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Arm Care Options for Baseball and Softball Athletes (or anyone else that throws stuff)

With fall baseball and softball beginning to wind down and more athletes getting back into the weight room, I thought this would be an opportune time to discuss arm care related issues for these types of athletes.  Unfortunately for many, throwing related injuries seem to be at an all time high.  The incidences of Tommy John surgeries, slap tears, and the like have risen at an alarming rate in the past few years.  Causation is varied and many experts have their say in what is leading to this trend.  Depending on who you ask, factors could include (but certainly aren’t limited to) early specialization, little league elbow, lack of a pitch count, imbalance in musculature, poor mechanics, tonic musculature, extreme joint laxity, lack of rest, poor diet, lack of sleep, or potentially the curse of the Billy Goat (okay maybe not that last one).  This can be a rich, dynamic system and pinpointing exactly what is off can often be challenging.  But, there is hope.  Prevention and relief are just a well-managed arm care program away. 

A good physical therapist or chiropractor is worth their weight in injury-preventing gold.  In the 518 two specialists that I highly recommend are Dr. Jason Brown from Brown Integrated Chiropractic and Lori ONeill Warner from Proactive Edge Physical Therapy.  Dr. Brown is a veritable maestro of muscular manipulation and practices the highly popular (especially among MLB and college baseball players) Graston Technique. 

I encourage consulting with a trained practitioner whenever applicable.  But, if time/financial/logistical constraints don’t allow you to seek out a professional, there are still plenty of options to keep your arm supple, mobile and injury free.  While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it can serve as a resource for helping alleviate nagging injuries, enhance mobility, and make the arm more resilient. 

Arm Aid

I have used this medieval looking instrument for years and most athletes have claimed immediate relief after use. The Arm Aid is a self myofascial release tool that can work both the flexors and extensors of the forearm.  The beauty in its compact design is that you can use it anywhere.  Dugout, gym, home, it doesn’t matter.  If you have an Arm Aid, you have the ability to massage those oft used forearm muscles.  You can also work trigger points in a modified ART (Active Release Therapy) method explained in the DVD that comes with this instrument.  One slight gripe I have is that working the upper arm with this device is a chore and not super practical considering the current design.  Not a huge deterrent though, as most throwing related issues are relegated to the shoulder and the lower arm.  But, it would be more useful if they modified the design to make it easier to attack the biceps, triceps, and surrounding musculature.

College Softball Athlete Amelia Mamone uses the Arm Aid

Franklin Pierce College Softball Player, Amelia Mamone, using the Arm Aid

Boomstick and Pain Pill

Developed by Chris Duffin (the lightest man to deadlift 900 pounds) and Donnie Thompson (the first man to total 3,000 pounds in powerlifting), the Boomstick and Pain Pill are smaller variations of the body tempering tools initially promoted by Thompson.  Conventional tempering tools run on the larger side and aren’t manageable for working the comparatively smaller arm muscles, joints, and fascia.  Weighing in at 22 and 44 pounds respectively, these tools enable the athlete to work the arm and shoulder musculature without having to deal with the sheer bulk of the bigger implements (90 and 130 pounds can be a challenge to maneuver for most folks).  Duffin also offers video tutorials on the proper use of these devices on his website

One shortcoming of this tool is that optimizing it to its full potential can be a two person process.  Not always, but depending on what area you are attempting to get at, you may need another set of hands.

VooDoo Bands

I have a set of Rogue VooDoo Bands, but there are various companies that provide this same product.  This thin strip of rubber works by way of ischemic therapy.  Isch what?  No, that’s not a German curse word.  It’s actually a fancy way of saying blood flow restriction.  The main principle behind this modality is that the compressive properties of the band, inhibit blood flow to the area wrapped.  Often after throwing the athlete undergoes swelling in the elbow or the shoulder.  VooDoo Bands assist in pushing out the excess fluid that accumulated as a response to the trauma of throwing.  Removal of this fluid also enables the joints to “centrate” and become realigned in a more favorable mechanical position that the previous swelling would have prohibited.  When the band is released, blood surges into the area that was wrapped.  This influx of blood aids in healing by pumping nutrients into the effected area and pulling waste products out.  There aren’t a ton of studies on the efficacy of this treatment, but real world application has many athletes from sprinters to throwers, touting the benefits of VooDoo Bands.  

