Old-school thinking tells us that baseball players need big forearms and a strong grip to swing faster and throw harder. However, the rapid increase in elbow and shoulder injuries among young baseball players tells us that something isn't quite right with the way baseball players approach strength training.
A 2015 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that the incidence of Tommy John surgery (reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow) among 15- to 19-year-old baseball players is increasing at a rate of 9.12 percent per year. Young pitchers are throwing more innings, playing on more teams and attending more showcases. And with more young athletes focusing on strength and conditioning, as well, could traditional strength training methods be contributing to this increase in overuse injuries?
For the purpose of this article, we're going to focus on forearm and grip training. Here's the bottom line: I believe traditional forearm and grip training is extremely overrated for baseball players. Throwing a 5-ounce baseball and swinging a 30-ounce bat requires minimal forearm and grip strength in the sense of how it's typically trained in the weight room. Before all you baseball purists throw a bigger tantrum than Manny Machado in the World Series, let's explore the difference between forearm strength and grip strength.
Forearm strength is based on wrist movements, while grip strength is the ability to hold onto a weight via the hand and/or fingers. These are two very different things, and while some aspects matter for baseball, others hardly translate at all.
Forearm strength is built with exercises that move the wrist. The most common ones are flexion (moving the palm toward the forearm) and extension (moving the palm away from the forearm), and are trained using wrist curls, wrist rollers and similar exercises. Based on the mechanics of throwing and swinging in baseball, flexion and extension strength plays a stabilization role at best (i.e., these muscles need to be just strong enough so you don't unnecessarily flex or extend your wrist while swinging and throwing).
Although traditional forearm training movements don't translate all that well to baseball, four lesser-known wrist movements are crucial for success in the sport:
- Supination (turning the palm up)
- Pronation (turning the palm down)
- Ulnar deviation (such as reaching for the enter key while typing)
- Radial deviation (reaching for the space bar).
These are rarely trained with traditional strength training methods despite their importance, but we'll dive into that later.
Grip strength can be grouped into two major categories: crush strength (squeezing a closed fist, as if closing a hand gripper device) and pinch strength (using the fingers and thumb to hold a weight, such as two weight plates pinched together). There are other types of grip strength beyond this, but these are the big two.
Although many studies, including this 2009 review in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, have found a link between crush strength and baseball performance like throwing velocity and swinging velocity, it's important to consider the practical application and ask, does the ability to squeeze the bat or ball harder improve performance?
The obvious answer would be no. If you're crushing the ball or the bat in your hand, you're probably not going to perform well. Baseball is a sport of staying loose, with brief moments of tension and explosiveness. If you're tight all the time, you'll be spiking pitches in the dirt and getting blown away at the plate.
Pinch strength has been studied to a much lesser degree, but a 2017 study in Human Movement Science examined finger forces while pitching and found that peak ball reaction force for fastballs exceeded 80 percent of maximum finger strength. This suggests that stronger fingers could lead to improved throwing velocity, and looking logically at the action of pitching, it's reasonable to think that pinch strength plays a bigger role than crush strength.
And let's not forget an important fact: the act of throwing a ball and swinging a bat is grip training! If you're playing and practicing baseball on a regular basis, tons of supplemental grip work will likely be overkill. Forearm and grip training should make up a small percentage of your efforts in the weight room.
What does this all add up to? Instead of wrist curls and hand grippers, baseball players should focus on grip training that increases finger strength, promotes elbow health and maintains range of motion that's actually used while throwing and hitting. An understanding of how the elbow and its surrounding muscles work can help coaches and athletes pick the right exercises to reduce the chance of injuries and enhance performance on the field.
There are a whopping 16 muscles that cross the elbow joint. These muscles mainly work together to flex (bend) and extend (straighten) the elbow, but also play a role in wrist flexion, extension, supination and pronation, because many of these muscles cross the wrist, too. Add in the tendons and ligaments that conjoin these muscles and bones and you've got the equivalent of a busy highway under construction during rush hour.
Throwing a baseball involves elbow flexion and wrist supination in the cocking position (laying the arm back), followed by extremely fast and aggressive elbow extension and wrist pronation as the ball is released. Add in sliders, cutters and splitters that put the fingers and wrist into even tighter positions, and it's easy to see how the forearm and elbow can get cranky.
