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The Four Factors of Proper Core Function in Baseball and Softball Players

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Core function includes the development of proper balance, symmetry and posture. In order to discuss this, it’s important to define these terms and put them into perspective. My definition of balance and symmetry starts with the joints. In order to have a joint in balance and symmetry that joint must be in a neutral position. The advantage or importance of this neutral position is that the joint can go in any direction it necessary and will not be limited or impeded by any external factor, ie a tight muscle.

An example that is easy to understand in Softball and Baseball is the elbow joint.  In an unbalanced elbow joint (less distance or less range of motion) i.e., the biceps is tighter than the triceps, a slight state of flexion is present.  That slight state of elbow flexion requires an athlete to generate or dissipate all of the available force in a shorter distance because of the slight elbow flexion. What this means is that one has to generate more force in a shorter distance to achieve maximum velocity. This is a disadvantage because the body is required to dissipate this greater force in a shorter distance, which, over time, sets one up for potential injury.

Baseball and softball require a good range of motion and ability to decelerate effectively and efficiently. This is why balance and symmetry are important. In baseball/softball it’s all about rotational acceleration and deceleration, running, throwing, fielding and hitting movement. Every time an athlete moves, it’s either acceleration or deceleration in a constant state of changing velocities. Therefore, if the athletes have joints in a neutral position providing the appropriate range of motion, then the body can work in harmony within itself to make the play on the diamond.

Good posture is more than your grandmother telling you to stand up straight. Good posture typically equates to symmetry.  When addressing posture from a holistic it all begins with the spine. If an athlete has bad posture (shoulders slump forward), there is a forward or kyphotic curve in the thoracic spinal area.  A normal thoracic curve is around 30 degrees.  If the T-spine is out of balance in flexion, it has to be limited in extension in this area. To illustrate, picture a boat mast with four guide wires going down one on the right, one on the left and the same forward and aft. If the mast is not straight then the potential use of the sail is diminished. In the body if the spine is not in the right position the body cannot go into full extension, which is a limitation. When a spine is limited in thoracic extension the ability to rotate in the thoracic spine is also severely compromised, causing other components of the kinetic chain to absorb the force that would normally be dissipated with appropriate rotation.

Simply put, if the thoracic spine is in more than 30 degrees flexion, it can’t rotate properly. The result is that the athlete’s shoulder, hip, knee, ankle and elbow have to dissipate the force making amends for the faulty rotation that is created by the thoracic flexion. The bottom line is that one can’t be efficient if one isn’t in a balanced (neutral) position. If one stands in the middle of a box it’s easier to get to any side. However, if one is standing toward one side it’s a longer distance to get to the other side.

Now that the terms posture, symmetry and balance have been described, we can look at ways of preventing injury through laying a good foundation in these areas. For good posture, symmetry and balance it’s imperative that athletes have good core control and strength. If one looks at the general population and works with them in a physical therapy setting, it can be seen that generally their cores don’t work well, which affects the rest of the body. To gain core strength and control there are four things that must be considered crucial:

  1. The Transversus Abdominus must function properly. Functionally a properly functioning T A should draw the umbilicus directly toward the spine, not deviating superiorly or inferiorly.
  2. The diaghram must function properly.  The diaphragm is the breathing muscle at the bottom of the lung cavity that creates the pressure difference that enables you to take a breath. Observe young children running and playing around and ask one of them to stop and take a breath, they do so by breathing through their belly. Dogs and other animals do the same. You can observe an “inflating” of their entire lower torso.  As we grow into adulthood our daily patterns cause our proper breathing motor patterns to erode into faulty ones.   Simply breathing into your belly ensures at least partial appropriate diaghram function. As the muscle contracts it moves down creating a vacuum into the lungs (inhaling). If an athlete is breathing in this pulling down pattern, it signifies that the system is working properly and the spine and core are in harmony. If inspiration causes the chest and shoulders to elevate it can mean only one thing; Dysfunction. Lifting the Shoulders and chest away from the lungs to create volume for air is completely inverted.  The appropriate scenario includes a vertical downward piston like displacement of the diaghram and floor of the Lung cavity to increase volume and therefore inhalation.
  3. The Rectus Abdominius can not be in a state of constant facilitation.  Simply, the rectus needs to be an accessory muscle, not the main influence on the spine in regards to flexion.  Neurologically the Rectus becomes facilitated all too often with the “crunch” maneuver.  Avoid this at all costs.  You will eventually get hurt.
  4. The rib cage must be in a neutral position.  The rib cage has the capacity to move in all directions including rotation.  Often rib cage control is untapped and unnoticed.  Cage position is important because the ribs mark and affect the scapular resting position.  Daily routine over-use patterns cause faulty motor engrams and lead to inhibition of specific muscle groups which in turn causes incorrect positioning of the ribs.  There are many factors that can cause rib mal-position or “rib flares” Even a big, barrel chested, American like Superman has faulty rib cage control.  Unfortunately the obliques and the spinal erectors are not working properly if your athlete looks like superman.  Superman’s diaghram is not vertically oriented thus even he is an upper chest breather!  It’s a good thing there is no kryptonite around, or he would have shoulder problems for sure!

By practicing and attending to these four core functions, chances of injury can be dramatically reduced. This task is not easy but by initiating appropriate abdominal the other factors will become more manageable and one can set the stage to become stronger and get the most out of the strength program.

A simple training progression I have my athletes partake in is included.  Addressing the thoracic curve abnormalities with a foam roller matrix is the simplest way to do it!  This with appropriate myofascial release training will help make your athletes healthier!

Nate Shaw, ATC, CSCS, Major League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator, Arizona Diamondbacks

Nate Shaw joined the Diamondbacks in 2005, after a three-year stint in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization, the last two as their minor league strength and conditioning coordinator. He spent his first season in the Rays’ chain as their New York Penn League athletic trainer and strength coach. While with the Devil Rays, Shaw was responsible for implementing data-based research to further develop programs and procedures in accordance with injury prevention and performance enhancement.

Nate started his work in professional sports by spending two years (2001-2002) with the Toronto Blue Jays during their spring training sessions in Dunedin, FL. He also co-founded the GHFC Sports Performance Program, implementing all key facets of the operation including marketing, sales and program design.

Shaw, 33, graduated from the University of Florida in 2001 with a Bachelors Degree in Exercise and Sport Sciences.

 

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