There’s lots of speculation and studies about throwing velocity. From my own observations and logical thinking, as well as some of my father’s research, I’m going to be posting some thoughts on velocity in snippets. Todays topic? Leg strength.
Legs. Not As Important As Everyone Thinks?
Leg strength needs to be applied as locomotive force toward the plate, to start a chain of energy transfer that will then be amplified by the torso, arm, and lastly hand. Everyone says that to throw harder, get stronger in your legs. Let’s think critically about leg strength for a second:
- Are hard-throwing major leaguers considered “strong” by legitimate benchmarks of leg strength?
- Do 90+ mph throwers push themselves noticeably harder down the mound than those with lesser velocity?
The answer to these questions is NO.
“Strong” in the fitness world is generally accepted as a squat of 2x bodyweight or more and a deadlift of 2.5 times. For most elite athletes this equates to a 400lb squat and 500lb deadlift. From my time playing aside pro pitchers and working with amateurs, most of whom stay away from legitimate heavy weight training, I’d estimate that only 2-5% are capable of these feats. Thus, 95% of those in the college and pro ranks are NOT strong. And if we don’t have to be that strong to throw hard, why are we so obsessed with leg strength?
Further, scouts and coaches love to label recruits and prospects as “big, strong kid” because of the sheer size of them. In reality, these kids are relatively weak by the above-mentioned standards. I get “big, strong kids” in my gym regularly. They’re flat-out weak for their size (Yet, these larger humans DO, in most cases, throw harder than smaller athletes, however body-mass in general is not our topic here). If you did research trying to correlate leg strength with pitching velocity amongst pro pitchers, I can almost guarantee there’d be no correlation whatsoever. Body mass? Arm length? Height? maybe. Leg strength as measured by any measure, no way, especially when compared to the leg strength of a control group of athletes in general. There’s simply no way Neftali Feliz, Daniel Bard, Craig Kimbrel, or any of today’s flame throwers squats a statistically significant amount more than the next major leaguer to account for a statistically significant higher velocity average above the rest of Major Leaguers.
An Example of a “Big, strong guy”
Is there a significant difference between very slow throwers and hard throwers at the amateur level? Sure. But a difference between groups in leg strength is likely just an extension of their overall body strength and athleticism. Amongst amateurs who exhibit vastly different levels of strength, one could measure biceps strength, for example, and likely find a positive correlation due to the differences present in a kid who has naturally higher levels of strength, even though the biceps is a rather irrelevant measure of throwing velocity. But among a group such as pro pitchers, where all exhibit high levels of athleticism and overall strength (compared to general population, again – NOT by fitness standards) the differences in velocity are unlikely to be accounted for by leg strength.
Further, check out what many of these pitchers are doing for training…it’s “sissy” by most, including my, standards. Why?
Because dude already throws gas, that’s why.
These trainers of the stars don’t need to make gains with these pitchers, just keep them not-injured; there’s a big difference. Furthermore, most MLB teams forbid their pitchers from lifting heavy weights for (unsubstantiated) fear of injury. For more on this topic of training like a MLB player, go here: Don’t Train Like a Major Leaguer.
If you watch Craig Kimbrel Bulgarian Squat 40lbs (laughably below), you know he’s not training to have “strong” legs. I have 175lb athletes using as much as 225lbs per leg on this same exercise, and 12-year old kids doing more than twice the weight of Mr. Kimbrel, as shown below. And Craig Kimbrel throws 96-100mph. And if Craig Kimbrel bulgarian Squats 40lbs/leg, he’s training himself to be not-strong. He’s surely capable of more weight, but by continuing to train at light weights he is allowing his maximal strength to decrease. That’s what it means to train to be not-strong.
Anecdotally, from Sophomore year in college and thereafter, I’ve thrown the hardest in my career at times when I was at my absolute weakest in the weight room, mostly at points in the year where I didn’t have access to a weight room, or various other reasons. I’ve never personally shown a correlation between body mass or leg strength and my velocity once I leveled off in the 190lb +/- 5lb range. In fact, prior to this winter I’ve lifted my lower body less in the last 3 years than at any point since I was 18, and I’ve thrown harder each year since 2004, the hardest of my life being 2012 prior to surgery.
What has changed in these last three years has been my dedication to upper body work. I’ve done more chin ups and pushups, and upper body work in general than at any point in my life. I’ve maxed at a +100lb chin up and could complete 150 pushups without setting my knees down in just over six minutes. These increases in upper body strength and mass have correlated with my velocity increases over the last three years, though there is no way to infer any causation, because I also had a healthy elbow ligament for the first time starting with my 2009 TJ surgery.
Throwing From The Knees?
Further, I’ve seen numerous catchers capable of throwing above 70mph from their knees. What does this say for the role of the legs?
Sure, there is clearly leg involvement even while throwing from the knees. But, the locomotion of the body, the momentum that would be produced by leg drive, is significantly reduced while still retaining maybe as high as 85-90% of a thrower’s velocity.
I’m not, as a strength coach, advocating for weak legs. Rather, I’m suggesting that people stop being obsessed with leg strength as the reason Roger Clemens and countless others threw so hard; it wasn’t. For amateurs, they need overall strength, which certainly includes the legs; stronger athletes are higher-performing athletes. But, if you already throw well and are “Strong” by legitimate standards, I’m going to tell you that taking your squat from 350 to 450 isn’t going to add much, if anything, to your throwing velocity.Further, if you throw 95 and can only squat 200lbs, don’t tell me that leg strength is part of the reason, because YOU’RE WEAK.
Additionally, don’t tell me that explosiveness in the legs is what matters, because to that I’ll retort: Explosiveness is an extension of strength. Have all the explosiveness you want, if you have little force to apply, be-it explosively or not, your body will not move at high velocity. Having lots of strength that can be instantaneously applied is what produces high velocity bodies. This is why sprinters are incredibly strong and muscular – to apply as much force to the ground as fast as they can.
And anyway, going back to bullet point #2 at the top of this article, there’s very little difference between pitchers in how fast they push toward the plate, and being more explosive toward the plate does NOT necessarily lead to increased velocity. And if it did, there’d still be limits, because even a large difference in leg strength is going to lead to a relatively small difference in acceleration over only a 6-foot stride. The strongest pitcher in the world still only gets 6 feet to create locomotion, which doesn’t do well to express that strength.
A decent analogy is a boxer’s punch: Take Mike Tyson and put his fist 4 inches from a wall. Then, take Bill Gates and put his fist 4 inches from a wall. The gap of strength (huge, in this example) is going to be significantly closed because of the limited window in which each can express their maximum strength. 100% of Mike Tyson’s punching power is way, way more than Bill Gates’, but the window for him to develop max strength is too small to realize most of that maximum potential.
Lastly, if you’re a slow-throwing amateur, know that “weak legs” is likely in the laundry list of reasons that you are, well, a slow-throwing amateur. But again, it’s not THE reason, and stronger legs won’t account for a weak torso, inefficient mechanics, an unstable pair of scapulae, poor arm path,poor intent to throw hard, slow-twitch muscle fibers, and all the other factors involved in producing a high velocity throw.
So, I’ll continue to get amateurs as strong as possible, and I’ll continue to focus on the legs as a foundation for any athlete. But, I’m by no means front-squatting pitchers in the hopes that they’ll jump 1 mph per 40lbs of added bar weight. Rather, it’s the increase in overall body strength, mass, athleticism, conditioning and body control that will pay dividends.