The Great Debate: To Long Toss or Not To Long Toss.
Long toss is loved by many, and hated by many. Huge camps of people swear by long tossing, saying it makes their arm stronger, lengthens their arm muscles, and keeps their arm healthy. At the same time, there are coaches out there that would tell you to never long toss because, compared to the pitching motion, long toss mechanics aren’t the same–thus, it’s not worth training the arm and body this way, and can even subject your arm to injury! Holy heck! Why such a dichotomy?
Do you know exactly how long toss works? Probably not. If you did, you would be saying to yourself, “Yes, I know how long toss works and I actually have the option to perform it or not.” By the end of this article, I will have you saying just that, and you will be armed with more knowledge than your baseball companions. Oh yeah, you’re also going to learn how to throw harder, throw longer and stay healthy all season long with no matter if you choose to long toss or not; because you’ll be doing a few things different from now on.
Long Tossing 101
Long tossing works by eccentrically strengthening the posterior rotator cuff of the shoulder, and to a lesser degree the elbow flexors (brachialis, biceps, and brachioradialis), and lead leg hip external rotator muscles. If you’re not sure what eccentric strength is, I wrote a very good blog post on it. Click here to read it.
A lot of players feel that they can throw harder from long tossing because they feel it increases their explosive power. Many believe that their strength and power are increased because, as they are training to throw longer distances, or tighter frozen ropes from shorter distances, the anterior shoulder muscles, as well as the chest and triceps are being trained to work harder. And the repetitive nature of this causes overload within the muscles, which strengthens the muscle concentrically, and allows for faster arm action. I 100% agree that this happens. But this is incorrect rationale for why long toss is touted for its arm strength and injury prevention properties.
Do Long Toss Injuries Exist?
They sure do. As I stated before, long toss works by eccentrically strengthening the arm. When the shoulder of a baseball player has great eccentric strength, he is able to throw faster, harder, and longer; because his arm can move much quicker. Great eccentric strength is like having new, large breaks on your car; you have the ability to stop quicker when moving at faster speeds. Thus you may choose to drive at faster speeds knowing that you can stop quickly if needed. This same phenomenon happens intrinsically and automatically to the body. If you don’t have great eccentric strength, your shoulder is hesitant to accelerate beyond a certain point, and your velocity will be capped…boo hoo. The moral of this story is that you need great breaking power/eccentric strength to throw harder and longer, and this is how long toss works. But, long toss is limited by itself, and this is where injuries occur.
When you throw with a poor eccentrically trained shoulder, there is too much force going through your posterior rotator cuff muscles (do you get sore during or after throwing?). Too much force causes a little receptor within the tendons of the cuff, the Golgi Tendon Organ, to shut down the muscle.
This is a protective response by the body. If there is too much strain going through the muscle, the body turns the muscle off to prevent it from tearing; makes good sense. However, this turning off of the posterior rotator cuff creates instability at the shoulder joint. This instability places stress on other tissues, such as the biceps tendon, labrum, and ultimately reduces shoulder/arm acceleration.
Long toss improves eccentric strength to point. It is limited because you can only throw so far, and so hard (from shorter distances) before the Golgi Tendon Organ gets activated and shuts off muscles. This point is different on everyone, so it’s impossible to say a distance where you should stop throwing at. But you can use these tips as your guide; if you are long tossing and you feel soreness anywhere on your arm, stop throwing, or move to a shorter distance. If soreness continues at the lesser distance, stop throwing for the day. If you make it through your long tossing session without pain, but you experience more than mild soreness afterword (same day or next day), your distances are too great, and you need to back it off. The end conclusion for pain with throwing is that, either your mechanics are faulty, and more likely than not you have poor eccentric strength to be throwing the distances you are currently at.
Long Toss and Muscle Length
Eccentric strength training, and thus long tossing does also increase muscle length, and improve joint range of motion (1). We know that the longer a muscle is, the more potential it has to be stronger…and it’s your job to make sure you strengthen the muscle fully. Longer muscles that aren’t strong break down sooner. At the shoulder this means greater instability, and a greater risk for degenerative tears…and not only at the shoulder either!
