When she was working as a stats coordinator for MLB Advanced Media more than a dozen years ago, Steph Armijo took her first yoga class and immediately saw the potential benefits for ballplayers. Sure, she’d look toward the field during pregame warmups and see some players doing lizard poses and variations of other asanas, but none of it was being done in a methodical way to maximize the full benefits.
A few years after leaving MLB in 2007, she founded Yoga 42, a program geared toward elite athletes. “When I first started knocking on this door and said I want to teach yoga, that didn’t mean anything to them. Teams want to see the results, ”she says. “You see players doing the typical yoga stretches, but nobody wanted to call it yoga and nobody wanted to ‘do yoga.’ ”She eventually taught classes to the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and to front-office employees of MLB’s New York Mets, but only occasionally to the players.
New research, however, offers a glimpse into the objective data that could convince clubs to open the door wider for implementing biomechanical yoga programs. Last summer, Armijo partnered with Motus Global and KineticPro to conduct a small pilot program that tracked the recovery of pitchers who participated in a 60-minute yoga class the day after pitching and then another 60-minute vinyasa class the day after that. Yoga therapy balls were also used for myofascial release.
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Athletes were tested on range of motion, jump force and isometric shoulder strength using six wearable Motus motion sensors and KineticPro resistance bands with force sensors. Though small in scope — the study included 10 high school and college pitchers in Florida, split evenly between a control group and a yoga group — the results were promising.
Four variables — pelvic flexion, non-dominant shoulder abduction, non-dominant shoulder internal rotation, and dominant trunk rotation — all showed significant improvement among pitchers in the yoga class. The majority of data points, including dominant shoulder internal rotation, showed better results among the yoga participants, although many did not rise to the level of statistical significance. (A sheet white paper is available.) The study concludes, “Yoga speeds the recovery process of several key fatigue markers, and may offer more physical benefits than has previously been considered.”
“After a start, there’s a need to gain more mobility, and over the course of a season, there’s a need to at least maintain your mobility,” says Ben Hansen, who until last month was the VP of biomechanics and innovation at Motus before joining the Chicago White Sox as a senior biomechanical engineer. (Driveline Baseball acquired Motus’ sports sensor technology earlier this month, after the yoga research was completed.)
Earlier work by the married duo of Armijo and Hansen discussed how trunk separation and trunk flexion correlate to faster pitch velocities — and how those qualities can be enhanced by yoga. For this most recent study, they drew on research originally emanating from the University of North Carolina. Longtime exercise and sport science professor Joseph Myers, along with doctoral students Sakiko Oyama, Lizzie Hibberd and Brett Pexa, worked on a series of studies that validated the use of ultrasound to identify inflammation and fatigue in the shoulder. A subsequent study used ultrasound and a range-of-motion assessment on UNC pitchers during the fall 2014 season to track fatigue and recovery.
“A typical [starting] pitcher gets five days’ rest, and we have no idea whether that’s a good number or not, ”says Myers, who left the university in 2016 to join MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays as director of baseball performance science. “But we were trying to find ways to measure the trauma associated with throwing and pitching and when does it return back to baseline.”
They found that shoulder muscles — especially the infraspinatus muscle in the rear of the rotator cuff — began swelling immediately after an outing on the mound and remained inflamed for at least 24 hours. That’s important, Myers says, because the infraspinatus “is responsible for essentially putting on the brakes in the throwing motion.”
“This went along with some changes in shoulder range of motion that have been linked to injury risk and also just self-reported soreness,” says Pexa, now an assistant professor in athletic training at High Point University and a consultant to the Texas Rangers. “So we had some good recommendations to say that pitchers shouldn’t pitch on back-to-back days. This was nothing new, it wasn’t anything crazy, but now we had some really, really good evidence from an intramuscular standpoint. ”
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After Myers left academia, a larger study has continued under the purview of Pexa that is expanding in size and scope, including the examination of blood samples for inflammatory biomarkers as well as other wellness factors (sleep, stress, etc.), performance data gleaned from TrackMan radars, and monitoring the acute-to-chronic workload ratio of individual pitchers. Using a clinical reach test that provides a raw assessment of shoulder range of motion, Pexa found that players had their worst outcomes when throwing the most — or the least. “It follows that ACWR research right now, where there’s this Goldilocks zone,” he says. “We can’t be working too high, but we also can’t be working too low because we’re not setting ourselves up for good performance in the future.”
While pro clubs are keen to apply findings to protect their players — and Myers and Pexa declined to discuss use cases from their MLB organizations — a major motivator for this work is to assuage the arm injury epidemic at the amateur level. Many of the most promising pitchers might throw for multiple teams in the same season, with little-to-no communication between coaching staffs. In the recent application of yoga to facilitate recovery, Armijo found that her 10-pitcher cohort was comprised of willing yoga novices; a few members of the control group jealousy eyed the sessions.
“Every player that does yoga says they feel better after a yoga session. Nobody says they feel worse, ”she says. “The first day, they couldn’t lift their arm over their shoulder. They were that sore, so we had to be mindful of working within those parameters as well. ”
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The body’s response to pitching is complex. There is not only an inflammatory response but also a neuromuscular one in which tissue stiffens. Even the non-throwing shoulder shows some markers of fatigue — an effect on the nervous system that Hansen believes will be “a measurable future in baseball.”
Myers says there’s not enough evidence yet to suggest a change to how pitchers are deployed, but there are still inherent benefits of practicing yoga. “You could potentially use various various types of modalities, treatments, yoga, whatever, to maybe make them a little more ready for a bullpen session that happens two days after a start, or three days after start,” he says. “And it’s a comfort level. You’re decreasing some of the spasm and tightness that’s present after throwing. “
Other benefits of yoga include helping players relax and get better sleep during the grueling game and travel schedule of the season. Armijo’s vision is for a yoga instructor to one day become part of a pro club’s strength and conditioning staff. “We’re showing that these guys can recover faster,” she says. “How valuable would that be in the current season when these guys need it?”
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