Big 6'8" pitcher Joe Delollo using the VooDoo Bands

Big 6’8″ high school pitcher, Joe Delollo, using the VooDoo Bands

Extensor Exercises 

Throwing a five to seven ounce orb with maximum velocity can ravage the shoulder and elbow.  Extreme forces take place on the arm from the end of the “cocking” phase to the release phase.  Start to finish, this process takes roughly 50 milliseconds.  Short of sprinting and blinking, this is one of the fastest movements in the human kinematic arsenal.  Throwing is highly flexor dominant, with the wrist snapping down violently as the ball is released.  For this reason, having a strong opposite side of the wrist can help distribute the force more efficiently and lead to less tonicity in the flexors.  Exercises that focus on these rarely used extensors are critical in keeping the elbow healthy and functioning properly.  We do a wide variety of extensor work in the gym, hitting everything from standard wrist extension exercises, to flashier options like Zottman Curls and Thor’s Hammer.    

Scapular Strengthening/ Mobilization Exercises 

Donnie Thompson once said, “If you can’t move it, you can’t train it.”  So let’s get moving!  The scapula and adjoining cuff muscles play an integral role in decelerating the arm while throwing (making sure your arm doesn’t come out of the socket, pretty important I’d say).  Strong, mobile, and healthy scaps are hugely important in staying injury free for general population folks, but are critical for throwing athletes.  This could be an entire blog post in it of itself, so I will gloss over a lot in this analysis.  The ability to have adequate motor control, stability, and muscle synergy in this area is a must in keeping throwers healthy.  A great resource I stumbled upon recently is an eBook entitled Simple Shoulder Solution by Max Shank.

Ithaca catcher working cuff stability/mobility in one shot with a ring scarecrow

Ithaca catcher Ryan Henchey working cuff stability/mobility in one shot with a ring scarecrow


Mechanics Breakdown

Slow-motion video analysis apps, like Dart Fish and Coaches Eye, have become all the rage in the physical preparation circle.  Most of these apps are inexpensive, efficient ways to really get a visual of what is going on in the throwing process.  The average human eye can only operate at 45 frames per second.  Coaches eye can film at 240 fps with a slow motion feature.  This enables the viewer the ability to see things that we simply can’t with the naked eye. From here, we can pick up on mechanical flaws in the motion and formulate a plan to correct these issues.  I use Coaches Eye with my throwing, running and lifting athletes and provide instant feedback to improve their performance.      

If you are hurt you can’t play.  Hopefully the options presented here can serve as a resource to keep you or your athlete injury free and dominating on the field of play.

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“Needs More Core”

I have heard this phrase from several parents/coaches/athletes throughout the years and it still makes me pause.  I usually picture a giant bubbling cauldron surrounded by several witches a la Macbeth.  One slowly stirs a haggard wooden spoon, as the others converse on how to make the perfect athlete.  After a couple long, slow pulls around the pot, the head witch gingerly sticks her finger in the murky soup and stuffs it in her mouth.  A moment passes as she swishes the broth around.  She raises an eye and through clenched teeth croaks out, “Needs more core.” 

Eye of newt, claw of raven..and just a pinch of core

Eye of newt, claw of raven… and just a pinch of core

Absurd?  Yes.  Blame my parents for trying to culture me with book learnin’ at a young age.  It’s just where my mind goes.  But, with the over saturation of this term can you really blame people for their crazed obsession with the CORE?  It’s pervasive.  It’s in your face everywhere from social media, to the grocery aisle rags with Dr. Oz’s beaming mug plastered across them. 

At a cursory glance there’s 5 minute abs, 10 minute abs, special classes devoted to core training , chair core training (an actual thing- the first time I heard of this I thought it was a joke), products to sculpt your core, stuff you wrap around your middle to trim your core.  Hashtag the word “core” on Instagram and you’ll see that it has already been done three million times.  A core training book search on Amazon produces 74 related titles, ranging from Core Strength for 50+, to Core Training for Dummies.  Core is the new black. 

But what is it?  Is it JUST your abs (doubtful)?  Is it diaphragm to pelvic floor (warmer)?  Is it shoulders to hips (even warmer)?  Does it even exist (most certainly, but not in the way you’d think)?  Does it even matter if the other parts of your body don’t work efficiently (ah ha, now we are getting somewhere)?  I’d imagine, most hear core and instantly visualize a sizzling six pack featured in a supplement ad (and usually photo-shopped). 

