Using Shoulder Abduction for a More Relaxed and Powerful Swing
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I am surprised how often the “free” pendulum swing concept continues to be articulated today as a gold standard component of an outstanding physical game. In truth, when reviewing how the body works best, the concept of a pendulum swing is not consistent with good biomechanical movement.
Specifically, the range of motion of the shoulder joint associated with attempting a pendulum is a recipe for shoulder injuries due to the very limited movement in the backswing. It also reduces swing height, which lowers potential energy production.
From an anatomical and biomechanical perspective, an abducted upswing—one that moves to the side of your body—will be a catalyst for a freer swing, and it has the potential to lead to a significantly higher swing. With a higher swing, a bowler can increase the production of energy that can then be transferred to the ball. Moreover, a swing that moves to the side of your body will return toward the body and under the head naturally in the downswing, increasing directional accuracy. The bowler implementing an abducted upswing must align the shoulders at the top of the swing in order for the downswing to move into the body and be throw in the direction of the lane.
Visualizing shoulder abduction with EJ Tackett’s swing
Before we settle in with the instructional component of this article, I want you to take 30 seconds to watch a direct back view of EJ Tackett to see the true direction of his swing relative to his body. EJ Tackett was runner-up in earnings on the PBA Tour in 2017 with $222,008, second to only Jason Belmonte’s $238,912.
Notice how EJ’s upswing goes away from the body more to the side than directly behind the body. And, the downswing naturally falls toward the body. This movement, as you will learn, is defined as shoulder abduction in the upswing and shoulder adduction in the downswing. Moreover, this video illustrates clearly that a pendulum swing is not the Holy Grail of swings and we should work to describe a swing which is more anatomically and biomechanically effective than has been traditionally taught. I will illustrate the upswing and downswing movements below so that readers will understand the value of a swing such as EJ Tackett’s.
What is shoulder abduction?
Historically, bowling instructors have preached the value of a front-to-back “free” pendulum swing. To this day, this idea continues to be perpetuated by both coaches and bowlers on a day-to-day basis. Although, when reviewing elite swings, a prototypical pendulum swing is actually non-existent among most top bowlers.
Let’s begin by understanding more about how the shoulder system works anatomically in humans. This will help bowlers and coaches make better decisions associated with the physical game— especially when teaching swing direction. As you will learn, shoulder abduction offers bowlers a freer swing and more power production. An abducted upswing is literally perpendicular to what is traditionally taught in a pendulum swing, as it is parallel with the shoulder line.
As a first step, I want to define shoulder movement as it is utilized in bowling. Bowlers use shoulder extension or shoulder abduction in the upswing. First, shoulder extension is the movement in the backswing where the upswing is perpendicular to the shoulder and the movement is directly behind the shoulder. Imagine your shoulders perpendicular to your arm and the upswing going directly behind the shoulder. You can see this shoulder movement in the video clip below.
Measuring the range of motion of the shoulder joint begins in a neutral natural position of the hand at the side of your body, where it normally hangs when you are not moving when standing. As you can see in the video, the range of motion of shoulder extension is very limited. In actuality, it is only 50 to 60 degrees. This greatly restricts the ability to have a swing of any significant height and is potentially a catalyst for a shoulder repetitive use injury as hyperextension—going past the normal range of motion—can become an issue.
An upswing with shoulder abduction offers a significantly larger range of motion. Rather than directly perpendicular with your shoulders, shoulder abduction is the upward movement of the shoulder direct to the side of your body. To really understand this shoulder movement, think about how you do jumping jacks. Watch the following video clip to see shoulder abduction and shoulder adduction.
The up movement is shoulder abduction and the down movement is shoulder adduction. Compared to shoulder extension, the range of motion from the neutral position is significantly larger. Specifically, it approaches 180 degrees.
A simple calculation yields a range of motion difference of 3 to 3.6 times between shoulder abduction and shoulder extension. From a logical perspective, shoulder abduction will lead to a higher and a freer swing. To feel the tension differences between the two upswing directions, stand in front of a mirror. Imitate what you saw in my instructional videos above. Start with shoulder extension and then try shoulder abduction. You will likely be surprised by the significant difference in tension between the two shoulder movements.
Accordingly, swinging the ball to the side of the body enables both a freer swing and a swing that can go significantly higher immediately. The key is to understand how to move the body into specific positions with this swing motion so the downswing will move into the body and under the head in the release to follow-through movement. I will discuss this step-by-step a few paragraphs below.
Achieving shoulder abduction – step by step
In an effort to help you implement an upswing which is abducted, here is a straightforward, three-step focus point process. It begins with swing start direction and articulates how the shoulders should be aligned and finishes in step three with a reminder to maintain the head position from the top of the swing in the downswing.
