The National Pitching Association (NPA) has promoted their $435 Velocity Plus throwing program, which gets you this set of equipment:
From what I can tell, you get:
- A sock (“velocity towel”)
- Two sand-filled Pilates balls ($20 total on Amazon)
- Four weighted baseballs ($40 total on Amazon from Markwort)
- Customized programming based on your age, height, and weight
Whether or not that’s worth $435 is an individual choice, but I figured it’s worth an honest review of what you’re getting and what the alternatives are.
The main point of this point is to discuss the “holds” that the Velocity program contains. These “holds” are partial throws where you hold on to the weighted baseball and perform a mock throw. Here’s Tom House and Jamie Evans describing it on the HBO Real Sports show:
“Now I stole something from tennis,” said House. “Tennis players very seldom have bad shoulders – bad elbows – very seldom bad shoulders. Because they hang on to the racket.”
Is it plausible that Tom House and Jamie Evans came up with this a few years ago with tennis as their main inspiration? Yes, that’s entirely reasonable. However, the true origins of deceleration training (as it pertains to baseball) can be traced to Dr. Mike Marshall and the use of wrist weights.
True Origins of Sport-Specific Deceleration Training
In 2006 (probably much earlier, but that’s the official copyright date), Dr. Marshall wrote about the use of wrist weights for deceleration training:
To prevent injuries to the muscles that decelerate the pitching arm, the cerebellum of the brain limits the release velocity that pitching arms can achieve dependent on the ability of the decelerator muscles to safely stop the pitching arm. Therefore, to increase their release velocities, pitchers must convince the cerebellum that their deceleration muscles can safely stop their pitching arms at increased release velocities. My plioanglos wrist weight interval-training program increases the ability of the appropriate muscles to safely decelerate pitching arms to stops.
As an analogy, I use drag race cars. If drag race cars have the ability to achieve five hundred miles per hour in a one-quarter mile track, but the race track has a two thousand foot cliff only one hundred feet past the finish line, then the question is: Can the drivers stop the cars within one hundred feet? The question that their cerebellum asks baseball pitchers every time that they try to release their fastballs at higher velocities is: Can the muscles that safely stop their pitching arm within the distance between the release and when the pitching arm fully extends straight forward toward home plate? Baseball pitchers must have big brakes!
Marshall’s guys have a long documented history of using these wrist weights to train the posterior shoulder (and to retrain movement patterns, specifically pronation):
(source: Wrist Weight Training Program)
While tennis may have been the genesis of the NPA Velocity Plus throwing program, it is by no means the first theory to market on deceleration training. If you wanted to trace it back even further, Soviet sports research had done tons of (at times, unethical) research on deceleration training as it pertained to vertical jumping – they found out through experimentation that doing depth jumps and shock jumps where force was absorbed was an excellent way to train their track and field athletes (and later, Olympic weightlifters). However, Dr. Marshall is certainly one of the first (and likely the first) person to introduce these concepts to baseball throwing/pitching. Give credit where it’s due.
Biomechanical Problems with the Velocity “Holds”
In our MaxVelo program, our guys do a lot of deceleration training. We use wrist weights, medball rebounders, reverse throws, and, until recently, even the “holds” that the NPA Velocity program made popular. However, there are two major problems with the use of “holds”:
No return blood flow
When the forearm is contracted to hold the baseball (unlike when you pitch a baseball with a loose grip), you cut off return blood flow to the muscles. This can lead to quicker fatigue of the pitching arm. Dr. Marshall knew that this would be a problem, which is why he advocated the use of wrist weights:
Continuously contracted musculature compress the small arterioles that supply skeletal muscles and prevents oxygen-rich blood from replenishing them. Therefore, I have my pitchers wrap weights around their wrists. Then, because my pitchers do not have to continually contract the muscles of their hands, their hand gripping muscles can intermittently relax and blood flow continues. These ‘relaxation instants’ are critical to the ability of working muscles to continue to train rigorously. To prevent the wrist weights from sliding off their hands, pitchers should hook the tips of their fingers over the ends of their wrist weights.
Disconnected and push-based acceleration phase
While the lack of return blood flow is troublesome, it isn’t that big of an issue in my mind. However, after I took high-speed video (210 frames per second) of pitchers in the MaxVelo program, I noticed something very disturbing. Take a look at these synchronized videos of two of my clients throwing baseballs (on the left) and doing holds with a 9 oz. weighted baseball:
Do you see the “disconnection” the pitchers have? In the full video files (too large to post), you can see the lower body and torso become far, far more linear over rotational, too – which kills release velocity in pitchers.
When doing the holds, the pitchers contract the forearm, which pre-emptively generates a braking force in the delivery and does not allow for the pitching arm to lay back in the dynamically achieved external rotation position in the delivery. The mechanics of the “hold” become this linear pushing action – something you’d see with a kid who had a bad change-up in an attempt to slow down the baseball!
There are some real problems with these patterns. First, it’s not clear that these holds train the posterior shoulder that well, since with the forearm contracted, much of the “whip” is gone and the total force is far less than it would be with a throw. Compare this to the wrist weight animated image above, and you can see the arm lay back in external rotation and snap out of it rather quickly (even if the pitcher is using the Marshall body mechanics) – it’s a huge difference in physical stimuli.
Secondly, are these the mechanics we want to promote in our pitchers? A disconnected, pushing delivery where the acceleration phase is cut short. I don’t think so. If these “holds” bleed over into full throwing mechanics, it would kill their velocity.
(By the way, this is a great reason why all pitching coaches and analysts must use high-speed video to evaluate their programs. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to pick up on these changes!)
But what about their claims of guaranteed velocity gains?
I don’t doubt that the NPA Velocity Plus program adds release velocity in their pitchers, and that even the “holds” give some training benefit. However, I strongly suspect that these programs are mainly adding velocity through the traditional weighted baseball throws and simply increased throwing frequency – most people take 3-4 months off, and if they actually throw in the off-season, they will see gains!
The NPA never released a control group vs. Velocity group, or a group of guys who used no “holds,” so it’s impossible to evaluate their claims through the scientific process. It’s a case study and anecdotal evidence – nothing more.
Given the evidence presented, we have eliminated the “holds” in the MaxVelo program immediately and lean harder on wrist weights, pronated kneeling throws, and modified free weight training instead. It seems pretty clear to us that the “holds” are neither the mechanical pattern we want to promote, nor will they give the training effect we want in our pitchers.