Those money maker muscles are the rectus abdominus and what people typically think of when referring to the core. They are there, despite those who say they, “Don’t have abs.”  They become visible as a byproduct of low body fat percentage.  If you are sporting single digit body fat you’ll see ’em, and if you ain’t, you won’t.  But rest assured, they are in fact there, regardless of the ability to see them or not.  Furthermore, visible abs may not even be strong abs. Lean doesn’t always mean strong.  It depends on the athlete, context matters here too. 

Morpheus don't lie

Morpheus don’t lie

Most would agree that a strong center helps with performance, but to what degree?  Some of the strongest middles on the planet belong to fellas who might not be the first option for gracing the cover of flex magazine.  Super-heavy weight power lifters have the trunk resiliency to place weights on their spines that would rupture the backs of mortal men, squat it, and escape unscathed.  Donnie Thompson, the first man to total 3,000 pounds (and squat 1,200), has a few choice words for the core craze crew:

“We are not an apple or a pear.  There is NO human ‘core’ just the marketing term that gets you to think ‘abs’!  The muscles of the trunk are recruited peripherally.  They do not isolate for sport.  Most importantly, no matter how strong your ‘core’ is, if your feet and ankles lack flexion and strength, your worthless anyway!”

Without the joints/limbs above and below working efficiently, this guy ain't worth much

Without the joints/limbs above and below working efficiently, this guy ain’t worth much

Yes, bracing your middle and resisting force through compound human movements like squatting, lunging, and sprinting is the best and most reasonable way to get that torso strong. 

University of Cincinnati strength coach, Chris Gray, explains, “At U.C. we stick to training the core through compound human movements like the deadlift, squat, and Olympic lifts.  We feel the function of the core is to allow for transfer of power and strength from the ground.  If your middle is weak, you can’t lift or run efficiently.  As far as direct stuff is concerned, we work a lot of anti-rotation/flexion exercises (single arm walking lunges, Payloff presses, Payloff pulls).  Anatomy tells a lot.  If you look at a hamstring you can just tell that its function is to flex the knee and extend the hip.  It’s long and you can just see that’s what it’s supposed to do.  Now, if you look at someone’s middle it looks like a spiderweb, built for resiliency and stability.  Transfer is the name of the game, not to flex your spine doing 1,000 crunches.” 

The take home message here is look how the athlete moves, bends, runs, squats, lunges, cuts, accelerates, stops and jumps (amongst other qualities) FIRST.  Take care of those basic fundamental patterns.  Treat them well.  They will have the most direct transfer to sport abilities and skills.  If you can do 300 crunches but can’t run, what is that really worth?  Train smart and hard, and reap the benefits on the court or field.      

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Interview with former Section Two and Virginia Tech Football Star Wade Hansen

I have been very fortunate to work with some pretty special athletes throughout the years.  Wade Hansen is one of them.  I first met Raymertown’s finest, as a fresh-faced high school grad six years ago.  I distinctly remember watching his 6’5″ 210 pound frame sprinting across the Menand’s Farmers Market blacktop and saying to myself, “Well that’s different.”  That big really shouldn’t be that fast.  He was beating college running backs handily and left me thinking, “This kid is gonna be a match-up nightmare.”
Wade as a lean and mean Tamarac Bengal

Wade as a lean and mean Tamarac Bengal

Now, Section Two football is famously under-recruited, so it wasn’t surprising that Wade (coming from a Class D school in Tamarac) didn’t have Nick Saban trying to charm him down to Tuscaloosa.  Right or wrong, that just doesn’t happen in the Capital District.  So, Wade went to RPI and proceeded to get bigger (now 250), faster, and stronger.  His sophomore season he really came into his own at defensive end, and made life miserable for the opposing left tackles of the Liberty League.
Confident in his abilities, Wade decided to chase a dream and take a stab at playing Division 1 football.  It worked. Blacksburg, Virginia was the place.  Enter sandman, Hokie stone, and Beamer ball.  Wade became a full-fledged member of the Virginia Tech Football Team.  But, now as an offensive lineman.  A position he hadn’t played since he was a mighty Bengal from Brunswick years ago.
His first year he red-shirted.  He adapted, got even bigger (now 310), and became a starter.  He performed well enough to start the next year too.  Wouldn’t you know it, Wade gets an invite to a NFL training camp.  The Pittsburgh Steelers of all places.  He nearly made the 53 man roster and as it stands right now, is a phone call away from being with another franchise.  Wade was kind enough to sit down with me for this interview.
Brian: When did you first get introduced to strength training?
Wade: I would say I really hit it hard my sophomore year of high school.  It kind of clicked for me at that point.  It became such a big factor in how you perform.  At the high school level when you are hitting your growth spurt pretty hard, your body is naturally trying to become beefy haha.  The weight training just helped amplify it.
B: Do you feel like it helped you in your athletic journey and if so, how?
W: Oh of course, especially when I got to the collegiate level.  Getting bigger, faster, and stronger became such a main thing when trying to adjust to a higher level of play.  And even going to Virginia Tech, changing there, I had to become even bigger, faster, and stronger.
B: From what I remember you graduated high school at about 210 pounds and you currently sit around 310.  How did that happen?
B: Do you have an idea of how many calories you were taking in to get to that point?  Was it like five or six thousand a day?
W: Closer to seven.  It sounds simple and most people know this, but the key part of gaining that weight was just eating.  Athletes can go into the weight room and get after it, for me that is almost the easy stuff.  Getting the calories and the proper nutrition in your body can be a struggle, especially when you’re trying to put that kind of size on.
B: What’s funny for me is I train so many kids that are tipping the scales at about 130 pounds and attempting to put on weight.  They all say they “eat all the time” or something to that effect.  Now, they don’t all necessarily want to play Division 1 offensive line, but I highly doubt they are even taking in half of what you did when you made your big push.  Any foods you really relied on?
W: I ate pretty healthy and just ate A LOT.
B: You had a pretty unique college experience.  What made you want to try your hand at playing Division 1 ball?
Now at RPI and a cat quick 250

           Now at RPI and a cat quick 250 pounds

W: Well RPI was expensive and the way I was performing I thought I could try to play at a higher level.
B: I remember watching you play Alfred your sophomore year and you were just eating that poor right tackle alive.  I remember thinking, “Wade looks really good.”  So when I heard you were going to give it a shot I definitely thought you could do it.  What do you think the major differences were between RPI and Virginia Tech?
Wade and I before he left for Virginia Tech

Wade and I before he left for Virginia Tech

W: Overall there’s a big talent difference and  Virginia Tech recruits from everywhere.  You got kids from California, Florida, Texas.
B: How do you think your strength and athletic philosophy has changed since you first started working out?
W: It has definitely become more positional based now that I’m through high school and college and on to the professional level.  These days I don’t need to be worrying so much about my 40 yard dash.  For me now it’s all about the five to ten yard burst and my lateral movement.  And even now my strength level has to greatly increase with the position and level that I’m in.
B: I’m not a huge fan of the term “functional training,” but I guess for you it is kind of the function of a right guard or the function of a left tackle.  You’re big and strong and fast.  Now it’s more about how you need to move your body for the position, what you need to do to diagnose what’s going on defensively, that becomes such a big part of doing your job.
W:  Regardless of the position, you have to be an athlete first.  You need good lateral movement and good flexibility.  There isn’t such a thing as a football sprint or a soccer cut.  There’s an athletic base you need to work off of.
B: EXACTLY!  Continue to become a better athlete, along with picking up the little nuances of your sport and position.  That being said, how strong do you think is strong enough?
W: HAHA…well you have to be as strong as you can be, and still be an athlete.  You gotta move well.  There’s guys at Virginia Tech who were animals in the weight room and they couldn’t tie their shoes.  I had a good squat, but not a tremendous bench or push jerk.  But, that didn’t define me as a football player.  I think because I was able to move well, it helped me tremendously.
B: How fast is fast enough?
W: The faster you can be the better.  But you have to be under control.  Being able to break down, sink your hips, and stop quickly is also very important.
Sitting at 310 and starting for the Virginia Tech Hokies

