Think of your body as a whip and let fundamental physics improve the length on your hucks.
May 16, 2017 by Benji Heywood in Opinion with 12 comments
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Where should the power come from in a huck?
A couple of years ago, I published an article on Ultiworld about throwing without the body. For any competent thrower, it should be possible to throw with just the arm. As an extreme example, if the hips/shoulders are currently rotating the wrong way to add power to the throw — perhaps I pivoted to the forehand side but now want to throw quickly halfway through my move back across to the backhand side1 — it’s still clearly possible to propel the disc forwards. Obviously, the body is not doing nothing — it provides stability and the muscular power to drive the arm, for a start — but it’s equally obvious that the forward momentum of the disc comes not from a rotation of the hips or shoulders but from further down the kinetic chain.
The power in a throw should come from whichever part of your body is most efficient in a given situation — it may be from rotation of your core, but it may be from somewhere else. That variety in how you generate the power for a throw, I still very much believe, is key to being able to throw well in unpredictable game situations. I could start a throw from the ground up or I could start it from the shoulder or, for very short, quick throws, I could start it from the elbow and barely move even my upper arm.
So all of these different parts of the kinetic chain — hips, shoulders, upper arm, lower arm, wrist — are capable of contributing some power to a throw.
Back to today’s question: where should the power come from in a huck?
When throwing for distance, many of us naturally assume that the correct thing to do is to apply force to each part of the kinetic chain, one after the other. If I can get maximum force out of my hips, then add some more power from my shoulders, then my upper arm and so on, then I should put maximal speed on the disc. We know that each part of my body is capable of producing power, so the maximum speed must come from using all of them one after another. Right?
It’s great in theory, but in practice it can’t easily be done, and certainly not without many years of practice. Even today, after 20 years, the first thing I do when my throws don’t feel right is to try less hard — and then watch as the disc travels further.
The timing required to meaningfully attack every part of the throw is almost impossible to achieve. What happens instead is that the various parts of the chain fight each other. Instead of one part of the chain effortlessly transferring momentum to the next, each joint’s attempt to gain momentum of its own will overlap and clash with something else.
When something wants to accelerate, it must push back against something else. Accelerating my arm, using the muscles of my upper body, will push back against the rotation of my shoulders. If at the same time I’m trying to accelerate my shoulder, it’s easy to see that they will be fighting each other. The overall effect is a lot of wasted effort and sub-optimal disc speed.
But what could possibly be more successful than trying my hardest to throw as hard as I can? How can the relaxed style possibly be so effective as to propel a disc farther than some muscle-freak straining every sinew?
Your Body As A Whip
The key to it all is the concept of a whip. The crack of a whip is caused by the end of it breaking the sound barrier.2 Is that because each part of the whip is trying its hardest to add a bit more power all the way down? Obviously not. So how does a whip get moving so fast?
At the start, the whole whip is in motion. You pull forwards so that the whole length of it is all moving forward at a similar rate. But then, you stop one end of the whip.
Most of the whip carries on traveling forwards, and as it catches up to the stopped bit, more and more of the whip stops in turn. But the overall momentum in the system remains the same — as each tiny bit of string stops, it transfers its momentum onwards.
What was previously an entire long moving string becomes an increasingly short moving string, with an inevitably smaller mass, but still with the same total momentum.3 The same momentum with a smaller mass means a higher speed (since momentum = velocity x mass). As more and more of the whip stops until eventually only the very end of the whip is moving, the mass is MUCH lower and therefore the speed is MUCH higher — perhaps 30 times as fast as the initial movement of the person cracking the whip.
Similarly, imagine an ice skater heading past you, arms outstretched, as you stand on a convenient non-slippy bit of ground. If you grab their nearest hand as they pass, their center of mass will continue at a similar speed to before, albeit now dragged around in a circle instead of a straight line.4 This means means their other hand — twice as far away from the stopped hand as their center of mass is, and therefore travelling around a much bigger circle — must be going about twice as fast as their body.
Now imagine a long line of skaters, stretching out behind the first. Grab the hand of the lead skater as they pass. Each skater in the line is holding the faster, outside hand of the one before and gets pulled faster. As each swings round in front of you and stops, the momentum is broadly conserved, but applies to fewer and fewer still-moving skaters — each of which gets faster and faster. Of course, in reality you’d struggle to hold on to them all, just as a particularly heavy or weak whip would snap in two (try whipping a piece of cooked spaghetti…). But the principle is sound.
Back to throwing. Whips generate insane speed despite not having any additional energy input in the later part of the motion. The same can be true of your throws. You will get more speed on the disc if your arms are more like a piece of string.
Relax the arm and all the joints. Simply move your core and let the rest of it flow like a whip. That will be hard for many people, but 95% of us can get more spin and more speed on the disc by trying less hard. Just let it happen. Start smoothly and focus on trying to let that momentum from your big, powerful core flow down the kinetic chain to a final wrist snap.
