Volleyball Power Hitting Arm Swing After Back Injury

Teaching a “Rotational” Power Hitting Arm Swing After Back Injury


The Athlete’s Recent Injury

This 14 year old volleyball player had fractured two vertebrae in her lower back from arching her back while hitting (over the past few years of playing). The objective of our training session was to teach her how to hit without arching her back.

She had been in the care of a physician and physical therapist. The doctor had prescribed a back brace to keep her from arching her back so the fracture in the bones could heal.

I spoke with physical therapist and he agreed for me to work with her after she got out of the brace in 6 weeks. A week or two out of the brace she and her family traveled to Fort Collins, Colorado for some rotational power training.

Comments from Athlete’s Mom After Training

Training Objective

Our plan was to teach her how to rotate her hips, spine, shoulders and body versus arching (extending and flexing).

Our Training Session

Learning “Neutral Position”

At the start of the training session, after warming her up we got to work, staring in a kneeling position which would more than likely put her in an arched position so we could teach her how to activate, strengthen and stretch specific thigh and pelvic muscles to re-train her body where “neutral” is. (Neutral is a term to describe when her pelvis, hips and spine are in the ideal position, which in her case meant not arching her low back).

Picture 1 – The Before Picture

As shown above, when she knelt down on her knees, her pelvis tilted (tipped forwards).

We try to simplify the concept of the pelvis being like a bowl with milk in it. If the bowl doesn’t stay level the milk will spill out of the bowl.

In this athlete’s case (as with many young female athletes), her pelvis was tilted forwards (looking at her from a side view). In simple terms, her pelvis was positioned tilting forwards which would spill the milk out forwards. More importantly, if the pelvis is tilted forwards, this action of increases the arch in the spine in the lower back.

Picture 2 – Tilted Bowl (Pelvis)

The red line (in picture 1) shows an imaginary line intersecting where the center of her her hip joint, shoulder and ear are at in space (tilted forwards). Ideally, we would like to see the hip, shoulder and ear lined up vertically (shown by the green line).

(Tightness in the hip flexors and quadriceps and poor strength in her glutes and lower abdominal muscles have tilted her pelvis forwards, which once again arches her lower back inwards.)

Correcting a Forward Tilted Pelvis

To correct the position of the pelvis, we use a hip harness and resistance bands. She put the hip harness around her pelvis and then attached two light resistance bands to the harness. The backwards pull of the bands on the harness helps her feel how to engage and strengthen the correct muscles to level her pelvis and reduce the arch in her low back.

Picture 3 – Teaching Neutral Position

We taught her how to place her hands on her hips and tip her pelvis, from the forward tipped position shown above, backwards to a better more comfortable and less stressful “neutral” pelvis and lower back position.

The bands, attached to the hip harness, resists this movement and helps her activate, strengthen & stretch certain muscles so she can better align her hip, shoulder and ear vertically as indicated by the green line.

This exercise immediately turns on the glute muscles and a key lower abdominal muscle group called the “transverse abdominus” or TA. When the glutes and TA engage (activate) they stretch and relax the shortened muscles on the front of the thigh, pelvis and spine called the hip flexors and quadriceps. When tight or short, these muscles pull the pelvis and spine forwards, spilling the milk and putting her lower back into an arched position.

icture 4 – Finding Neutral Without Using the Hands

After learning how to use her hands to tilt her pelvis back to the neutral position, she takes her hands off her pelvis and holds this position to strengthen the muscles holding her in this position.

Watch the Training Video for this Segment

(Note: video quality is from parent’s phone and not professional camera).

Picture 5 – Single Leg Kneeling Against Resistance

Next, we progressed to a more advanced position, kneeling on a single leg.

Picture 5 shows the exercise progression from left-to-right. On the left, she was her natural forward tilted pelvic position with the increased arch in lower back. The second and third images show her repositioning her pelvis and lower back first with the hands on the hips and then without.Performing this exercise kneeling on one leg versus two is more difficult and builds greater strength to properly position her pelvis and lower back.

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Picture 6 – Adding More Resistance

Like any strength program, if you increase the resistance or weight working against the exercising muscles, the muscles will get stronger. Since she didn’t have any back pain with the lighter bands, we changed from the black bands to the orange bands to increase the amount of resistance.

As shown in the last image on the right, we also taught her how to better position her shoulders and scapula so her pelvis, spine and shoulders were all correctly positioned.

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Progression to Standing

Picture 7 – Standing Neutral

Since she was able to position her pelvis and spine on the floor (and tolerate it), it was time to progress her to a standing position. She initially used her hands to properly position pelvis and lower back.

Progression to Hitting Movements

Teaching Hip Turn

Picture 8 – Step and Turn Hips

She was tolerating all the exercises thus far, so on to hitting movements, and teaching her to turn her body versus arching and flexing it. We taught her how to turn her hips so she could hit the ball harder by turning her hips, while her pelvis and lower back were in neutral.

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Picture 9 – Strengthening the Hip Turn

(Note: in the picture above, the starting position for the swing is on the right side of the picture and she finishes the movement on the left side of the picture).

Since she was learning fast and had no back pain whatsoever, we started to increase the speed and intensity of her turning motions.

We attached a black (light) resistance band to her left hip. This band that would resist the turn of the hips (to her left) as she stepped and turned her hips to swung her arm. (Of course she had to position her pelvis correctly first and hold it in the neutral position as she swung).

Turning her hips against resistance activates and strengthens the muscles responsible for turning her hips through with greater force. The greater force creates a faster turn of the hips. The faster the hips turn, the faster the arm speed is to hit harder.

It’s basically like to a sling shot or a whip action.

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 using the turning of the hips.

In this athlete’s case, the turn of the hips allow her to hit the ball with greater force without arching her back and avoiding further stress and injury to her spine.

Adding the Approach

Picture 10 – Load Hips to Jump & Approach with Hip Turn

Next, we worked on her ability to load her hips (to use the correct muscles around her hips and pelvis) so she could bend, stand and perform her approach without arching her lower back.

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Getting in the Air

Picture 12 – Approach, Jump, Turn, Swing & Land

Finally we put it all together for her, adding all of the individual steps together, still focusing on creating hitting power rotationally and without arching her back to swing.

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