The Biomechanics of Volleyball: The Arm Swing (Part 2.2 of many)

PSPVB Final Blog Photo

6/3/14 Update:

I no longer check the comments section on this blog post. If you have any questions do not hesitate to email me at austin@prefitpt.com. Otherwise check out our new sports performance website and dedicated sports science blog www.precision-sports-performance.com.

Also, the arm swing blog has taken a bit longer than expected, but it is still on the way.

 

Disclaimer: Within this series, I will probably get on a lot of people’s nerves. It can be a touchy and controversial subject. I will do my best to label what are just plain facts, and what is my opinion based on these facts. I invite you to question what you know, and my opinions.

 

Seeing is believing right? My goal in this post is to show you as much as possible and explain why it looks as it does. Last week I showed you how all throwing/hitting sports are the same. This week I will go into more detail on the pre-swing phase with more specificity to volleyball.

 

First, there are pretty much only two ways to throw a baseball/hit a volleyball, beginning with a high elbow or a low elbow. While both may be successful, one is much safer than the other. Any guesses?

 

I’ll let you decide throughout the post, I will do my best to just show you the facts.

 

I introduce to you the Russian Maxim Mikhaylov. Just to name a few of his accolades: In 2012 he won an Olympic Gold Medal, and earned Olympic Best Scorer and Best Spiker (these are awards won by statistics, not popularity contests). In 2011 he won; World League MVP, Best Blocker, and Best Scorer, World Cup MVP, and Champions League Best Server. This is just a few of his awards – in short he is really, really good looking (Zoolander anyone?). Did I forget to mention he’s only 25? Now check out his arm swing.

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Welcome Gilberto Amauri de Godoy Filho, or Giba for short, to my blog. He has been named MVP for the 2004 Olympics, 2006, World Championship, 2007 World Cup, and the 2007 Pan-American Games. He is also really really good.Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 12.38.17 PM

This is Kerri Walsh-Jennings, most notably known for winning the last 3 Olympic Beach Volleyball Gold Medals. Her and Misty May-Treanor might go down in history as the best duo to ever play beach volleyball. As a side note, the success of Kinesio Tape might owe everything to her. Surprisingly there aren’t many HD photos or videos out there of her attacking, here’s what I could find.

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Now what do all of these athletes have in common?

Success, check.

Can hit really hard, check.

High elbow, check.

Lastly, and maybe most important of all, they all have shoulder injuries.

All of the athletes here have had or currently have shoulder problems.

Mikhaylov is missing this season due to a shoulder injury, so much for all that training he has put in. Check out his picture a little more in depth: look how high his shoulders are in his jump. This immediately “disconnects” his muscular kinetic chain from shoulders to hips and greatly reduces the amount of power available to him. It is scary to think that he could hit even harder.

Giba, shoulder injury. But look at his entire posture, my neck hurts just looking at that. Also, he is not rotating through the ball as much as he is piking (this should be obvious by now, you don’t pike to hit a volleyball).

 

Kerri Walsh-Jennings takes the cake though - 4 shoulder surgeries. Twice has it been the rotator cuff. She has had her shoulder taped since college, and in May of 2008 she said “I [have] been playing with a bum shoulder for 9 years.” Her shoulder is fine, or at least it used to be. She was not born with a “bum shoulder,” she simply has been using it incorrectly her entire career.

 

 

I heard an analogy the other day during a TED talk that applies perfectly to her situation. It is as if she goes and kicks a coffee table, and then only treats the bruise. She sees the bruise as the cause of the tenderness and discoloring. Her next plan of action would probably be to put more Kinesio Tape on it, massage it, and ice it. Meanwhile, she continues to kick the coffee table, always wondering why this bruise continues to appear. If she would simply change her swing mechanics, her shoulder would be much safer.

 

 

Why would it be much safer? Well, glad you asked. Her (this applies to most of the other dysfunctional athletes with a few exceptions) deltoid has become so dominant from achieving a high elbow position incorrectly.  This dominance has severely weakened the antagonist to the deltoid. Any guesses of what that is? Drum roll please…the rotator cuff, the one she has had surgically repaired, twice. It is visible here in her shoulder mechanics.

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Normal upward rotation of the scapula should be at 60° with full shoulder flexion, so where are those extra 20°? They went into her shoulder joint. Her dysfunctional shoulder has created hyper-mobility in her shoulder joint, which makes her prone to dislocations and, you guessed it, rotator cuff tears. So if the rumors are true, and she tries to play in the next Olympics, she better hope her shoulder stays together, or maybe she will just go get another surgery. I wonder if she has a loyalty punch card with her surgeon, 3 rotator cuff surgeries and you get one free!