Diagnosing Your Backhand Huck
There’s a quick way to diagnose how well you are doing this on a backhand huck.5 The crucial diagnostic is the direction the forearm is pointing in — and for how long.
Think about the arm as just a loose set of levers and hinges. In the early to middle part of the backhand throw, the elbow is pulling forwards, and so a loose forearm is going to be pointing straight backwards away from the target.6
Only when the elbow has gone nearly as far forward as it can and begins to pull around to the right7 will a relaxed forearm start to snap around and overtake the elbow. So, if you look at yourself in slow motion video (most phones can film that these days) and see your forearm coming away from that straight line early in the motion, it can ONLY be because you have applied some force to it directly rather than just letting it be pulled through like a whip.8 If so, relax, and you will be able to throw further.
Here’s Jimmy Mickle, Kurt Gibson, and Trent Dillon9 showing that their technique is very much the traditional ‘lawnmower pull’ rather than trying to drive too early with the muscles of the forearm itself.
Strength in the arm is generally far less important than technique. Timing is so much more important than power that it’s quite possible for even little wiry guys to throw so far. If you try and ‘power’ the throw, you’ll pull that forearm out early and lose all the whip.10
Once you have really got the feel for it, you’ll be amazed how much speed you can generate with minimal effort. Even for a little arm-only toss, you need far less effort than you might think, and as long as you let that (relatively slow) initial motion flow down through the chain you’ll generate plenty of speed. Players with good technique appear to be throwing slowly, because there’s no need for a hard effort and a jerky start to the throw — they just do a good job of transferring and multiplying the speed down the chain.
A simple test — go and throw 50 hucks at full distance. Is your arm tired? If so, you’re doing it wrong. You might eventually get tired in the core, or in the non-pivot leg that takes your weight, though both of those ought to be fairly robust. You might get sore joints in the arm if you aren’t used to doing it, particularly on the forehand.
But your arm is just a piece of string, and the muscles should not be working hard. The weirder that sounds to you, the more room for improvement you probably have in your timing.
See the gif below, where Jack Lynch (Ireland U24s) throws a give-and-go while his shoulders are rotating the wrong way to generate power in the throw. ↩
Well, not really — it turns out that the actual crack may be caused by the U-shaped bend in the whip breaking the sound barrier. The end of the whip, in fact, reaches DOUBLE the speed of sound! ↩
Barring smallish effects from air resistance and friction within the rope itself etc. ↩
There’s nothing much causing their body to slow down, even though their hand has been stopped, so their speed is largely conserved. All the effort you’re putting in to holding on to them is dragging them round in a circle, but at all times that force is perpendicular to their direction of travel so won’t affect how fast they’re going.
If you doubt that, ask yourself why the Olympic hammer doesn’t decelerate as the thrower pulls it around in a circle… They’re able to add more speed to it by spinning faster, but that would certainly be impossible if the mere act of dragging it round in a circle was slowing it down. ↩
Similar principles apply to the forehand, but it’s much easier to explain on the backhand where the forearm angle stays fairly constant for a while, and there’s also a little less variation in people’s technique. ↩
If you pull one end of something, the other end will be left behind and it will line up in the direction of acceleration, unless some other force is applied ↩
For a right-handed backhand ↩
Actually, that’s not quite true. It could be coming out early because you started with the disc hidden behind your body rather than straight back from your elbow, and it’s now going around in a big circle the entire time. That’s not today’s discussion, but do look out for that problem, too. It’s not a coincidence that top throwers start with the forearm pointing backwards rather than wrapped around behind their bodies. For those who really want to push the limits of this discussion, note that many really long distance throwers actually bring the forearm in during the backhand throw — start wide, come in a little, then whip round late. (Star disc golfer Simon Lizotte can be seen doing this slightly in slow motion disc golf drives, for example.) It’s a wide-narrow-wide throwing motion; utterly opposite from what happens if you try to muscle the disc early. This idea of coming in a little just before it snaps around is somewhat analogous to how the ‘loop’ of a whip travels down its length — any given segment of the whip actually travels the other way as the loop passes it, before snapping back hard. Bringing the forearm in close to the chest, having started it out wide, can actually increase the whippiness of the throw, though it’s worth noting this isn’t always optimal in ultimate in the same way it might be in a distance driving competition. Still, though, if you’re practicing and wanting to get a feel for timing, wide-narrow-wide is a very useful thing to mess around with. ↩
Apologies for the quality, this is screengrabbed from slow-motion video I took at WUGC ’16. ↩
Maybe, even, those guys with skinny arms taper down to a skinny wrist, while your enormous gym-honed forearms, with their larger mass, travel slower! ↩