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

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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 [email protected] Otherwise check out our new sports performance website and dedicated sports science blog

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.




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.” 


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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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