Sunday, April 18, 2010

Let’s Get to the Core of the Problem

Well, it’s been a little while since our last installment on the blog site. I apologize for that. With the initiation of the baseball season, I have been striving to settle in to a routine, adapt to the rigors of travel, and adjust to the day-to-day grind that is the game of baseball. But, that’s a topic for another time.

What I want to talk about this week is the dreaded Oblique Muscle Strain. Baseball is a rotational sport. Everything players do from swinging the bat, pitching the ball, or fielding a ball in the hole, involves a rotary movement at the hips, torso, or shoulder complex. The oblique muscles are the responsible for creating this torso rotation pattern. In recent years, many major league players, both position player and pitcher alike, have been sidelined by injury to this muscle.

In my opinion, these injuries occur for several reasons. First, have you ever followed a hitter around for a day and counted exactly how many total swings he performs? Let’s look at an example of a typical day. Player A shows up to the ballpark and goes to the hitting cage for early work. He may perform up to 30-40 repetitions attempting “lock in his swing”. Then, later in the day, Player A participates in the daily team batting practice which consists of up to 15-20 minutes of a group of 4 hitters. Each hitter may perform another 40+ repetitions. During the game, he takes another 5-10 swings while in the on-deck circle. This time, often with an additional weight on the bat. And finally, he averages 5 at-bats per game. And just for argument, let’s say that he takes 4 swings per at-bat for an additional 20 repetitions.

40 + 40 + 10 + 20 = 110 swings per day

110 swings per day. And, that doesn’t even take into account the number of rotational movements that are performed with his throwing activities. Add these numbers up over the course of an entire season and the rotational repetition volume is astounding. High volume can lead to fatigue. With fatigue comes changes in movement patterns. Changes in movement patterns equal abnormal muscle firing patterns.

The second reason I think these injuries occur is a result of a neuromuscular “misfire” and is directly related to the type of core training that we traditionally perform. During the hitting and throwing motions there is a period of loading (potential energy) and unloading (kinetic energy). As the pitch is being delivered the hitter performs a slight countermovement to “load” his swing and harness energy. As the ball gets closer to the plate, he begins to initiate his swing and “unload” his energy through the bat to the ball. It is at the point of switching from loading to unloading that these oblique injuries occur. In terms of plyometric training we call it the “amoritization phase”. And ideally, the switch should be as quick as possible in order to maximize the benefits of the stretch-shortening cycle and create the optimal resulting concentric force. Traditionally, players and coaches emphasize standard crunches, concentric med ball rotations, and possibly even medicine ball throwing exercises to improve overall core / trunk force production. However, when an athlete is not trained to harness energy and quickly change direction to release that energy. He lacks the neuromuscular conditioning to execute the fine-tuned pattern of load-stabilize-unload. When this lack of programming is coupled with the fatigue and abnormal muscular recruitment I mentioned earlier, the potential for injury increases.

Finally, “it’s all in the hips”. Hip mobility is a key factor. Athletes must have adequate flexibility and range of motion in the pelvis and hips to allow for complete torso rotation. When he lacks mobility in the hips, greater stresses are transmitted up through the spine creating greater needs of the abdominal musculature. Greater requirements result again in abnormal muscle recruitment patterns and can potentially lead to injury.

Prevention programs of these oblique and abdominal muscle injuries should emphasize the following points:

1. Monitor swing volume and tailor activities accordingly. Emphasize quality over quantity.

2. Core strengthening programs should focus on stabilization, eccentric loading, and the quick switch from load to unload. (Of course a good baseline strength level should be present before progressing to this type of training.)

3. Attention should be placed on hip mobility.

David Yeager, ATC, CSCS

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