By Evan Brunell
Oblique injuries are the latest pox to sweep across baseball, knocking out stars and scrubs alike in the early going. CBSSports.com's Scott Miller wrote on the widespread injury last week, and now the New York Daily News writes that the move away from steroids could be to blame.
"My theory is that drug testing in Major League Baseball is working and people are getting away from using illegal steroids," sports physician Lewis Maharam says. "They are moving to legal products such as creatine, but they don't know how to use it in conjunction with their workouts."
Creatine is a legal performance enhancer as no major sports organizations ban its use. Creatine is an amino acid that boosts lean muscle mass and strength by adding water molecules to muscle fibers which cause the fibers to separate. And here's where the side effect comes in that caused athletes to look at alternatives, such as steroids and human growth hormone: the water molecules makes muscle tears easier and slows down the repair process, knocking users out longer than normal to recover from an injury.
However, studies have shown that creatine is effective for sports that require intense bursts of energy. Baseball counts, as does tennis and golf -- but more endurance-based sports don't, like basketball and soccer. Despite that, baseball is also about endurance and making it through a grueling 162-game schedule. One has to wonder of the effectiveness of creatine, then, in a sport that requires bursts of energy in gameplay but taxes its players by requiring near everyday play.
"One of the main reasons these things happen to players is because these exercise programs are not targeted to be moving in a three-dimensional way that a human body is supposed to move," he says. "For example, we move in a frontal way, we move in a rotational way and we move in what we call a [sideways] way. A lot of these programs are missing one of those."
And hence, an underdeveloped muscle already prone to injury thanks to creatine equals a much greater chance of injury in that area.
"It's never a career-ending injury but it can be really debilitating," ex-professional baseball player Dan Rootenberg, president of New York's SPEAR Physical Therapy, asks. "You can't sneeze, cough, laugh or move without extreme pain."
Is creatine the answer to the oblique injuries?
No, if anything, it's only a part. After all, creatine is not discerning and does not focus on just oblique muscles. If creatine is truly fully to blame, it would not affect only one specific muscle.
So what else could be impacting the sport's rash of injuries?
"It's a stability and mobility issue," Mackie Shilstone, director of the Fitness Principle in Louisiana, says. Shilstone has worked with many pro athletes, notably Serena Williams, one of women's tennis greats and part of another sport in which creatine is thought to help. "Oblique injuries are brought on by improper training of hip musculature. When you pitch or throw a baseball, part of your body has to stabilize, and part of your body has to mobilize. Same thing with hitting. "What's happening is that trainers are pushing athletes to overdevelop the front of their body while they ignore the posterior of the body."
The good news? Oblique injuries are probably a thing of the past... at least, the 2011-season past. Oblique tweaks are far more likely to happen early in the season and in games when players' bodies haven't quite adjusted to the sudden demands of the sport.
Rootenberg, the Manhattan physical therapist, says that oblique injuries tend to occur early in games and early in the season, when players' bodies are not in tune with the demands of the sport.
"What other sport do you go from standing there, doing nothing, and then have to give 100 percent?" Rootenberg asks. "That's why oblique injuries usually happen early in a game and early in a season. It's early, it's cold weather. This is the time we will see oblique injuries. If you are not warmed up, or if your body is not used to what you are asking it to do, you are susceptible to oblique injuries. We've got to do a better job in strengthening and stretching abdominal muscles."
Part of that can be fixed by players and trainers understanding the importance of obliques and incorporating them more prominently in off- and in-season workouts. But another question is at play here: Given many oblique injuries cropped up once players really got playing in spring training, which led into the regular season, should players be ramping up activity more in spring training?
FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal spoke to a GM about the bad starts many players have gotten off to. Despite speaking about a different subject, the GM's quotes apply here.
"The number of players off to bad starts is mind-boggling," the GM said. "It’s such a timing sport. We’re overprotective of players in the spring. They don’t get enough at-bats. It’s exacerbated in Florida by the travel. Teams don’t ask veteran players to travel, so they end up playing every other day rather than straight through."
It makes zero sense to have spring training stretch six weeks if players still aren't ready for the day-to-day grind of a full season by the close of the sojourns in Florida and Arizona. Baseball needs to do a better job of getting these players in shape -- both from a production standpoint as teams are paying these players to produce from Game 1 on -- and to keep players healthy, as the rash of oblique injuries speak to. It's as simple as organizations communicating to players that conditioning and game play will be ramped up in spring training past normal parameters.
Unless something changes, oblique injuries will become a common occurrence in late March and early April.
Photo of the oblique is thanks to build-muscle-and-burn-fat.com.