What else can make these muscles tight and overused? Lots of heavy strength training. Don't get it twisted: strength training CAN and WILL make you a better baseball player. But too many heavy gripping exercises could be making matters worse.
Avoid these common training mistakes and swap them for the following methods to keep your elbows healthy and enhance your baseball-specific grip strength.
Mistake 1: Only Training Wrist Flexion and Extension
The most common forearm exercises are Wrist Curls and Wrist Extensions. These are great if you want Popeye forearms that bust out of shirt sleeves, but in reality, they hardly do anything to help you throw a baseball or swing a bat. In fact, excessive hypertrophy (i.e., increased muscle size) of the muscles surrounding the elbow just further clogs up that busy highway we spoke of earlier. Sorry baseball players, if getting jacked forearms is your No. 1 priority, you picked the wrong sport.
Instead, focus more on wrist supination and pronation exercises, specifically those that resist said movements. It's important for the forearm muscles to be able to decelerate and prevent excessive wrist motion as the ball is released, so opt for partner-resisted wrist supination and pronation exercises like this:
And don't forget ulnar deviation. This exercise strengthens the muscles that protect the elbow against valgus stress, the main culprit behind UCL tears. Try it with a light dumbbell or club:
Mistake 2: Always Training With a Closed Hand
Constantly clenching your fists and flexing your wrists while gripping bars and dumbbells can lead to short and stiff forearm muscles (see the previous two points). Mixing in exercises that open your hands can give you the forearm gains you want without the pains you don't.
High-rep finger extensions with a rubber band can do wonders for elbow and forearm health. It's the exact opposite of the crushing motion used during most barbell and dumbbell exercises, which maintains muscular balance.
Also try performing some of your upper-body pressing exercises with a thick handle, such as a pair of FatGripz added to your dumbbells. This adds an extra forearm component to pressing exercises like Bench Presses, Floor Presses and Push-Ups, and can even decrease wrist and elbow discomfort during this movements.
Mistake 3: Foam Rolling Your Inner Elbow
Consistent soft tissue work on your forearms, biceps and triceps is your strongest weapon against elbow injuries. Think of it like the foam rolling you'd do for your back and legs, except you won't be using a foam roller here. Instead, you'll use other weight room tools to ease the tension in the tight muscles of your arms.
With the combination of a firm ball (a lacrosse ball works best) and a barbell, you can give your arms the TLC they need to stand up to heavy forearm and grip training. You can even do these drills at the field with a baseball on the ground or on the bench in the dugout.
Be careful not to roll directly on the inner elbow. Pain along the medial epicondyle (inner elbow), often called Golfer's Elbow, is common among baseball players and occurs near some vulnerable structures like the UCL and ulnar nerve. These tissues don't respond well to the pressure of soft tissue work, as anyone who's experienced the freaky "zing" down their arm and fingers after pressing on their ulnar nerve can attest. Instead, stay above and below the elbow, focusing on the forearm muscles, biceps and triceps.
Mistake 4: Not Varying Where You Hold Heavy Weights
What's the common thread between many of the best strength exercises? They involve holding heavy weights in your hands, either in front of you (Deadlifts, Cleans, Snatches, etc.) or by your sides (Trap Bar Deadlifts, Lunges, Farmers Walks, etc.). While these exercises have a place and can make you brutally strong, let's not forget: playing baseball IS grip training. Giving your grip a break in the weight room can reduce the chance of elbow injuries.
The solution: mix in more anteriorly loaded and hands-free exercises. There are plenty of ways to still train hard and heavy without gripping something heavy. Here are some simple swaps.
- Instead of Dumbbell Lunges, try Lunges with Front Squat grip or Safety Bar, or Sled pushes/drags
- Instead of Deadlifts, try Barbell Hip Thrusts or Glute Ham Raises
- Instead of Cleans and Snatches, try Med Ball Throws and Slams or Jump variations
- Instead of Farmers Walks, try Overhead Dumbbell/Kettlebell Carries or Front Rack Kettlebell Carries
Between the sport-specific demands of baseball and the wear and tear on the elbow, forearm and grip training needs to be careful programmed and executed. Trade your wrist curls for some of the above exercises to build baseball-specific strength and keep your elbows healthy for the long season ahead.
Photo Credit: ilbusca/iStock, Matt_Brown/iStock
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