancy in jump heights is exactly what makes him the “springiest” athlete in the world. The standing vertical jump off two feet with no running start places a lot more emphasis on muscular strength which isn’t his strong point, pardon the pun. But if you give this guy a running start and let him jump off one leg you allow him to get the most out of his ability to produce elastic energy from his tendons while not having to rely on having big strong leg muscles to get off the ground.
Tendons are what connects muscles to the bones they are trying to move, hence the term “connective tissue”. Tendons aren’t the only structure that produces elastic energy but they are the most dominant which is why I am going to focus on them during this article.
Anytime you eccentrically load up a muscle you’re also stretching the tendon which then stores elastic energy. When this happens the tendon has a built reflex to act like a spring and send that energy back, this is known as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). To get the most out of this energy source you want to have a fast stretch with a minimal delay between loading and unloading, this is what you’re doing when you perform plyometric exercises. For a complete refresher on the SSC watch this short video of Dr. David Behm who is one of the world’s foremost experts in this area. He also happened to be my supervisor for my thesis and an overall great guy.
Every athlete has the ability to use elastic energy but some are just better at it than others. To really illustrate what I mean check out this amazing video by Joel Smith of Just Fly Sports. It really hits home with the message that I have been trying to get across in this whole series about customizing mechanics and training around the athlete’s natural abilities. In this video Coach Smith shows how two different world class high jumpers produce similar results with different jump techniques (fast & slow) based on their natural physiology.
In the past, I have alluded to this kind of “fast” vs. “slow” loading in the back leg for pitchers. My big league examples of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez demonstrate this “slow” and “fast” loading of the back leg respectively. Stroman and his strong legs can build up more power if they are given the time with a deeper and longer loading phase at the hip and knee.
While Sanchez gets his center of gravity moving towards home plate then delivers a quick punch of power into the ground that gets him moving in the right direction.
Both these SSC movements are pretty fast but Sanchez’s is definitely faster. In exercise science, they classify SSC movements into fast and slow categories. Slow SSC’s last longer than 250 milliseconds (ms) and can be seen with more joint movement. This increased time and joint movements gives the athlete more time to develop muscular force and if you have a lot of muscular strength then this type of SSC allows you to develop more overall force. The fast SSC take less than 250 ms to go from loading to unloading and reply less on muscular strength and more on elasticity and as a result, you don’t see as much movement at any of the joints.
Are you Fast or Slow?
There are a series of tests that you can run any athlete through to see what their best strategy is for producing power. In the video from Dr. Behm he went over some of these but here they are all together.
Counter-movement Jump – allows for both elastic and muscular strength.
Static Start Jump – eliminate almost all elastic strength by pausing at the bottom for a 2 second stop. The potential stored energy dissipates as heat. This only really allows the force from your muscles contracting to produce the jump.
Depth Jump – allows for more elastic strength due to eccentric overload from stepping off a 12-24 inch box.
Reaction test (4 jumps) -here the athlete jumps up 4 times in a row trying to go for maximum height. This continuous jumping really places an emphasis on elastic strength.
Each one of these tests gives you some clues about the kind of athlete you are dealing with slow or a fast jumper. When you look at the ratios between these test you can then really get a good sense of how this athlete likes to produce force.
If you perform these tests be sure that arm placement is the same for each. Either allow the arms to swing or keep the hands on the hips so that you are able to compare these tests more accurately. You don’t need an expensive contact mat, force plate or even a Vertec to test this either. Check out the MyJump app which has been scientifically proven to be just as accurate and it is only $7.
Based on the results we can then tailor both mechanics and training to match the needs of the athlete. Those athletes that are “springy” would benefit from more classic strength training while those less “springy” could benefit from plyometrics. In regards to their mechanics, specifically their back leg, the “springy” athletes would do better with a “tall and fall” while stronger guys can produce more power with a “drop n’ drive”. While I am not a fan of either one of these cues I used them here because everyone knows what I am talking about.
How does this apply to pitching?
I’ve only briefly touched on how this applies to pitching during this article. The truth is that there is a whole lot of SSC’s happening throughout the entire body when you throw a baseball and I will be diving into them during the next couple of articles.
Graeme Lehman, MSc, CSCS