Strategies: Learning to Exceed Your Reach

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

Strategies: Learning to Exceed Your Reach
By Ken McAlpine

The games of summer demand reach, the supple, powerful upper-body extension that enables you to charge a rapid, clean a 5.10 pitch, or spike a volleyball. And acquiring a good reach isn't just a matter of lifting and stretching. "Unless your training specifically mimics the stresses you're going to experience out there," says Arnie Kander, a former professional dancer who's now the strength and conditioning coach for the Detroit Pistons, "you're setting yourself up for some potentially gruesome shoulder and back injuries." Here Kander and Dan McDonough, coordinator of sports medicine for the U.S. Volleyball Team, outline a few exercises to help ensure that you won't spend the summer nursing your aches or flossing bits of volleyball out from between your teeth.

Sit-ups with a Twist
"When it comes to upper-body strength and flexibility," says Kander, "everything you're going to do begins with the abs." He recommends an exercise that not only strengthens and flexes the abs, but ropes in most of the rest of your upper body, too--back, chest, and shoulder muscles, plus the much defiled rotator cuffs.

Grab a basketball or volleyball. Lie flat on the ground, perpendicular to a wall, with your feet a few inches away from it. Holding the ball to your chest, sit up slowly (Photo 1). When you get all the way up, throw the ball against the wall with your right hand, catch it on the rebound, and slowly lie back down. Do this ten times with your right hand and ten with your left. Then do ten reps throwing with your right hand and catching with your left, and ten the other way around.

Now turn so that you're lying parallel to the wall. Repeat each set of sit-ups and tosses as above, but at the top of each sit-up, turn your upper body to face the wall (Photo 2). "This rotation work is often the missing link in stretching and strengthening," explains Kander, who recommends three sets of this routine daily.

One-handed Resistance Work
When these exercises start feeling simple, you can turn up the heat. You'll need a partner for this one. Again, lie prone, now with your throwing arm fully extended behind your head. Hold the ball in that hand. Bring your shoulders and arm up off the floor about 30 degrees, keeping your arm extended. Hold that position for five seconds, while your partner pushes on the ball from different angles without knocking it from your hand (Photo 3). Repeat until you can't hold the ball or the position. "Defending the ball from different angles forces you to contract different components of the abs," says Kander.

Swinging a Medicine Ball
For superior reaction skills and all-around upper-body conditioning, Kander suggests an exercise with a medicine ball. Stand facing a partner three feet away so that you can fully extend your arms. Hold the medicine ball and swing it side to side at a fast enough clip so that you're tired after a dozen reps. Have your partner intermittently turn her palms toward you. As soon as you see her palms, push the medicine ball into them; then go back to the side-to-side twist until she shows her palms again. Do ten to 15 reps.

Pull-ups with Hang Time
Simple pull-ups are great upper-body strengtheners to complement the ball work. "Do the same pull-ups you did as a kid, only hang at the bottom for two to five seconds," says Dan McDonough. "This is a strengthening position because it contracts the muscles at the end of their range of motion." If you haven't done pull-ups for a while, McDonough advises starting with only four or six. Gradually work your way up to as many as three sets of ten. Do them once daily--one day with your palms facing in, the next day with your palms facing out. "When you get strong at this," says McDonough, "hold your knees up at hip height while you're pulling yourself up. This strengthens your abs and your pelvic stabilizers."

Stick with the program and you'll be amazed at your new reach. "You'll play better and longer," says McDonough, "and that's what summer's about."

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