The other day I came across a great post on the Key Fundamentals blog titled Softball Pitching Myths Pt. 2 – Hello Elbow by Keeley Byrnes.
Keeley is a former pitcher and now a pitching coach in the Orlando, Florida area, and her blog has a lot of tremendous content on it. I highly recommend you check it out and bookmark or follow it as she has a lot of great information to share.
This particular post is a good example. It seems that “hello elbow” mechanics – turning the ball toward second at the top of the circle, pulling it down the back side and then forcing a palm-up finish at the end – is very commonly taught around the U.S. and maybe around the world.
Yet if you look at what elite pitchers do, you won’t find those mechanics being used by ANY of them. In fact, just the opposite, which makes it like learning to ride a bike by facing the back wheel instead of the front one.
Keeley’s well-researched post goes into great detail discussing not only what elite pitchers do by why they do it, and why it makes sense that they do it.
For example, she quotes this article from the U.S. National Library of Medicine which says:
“It has been shown that internal (medial) rotation around the long axis of the humerus is the largest contributor to projectile velocity. This rotation, which occurs in a few milliseconds and can exceed 9,000°/sec , is the fastest motion the human body produces.“
So if an internal rotation motion is the largest contributor to projectile (ball) velocity, why wouldn’t you want to use it? Seems like a no-brainer to me. Yet people still resist.
One of the interesting things about Keeley, along with Gina Furrey who I have mentioned in the past, is that both were taught “hello elbow” mechanics as players, and both now feel that not only did it limit their success, it also contributed to injuries that still plague them to this day.
When they first started out teaching they taught what they’d been taught. But then they did the research and discovered what they were teaching was actually sub-optimal, and they had the guts to change, which isn’t always easy.
Keeley goes as far as to show still photos of famous pitchers who appear to be pulling the hand up in a “hello elbow” manner, but then goes on to show what one of them actually does in a video. I’ve seen the others pitch and can tell you you’ll get similar results if you look at their full pitching motions.
Of course there is more to “hello elbow” than where the hand or elbow wind up. It’s actually a whole series of odd movements that rely on twisting the body, attempting to snap the wrist up at release and some other things that make it difficult to pitch efficiently – or effectively.
If that is what you, your daughter, or your team’s pitchers are being taught, I highly recommend checking out the Key Fundamentals blog where you’ll find a treasure trove of information that busts these myths, taken from the perspective of a former pitcher and practitioner. It’ll certainly open your eyes, and could save you a lifetime of regret.
Let me start by declaring right in the beginning I am a huge advocate of the pitching mechanics known as “internal rotation” or IR. While it may also go by other names – “forearm fire” and “the whip” comes to mind – it essentially involves what happens on the back side of the circle.
With IR, the palm of the hand points toward the catcher or somewhat toward the third base line as it passes overhead at 12:00 (aka the “show it” position), the comes down with the elbow and upper arm leading through the circle. From 12:00 to 9:00 it may point to the sky or out toward the third base line. Then something interesting happens.
The bone in the upper arm (the humorous) rotates inward so the underside of the upper comes into contact with the ribs while the elbow remains bent and the hand stays pointed away from the body until you get into release, where it quickly turns inward (pronates). It is this action that helps create the whip that results in the high speeds high-level pitchers achieve.
This action, by the way, is opposite of so-called “hello elbow” or HE mechanics where the ball is pointed toward second at the top of the circle and is then pushed down the back side of the circle until the pitcher consciously snaps her wrist and then pulls her elbow up until it points to the catcher.
Note that I don’t call these styles, by the way, because they’re not. A “style” is something a pitcher does that is individual to them but not a material part of the pitch, like how they wind up. What “style” you use doesn’t matter a whole lot.
But mechanics are everything in the pitch, and the mechanics you use will have a huge impact on your results as well as your health.
IR is demonstrably superior to HE for producing high levels of speed. The easiest proof is to look at the mechanics of those who pitch 70+ mph. You won’t find an HE thrower in the bunch, although you’ll probably find a couple who THINK they throw that way, which is a sad story for another day.
It also makes biomechanical sense that IR would produce better speed results. Imagine push a peanut across a table versus putting into a rubber band and shooting it across the table. I know which one I’d rather be on the receiving end of.