A 2011 study by the Journal of Sports and Orthopedic Physical Therapy suggest that long tossing can cause injury by creating altered stresses at the shoulder and elbow with throws of >180ft (2). Click here to read this short perspectives article on shoulder and elbow strain caused by long tossing. Based on this evidence, long tossing does create greater strain at the shoulder and elbow during the late cocking and follow through phases, compared to pitching from a mound. If you have great eccentric strength and knowledge of when to modify your long toss program, I believe this shoulder and elbow strain is insignificant. The greater strain placed on the shoulder and elbow would be important to someone who is returning to throwing after injury. Many coaches think long tossing is a good place to start, but this is not the case. A large part of why a baseball player returning from injury should not begin with a long tossing program is because his physical therapist, athletic trainer or strength coach dropped the ball when it came to preparation for a return to throwing program.
What You Should Be Doing Before Long Tossing: How To Gain Excellent Eccentric Strength At The Shoulder And Elbow.
Before beginning a return to throwing program, you should have excellent eccentric strength of the posterior rotator cuff, and elbow flexor muscles as stated previously. In my eccentric training post I outlined a simple exercise you can do for the posterior rotator cuff. Below I will show you an exercise you can do to increase eccentric strength of the bicep, brachialis and brachioradialis. It’s called the Bicep Slayer:
Keep it simple and leave the reps and sets the same as with the Destroyer2 exercise, 2 sets of 12 reps, and lower the weight over 7-10 seconds. In the first week I recommend only doing the Bicep Slayer once, because you may get very sore. Soreness will creep up 24hrs after your workout, then it will get even worse 48hrs after your workout. You may feel intense tightness that prevents you from straightening your elbow. This is normal for eccentric training the first go-round. If this happens, place a warm heat pack or warm wet cloth over your lower bicep and very gently begin to stretch it straight. This will happen to a much, much lesser degree the next time you increase your weight. In the ensuing weeks you can perform this exercise twice/week.
I have seen many players partake in a specialized eccentric training program that have said to me, “long tossing became easier and I have either no, or very minimal soreness post throwing.” I firmly believe you can get the benefits of long tossing (throw farther, harder, and have less injury) from performing specific eccentric training exercises for the body. Then if you want to long toss on top of that, go ahead, but follow the soreness rules I outlined above. My bias is to make sure you are eccentrically strong enough before you begin long tossing, and this will take 3-4 weeks of training. So, you have the option to long toss or not. If you try long tossing and it doesn’t feel right to you, I’ve outline some new strategies that will be equally effective. If you choose to long toss, do so wisely, and always know that there is a limit to how far and hard you can actually throw before you begin to do damage. Learn how your body feels and make changes to your routine as necessary.
Eccentric Training vs. Long Toss Challenge:
Need some friendly competition? Perform the Bicep Slayer and Destroyer2 exercises for 3 weeks, and afterword tell me what happened to your throwing arm soreness, and/or how much more fluid your arm motion feels and how much farther or harder you can throw a baseball. The person that makes the most objective gains (farther throwing, faster throwing) or has the most compelling story (i.e.-came back from injury in “X” amount of time, etc.) before June 30th 2013, I will give a free membership to my Monster Arm Program. You must leave your story or results of improved performance below to be entered into the contest. BONUS: I would love to see physical evidence of your improvement…it will only help your chances :). So use your smart camera phone and document your distance or speed before you begin, and after 3 weeks of doing these exercises (in combo with your current routine, of course). Post the video to YouTube and then tweet this video to me @DrChrisMcKenzie with the hashtag (#) #LongTossDoctor. Best of Luck! I can’t wait to see your responses.
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(1.) O’Sullivan K, McAulifee S, DeBurca N. The effects of eccentric training on lower limb ﬂexibility: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med 2012;46:838–845
(2.) Fleisig GS, Bolt B, Fortenbaugh D, Wilk KE, Andrews JR. Biomechanical comparison of baseball pitching and long-toss: implications for training and rehabilitation. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2011 May;41(5):296-303