The Biomechanics of Volleyball: The Arm Swing (Part 2.1 of many)

PSPVB Final Blog Photo  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.


The volleyball arm swing.


This technique probably differs the most within the volleyball world. Elbow high or low? Hit with your shoulder or by rotating your hips? Focus on internal and external rotation, or elbow extension? Should I do pull ups or push ups to improve my arm swing? When do I get my elbow up? The list can go on an on, yet there is hardly any science telling us what do to specifically in regards to volleyball. I hope to solve that within this series.


The volleyball arm swing is a lot more complicated than it seems – there is way more to it than meets the eye.


First off, a volleyball arm swing is a rotation of the body. The term is “ipsilateral rotation”, rotation of one side over a fixed point. Right handed volleyball players rotate their bodies around an axis/fixed points that is their left side. Think of your left scapula and left hip being the hinges on a door, and the rest of your body being a less rigid door. Believe it or not, a volleyball arm swing is only slightly different from a baseball throw, javelin throw, discus throw, some really big basketball dunks, or a tennis serve. They are all ipsilateral rotations. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.


Meet DeAndre Jordan, LA Clippers. One of the best dunkers and shot blockers in the NBA. url-2Meet Matt Anderson, one of the few players to leave college early for a big six figure contract in Korea. He now plays for the USA and is the future of USA volleyball.Matthew Anderson, Gyorgy Grozer Meet Clay Stanley, widely considered the best opposite in the world, also one of the best servers in the world (the serve and attack arm swings are the same).volleyball06142012 US Men Look  Improvement France

Meet David Lee, one of the best middles in the world. Was an invaluable part of the 2008 Gold medal team.

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Meet Andy Roddick, one of the best tennis servers in the world. (Psst, his mechanics also happen to be phenomenal). Check out this serve that he hit so hard, it didn’t bounce off the clay, but rather cratered itself into the ground. Honestly, I don’t know how ESPN doesn’t open with that clip every single SportsCenter. Australian Open 2007 - Day 11 U.S. Open Day 6 Meet Greg Maddux, one of the best pitchers to ever play. Not to mention he played 22 seasons without ANY serious arm injuries. Go ahead and Google “Greg Maddux Injury History.” You will undoubtedly break Google because nothing will come up.imagesMeet Ashton Eaton, recently won the 2012 Olympic decathlon by setting a new world record. After viewing a photo of him coming out of the blocks for a race, our entire office came to a stand still because he is so biomechanically perfect. This perfection is what ensured him such dominance. I mean, the guy could have qualified to compete in nearly every event on it’s own. But no, he decides to be a boss and do them all. 628x471 images-1 Have you noticed any similarities yet?


First, look at their left arm. The position is nearly the same in every photo (sorry for the backside of Matt Anderson).


Look at their left legs. All of them are in some amount of hip flexion, those who are further along in the rotation have more hip flexion.


All are slightly side bent to the left, this is not the best for their bodies, but it creates a mechanical advantage and thus improves their performance. It is one of the few deviations from a perfect ipsilateral rotation. This deviation will create more power, but it will also lead to inconsistency and injury (cue Giant’s pitcher Tim Lincecum. Fantastic mechanics except for his HUGE side bend to make up for his lack of height. This contributes to his inconsistency).


Now for the why… Fixed points and muscle slings. Don’t worry, I’ll explain. Their left arms are down by their sides because it’s just part of the rotating/rolling pattern. Believe it or not, they are actually contracting their shoulder muscles NOT to rotate their arm closer to their body, but to rotate their body closer to their arm. In theory the left arm should look more like Eaton’s in the discus throw. The left arm and hip are acting as a fixed point, like the base of a crane. The base doesn’t move and brings it’s loads closer to it. Their left leg is going into adduction and flexion because of what the right arm is doing. Here is my crummy cell phone picture displaying the muscle slings from shoulder to contralateral hip. The picture is from a PHENOMENAL book (Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance, The Janda Approach, by Phil Page, Clare C. Frank, and Robert Lardner) if you’re a movement nerd like me. What to notice in this picture is that the lines follow the grains of all the muscles. They are the lines of force that the muscles will create when working in unison.


We must train to use these muscle slings and normal human movement patterns. Why would you train any other way? You don’t buy a race car and drive it off-road expecting it to put up faster and faster lap times. I like one analogy in particular; say you have two cars of equal horsepower and torque. One is a Ford Mustang, the other is a Formula 1 car. In front of them is a track of unknown variables. They know there will be turns, hills, and straight-aways, but not what each of them look like. They will have to react. Assuming the drivers are the same, which car will win?


Right, the Formula 1 car. But why? It is because even though it has the same amount of power as the Mustang, it is efficient in putting that power down onto the ground, and controlling its body around all those variables. The Mustang will excel in the straight-aways, but that is it. Most likely it will crash, and the owner will rebuild it to go even faster in a straight-away with expectations of winning the race (sound familiar to most training methods?)


Now equate these two cars to athletes and training methods. The Mustang is the average athlete still doing pull ups and bench press for their arm swing, they run 20 minutes for their “cardio,” and they doing leg curls on whatever machine is available.


The Formula 1 car is one of my athletes who will train specifically to their sport and energy system. Whether it be correct energy system training, or resistance/weight lifting exercises with emphasis on optimal human movement patterns, we all are designed to move the EXACT same way. Yet we vary so much on training and techniques. Some of the stuff people do boggles my mind…Injury-300x292 box-squat-2bad


Now you may be thinking, “Well…how do I prepare myself to utilize these muscle slings so my arm swing looks like these guys?” Well you’re in luck because that’s what I will be talking about next week. I will also address what happens after prolonged bad shoulder mechanics. You can have completely different pre-swing mechanics and have the same outcome, that does not mean they are all right.

Out of all the rotational athletes I talked about, guess which one has the worst mechanics? I’ll give you the answer next week.


The proof is in the pudding. I have to mention that I have not given you my opinion in this blog post. I have shown you the world’s greatest athletes, pointed out how they all rotate nearly the same, and talked about how they move based upon today’s leading research. These observations, whether you chose to acknowledge them or not are why I believe what I do (I urge you to stop being willfully blind or create some cognitive dissonance to disregard these facts). I chose to believe things that have actual evidence supporting them, stuff you can see and feel. The beauty of biomechanics is you get instant results. You can feel how it is directly affecting you.


Could these athletes all really be where they are today based purely on talent and luck of not getting injured? No. They are as close as we can get to biomechanical perfections whether they know it or not, and I thank them for it because I love to watch them move.


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: [email protected]

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