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Rotator cuff heavily used by baseball players

By Steve Tamborra

Protecting the arm and shoulder

When baseball coaches observe power pitchers who can throw hard, or position players who can gun down baserunners, they talk about players with great arms or strong arms. But when those same players develop arm problems, the term rotator cuff always seems to be part of the conversation. Those two words-rotator cuff-are often associated with serious injuries, major surgery, and threatened careers.

What, exactly, is the rotator cuff, and why is it so important to baseball players? The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that make the throwing motion possible (see figure 4.1). One is the supraspinatus, an abductor that raises the arm to the throwing position and stabilizes the shoulder joint. The next is the subscapularis, which rotates the arm inward and also acts as a stabilizer. The infraspinatus and teres minor rotate the arm outward and stabilize the joint.

Athletes who throw as a major part of their performance place an inordinate amount of stress on the shoulder. A pitcher who throws a 90-mile-per-hour (145-km-per-hour) fastball has an internal rotational velocity of the shoulder of between 6,000 and 10,000 degrees per second. If he could continue moving his arm in a complete circle and maintain that velocity (both of which are, of course, impossible), his arm would complete 17 to 28 circles during a period of one second. That kind of stress, exacerbated by age and overuse-especially in the absence of a strength training program for the rotator cuff-brings a high probability of injury. At least 50 percent of all professional baseball pitchers have missed one or more starts in their careers because of shoulder problems.


The signs of potential rotator cuff problems are tightness in the shoulder, pain, and fatigue. Poor throwing or pitching mechanics can be indicators of rotator cuff injuries, but they are usually more obvious in retrospect than when a problem is developing. There is no ideal angle between the arm and the head during the throwing motion, but pitchers tend to lower their angle when protecting a weak or injured shoulder.

In addition to the rotator cuff muscles, the action of the shoulder joint is supported by tendons, ligaments, and bursae, all of which can become irritated, inflamed, thickened, hardened, or damaged. What begins as weakness in a thrower’s arm can develop into bursitis, tendinitis, bone spurs, small tears, or full-thickness tears. Everyone agrees that strengthening the rotator cuff and shoulder muscles deserves a special place in a yearlong strength and conditioning program for baseball. The next challenge is to find the right time and place to insert those exercises into a player’s already-busy schedule.

Incorporating Rotator Cuff

Strengthening Into an Overall Program

Table 4.1 gives a sample 16-week program for strengthening the rotator cuff muscles during the off-season. The lifts and other exercises are described in detail later in this chapter. Design your program so that rotator cuff exercises are performed 3 days a week on alternating days. Some coaches prefer to handle these exercises at the beginning of a lifting session. During the season, the program is simpler. The exercises should be performed every day a player throws a baseball, and they should be done before stretching and warming up for practice or a game.

In-season rotator cuff exercises are not designed for rehabilitation. Instead, consider them "prehab" lifts-resistance training for injury prevention that prepares the arm and body for throwing and lifting.


During the off-season, a more progressive approach allows the player to strengthen the four muscles that make up the rotator cuff.


Rotator Cuff Training by Position

One of the five basic baseball skills is throwing, which relies largely on arm strength-that is, a strong set of rotator cuff muscles. Outfielders need a strong arm to make long throws. Infielders have to make quick throws in which every fraction of a second counts. At baseball tryout camps, almost all infielders are asked to make long throws from the hole at shortstop. Catchers have to throw out runners trying to steal second or third, and pitchers have to build enough strength to throw 100-plus pitches a game or to throw fewer pitches more often in relief.

To increase arm strength and power and to prevent injuries, every player-not just pitchers-should participate in a strength training program specifically designed for the rotator cuff muscles (see table 4.2). At a minimum, this part of the program should be mandatory for pitchers and strongly recommended for other players. If a player is going to touch a baseball or lift a weight that day, he has to do his rotator cuff work. The exercises take only five minutes before the rest of the pregame or prepractice routines begin. At the beginning of a training cycle, a coach should take players through the entire program of lifts, then let them decide which of the exercises they will include in their individual programs. This decision is made on the basis of strength needs, prior lifting experience, comfort level with various lifts, and lifts a player has performed earlier because of an injury.

Exercises for the throwing arm are essential, but doing rotator cuff exercises for both arms ensures bilateral strength (that is, on both sides) and avoids the unbalanced "gorilla arm" seen in some baseball players, tennis players, and others who depend primarily on one strong arm to perform in their respective sports. Preventing shoulder injuries is easier than treating rotator cuff problems after they occur.


This is an excerpt from Complete Conditioning for Baseball.


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