Range-of-Motion: The Fundamental Truth (Part 1)

As a follow-up to Range-of-Motion: A Pitcher's Best Friend...Or Not, in which we identified the injurious range-of-motion (ROM) patterns that commonly exist in baseball players, I wanted to dive a little deeper into the truth behind their existence, and provide you with ways to treat and prevent them, by releasing a three-part series.

In this first segment, Part 1, we will outline how movement is created inside the body, and establish my theory as to where these limitations come from, why they exist, and why they’re relevant. In Part 2, I will then present some compelling evidence to support my case. Lastly, we will finish the series in Part 3 by providing you with a valid and effective training solution, which has been proven to help improve these ROM deficiencies, and reduce the likelihood of sustaining a throwing-related injury by targeting the root of the problem. 

And to you players, parents, and coaches out there reading this, don’t think for a second this doesn’t concern you just because this sounds sort of “medical;” as it’s a lack of awareness surrounding this type of information that is at least partially to blame for the injury epidemic present in baseball today. If you don’t have a basic understanding of the machine or system you’re working with, how can you expect to maintain and improve it? Not only that, but without this understanding, you don’t even have the tools to properly evaluate the validity of an individual or program that claims they can. Without it, you’re essentially flying blind and leaving everything to chance, which is something the current culture has proven is a dangerous thing to do. Therefore, the information below serves to shed light on an extremely important phenomenon that has a huge impact on how well your body executes each throw.

Now, before we get into where these ROM deficits come from, let’s briefly touch on what dictates movement inside the body. This is necessary because what we’re essentially talking about here is movement deficiencies, so it helps to establish some basics pertaining to movement. First and foremost, let’s establish an extremely important, fundamental concept that has a major influence on many functions within the body, particularly movement. Your body operates on a hierarchal scale, with survival being at the top. In other words, the brain is constantly prioritizing information, and things that relate to health and injury are going to take precedent over everything else. It’s in our biology. We’re designed to self-preserve, and thus self-limit when necessary in order to protect against a vulnerability or injury.  

To put this in perspective, this means that throwing a baseball is way, way, way down the list as far as the body is concerned. Rather, it’s much more centered around what’s happening on the inside, and how to best prevent an injury from occurring. With that said, let’s apply this same thought process to these ROM deficiencies that we’re talking about. Just like throwing a baseball, think of ROM and flexibility as external, performance-based variables in which the body has little regard for. Therefore, what if these limitations were simply the body’s way of protecting against a vulnerability? A strategic, internal solution that protects against a larger threat. Seems logical, as a few extra degrees of shoulder motion are extremely insignificant when stacked up to joint and tissue health.

 

"Think about it like walking on ice. In order to create “internal stability” in response to the “external instability,” the body tightens and restricts motion to better avoid injury. This same phenomenon occurs when the brain senses an “internal instability” present at a joint."

 

This brings us to the next stop on our journey. If these limitations in motion are indeed protective and the result of an internal vulnerably, we need to determine what dictates “stability”  in regards to movement. In doing this, even though there are numerous other variables inside the body that could effect this sort of thing, we’re going to focus on what is arguably the center of all movement. The joint. Without the joint system, we would be incapable of movement, and without movement, our bodies literally start to decompose. This may seem a bit extreme, but it’s how the body prioritizes things. However, the point that I’m trying to make here is that the joint, based on it’s vital significance to the body’s overall well-being, is a good place to spend our time. Having said that, we now need to establish what dictates joint health. If a joint is the center of all motion, and motion/flexibility is the product of joint health, understanding what constitutes joint health is key in diagnosing deficiencies in motion (i.e. injurious ROM patterns).

In order to do this, we need to throw another very important concept into the mix. It’s known as Joint Integrity, and this relates to the soundness of the anatomical (structural) and kinematic (movement) properties of a joint. Simply put, is the joint structurally healthy, and is it moving appropriately? This is the essence when it comes to the health of a joint; therefore, the last bridge we need to cross in determining where these ROM limitations come from, is to define what constitutes Joint Integrity and how its created. To make things easy, let’s just follow the definition outlined above, and hit on the main factors that have the largest influence over the structure and movement characteristics of a joint. 

Every joint is made up of various tissues, and to keep it simple, we’re going to put these tissues into two categories: Passive and Active. The passive system consists of bones, ligaments, labrums, and other things of that nature in which you have no conscious control over. These passive structures aren't only going to dictate a joint's total degrees of freedom, or maximum movement potential, but they are going to provide control and stability as well. You can almost think of them as your "guardrails" in a sense. Not only do they form the edge of the road, but they can also help keep you on the road. However, just like guardrails, they serve as more of a secondary safety net, and aren't really meant to be the primary line of defense or else they get damaged. Rather, this is the job of your muscular system, which acts more like your "steering wheel.” Contrary to the passive system, the muscular system is dialed into your Central Nervous System (CNS), which means you have conscious and active control over what it does. Hence, this is why it's referred to as your active system, and is the primary contributor of movement within the body. 

Therefore, a huge part of Joint Integrity relates to how well the muscular system is performing.  More specifically, the effectiveness in which each one of your muscles, and all of their corresponding muscle fibers (and there are tons..), are developing tension. This is, after all, the muscular system’s fundamental purpose. To produce tension. If this is happening well relative to the task at hand, the task will be executed optimally and efficiently. If not, dysfunction will occur, and the body will do what’s necessary to protect itself from vulnerability and injury. With that in mind, couldn’t these injurious ROM risk factors, which are essentially restrictions in motion, just be the result of muscle fibers not generating tension effectively? Based on what we’ve covered, this isn’t a huge leap to make; in fact, I would say it’s pretty intuitive. Not just that, but based on the amount of stress that muscles undergo every time you throw a baseball at a high intensity, it’s no wonder they start to lose their ability to perform and function. Any time the stress applied on the outside, exceeds what the body and its tissues are able tolerate on the inside, the end result is dysfunction and damage; or in our case, an inability of the muscular system to effectively produce tension, and properly regulate the movement of the arm into Internal Rotation, External Rotation, and Flexion.

So without further ado, here's my punch line; The Fundamental Truth. Finally. These ROM limitations, which correspond to the ROM Risk Factors previously outlined, and to movement/flexibility limitations in general, are largely the result of deficiencies within the muscular system. As muscles and their corresponding fibers are the sole producers of movement within the body, movement deficiencies are simply the result of muscle dysfunction. And based on the single, most primitive function of any muscle, these deficiencies center around a muscle's ability to produce tension. This is fairly ironic considering the culprit is frequently tagged as something that is "tight" or "overworking", when in actuality it's the exact opposite. Yes, tightness may be present, but it's secondary to the true problem of muscle weakness.

All good in theory, right? Don't worry. In Part 2, I’ll break down an extremely reputable study, while referencing a few more, which will provide some hard data to support my claims. And after that, we will continue our journey down the rabbit hole into Part 3 of the series, in which I will outline some valid, and some not so valid, training solutions that you can implement relative to the information above.

- Will