“You can only speed your arm up as fast as you can slow it down.”
We’ve all heard this quote a thousand of times from coaches, trainers, and parents alike. However, most lack the understanding of how to train this and can be misled by the importance of it to a thrower’s health.
In our field, we call it deceleration. Our bodies are smart and know how to self-organize our arm to throw a baseball or softball and decelerate afterwards.
In doing so, there are multiple muscles that must work correctly including the lat, trapezius, rotator cuff, rhomboids, and the levator scapulae. The levator is often the most overlooked of all the decelerators because issues do not commonly arise here, but are still caused by its inefficiencies.
Understanding anatomy of the levators
The levator scapulae originates on the transverse processes of C1-C4 (cervical) vertebrae and inserts itself onto the medial (inside) border of the scapula. Its main function is to assist in drawing the scapula into retraction, laterally flex the neck, and help in creating neck extension.
A strong and functional levator will resist abduction and downward rotation of the scapula, ergo decelerating the scapulohumeral joint as it rapidly moves into a more abducted position during a throw (after release).
During a throw, the decelerator muscles and structures must maintain strength and correct position to properly decelerate speedy internal rotation of the glenohumeral joint.
Training the levator scapulae
Training the levator scapulae can get complex but there are a few important positions and thoughts to keep in mind.
First, be aware of the position of the neck. In order for our muscles to function properly, our joints must be in the correct position.
This means we must have a neutrally-positioned neck that is not flexed or extended. If the neck is flexed, the levator will be elongated and struggle to fire, causing the trapezius to be overtrained. If the neck is extended, the muscle will be in a shortened position causing an isometric training pattern that will lead to tightness and is not functional for a thrower.
Once a neutral neck has been established, the levator can properly activate and assist in scapula downward rotation and adduction.
Second, notice the position of the glenohumeral joint.
When the shoulder is dumped, it will lack the ability to achieve full range of motion through external (layback) and internal rotation. This is the way we throw, so retracting the shoulder back into a neutral position will allow the levator to activate and gain strength.
Training rows, pulls, and retractions with a neutral neck and shoulder is paramount to shoulder strength, health, and performance.
The inability to control the neck to be neutral can be dangerous when training in general, but especially for throwers.
Keeping your arm health in check
Baseball and softball cause the fastest internal rotation of the shoulder joint in all of sports. When the levator is improperly trained, athletes will typically get a tight/knotted neck, increased soreness of the lat, trapezius, and rotator cuff, and can sometimes get referred pain in the elbow because when one muscle group shuts down, the others are forced to pick up the slack.
This will lead to overuse and damage to tissue resulting in injury and lack of performance.
Performance is trained by development in the gym and during skill work. Athletes need to get everything out of their body to compete at a high level and grow to be the player they want to be.
Training the levator scapulae is an important part of this process and should not be overlooked!
For more info on how to keep your arm healthy, read here.