Month: June 2014

Posture and power pitching

Why chimps don’t pitch in Major, Minor, or Little Leagues

Baseball season is well underway and the 2014 All Star Game will soon be upon us. As always, power and precision pitching will be key, which is one reason why not a single chimpanzee will find himself in either of the All Star Team rotations. Given that adult chimps are overall stronger than even the most powerful baseball players, how can it be that a chimp’s “fast” ball clocks in at only about 20 miles per hour, whereas today’s Major League pitchers routinely throw balls at 90-100 mph.

Major League pitchers routinely throw baseballs 100 miles per hour

Major League pitchers routinely throw baseballs 100 miles per hour

Why chimp strength doesn’t translate into throwing a fastball–and why relatively weak human beings are so much better at powerfully and accurately throwing–is a line of questioning anthropologist Neil T. Roach and a team of researchers set out to explore. Their findings–reported in Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo,” a study published last year in Nature, is what inspires today’s post. For a wonderfully engaging overview, take a look at this 2-minute video.

The ability to throw was necessary for our survival

Baseball pitching is akin to how our hominid ancestors threw weapons and, as noted in the video, because Homo erectus  was relatively weak and defenseless, the ability to throw with speed and accuracy was really key. Think about it: Without the clawed paws and fangs of saber-toothed cats and other fierce predators who shared our ancestors’ Pleistocene world, the ability to hurl objects with force and precision was necessary to their very survival.

If this Homo erectus couple in Daka, Africa felt compelled to throw the stones at their feet, they could

If this Homo erectus couple in Daka, Africa felt compelled to throw the stones at their feet, they could

 

The throwing ability of our closest cousin, the chimpanzee, is  limited by the chimp's high, forward-sloping shoulders, and arms that are less able to rotate and forward-extend

Stymied by high and forward-sloping shoulders and limited range of motion in shoulder and arm, our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, is anatomically ill-equipped to throw accurately and powerfully

While most humans today don't need to throw well in order to survive, this evolutionary advantage serves us well in many sports; note this Little Leaguer's externally rotated right shoulder

While most humans today don’t need to throw well in order to survive, this evolutionary advantage serves us well in many sports; note this Little Leaguer’s externally rotated right shoulder

Hurling weapons and running fast

John Shea, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University who was not involved in the “elastic energy” study, but who conducts tool-use experiments in an attempt to reconstruct human behavior through the analysis of stone tools, believes that spears date back 400,000 years.

Externally rotated shoulders is one reason this aboriginal Kwat Kwat hunter in 1890s Australia was likely to spear his emu prey

Externally rotated shoulders is one reason this aboriginal Kwat Kwat hunter in 1890s Australia was likely to spear his emu prey

The ability to hurl a harpoon has helped Inuit hunters survive, although many now hunt with guns

The ability to hurl a harpoon has helped Inuit hunters survive, although many now hunt with guns

Shea also points out that Homo erectus was a good runner. “You put these things together and you have the primate equivalent of a fighter jet — something that can run for a long time, and has projectile weapons on board.” He also observes that while archaeologists have frequently found “hand-grenade-sized stones” along with skeletons from that era, new findings suggest that those stones may have been used by ancient humans as weapons to hunt and chase away other predators from their kill.

Throwing stones and balls may hold some primal attraction for 21st-century humans

Throwing stones and balls may hold some primal attraction for 21st-century humans

Adaptations that enable humans to pitch Major League ball

As you saw in the “Why chimps don’t play baseball” Nature video, above, Neil Roach and his team applied reflective markers to the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and waists of 20 college athletes, then used 3-D cameras to film the young men throwing baseballs at a target. Subsequent analysis of the footage showed that the sling-shot action of the shoulder, where criss-crossed ligaments and tendons store elastic energy as the athletes cock their throwing arms and prepare to pitch, is really crucial. Also really key is the subsequent release of this energy in the arm’s follow-through forward motion.

His shoulders well-positioned, his throwing arm fully extended, legendary pitcher Cy Young shows great range of motion as he prepares to release the ball

His shoulders well-positioned, his throwing arm fully extended, legendary pitcher Cy Young shows great range of motion as he prepares to release the ball

The researchers also highlighted anatomical adaptations that enable human beings to throw more powerfully than their chimp cousins:

  • Lateral organization of the scapula, or shoulder blades
  • Relatively long, mobile waists that permit greater rotation in the torso
  • Humeral torsion, a twist in the humerus, the bone of the upper arm

Of these adaptations, the organization of the shoulder blades is the most sensitive to posture shifts and Gokhale Method techniques. The front- and back-view composite illustrations below illustrate the differences between chimpanzee and human shoulders.

The human shoulder is on the left, the much higher and hunched-forward chimp shoulder is on the right

The human shoulder is on the left, the much higher and hunched-forward chimp shoulder is on the right

The flat-against-the-back human scapula is on the left; the upward-angling chimp scapula is on the right

The flat-against-the-back human scapula is on the left; the upward-angling chimp scapula is on the right

 

Poor posture undermines evolutionary advantages and predisposes us to injury

A lot of our postural distortions take us backward in time and undermine some of the anatomical and physiological advantages we have accrued over millennia. It’s also true that some of these advantages, if not supported by healthy usage, can expose us to injury. We can’t take these advantages for granted; human beings require cultural tending–healthy modeling and molding behaviors that are so fundamental to healthy posture. (Molding includes the material world–holding a child well, choosing a good office chair; modeling is visual.)

We need to support our evolutionary advantages with good posture, in part because cultural tending has degraded

We need to support our evolutionary advantages with good posture, in part because cultural tending has degraded

Bottom line: When we compromise our posture, we lose some of our evolutionary edge.

The shoulder roll

To zero in on just one example of “posture degradation” as it relates to the Gokhale Method, too many people today internally rotate their shoulders. This modern deterioration of posture results in the forward hunching that gives rise to the additional handicaps of contracted pectoral muscles and stiffness in the muscles between the ribs. Worst of all, internal rotation reduces healthy circulation through our arms, as well as our capacity to breathe!

As modeled in the video, the shoulder roll helps position shoulders back and down. This helps position the scapula flat against the back.

 

In humans, the shoulder blades lie flat against the back, rather than angling up, like a chimp's

In humans, the shoulder blades lie flat against the back, rather than angling up, like a chimp’s

 

Image and Video Credits:
Screen grab of Google image search for ‘MLB pitchers’; Homo erectus couple, Wikipedia;  Baby chimp in six consecutive stages of general excitement, Wikimedia Commons; Little League pitcher, Winesburg, Ohio, Wikimedia Commons, Kwat Kwat hunting emu from Tommy McCrae’s ‘Sketchbook of Aboriginal Activities,’ Wikimedia Commons; Inuit hunter, Wikipedia; Girl throwing stone, Wikimedia commons; Cy Young pitching, Wikipedia; screen grabs of human versus chimp shoulders and scapula, Neil Roach study; Gokhale Moment Shoulder Roll video, Gokhale Method Institute; Human scapula, Wikipedia
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