How to Hit Hard with Effortless Power™
Increasing Arm Speed
Most everyone in the volleyball world understands that to hit harder you need to increase arm speed.
There’s two general ways often taught and seen in volleyball for how athletes are instructed to hit harder:
- Swing the arm harder, faster
- Use the entire body to create a faster arm movement
Swing the Arm Harder, Faster
Many young developing volleyball players are taught to use primarily their arm to hit the ball because:
- It’s simpler to teach and learn
- Young athletes can be successful with it quickly (meaning they can get the ball over the net and in play)
- You can hit harder by simply swinging harder and faster
While all of these factors are true, there are some injury concerns related to the hitting shoulder and back that you should be aware of as a coach who teaches an arm only swing.
Using the Entire Body to Increase Arm Speed
Some, I would suggest very few (especially female) volleyball players learn or are taught to hit by turning or rotating the body.
Spend 10 minutes at any volleyball qualifier tournament across the US and you’ll see how most females hit using predominantly their arm, with only a small number who turn their torso, or even a small number who turn their hips and entire body to hit.
When a player, of either gender, turns the body to increase arm speed and hit harder, here’s what’s at work:
- It is more complex, more difficult to learn and may not be intuitive for some female players (it is intuitive for females who grew up throwing balls overhead).
- Because you use more muscles, more engines, to make the entire body turn, the more engines you have cranked up, the greater is the force or power to swing the arm faster and hit the ball harder.
- It is what we recommend for athletes who want to learn how to hit with greater power & arm speed, and care about maintaining the health of their shoulder & back.
Increasing Force, Can Increase Arm Speed
There’s really two simple ways to increase the force behind arm speed:
- Muscle Force
- Fascial Load
When muscles contract or shorten, the muscle create force. This force is what moves the bones of the upper arm and shoulder to swing the arm.
If an athlete uses predominantly their arm to increase arm speed, the mechanics they’re typically taught at a young age usually involves the use of only two muscle groups to hit the ball:
- Latissimus Dorsi “Lats”
The triceps muscles are a strong muscle group that is connected to bones at the elbow and shoulder, and this muscles runs up and down behind the back of the upper arm. When an athletes uses an arm only swing, the triceps is the main muscle group used to generate the arm speed and power to hit the ball hard.
Theoretically, if the athlete strengthens the triceps muscles, they should be able to increase arm speed because the stronger the muscles are, the greater the forces that these muscle can generate to move the arm faster and hit the ball harder.
Depending on the hitting mechanics used in the swing, the lat muscles are also engaged in the arm swing (albeit it to a lesser degree than the triceps). Unlike the triceps, typical lat strengthening probably won’t make much of an impact with arm speed and hitting power.
Muscle Use and Energy
When muscles work in the swing, energy (NRG) from the food we eat is used to fuel the muscles. When muscles run out of the NRG they fatigue. Fatigued muscles generate less force, so less arm speed will be generated and fatigued muscles may be at risk for injury (muscle strains).
Fatigue is Important at Qualifiers
When an athlete is playing numerous matches in a day and hitting a lot of balls, their arm speed and hitting power decreases as the hitting muscles fatigue. At a typical 3-4 day qualifier tournament, it’s common for a hitter to experience more fatigue due to the number of swings taken per day and on subsequent days. Because of the lack of recovery between matches, the end result is often less arm speed, hitting power and increased injury risk.
An effective conditioning strategy would be to build the anaerobic endurance in the hitting muscles and/or reduce the NRG required in each swing to avoid fatigue and the elevated injury risk associated with this fatigue.
Fascia is a connective tissue that is directly under the skin from the tip of your head to the bottom of your feet. The fascia holds the underlying muscles and other tissues in place and it has an extremely important role as related to hitting power, fatigue and injury prevention.
Fascia is an elastic tissue. When it is stretched, it loads up with potential NRG that will shorten automatically when the stretch is taken of the fascia.
When muscles work (contract) the forces that they create can move the bones that they are attached to. When the muscles and bones move, this movement will stretch and load the fascia. When stretched, the fascia, like a rubber band, builds up elastic NRG which can be used to hit harder, save NRG and reduce injury potential in the process.
How to Train Smarter
Ideally, savvy scientifically minded coaches and athletes should be looking for effective ways to generate arm speed and hitting power using more fascia and less muscles.
Fascial Involvement with “Arm Only” Swings
Previously in this article, we discussed how many young athletes swing and hit using predominantly the arm. We mentioned that the main muscles being used (depending on technique) were the triceps and lats.
This is relevant because the amount of fascia an athlete can use (under the triceps) compared to the amount surrounding the entire body is dramatically less. This means that the athlete probably won’t be able to hit as hard and will fatigue faster if they just use the arm only swing.
Conversely, when an athlete uses the entire body to hit, they have more muscles engaged and more fascia involved, so they should be able to hit harder and maintain the power longer, with less fatigue.
The Sling or Whip Effect of Muscles & Fascia
When the whole body is engaged in hitting movements, when the athlete takes a step and turns the hips, the turn of the hips stretches abdominal muscles (and the overlying fascia).
As shown above, when the hips turn through first, the turn of the hips (pelvis) quickly stretches specific core muscles (abdominal and back muscles). Because these muscles attach to the top of the pelvis and bottom of the rib cage, when the hip turns and these muscles shorten, these muscles pull and turn the rib cage through as well.
The turn of the ribs turns the spine and shoulders through, which slings or whips the hitting arm through faster and with greater force than if the athlete just swung the arm through without turning the hips.
Mechanics Really Matter
High Elbow Set-Up
Certain arm swing movements will involve more of the muscles and fascia than others.
Specifically, when an athlete hits with the arm only technique, and especially if they use the currently popular “high elbow” set-up, there is less muscle and fascia involved in the swing (as compared to the whole body swing set-up with the upper arm).
For the reasons described in this article, while the high elbow is easier to teach and learn, it’s not the best technique to use long-term as related to power and shoulder & back health.
Low Elbow Set-Up
When the entire body is engaged in the swing, especially if the elbow is set-up parallel with the shoulder line, a lot of fascia is involved in the swing.
The results should be more hitting power & arm speed, with less NRG used in the swings.
Injury Concerns Related to “Arm Only” or “Whole Body Swing”
The prevalence of shoulder and back injuries is high as related to volleyball hitting.
In the arm only swing, there’s not a great deal of muscle tissue or fascia around the shoulder or elbow. So fatigue can play a significant role in shoulder pain and shoulder injuries.
If the athlete learns a whole body rotational swing, they will:
- use less isolated muscle work (from the muscles around shoulder and arm).
- engage more muscles from around the hips, core, spine and shoulders to increase force, power and arm speed while spreading the forces across the muscles of the entire body
- use more fascia, which should generate power more efficiently burning less NRG from muscle work in the swings.
Effortless Power TM
For many professional athletes, they know how good it feels when they make those certain swings that just feel effortless. Those are the swings where they loaded into their more of the muscles of the entire body and into the fascia. As a result, their swings were more powerful and required much less effort to create this effortless power ™.