Attacking mechanics / High Elbow, Low Elbow, is there a best way?
Healthy Shoulder, Powerful Hitter – Not An Oxymoron!
We have a fantastic support team around us at Front Range Volleyball Club. I have access to a wealth of information from colleagues who have degrees in Biomechanics, Exercise Science, Physical Therapy, and Athletic Training, just to name a few. In writing this article I’ve consulted with these colleagues, and asked that they share with me their opinions on attacking mechanics and best practices for increasing the longevity of our athletes.
There are many different ways to generate power when attacking. This article will focus on examining some of the common elements being taught in the skill of volleyball attacking. Ultimately we hope to illustrate some concepts that not only will help our attackers develop more power when they hit, but will also help them to do it in such a way that their body will better tolerate the velocity they are generating and keep their injury rates low.
We like to draw similarities from other sports, believing that the body has primary movement patterns that it performs, and most sports moves evolve with those movement patterns in mind. For overhead power moves we broke down the tennis serve and the baseball pitching motion for insight into how these top performers in their sport create power. With the help of the science-based opinions of some of my friends & experts, what follows is an examination of some of the top tennis and baseball players in the world to see if there are any parallels we can draw in their mechanics that correlate to an attacker’s arm swing in volleyball.
In this picture of Andy Roddick’s tennis serve, he has tossed the ball and is winding up his torso, turning away from the net. Notice that his knees are bent, shoulders are tilted, right shoulder lower than left, right elbow is low (in that it is in a similar plane with his shoulder tilt) and his torso is rotated away from the net.
Similar time in Roddick’s serve from a different view.
Now look at this picture of Matt Anderson. Note the similarities to the tennis serve of Roddick. Notice the bend in the knees, the shoulders tilted with left shoulder higher than right, right elbow is low (in that it is in a similar plane as his shoulder tilt), and torso is rotated away from the net while the hips are facing the net. From this position the facial tissue is loaded from his arm winding through his shoulders, torso, hips and down his legs all way to his feet.
Here you can see Novak Djokovic in a very similar position as he winds up on his serve.
Photo of Tim Lincekum you can see similar shoulder tilt, low elbow, and torso turned away from home plate.
In this photo Roddick is beginning to extend this legs and rotate his hips as his shoulders stay open to the net. The power is beginning to work its way up through his body this is called the kinetic chain.
Another shot of Matt Anderson in the air. Note the level of his right and left elbows as they are roughly in the same plane as his shoulders; we call this a low elbow set up. Notice how open his torso is compared to his hips. We believe this lower elbow set up is crucial to putting the shoulder in a stable position. Tanner Garner ATC (and former Front Range VBC coach), says this about having a high elbow set up:
“One of the biggest issues with a high elbow set up, is that it reduces your body’s ability to create rotational power while hitting the ball. The body then has to find other ways to make up for that lack of power. Often this can cause a loose shoulder joint (which can lead to tendinitis) or even injuries such as labral tears. From arching the back injuries to the spine can also occur, such as herniated discs.”
Here is Tim Lincecum in a very similar position as he winds up on his pitch.
A shot of Foluke Akinradewo in a similar position as she winds up to hit.
Here Matt Anderson has wound up with a low elbow set up (elbow in line with the plane of the shoulder). Bill Glisan MS Exercise Physiology and Front Range VBC Performance and Strength Coach: “ We consider this low elbow set up a much more stable position for the arm to generate force. A high elbow set up could lead to lower back problems during the life of the player.”
Zhu Ting in a similar wind up position.
The windup of an elite level attacker: Torso is rotated away from the hip plane, increasing the power potential in the swing. This shoulder and hip separation is critical in the generation of power. There is little to no arching of the back. The power is generate through the body as the legs straighten, the torso unwinds and the arm whips up to ball, in the kinetic chain.
As Roddick’s hips rotate toward the net notice how his legs have straightened out initiating the kinetic chain, while his torso is still open as the power moves through his body.
We observe the same mechanics & power generation in baseball pitching. As the hips rotate the torso is still open as the power moves through the body.
Legs have extended and the torso rotates to catch up with the hips, the shoulders reverse their previous position. The shoulders tilt so the left shoulder is now low and the right shoulder is now high, helping to raise the right elbow up to the ball.
Similar position created here: Legs have straightened out from the bent position. Hips have rotated. Still a lot of shoulder separation with the hips as the power moves through his body.
Legs have straightened out, and shoulders are reversing their tilt and elbow goes up to the ball.
We see the same shoulder tilt relationship as a baseball pitcher rotates toward home plate to release the pitch.
Body has straightened out and rotated and racquet extends to make contact with ball.
Elbow has gone from the low set up position, and as the power has moved through the body, starting with the leg extension, moving through hip turn, then torso turn, and now the shoulders reverse their tilt as player extends up to contact ball.
Lets review some movement patterns that we observed in the mechanics of these elite athletes:
- The attacking, throwing, or serving elbow is roughly in line with the plane of the shoulders when athletes are winding up to swing or to throw. This helps to put the shoulder in a stable position.
- In tennis and volleyball the knees are bent as the body winds up.
- As the legs straighten out the hips rotate toward the target
- At this time, the separation of the shoulder plane and the hip plane is extreme. The more separation, the more potential to generate power.
- The shoulders are tilted with the hitting shoulder lower than the front shoulder to start the motion.
- There is tremendous hip and shoulder separation as the power moves through the body (kinetic chain).
- The athlete will reverse their initial shoulder tilt from the wind up as the athlete prepares to strike the ball.
This is a complex skill that requires years of practice and repetitions to develop the correct sequence of movements to deliver a powerful and accurate volleyball spike. Players will go through many different phases as they progress in this skill. Many young players will automatically take their hand over-head as they serve and attack, adopting a high elbow set up. This is a typical phase because it is easy for players to execute and allows them to get the ball over the net a higher percentage of the time when they are first learning the skills of serving and attacking.
We believe it is critical to begin practicing a lower elbow set up when players are young so that as they grow and mature they can eventually look something like the photos we have put in this article. As coaches it is our responsibility to understand that we have many choices when training our young athletes and introducing them to new skills. When we have the knowledge that teaching a skill a certain way will increase the longevity of our athletes and protect against injury, it is our opinion that we must teach that skill – even though it may be harder for a young athlete to master and may result in her/him being less successful at that skill initially.
Let’s be clear – we are not saying that you cannot hit the volleyball hard with a high elbow set up. This is absolutely possible. What we (my team and I) are saying is that the low elbow set up is more stable for the shoulder joint, and therefore athletes will generate more power and tolerate that power generation better over time. The low elbow set up will make it possible to rotate the torso open, rotate it into the swing, and tap into the power of the kinetic chain.
If you are interested in learning more on this topic, we’ve created some videos that expand on the science of attacking mechanics. You can find them here: