Orthopedics & Sports Medicine

Blood Flow Restriction Training Produces Striking Results for Elite College Baseball Pitchers

Nov. 20, 2023 - Eden McCleskey

In the high-stakes world of competitive sports, a novel physical therapy technique might just be the next game changer.

A new study, spearheaded by Houston Methodist orthopedic surgeon Dr. Patrick McCulloch, found blood flow restriction (BFR) training significantly improved the strength and performance of collegiate baseball pitchers without increasing their risk of injury. The technique is expected be useful in other sports as well.

BFR training involves the application of a cuff around an arm or leg to restrict blood flow to targeted areas during exercise. This temporary occlusion of blood flow has been shown to enhance strength gains at lower exercise intensities.

The study, published in The Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery in June 2023, sheds light on the potential of BFR to enhance athletic performance among elite athletes, a topic that has garnered much interest following positive outcomes from BFR studies for ACL injury rehabilitation.

"One of the biggest surprises to come out of our early blood flow restriction studies was that it enhanced bone and muscle strength both below and above the location of the cuff," said Dr. McCulloch, the John S. Dunn Chair in Orthopedic Surgery and the study's primary investigator. "We wondered if we could use it on baseball players to not only enhance arm strength but rotator cuff and shoulder strength as well."

The study involved Division IA collegiate baseball pitchers randomly divided into two groups: one utilizing BFR in twice-weekly low-intensity weight training sessions and one following the same training regimen without BFR. Over six weeks, the BFR group exhibited increased strength gains compared to the no-BFR group and also showed improvements in pitching-specific metrics such as fastball velocity and spin rate.

"These metrics are critical in a pitcher's arsenal," said Dr. McCulloch, who previously served as president of the Major League Baseball (MLB) Physician's Association and currently serves on the MLB Research Committee. "A higher spin rate can make a baseball pitch more difficult for batters to hit due to the unpredictable trajectory of the ball."

The research was fueled by intriguing findings from earlier BFR studies, which noted benefits for bone density and strength in muscles not directly isolated by the blood flow-restricting cuffs.

"It's not entirely clear why this works, but it does," said Dr. McCulloch, reflecting on the unexpected gains observed in the hip and glute muscles during the ACL study, even though the exercises focused on the lower leg.

Crucially, the pitcher study found no adverse changes in throwing mechanics, a significant concern given the rigorous demands of the sport on the shoulder and elbow.

"The motion capture before and after showed that there was no impact to their throwing mechanics," Dr. McCulloch assured.

The study arrives at a time when America's pastime has hit an all-time global high in popularity. Players, coaches and trainers routinely seek innovative training methods to gain an edge.

The results have drawn attention from the MLB, which has funded sports medicine research at Houston Methodist through a multi-year grant. The league recently presented Dr. McCulloch and his research team with an award for producing the most impactful baseball-related paper.

"These studies have been very influential within the field of baseball, but the insights extend far beyond the diamond," Dr. McCulloch said.

BFR's potential to mimic the benefits of high-intensity training without the associated risks could revolutionize the way athletes train, particularly those recovering from injuries or surgery.

"Low-intensity training with blood flow restriction is basically equivalent to high-intensity training but without the injury risks," Dr. McCulloch said. "Baseball — and particularly pitching — is as much about precision as it is power, so even small gains can translate to significant advantages in the game."

Dr. McCulloch cautioned against the unregulated use of BFR, emphasizing that the study was conducted by physical therapists certified in BFR. "It's not something everyone in the world should just try on their own with a rubber band," he said.

However, researchers do anticipate widespread adoption of the training technique, particularly among athletes at high risk of injury due to the mechanics of their sport.

"If studies continue to validate these findings, BFR training may become a staple across a spectrum of sports, as we continue to integrate both medical and athletic insights into a more holistic approach," Dr. McCulloch concluded.

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Orthopedics & Sports Medicine