Weighted baseballs have been around a long time, but do they work and are they safe? There are certainly people out there who insist weighted balls are great for kids as young as 8 and 9 and that every age pitcher should use weighted balls or they will be left behind. Meanwhile, there are also those who insist weighted baseballs are dangerous and should never be used. Are they both correct?
One certainly doesn’t have to look hard to find the latest, “velocity” program for sale or examples of aggressive weighted baseball drills on the internet. Unfortunately that can often send athletes, parents and coaches down the wrong road in pursuit of the short term rather than long term gain.
One thing is clear: weighed baseballs do work if used correctly and in an appropriately structured program with stepwise increases in volume and intensity. Coop DeRenne was one of the pioneers of weighted baseball research and he has published several studies showing velocity gains in high school and collegiate pitchers using weighted baseballs within +/- 20% of regular 5 oz baseball (4 oz and 6oz) over a ten week period. Likewise, DeRenne and David J. Szymanksi published a review article of weighted baseball training research and found 11 different studies that used some variation of weighted baseball training and resulted in a velocity increase. (Strength and Conditioning Journal, April 2009, Vol 31 #2)
So if they seem to work, what’s the issue?
Szymanski also published a review article (Strength and Conditioning Journal, 2012, Dec, Vol 34 #6) that found 6 studies that used weighted baseball training that didn’t increase velocity. All of these studies used weighted baseballs 25%-200% (6.25oz-10oz) greater than a standard 5oz baseball which is considerably greater amount than research shown repeatedly by DeRenne to be effective. In other words, weighted baseballs aren’t magic and to be effective they must be used with an appropriately designed program both in terms of training protocol and weight of balls used.
Also, there are virtually no studies done examining the positive and/or negative effects of weighted baseball training on middle school/youth pitchers. In fact, the one study that did identify youth subjects (although not prepubescent) used 4oz baseballs which is actually considered underweighted training. They did not use actual over weighted baseballs. Yet, there are people in the baseball training industry selling weighted baseball programs (with balls heavier than 5oz) to coach/parents of middle school and youth pitchers.
Finally, weighted baseballs aren’t the only mechanism with which to increase pitching velocity. Szymanski, in the same review article mentioned above, also reviewed 16 studies that used strength training alone to increase pitching velocity in high school and collegiate pitchers. In some cases, building a foundation through strength training is much more appropriate than a weighted baseball program.
The biggest problem as I see it is chasing velocity with weighted baseballs at a young age (chronologically or developmentally) without having the proper foundation in place. Pitching is obviously stressful which is why there are so many elbow and shoulder injuries. Throwing harder only increases that stress. Most young pitchers have not developed the ability to correctly decelerate their body and therefore their arm; be it lack of strength in their lower body, core or posterior shoulder or lack of stability. In any case, increasing the load placed on the shoulder and elbow by increase pitching velocity without having tools in place to dissipate that force is asking for trouble.
The other issue is implementing a weighted ball program in a cookie cutter fashion across a whole team (at any level) or group of kids. It’s goes back to the foundation each athlete has. Even at the collegiate level, some pitchers have a great strength foundation, have very good stability, movement patterns, flexibility and rotator cuff and scapular strength and function and would benefit greatly from a weighted baseball program. Meanwhile other pitchers on the same team may have terrible flexibility and movement patterns and already place an undue amount of stress on their arm when they throw. Adding velocity, and thus more stress on their arm, in the form of a weighted baseball program is the last thing they need.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the research is to build a pitcher’s foundation first through proper pitching mechanics, a regular throwing program, flexibility/movement training and strength training. As a velocity ceiling is reached (and no, at age 12 a velocity ceiling won’t be reached) and a foundation is in place to maximize weighted ball use, they can then be implemented as part of an a pitcher’s off-season training program.