       Sitting at 310 and starting for the Hokies

B: Who do you think is the biggest freak you have encountered?
W: James Harrison.  Not even close.
B: What is he 37 now?  Still playing linebacker in the NFL.
W: 37 years old. Six foot, 240 pound powerhouse.  His hands are so quick and so strong that even if you have the reach on him, he’s already past you.  It’s unreal.  His self-maintenance at home is unbelievable too.  Personal masseuse, hyperbolic chambers to sleep in, he’s the real deal.
B: What’s the importance of the mental approach to training?
W: It all starts with your head.  You have to be mentally prepared and believe in yourself.  Confidence is key, not cockiness.  There’s a huge difference between cocky and confident.  The ability to convince your mind that you can do something is a powerful tool.
B: What are some areas you feel you still need to work on?
W: I would say I can’t go wrong with change of direction ability and continuing to strength train.  I feel like I am at a good weight, but I’d like to be at a lower body fat percentage at this same weight too.
B: Very important questions here to finish up: turkey hunting or deer hunting?
W: That’s tough.  I’ve taken more turkeys than deer.  I think the adrenaline rush is the same.  Turkey hunting might be a little more exciting.  Actually, I don’t think I can answer that question haha.
B: What’s more challenging: double sessions or a day spent bailing hay?
W: Haha. When you got 12 hours of bailing hay it’s pretty grueling, but I think double sessions are probably harder. Mentally tougher.  Hay you can just check out.
B: Injuries happen all the time in the pros and you could be one phone call away from being at an NFL franchise for a tryout.  What are you doing to stay ready?
W: Right now just doing some positional work and maintaining my strength.  Not build so much because you don’t want to risk injury at this point.  Making sure I’m putting good stuff in my body and just staying ready.
B: Any other plans for the future?
W: If I don’t get a NFL phone call, I’d really love to become an ENCON officer.  I like the outdoors and it would be a great fit for me I think.
B: Thanks a ton for your time Wade.  Everyone in the 518 sports community wishes you the best!

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The Athleticism Pyramid and what it means to the Developing Athlete

I have tried unsuccessfully for years to fully express my feelings on what it means to be a good athlete.  Is it sports versatility?  Is it tidily structured in the concrete world of measurables and figures?  Is it a transient blend of many different factors that makes someone special in their sport of choice?  Welcome to the world of grey where there is always a yes and a… no.

I wanted to have an easy, tangible way to explain to my clients the thoughts bouncing around in my skull.  Something clear and crisp.  Something that wouldn’t bore them to tears with the minutia of sports science jargon.
Trouble is, I Couldn’t seem to do it.  I’d either end up not being able to find the words on cue, or would end up putting them to sleep with sciencey terms that would make a root canal from a wolverine seem like a better option.
Then like a beacon in the night, like a cool oasis in a harsh desert of misinformation and conjecture, I ran into it.  The pyramid of athleticism.  So simple and so digestible that I’m partially frustrated I didn’t come up with it myself. The pictograph (seen below) plays out like the old school food pyramid.  The most essential building blocks are on the bottom with qualities of diminishing importance on the top. image As you can see, the bedrock of athleticism comes from performing high quality movements.  Running, cutting, squatting, pulling, lunging, pressing, dodging, dipping, diving, ducking, and dodging (okay maybe not the last five).  Efficiently propelling your own body through space comes before EVERYTHING.
Patches O'Houlihan knew the value of moving well

Patches O’Houlihan knew the value of moving well

Funny thing is, the majority of people I interact with often flip this paradigm on its head.  Conditioning becomes priority number one.  This overarching desire to get “in shape” for athletic performance is a narrative that needs to be reexamined more critically.
I’ll generalize a little here, but for most athletes at the high school and college level how hard is it to get “in shape?”  A month, maybe two if you are someone who struggles with that sort of thing.  And furthermore what is “in shape” anyways?  What energy system are are we attempting to condition?  Anaerobic alactic repeat sprint ability?  Oxidative development?  Lactate threshold?  To me “in shape” is a throwaway term that doesn’t really mean anything.
Now think about how hard it is to move well.  It is a lifelong pursuit.  And, one that can look dramatically different for each person.  Each athlete has their own unique injury history, limb length, joint laxity, and motor programming, all of which need to be considered.
Once that foundation of solid movement skills has been attained and developed, then we can consider loading the pattern to make it more robust.  Notice I said consider.  Many trainers are too willing to put the cart before the horse and bypass a cleaner movement in order to throw a boat load of weight on their clients.  Hell, in my formative years I used to do it.  If a 200 pound back squat is “good” then clearly a 300 pound one is immeasurably “better.”  Now a slightly wiser me has figure that the only “better” is how the exercise is done, not the weight on the bar.
If we get you strong and moving well,  then the next step would be focusing on displaying strength in motion and becoming a faster version of yourself.  Now, this isn’t a completely linear approach.  We aren’t baking a cake here. This is a fluid sort of approach that can vary from athlete to athlete.  But placing conditioning above all other physical qualities is missing the forest for the trees.
Here’s the bottom line: moving well is the foundation that strength, speed, and endurance are built on.  Baseball players jogging poles and lineman running gassers, while still present, will hopefully go the way of the dinosaur… unless we are talking the T-rex. Mobile, strong, and fast, that dude was the original Athlete 😉.

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