So when trying to defend what they teach, some HE pitching instructors will respond by questioning how safe it is to put young arms into the various positions required by IR versus the single position required by HE. They have no evidence, mind you. They’re just going by “what they’ve heard” or what they think.
Here’s the reality: IR is so effective because it works with the body is designed to work rather than against it. Try these little body position experiments and see what happens.
Experiment #1 – Jumping Jacks Hand Position
Anyone who has ever been to gym class knows how to do a jumping jack. You start with your hands together and feet at your side, then jump up and spread your feet while bringing your hands overhead. If you’re still unsure, Mickey Mouse will demonstrate:
Look at what Mickey’s hands are doing. They’re not turning away from each other at the top, and they’re definitely not getting into a position where they would push a ball down the back side of the circle. They are rotated externally, then rotating back internally.
Experiment #2 – How You Stand
Now let’s take movement out of it. Stand in front of a mirror with your hands at your sides, hanging down loosely. What do you see?
If you are like 99% of the population, your upper arms are likely touching your ribs and your hands are touching your thighs. In other words, you’re exactly in the delivery position used for IR.
To take this idea further, raise your arms up about shoulder high, then let them fall. At shoulder height your the palms of your hands will either be facing straight out or slightly up unless you purposely TRY to put them into a different position.
When they fall, if you let them fall naturally, they will return to the inward (pronated) position. And if you don’t stiffen up, your upper arms will lead the lower arms down rather than the whole arm coming down at once.
What this means is that IR is the most natural movement your arm(s) can make as they drop from overhead to your sides. If you’re using your arms the way they move naturally how can that movement be dangerous? Or even stressful?
When they fall, you will also notice that your upper arms fall naturally to your ribcage and your forearms lightly bump up against your hips, accelerating the inward pronation of your hands. This is what brush contact is.
Brush contact is not a thwacking of the elbow or forearm into your side. If you’re getting bruised you’re doing it wrong.
Think of what you mean by saying your brushed against someone versus you ran into them. Brushing against them implies you touched lightly and slightly altered your path. Bumping into them means you significantly altered your path, or even stopped.
The brush not only helps accelerate the inward turn. It also gives you a specific point your body can use to help you release the ball more consistently – which results in more accurate pitching. It’s a two-fer that helps you become a more successful pitcher.
Experiment #3 – Swing Your Glove Arm Around
If you use your pitching arm you may fall prey to habits if you’ve been taught HE. So try swinging your glove arm around fast and loose and see what it does.
I’ll bet it looks a lot like the IR movement described above. That’s what your throwing arm would be doing if it hadn’t been trained out of you.
And what it actually may be doing when you throw a pitch. You just don’t know it.
The more you look at the biomechanics of the IR versus HE, the more you can see how IR uses the body’s natural motions while HE superimposes alternate movements on it. If anything, this means there’s more likelihood of HE hurting a young pitcher than IR.
The forced nature of HE is most likely to show up in the shoulder or back. Usually when pitchers have a complaint with pain in their trapezius muscle or down closer to their shoulder blades, it’s because they’re not getting much energy generated through the HE mechanics and so try to recruit the shoulders unnaturally to make up for it. That forced movement places a lot of stress on it.
They may also find that their elbows start to get sore if they are really committed to pulling the hand up and pointing the elbow after release, although in my experience that is more rare. Usually elbow issues result from overuse, which can happen no matter what type of mechanics you use.
The bottom line is that if the health and safety of young (or older for that matter) pitchers is important to you, don’t get fooled by “I’ve heard” or “Everybody knows” statements. Make a point of checking to see which way of pitching works to take advantage of the body’s natural movements, which will minimize the stress while maximizing the results.
I think you’ll find yourself saying goodbye to the hello elbow.
You see it on fields and in cages everywhere you go: one or more pitchers lined up five feet in front of their catchers (or a wall) forcibly pushing a ball out of their hands by snapping their wrists up. Meanwhile, the pitching coach talks about how important a hard wrist snap is to maximizing the speed of the pitch.
As I have discussed before, this way of thinking is a holdover from the days before high-speed video enabled us to see what was really going on during the release phase of the pitch. What people perceive as a hard wrist snap is really a reaction to other things happening in the pitching motion, especially the sudden deceleration of forearm due to internal rotation and brush contact.
