Is Weight Lifting Causing Tommy John Surgery?

Special To Collegiate Baseball

PENSACOLA, Fla. — All kinds of hypothesis have been reached to explain the rapid rise of injuries to pitchers.

Some believe poor mechanics is the cause while some believe it’s too much throwing.

While those are valid arguments, many organizations from professional baseball to Little League have implemented measures such as pitch counts and arm exercise programs in response.

That’s all well and good, but the rate of injuries to elbows and shoulders still remains historically high.

In fact, an all-time record 93 professional players on all levels underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, according to statistics carried by the web site

A complete look at the dramatic increase in Tommy John surgeries in pro baseball is in the Feb. 20, 2015 edition of Collegiate Baseball. This special report includes a chart which shows the number of Tommy John surgeries year by year from 1974-2014 in the Major Leagues and Minor Leagues and the grand totals each year. To obtain this issue, CLICK HERE.

Incredibly, 878 professional players have had Tommy John surgery performed from 1974-2014.

As MLB cracked down on the use of performance enhancing drugs, steroid use declined and so did the number of Tommy John surgeries initially. But now Tommy John surgeries are at an all-time high in pro baseball.

Now we must ask ourselves, what has changed? What are pitchers doing today that pitchers in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s did not?

What happened in 1994 to cause the spike in injuries and surgeries? Why are the level of injuries still abnormally high? Could the answer be right under our noses? I’ll bet it is.

The steroid era began in 1994. To maximize the effects of steroids, the focus on weight training became more intense to build strength and size. The two went hand in hand.

It was during this period in time that we began to see a dramatic rise in Tommy John surgeries and shoulder injuries.

When steroid use was taken out of the equation, the only thing that remained that pitchers in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’ didn’t do was off-season and in-season weight training.

Prior to 1995, the number of Tommy John surgeries were virtually non-existent. This wasn’t because the surgery was new. In fact, Tommy John had his elbow surgery in 1974.

This was 21 years before the number of TJ surgeries began to escalate. John pitched 11 years in the big leagues (more than most pitchers last today) before having the pioneering surgery.

It is said that pitchers who re-cover from Tommy John surgery throw harder than they did before getting hurt. According to famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, the rehab program (surgical tubing/light weights), and not TJ surgery, plays a major role in the success of pitchers returning to the mound and throwing harder.

If this is true, doesn’t it make sense to use the rehab program (surgical tubing/light weights), and not weight training, for a pitchers upper body during the season, as well as during the off-season?

Weightlifting & Steroids
Weight training for baseball players came into vogue in the early 1980’s. Since it was relatively new to the sport, off season weights were done on a small scale, mainly through circuit training for muscle tone, fat loss and cardiovascular endurance. Steroids were around, but mainly used by bodybuilders, power lifters and football players.

When I was coaching at LSU in 1983, we implemented a fairly aggressive weight lifting program for our college players. Weight lifting programs for baseball were very new back then, and more of a grand experiment through trial and error.

In the 1980’s, no one knew what the long term effects would be on pitchers’ arms and shoulders if they weight trained. The old-timers, former pro players from the 1950’s & 1960’s, were advising against it saying, “It will tighten you up.”

To prove that weight training was a grand experiment, and as insane as this may sound today, our program at LSU initially required our pitchers to bench press their body weight 10 times. While it didn’t seem so insane back then, we know how dangerous it is today for a pitcher to flat bench heavy weight.

Many other high profile college baseball programs were incorporating extensive weight lifting programs as well.

Enter The Steroid Era
As I stated above, weight training for college baseball players was introduced in the early 1980’s. College baseball players don’t live in a bubble, and they knew, or had friends, who were athletes that played other sports.

It’s well known that steroids existed in college football in the 1980’s.

Coincidentally, Mark McGwire’s college baseball career began in 1982 at USC. It was during this era that enhanced weight lifting programs for college baseball players were being introduced.

There is no documented evidence to suggest that college baseball players began taking steroids because of their relationships with other college athletes.

But there is evidence that suggests that steroids existed on college campuses in the 1980’s, and football players took them.

There is also evidence that suggests that some college baseball players did take steroids.

After McGwire hit 70 HR’s in 1998 for the St. Louis Cardinals, steroid use and weight training  in baseball escalated, and so did the number of Tommy John surgeries.

In the early 1980’s, enhanced weight lifting programs were not popular yet in professional baseball. When college players from the 1980’s began signing professional contracts, they brought with them the “new” weight training methods they had learned in college.

As baseball players were getting bigger and stronger, those who were not lifting weights or taking steroids were being overmatched by players that were.

To compete with bigger, stronger hitters, weight training and steroid use among pitchers began to escalate. Many saw velocities increase without knowing the potential risks to their labrums, ligaments, or tendons.

Professional baseball began testing for performance enhancing drugs in 2002.

It wasn’t until 2010 that they began implementing more sophisticated tests to catch players whose trainers found loopholes around the old tests. As a result, the number of TJ surgeries began to decline. But they still remained at high levels. Why?

If steroid use and enhanced weight training programs were introduced at the same time, and the number of injuries and surgeries increased proportionately, doesn’t it make sense to conclude that steroid use and enhanced weight training played a major role in the increase in injuries and surgeries?

With steroids removed, and weight training being the key remaining factor, doesn’t it make sense that weight training for pitchers has played a major role in why the number of arm injuries and surgeries still remains well above the historical norm?

To read more of this in-depth, special report which includes a complete look at the number of Tommy John surgeries in pro baseball broken down by year and whether the player was in the Major Leagues or Minor Leagues at the time, purchase the Feb. 20, 2015 edition of Collegiate Baseball by CLICKING HERE.