Strength Myth: Baseball Players Shouldn’t Lift Overhead

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

I’ve been around athletics long enough to know that almost everyone believes their sport is the greatest sport ever. I love that about athletes, because it’s the kind of passion that gets you out of bed every morning. What I don’t love, though, is when athletes outside of your sport come into your gym to train and utilize your expertise, but instead tell you every exercise they should or should not do to get better. If you’re a gym owner, you can sympathize.

Truthfully, there is no worse offender than a baseball player.

While every sport draws in its own unique individuals, baseball really attracts some know-it-alls, and while I may be biased given my time served in Olympic Weightlifting, I’m not the only one that feels this way. The myth surrounding whether or not baseball players should lift overhead is a pervasive one that one that refuses to die in this community.

Yes, some doctors and physical therapists are skeptical when it comes to baseball/softball players lifting overhead, but two things are happening here. The doctors only ever see injury cases, because no one goes to the doctor and says, “Hey Doc, I just sat in your waiting room for 2 hours and paid my $50 co-pay so I could let you know that my shoulder feels great!” Also, athletes (especially young ones) have a tendency to blame injury on lifting weights, because they don’t want to stop competing in their sports.

An article released in 2014 titled, “Baseball Exercises: Should You Lift Overhead?” furthers my explanation by saying, “Many pitchers experience arm problems because of lack of attention to the muscles that aid in the deceleration – the shoulder, the lats and the rotator cuff. Proper lifts and exercises can increase the strength of these muscles and aid in flexibility.”

The author also tips that the “sport performance coach and baseball coach should be in constant communication about how much each athlete throws. Together, they can figure out the optimal amount of overhead lifting and help their athletes avoid overtraining.”

Also take into consideration the specialization of the athlete. Athletes, especially baseball players, are starting to pick one sport early in life and we are starting to realize this can cause problems over time. Dr. Kody Moffett “supports the notion that youths involved in multiple sports have fewer injuries, lower stress levels and fewer cases of burnout. It recommends that youths avoid specializing in one activity until late adolescence — as late as 15 to 16.” Building well rounded athletes is a recipe for building healthy athletes. He continued “Early specialization doesn’t work,” Moffatt said. “It doesn’t make young people more successful. In fact, just the opposite. Early diversification can make them more successful.”

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Lifting weights can add that component for these athletes. Weightlifting builds explosiveness, strength, and flexibility which can all directly transfer to baseball players.

The fear of lifting overhead is a myth developed from athletes lifting under the direction of under-educated, inexperienced coaches promoting heavy weight and incorrect form, so yes, this will lead to injury (in more than just baseball players). Done properly, lifting weights can give baseball players another sport and an extra stimulus to allow them rest from their sport while still keeping them in shape and in a competitive mindset.

Multiple major league baseball players have spoken out in testimony of the Olympic lifts and how they have changed the game for baseball for the better. Retired professional pitcher, Brent Pourciau, says, “after surgery I decided to ignore the conventional wisdom of the game which was telling me weight training would reduce performance and cause injury. Well that had already happened and it wasn’t weight training that caused it.” Pourciau worked with Kurt Hester, former LSU baseball strength and conditioning coach, and used the program the team had used in the 90s. Before the surgery he was throwing in the mid 80s and five years after was clocked at 94 mph.

He’s not the only believer. One Orioles strength coach, Brady Andersen, has also implemented the Olympic lifts into his program. He says, “Imagine if the training were today, running full speed, headed toward a wall, diving into the air, catching an object, tumbling on your shoulder, rolling into it, getting up and throwing an object as hard as you can in the other direction. That would be crazy training, right?” said Anderson, who worked with pitchers Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Zach Britton, along with Triple-A Norfolk strength coach Ryo Naito, in California this winter. “That’s what you are asking them to do in a game. So you have to prepare them to meet the demands of the game.”

This style of training is increasing speed, adding velocity to their throws and improving flexibility all while reducing the injury rate in these athletes. These coaches are putting an end to the myth and producing bigger, faster, and stronger athletes.

Personal anecdote time: I knew a professional baseball player that came to work with my husband, Jason Poeth, during the off season. (Jason is now a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Alabama, but at the time he owned a gym in Mobile, AL called Titan Athletics.)

This baseball player was so inflexible that he couldn’t straighten his arm out overhead. It took months — and more than one off season — but he was eventually able to perform light-moderate hang snatches. In addition to helping him pass a flexibility test used to measure the likelihood of injury, the extra range of motion he gained improved the range of motion on his throw and increased the speed on his fastball. Boom.

Weightlifting programs are used by athletes in all sports to gain strength, improve speed and agility, and generate flexibility. The ultimate goal should be to improve these athletes in their sport, not turn them into competitive Olympic Weightlifters. For these baseball players, we’re just giving them another tool to advance themselves as athletes, and hopefully prevent overuse injuries in the shoulder. After all, “Lifting overhead is simply a way to develop a more well-rounded athlete by targeting an oft-neglected muscle group.” A well rounded athlete is a good athlete.