Throwing Heavy, Throwing Light: A Guide for Athletic Coaches
BY BEN HAWKES
I remember the first time I saw someone throwing a heavy hammer. It was a senior athlete in the group throwing an 8-kilo ball. I was 14, throwing a 4 kilo myself and was astounded at the thing's weight. I've been throwing heavy balls in training for about 6 years now and light balls for about 4, but I have only recently understood why.
It's often said that you throw heavy to get stronger and light to get quicker. Whilst this is true, a lot more goes into - and comes out of - throwing different balls. Different people react differently to other hammers, too - so it can become a bit muddy in terms of finding out what works for you and why. It's important stuff to know, though. A better understanding of training methods allows you to make changes on the fly, avoid training errors and ultimately perform better.
Most of this will come from the perspective of a Hammer thrower, but it can easily be applied to Discus and Shot putters.
THROWING HEAVY ATHLETIC EQUIPMENT
Throwing heavy balls can be really useful for throwers. It can stop you from rushing the throw, builds up a load of strength in relevant musculature and connective tissue, and can give you more awareness of where the implement is and what you're doing to it (or, more importantly, what it's doing to you).
It's common for male throwers to throw up to around a 12-kilo hammer and even heavier on a short wire for swings and release work. For females, you're looking at going up to the 7 kilo for throwing and heavier for quick heavy work. This kind of stuff really builds up the 'hammer strength' or specific strength we spoke about in Specific Strength for Athletic Throwers.
Throwing heavy can have its drawbacks. However, causing athletes to pull the hammer or tense up shortens the effective radius of the implement. This is the same in discus, and tensing up will lead to the disc being closer to the body, shortening the radius. What's more, if you throw too heavy too often, you can lose feel for the competition weight. A good rule of thumb for most is to throw competition weight for at least ⅓ to ½ of your training throws and more in the competition season. Regaining that feel can take weeks, so it's important to plan your heavy throwing according to key training and competitions.
As with most training methods, the effectiveness of throwing heavy is heavily dependent on the reason for using it and how it is implemented. Technical changes should be closely monitored, and coaches should understand how a heavy ball can affect such changes.
THROWING LIGHT ATHLETIC EQUIPMENT
Light implements can be handy for teaching positioning, rhythm, and understanding of the event. Personally, I think light hammers are massively underutilised in this regard, instead seen only as a means of increasing speed. Unlike heavy implements, which have a great effect on building specific strength, light hammers can only go so far in improving the speed of the throw. Here's a short explanation as to why:
Specific strength is needed to maintain posture and balance as the effective weight of an implement increases with its velocity, with increasing forces pulling the athlete outside their base of support. Such strength allows the athlete to create leverage on the implement and further expand its speed.
For this reason, light hammers can only do so much to increase the ball's speed. The ball accelerates itself, and rather than actively increasing its speed, the athlete can do little more than hang off the (in this case) hammer using vast amounts of the lower body and trunk strength to create space for it to run into.
Though light hammers might familiarise the athlete with increased ball speeds (and build confidence at those speeds), reduced RoM strength training in tandem with plyometric training might be a more effective training modality. This is because it could actually increase the force an athlete can impart into the ground at such high speeds.
Light hammers have an excellent capacity for familiarisation and confidence-building at high speeds, as briefly mentioned above. With the adrenaline (and caffeine) of competition coursing through your veins, the competition weight implement will likely be travelling faster than in training. Thus you need to understand how to deal with higher speeds.
Moreover, a lighter hammer means less energy is expended on 'trying to throw' the implement. Therefore, more physical - and cognitive capacity can be allocated to technical changes and effectively implementing coaching cues. Indeed, not all throws have to be taken at a high intensity. You can make many changes to your technique by throwing a light hammer submaximally.
WHAT APPROACH SHOULD I TAKE WHEN COACHING MY ATHLETES?
We briefly touched on this earlier, but throwing light or heavy should not detract from your training with the competition weight implement instead of complementing the work you're doing there. Most coaches will throw heavier in the winter and lighter in the summer, but this is perhaps based upon the (in my opinion) flawed understanding of heavy = strong, light = fast.
Instead, I would approach the use of heavy and light hammers in the context of the athlete you're working with, the technical changes you're looking to make, and how far away from competition (and key competition) you are. Remember that the further you stray from competition weight, the longer you will likely take to find feeling with that weight and back at comp weight.
With all this said, I encourage you to experiment and find out what works for you.