How to Throw Like Stephen Strasburg

Plus a workout to make the most of those shoulder muscles.

By: Douglas Bair

Let’s be honest: Our abs and biceps tend to get all the attention at the gym, and our deltoids, or shoulder muscles, usually get the shaft.

Bad move, according to new research out of George Washington University and Harvard University. Turns out humans have superior throwing capabilities, so ignoring our deltoids is a waste of potential athletic success. GW researcher Neil Roach and his colleagues recently set out to explain why a Little League pitcher can throw a ball at 60 to 70 miles per hour while his evolutionary cousin, an adult chimp, lobs the ball across the plate at a measly 20 miles per hour.

To look at the science behind humans’ ability to throw with such velocity and accuracy, the researchers brought college baseball players into the lab and hooked them up to a 3D infrared motion-capture system to track their muscle movements while pitching. They concluded that the secret of our throwing skills lies in our slingshot-like throwing technique and the release of energy from our shoulders.

“When humans throw, we first rotate our arms backward away from the target. It is during this ‘arm-cocking’ phase that humans stretch the tendons and ligaments crossing their shoulder and store elastic energy,” Roach explained in a statement.

Think of how a slingshot goes from wimpy rubber band to a pelting weapon so easily, Roach continues. “When this energy is released, it accelerates the arm forward, generating the fastest motion the human body produces, resulting in a very fast throw.”

Researchers also discovered that our ancestors’ diet and hunting skills contributed to our throwing skills today. Take the paleolithic diet, for example. “Eating more calorie-rich meat and fat would have allowed our ancestors to grow larger brains and bodies and expand into new regions of the world—all of which helped make us who we are today,” Roach explained.

Still, while the majority of us are better at throwing than your average chimp, it takes some serious training to be able to whip a baseball like the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, says Rebecca Hartley, George Mason University’s assistant track and field coach, who trains javelin, shot-put, and discus throwers.

“It is important that throwers train their whole bodies, with particular concentration on core strength and mobility. Having a solid athletic base is key,” Hartley says. “It is also important to train both the dominant side and the off-side of the body, to improve technique and promote good muscle balance.”

Her throwers use equipment including medicine balls, heavy ropes, TRX suspension training straps, and elastic bands. Each of her workouts begins with dynamic warmups and cool-downs involving stretching.

Here is one of Hartley’s upper-body lifting workouts her throwing athletes can expect in the gym during summer training. She suggests a three-minute recovery between each exercise and using a weight with which you (and your spotter) feel comfortable.

1. Bench press for 8 reps and repeat for 6 sets with a 60-second rest between sets.

2. Pullups for 6 reps and repeat for 6 sets with a 60-second rest between sets.

3. Straight or bent-arm pullovers for 6 reps and repeat for 6 sets with a 60-second rest between sets.

4. Diamond or medicine ball pushups for 10 reps and repeat for 3 sets with a 60-second rest between sets.

5. Dumbbell shrugs for 8 reps and repeat for 3 sets with a 60-second rest between sets. 

6. Medicine ball hip-pop throws to the wall for 6 reps and repeat for 3 sets on each side.