Giving up old beliefs, however, is difficult. I know it, because I’ve had to do it numerous times and it didn’t come easily. Most of us hate to admit when we’re wrong about something (some more than others), so we fight tooth and nail to justify what we’ve been doing or teaching.
Heck, I taught wrist snaps for a few years too before I saw the truth, and it wasn’t like I flipped the light switch one day and stopped. But when I realized that at best they were a waste of time and at worst they were preventing my students from maximizing their speed I stopped.
Of course, it helps to have evidence of what you’re promoting. That’s why I was excited to see this video experiment pitching guru (and personal friend) Rick Pauly created. Rick is driving force behind High Performance Pitching (full disclosure: I am an Elite Level certified coach at HPP) as well as the father of a pretty darned good pitcher who has had a long and distinguished career, first in college and then as a pro in the U.S. and Japan.
In this experiment, Rick place a bowler’s wrist brace on the pitching hand of a pitcher. If you’re not familiar with them, these braces are used to prevent the wrist from moving during the delivery of a bowling ball. They basically freeze it in place, preventing any kind of a forward snapping motion to protect bowlers from injury.
Here’s a video of the pitcher throwing with the wrist brace in place:
Within four pitches, using the wrist brace for the first time, this pitcher was able to throw within a half mile per hour of her top speed for that lesson. My guess is with a little more time to get used to it, the brace would have had zero effect on her speed.
This is an experiment you may want to try yourself. Have your daughter or other pitcher throw a few pitches as she normally does, and get a speed reading with a reliable radar gun on a tripod.
Then put the wrist brace on and have her throw a few more pitches. If she’s trying to throw hard at all you will likely find the same results.
By the way, if you do perform this experiment let us know how it comes out. I plan to pick up a wrist brace and try it as well.
The state of knowledge is evolving all the time, so it’s important to keep up. You wouldn’t want your doctor to automatically bring out the leeches no matter what you went in for, would you?
The same is true for pitching. The more you seek out the latest information, such as the effect a hard, forced wrist snap really has on pitch speeds, the better you’ll be able to serve your pitchers.
One of the keys to achieving maximum speed for a fastpitch pitcher is getting whip at the end – the sudden acceleration where the lower arm goes flying past a stable upper arm as you go into release (sometimes referred to as internal rotation). A quick survey of videos of top pitchers actually pitching in games will confirm that’s how they do it.
To make that happen, however, young pitchers must do something that makes no real logical sense to them. They must forget about (or at least quit worrying about) the ball.
Because when they are thinking about the ball, they have a tendency to try to get it to come through too early so they can guide it. As a result, at the most crucial point of the pitch where the ball should be trailing the upper arm, it instead starts to lead through.
That’s easy to say and maybe even do for an adult. We think differently. For a young player, especially one under age 14, they may understand what you’re saying consciously, but their subconscious mind is still more focused on making sure the ball goes where it’s supposed to go (especially if they’re being told to “just throw strikes”), and nothing feels like you’re in control like bringing the ball through first.
There are lots of ways to express explain what you want. But one that worked recently for me was simplicity itself: bring the ball through last. No talk of bending elbows, or rotating your arm this way or that, or making other complex movements. Just bring the ball through last.
Here’s why I think it works. If the pitcher is thinking of bringing the ball through last, she has to put her arm in a position where that can happen. That action naturally creates a little elbow bend. The idea of bringing the ball through last also helps separate the lower arm from the upper arm, giving the lower arm the opportunity to accelerate as it comes through.
That doesn’t mean it will accelerate automatically. You may have to encourage the pitcher to achieve that acceleration. But at least she’ll be in a position to make that happen.
There is one caveat to all of this: this tip won’t work if you’re telling the pitcher to turn the ball back toward second base and push it down the back side of the circle – an action which no high-level pitcher actually performs. If the pitcher is doing that the arm is going to come through all at once and there will be no opportunity for that extra bump of speed that comes with the whip.
If, however, she is learning to keep the ball facing forward/up or toward third base on the back side of the circle, lead the upper arm/elbow down, and then whip at the end, it will work. Or at least it has on the girls I’ve used it on.
If you’re facing that issue of the upper arm slowing down too soon and the ball leading through the finish, give this one a try. And let me know if it works for you too.