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on the biomechanics of throwing

May 21, 2010

Many a writer has tackled the topic of learning how to throw, from ye old Ultimate Handbook to the modern DVD how to throw “like a pro”. After all, it’s hard to score in style without a decent flick, lift, or fh i/o break.

In this post I’m going to briefly touch upon a few ideas and techniques I picked up from the disc golf / freestyle communities, some newer coaching tips from Fury, and look at these from a biomechanical / personal training / coaching lens.

I may have mentioned the throwing DVD before, it’s not a bad DVD but neither is it the best thing ever. Whether you’ve been throwing for a year or fourteen, you could probably pick up something from this DVD. However, not all the throwers shown have over a dozen years of high-level (elite) throwing experience, so I’m not sure I can (strongly) recommend a DVD that claims to teach you to throw “like a pro” and yet have basic throws that are not picture perfect (zero wobble). [Okay maybe I was bummed they didn’t teach the forehand lift or a few other obscure throws, or that they don’t step out that far as they lunge.]

In any case, I’m going to cover 5 aspects of the biomechanics of throwing in this post. The target audience is probably a throwing coach or player who has at least 4-6 years of consistent throwing experience, although less experienced and more experienced throwers might pick up an idea or two.

(1) Tendons vs Muscle Strength: the Tendon Bounce, (2) Body-as-a-Spring

(3) Disc-hand positioning, (4) I/O & O/I elbow-vs-wrist kinematics

(5) Arm / torso disassociation.

(1) on Tendon Bounce.

If you’ve ever studied professional disc golfers, they like to talk about this thing called “tendon bounce”. To break it down into biomechanical terms, what do you think are stronger, your tendons or your muscles? Let’s say in your wrist or ankle. Well, okay perhaps that’s hard to exactly suss out, but thought experiment aside, it’s worth remembering that whether for your Achilles tendon, your KB hard-style hip-snap, or your forehand huck, often times you can transmit much more force through a “tendon bounce” than an explicit muscling move.

In the running or jumping patterns of movement, folks like to talk about this as the SSC, the Stretch-Shortening Cycle. Without digressing into the debates over plyometrics, let’s just say it’s probably worth rethinking forehand flicks, at least, from that plyometric (ack, okay)- SSC / tendon bounce lens.

Why? as this article on tendon strength training points out, tendons can act as a conduit for much elastic energy, and “If force can be produced with the release of elastic energy, the muscles can get away with doing less work”. In other words, hucking most of the field without much muscular work. Why not? =)

Bringing this into practice is a little more tricky. Teaching forehands as a “flick” or by making the wrist motion itself tends to force less-flick and more fwap, less tendon but more muscle. Fine at first–especially considering that tendons develop (and heal!) much more slowly than muscles–but at an elite throwing level, this will slow your throwing progress down.

Perhaps a good coaching cue is to just to get the athlete / thrower to relax and “bounce” the energy through the wrist tendon rather than muscling it through. It’ll feel a lot easier and often fly a lot further! I’ve found it easier to adapt your forehand to the tendon-bounce, although with practice you can tendon-bounce on the backhand side for an additional 10-15 yds beyond 50-60 yds without too much trouble.

(2) Body-as-a-spring.

Picked this up from Nancy Sun of Fury. Visualize headlights on your shoulders. Turn the headlights to where you want the disc to go. Your body is “a spring”–build up kinetic energy from the ground up through your body.

If this doesn’t make sense to you, study Bruce Lee or watch that episode of Fight Science where boxers demonstrate how they initiate and then transmit energy through the kinetic chain of their body up until and through their fists. (Unfortunately not on right now?)

I see a lot of women throwers who could benefit not only from core strength (anti-rotation and anti-flexion that is) but understanding the kinematic linking from the ground and through the core / shoulder complex. So many girls “leak” energy through their shoulders (lat complex) as they try to pull backhand.

On the more advanced level, I should probably dedicate a whole blog post to the notion of superstiffness and its direct application to pulling consistently and yet strongly but I’ll just point readers to Stu McGill’s more recent work here, on the “impulse” or Dirac delta function of elite athletic performance, where one does the muscle-hit to relax to muscle hit again (just for a moment), no matter whether one is punching from a single inch or flicking to the other endzone. See McGill’s interview on the podcast if you are curious about this particular (advanced) topic.

(3) disc-hand position. A little more subtle but my coach suggested I play with different disc-hand positions, that is, when you grab the disc backhand, is your wrist in neutral or mild extension? Probably mild to moderate extension: mild for many, moderate for rookies. With the wrist in neutral, grabbing at the /leading/ edge of the disc facilitates a clean backhand I/O.

(4) Kinematic throwing chains. Elbow vs Wrist?

For over a dozen years I’ve been throwing mainly wrist-dominant flicks, but have recently started integrating more elbow bounce/leading into my forehand hucks. What is a little more subtle is, when you throw I/O vs O/I, do you hyzer vs anhyzer at the wrist or at the elbow? At a recent Fury clinic I attended, we were told to modulate your I/O vs O/I by flexing/extending your elbow rather than changing your wrist tilt.

Golden. This cleaned up my forehand I/O to the opposite hip so much that it looks completely different now. Thanks Fury handlers / Manu!

A note of course, remember that due to vascularity, you will develop tendon / ligamentous strength more slowly and recover more slowly compared to muscular development. This sort of work may take months and years rather than the days and weeks you can see with nervous system / muscle system changes. But also think about this, are you developing any tendon / ligamentous strength if all you do is bench & slow bilateral squat? Versus VO2max KB snatches or [insert exercise from Coach Dos’s Power _Training_]

After all, throwing well is not about strength as much as it is about power (and of course form, skill, practice). So go snatch, not donuts, but something a little heavier if you can.

(5) Arm / torso disassociation.

This came to mind recently as I studied a Fury player whose throws I admire. I often use elastic and kinematic-chain power to hit deeper looks, but the downside is that it becomes difficult to throw consistently in different lunge positions. Why? The pattern is full-body rather than “disassociated”. Another way to train is to disassociate the arm complex from the torso, doing mobility and throwing with the arm on one end of the shoulder socket, and mobility/movement on the rest of the body.

This way, you decouple throwing from running / lunging. Note that this also works with upper-body / lower-body disassociation too, for example think of the best NFL receivers–you can’t match up their upper-body movement from their lower-body patterns.

How does this help beyond more consistent throwing? The take-away is to consider this dimension when you train disc not in hand, for example doing cable work or KB MPs, do you sometimes train one movement upper-body, another lower-body? For example, chop & lift or twist / press above while lunge or split squat below.

That’s all for tonight folks, just 5 different ways to unpack throwing from a training / biomechanical lens. Now go throw and be merry.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 2, 2010 6:26 am

    Great post, and thanks for mentioning (and watching) the DVD. I love the analysis you give of tendon versus muscle use in throwing, it is very clear and as accurate as it can be.

    One thing that you mention is that tendons heal/develop much slower than muscles. I would like to stress that when people develop an injury in a tendon they immediately see a physiotheratist.

    These injuries can take a turn for the worst and due to the long recovery period, it is best to quickly act. Some advice I once got (off the record due to regulations) was to take Ibuprofene and Paracetamol (I don’t know if these names are the same around the world though) together. Mixed at 400/200 mg, for a week.

    This has shown by research to more quickly heal tendon injuries (with inflamation) if applied shortly after the first signs of the injury.

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