 

Ok, so the volleyball swing is doomed, right? I have shown you three of the best volleyball players in the world, and they all have shoulder problems. Maybe we should just suck it up and accept volleyball and healthy shoulders just don’t mix.

 

NO, NO, NO! I heard someone the other day saying that the volleyball arm swing is an unnatural movement and we should just accept that and continue to deal with injury. You can do nearly anything with your body and remain injury free as long as your mechanics are good enough. Here are my knights in shining armor…

 

Welcome back Clay Stanley, 35 years young, 10 years of more reps than Mikhaylov, and playing for the USA. His awards include; Best Server at 2010 World Championships, 2008 Olympics, 2004-05 Champions League, Best Scorer at 2008 Olympics, 2004-05 & 2005-06 Champions League, and last but definitely not least, MVP at the 2008 Olympics and the 2007-08 Indesit Champions League Final Four. Oh, he also has a Gold Medal from the 2008 Olympics. But I do not have time to list all of his awards, I want to talk about his mechanics. By the way, ZERO shoulder injuries.

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First picture: Right elbow is low, with internal rotation of the shoulder, about 45 degrees of thoracic rotation and slight back extension.

Second picture: His hips start the acceleration phase, simultaneously with his left arm beginning to come down. His right elbow is still below his shoulder and he still has about 45 degrees of thoracic rotation. He begins to go into external rotation of his right shoulder.

Third picture: His left arm has finally come down to drive his right one up, he gets more external rotation as his shoulders finally start to come around.

Fourth picture: His left arm is all the way down which drove his right one all the way up, he finally comes out of external rotation and simultaneously extends his elbow and lastly snaps his wrist on the ball.

 

This is Paula Pequeno of Brazil. The MVP of the 2008 Olympics, and has 9 Gold Medals, 2 of them being Olympic Gold Medals. Here are the observations I made directly on her video stills.

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Guess the ONE thing she does not have? A shoulder injury. Are you starting to notice a trend here?

 

Check out David Lee, not only is he an extremely nice person, his swing mechanics are a personal favorite. I had the opportunity to talk to him at a tournament once, and he has no idea of his mechanics. He believes that he is just getting his arm into a neutral position to hit in any direction (not the worst answer).

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I’m sounding like a broken record now, Lee also has no record of shoulder injury.

 

I will now talk about baseball because it has been around for so much longer and has a TON more money being poured into research. Volleyball is still in it’s infancy.

 

Here is some more evidence favoring this method of ipsilateral rotation. Greg Maddux again, this picture is just beautiful. Look at the rotation in his core, elbow below shoulder, left arm driving the right arm, centrated spine, I could go on and on.

GregMaddux_2006_001Here is a wonderful comparison of Greg Maddux again, and Steven Strausburg.
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mag_illo_strasburg4

 

You can see the end position is still nearly the same, but how they got there is COMPLETELY different. Due to the lack of resources and objective science for volleyball, we MUST look at ipsilateral rotation in other sports for help, baseball in particular. Strasburg has yet to play a complete season, while Maddux played 22 without shoulder injury. This isn’t just good luck vs. bad luck. It’s just good mechanics vs. destructive mechanics.

 

I may or may not decide to go into even further detail of this next week. Meanwhile, keep rubbing that bruise, or stop kicking the coffee table, it is your choice. After all it is your body and your sport. I am not trying to persuade anyone, only trying to inform. That being said, I leave you with a favorite quote of mine from Neil DeGrasse Tyson “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” 

 

Train Smarter to Play Harder

Please comment or feel free to email me with any comments, critiques, or questions.

Austin Einhorn, CSCS

Volleyball Skills & Conditioning Specialist

Contact: austineinhorn16@gmail.com

Schedule your appointment today!

 

20 thoughts on “The Biomechanics of Volleyball: The Arm Swing (Part 2.2 of many)

  1. I’m just commenting to make you be aware of of the remarkable experience my child obtained using the blog. She figured out a wide variety of pieces, with the inclusion of what it is like to possess an incredible giving mindset to let a number of people effortlessly gain knowledge of several hard to do things. You actually surpassed people’s expected results. Many thanks for showing such valuable, trustworthy, edifying and even cool thoughts on that topic to Tanya.

  2. Hi There,

    Excellent excellent excellent series. As I’ve grown older and gone from player to coach I’ve completely changed the way I swing my arm and the way I teach armswing. I was taught high elbow and pike, and have moved toward a rotation with almost no pike using muscle slings.

    What has vexed me though is tennis elbow. What improper throwing or hitting technique causes tennis elbow? My shoulder has been essentially indestructible since I got the elbow down and used my core. I can hit with full power the second I walk into a gym…I can hit 50 balls a game for 3 games a day…I mean I see guys with ice packs and everything else and haven’t had a problem since I changed it. I used to have an impingement of the supraspinatus so I was told.

    Any insight would be appreciated. Thank you.

    • Hi Justin,

      Most of the time it is a shoulder issue. We see similar elbow stress with a lot of baseball pitchers and the cause is nearly always related to the function of the scapula. Sometimes it could very well be a contralateral hip issue (left hip for right handed players). Sounds like you have put your shoulder in a much better position. That’s good that you notice that you can just walk into a gym and play. Typically injury is caused by an underlying movement dysfunction, not a faulty warm up. I have a new arm swing blog post in the works, stay tuned on our new website – http://www.Precision-Sports-Performance.com

  3. This is kinda ridiculous. a case study taken from only a handful of people.
    I play volleyball at a high level, im obviously not as good as those players mentioned, but i do play a ton of volley.
    I have a high elbow arm swing my entire career and i have never once had shoulder pain, whilst a friend of mine who uses the low elbow arm swing has had surgery.

    • You’re right, it is a ridiculously small case study. But every day I see young athletes come in to our PT clinic with shoulder pain that is remedied with an altering of their arm swing. As I have said in prior blogs, you can do anything correctly and not have pain. A high elbow isn’t inherently bad but in my experience, and the 50 cumulative years my colleagues have spent with overhead athletes, it leads to injury. As I have stated in prior replies, my thoughts on the arm swing have changed and will be represented in a new blog post in the near future. Please stay tuned on our new sports performance website, http://www.Precision-Sports-Performance.com

  4. Important to Note: the athletes the author used for the “correct” mechanics are all jumpers. I have found that the height of your jump and time you have in the air can really affect the load of your arm-swing and elbow height, especially on the beach when a lot of jumps are cut in half.
    The author makes a note that Clay Stanley has a “low” elbow in line with his shoulder until he starts coming out of external rotation and bringing his arm up and forward for his swing. I’m not disagreeing that this may be a contributor to his “healthy” shoulder, but I would challenge and ask how a non-jumper, or how specifically a female beach volleyball player (like Kerri) has time to keep their elbow that low and still start their arm-swing in time to hit the ball down? lets not forget that the swing starts with the double arm lift in order to gain more height on ones’s jump, (something that pitchers do not have to worry about) and if you watch Clay Stanley attack, he creates a double arm lift, then drops his elbow from that positioning as he ascends, then swings. Clay Stanley is a very tall and athletic jumper. The average female pro beach player, does not seem to have time for all of that motion in mid air, as they are probably in the air for about a quarter of the time that Clay is.
    I have yet to see a female beach player hit effectively from a low elbow. In fact, most of the time, a female cannot even get their elbow all the way back and ends up hitting the ball from a square position to the net, losing the hip rotation and relying on their triceps and delt to swing. Bottom line, I think this article is great if you want to teach a jumper how to save their shoulder, but a non-jumper is not going to have time to both double arm lift and swing from a low elbow.

    Now, if we were to find that a double arm lift is negligible in one’s attack jump, something that could be experimented with would be a single Arm lift with the non hitting arm while the hitting arm is positioned directly into external rotation in line with shoulder as the athlete is leaving the ground. it might cost the player an inch in jump, but possibly allow for a bigger arm-swing and save their shoulder in the long run.

  5. I’ve heard this both ways for years. Each person has science to back them and examples of people with injuries not doing it their way. Try getting a middle to attack a one ball with a low shoulder…..

    • As I have said in prior replies, there isn’t much movement that is inherently bad, but possibly not the best. David Lee and Ryan Millar happened to dominate the Olympics and help win a Gold Medal with a low elbow/shoulder. I also had an incredible amount of success with it. But that is besides the point, although the hand does make the contact with the ball, it is the hips that generate all the rotational power. Please stay tuned for my next arm swing blog on our new sports performance website – http://www.Precision-Sports-Performance.com. You can stay updated also through our social media sites.

      Facebook: http://www.Facebook.com/precisionsp
      Twitter: @PrecisionSprtsPrfrm
      Instagram: PrecisionSportsPerformance

  6. It’s a very good argument! However, in the biomechanics world it will be taken with a grain of salt until higher level of evidence is published. As case series is on the lowest end of the hiearchal pyramid. However, that’s not to stay you can’t change your mechanics to this method because there are no good random clinical control trials, it just means the science has not got there yet. Austin made a good point, why continue doing something that is continually causing you pain and ultimately causing tissue damage to your shoulder? Change it up! Remove the mechanism causing you pain to a more sound method. As one of the above posts, that you have a high elbow throughout execution of your swing, which might work for you for many of reasons (and I wont get into it here). The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the body, the minute you sacrifice stability, you get even more mobility, especially that cant be controlled by thr neurological system and puts individuals at risk for injury. My point is that if something is working for you great, keep doing it. Look at the fastest man in the world, Usian Bolt, does not have perfect running mechanics which has been picked apart by many, yet he won multiple Gold medals by a landslide. The best part is that he has thoughts already about retiring after his next Olympics because he has been plagued by injuries. Makes you wonder if he changed his mechanics maybe he would have a lower incidence of injuries? Sorry I’m rambling now….

    I have a question for you though. I know you mentioned that there is not a lot of research on specifically volleyball and that baseball ultimately has $$ to throw into research, so you try to take information from there. Are there any specific journal articles that you came across that support your case series? If you have I would love to take a read!

    • Hi Katrina,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I think you would like my blog post about pain on our new sports performance website (www.Precision-Sports-Performance.com)

      I’m so happy that you mentioned the neurological system, it’s something every one seems to neglect. Your head is definitely in the right place.

      Unfortunately, there aren’t too many articles that I like anymore. Nearly everything I do now is from Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS), and there just isn’t enough research out there yet. But now that we have an OptoJump that can objectively measure data, I am considering putting together my own research paper since I am already collecting everyone’s data. Things you should check out – Joint by Joint Theory and DNS. DNS is the future of sports performance.

  7. “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
    Too bad this article is NOT science then. Selective about “facts” and an empiric approach to finding answers. Not science to me.
    I’m not saying its right or wrong, just not reliable concidering the way its done.
    I kinda liked the article anyways. Made me think alot. Thank you!

    • You’re right, it isn’t science. It is just a blog. But my opinion is based upon some phenomenal, breakthrough science/schools of thought. I’m glad you liked the article. Part of me wants to make it sound more like a research article, but I know I would lose readers. My goal is to generate constructive conversation and to get people to think. My opinions have changed slightly and I will be creating a new arm swing blog post as a follow up to this one. You will be able to find it on our new sports performance website: http://www.Precision-Sports-Performance.com. Also you can stay updated via our social media sites:

      Facebook: http://www.Facebook.com/precisionsp
      Twitter: @PrecisionSprtsPrfrm
      Instagram: PrecisionSportsPerformance

  8. I just read your blog and enjoyed it. I have been playing and coaching at a pretty high level for a very long time w/o shoulder or knee problems and believe it is because of my attacking mechanics (take-off, hip rotation, low shoulder, etc.).

    Request: Please comment on the footwork during the approach and how it affects the potential stress and therefore injury to shoulders and other body parts (hip flexors, knees, etc.).

    My main concern is right handers using a right-left-right approach vs. left-right-left approach (or lefties the reverse).

    Does the “backwards” (goofy-foot) footwork create similar or different (or no additional) problems for hitters?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Howard,

      Thanks for reading my blog, I’m glad you enjoyed it. That’s great that you have avoided any problems, congrats.

      The issue with opposite footwork is that is doesn’t allow for optimal hip rotation in the preswing phase. I am going more in depth into this within my next blog post, but on that last second to last step, the left foot/hip comes around the right beginning the cocking phase of the hip. If the hip is not in a “loaded” position to rotate then the attack will most likely come from only the shoulder. I hope this answered your question. If you have any other questions, please do not hesitate to ask.

  9. Excellent stuff, thanks.

    One think that keeps amazing me is how much time just about every team wastes during warm-up THROWING balls before pepper. In my gym, no overhead throwing is ever permitted. I even teach players, especially young ones, not to throw balls from far away when shagging them at the end of practice (long distance = bowl). Throwing a ball with the elbow high above the shoulder is (a) harmful and (b) does not warm up specifically, in any way. The best thing is a correct arm swing, performed slowly, then progressively adding speed.

    • Hi Allessandro,

      Glad you enjoyed the blog, thanks for reading! I think the issue with throwing as a warm up is how the athlete throws the ball. If the athlete uses their hips to generate the rotation to throw the ball, then the shoulder should be at little risk for injury. The main issue is that most athletes cannot palm the volleyball well enough to begin with a low arm/elbow when throwing.

      I do agree that arm swing, as well as any other skill needs to slowly increase intensity over time. The learning curve should look like this: Skill acquisition –> Endurance in that skill –> Strength in skill.

      Please stay tuned for future blogs to come! You can stay updated with our social media sites:
      Facebook: http://www.Facebook.com/precisionsp
      Twitter: @PrecisionSprtsPrfrm
      Instagram: PrecisionSportsPerformance

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