The easiest way to achieve an abducted upswing is to move the ball to the inside when you start the ball. Think cause and effect. If the ball moves to the inside, the corresponding direction will be away. One visual cue to help implement this move consistently is to think about moving the ball over the slide foot (or between the feet) and then let it swing freely into the upswing. To get the feeling of this swing start movement, I recommend a practice swing before attempting in the full approach.
Here is a practice swing drill that illustrates the swing start direction to more easily produce shoulder abduction in the upswing. It was featured as part of my Bowling This Month article entitled How to Transfer Energy Cleanly: Creating efficiency in your swing line.
After starting the ball into the swing, align the front shoulder to the back shoulder by moving the non-bowling elbow out away from the body and in front of or to the outside of the ball-side hip. In a five-step approach, this would start moving as the bowler transitions from step two to step three. There is no need to focus on a thumb down position of the hand of the non-bowling arm, as it is literally irrelevant to the shoulder alignment process. Shoulder alignment is a necessary component in both shoulder abduction in the upswing and shoulder adduction in the downswing.
To ensure shoulder alignment, I highly recommend getting the non-ball-side elbow to the ball-side hip—and preferably outside of the body—to ensure shoulder alignment is realized in the upswing and shoulder adduction moves into the body in the direction of the lane. Tennis players and other athletes align the shoulders by moving the elbow outside the body. Notice how the tossing arm elbow position of the tennis player below aligns his shoulders, front to back.
This is very similar to how the King of Swing, Michael Fagan, aligned his shoulders.
Michael Fagan (Photo courtesy of PBA LLC)
Although the arm position, with the elbow to the ball-side hip or outside the hip, will ensure shoulder alignment and facilitate the upper body being more relaxed, it is not necessary as long as the front shoulder aligns to the back early enough in the swing. Both EJ Tackett and Ronnie Russell illustrate shoulder alignment independent of an ideal non-bowling arm position. This shoulder alignment still enables shoulder adduction into the body in the direction of the pins on the downswing. As with EJ Tackett, Ronnie Russell employs a shoulder abducted upswing.
Ronnie Russell and EJ Tackett (Photos courtesy of PBA LLC)
With or without an exaggerated non-bowling arm position, work to align the shoulders after the ball start is engaged. Paired with the abducted upswing, it will setup a downswing adducted into the body under the head into the release in the direction of the lane. I strongly recommend focusing on the non-bowling arm elbow relative to the ball-side hip to ensure you align your shoulders at the top of the swing. Also notice that in each of the examples above, the bowlers have created space under the body with both lateral and forward spine tilt.
Once the shoulders are aligned front-to-back, the final piece of implementation is to is to allow the back shoulder to rotate down under the front shoulder as the ball-side shoulder adducts back into the body in the downswing. This will simultaneously maintain the head position—from the top of the swing to the bottom—to allow accurate eye tracking on the target line, while also ensuring the downswing adduction direction is into the body and under the head in the direction of the lane.
Ryan Ciminelli (Photos courtesy of PBA LLC)
One important caveat to be aware of when opening the torso and aligning the shoulder is potential over-rotation off-line of the shoulder system. Specifically, the rotation of the back shoulder under the front will protect the upper body from the non-ball side shoulder rotating and pulling the head to the inside. If the back shoulder doesn’t rotate under the front shoulder, the non-ball shoulder will work to close the shoulders—much like a discus thrower—and rotate the head off-line. When the head moves off-line due to the shoulder movement, it will impact accuracy as your eyes are moving off-line and your arm will move to the outside. In short, the goal from the top of the swing with the shoulders aligned front-to-back is to maintain the head outside of the body on the downswing.
Shoulder abduction produces a better downswing into the body
Better bowlers have downswings which move into the body. A swing which is abducted on the up will adduct on the down into the body naturally. Once again, think about jumping jacks. The upswing goes to the side of the body and the downswing returns to the body naturally and automatically.
In May 2012, I introduced readers to a new concept, the downswing angle. In Calculating a Downswing Angle: How to create an elite swing shape, I defined a method of quantifying the angle of the downswing relative to the top or near the top of the swing, the point where the ball moves inward or away from the body. We want to see the downswing naturally move into the body, shoulder abduction in the upswing to shoulder adduction in the downswing.
Accordingly, when you move from a shoulder extension upswing to one which is abducted, you will improve the likelihood that the downswing will move into the body rather than move away from the body in the downswing, improving your direction. Use the downswing angle calculation process to determine your current downswing angle versus when you implement the new abducted upswing.
Shoulder abduction is present in two-handers by default
Since Osku Palermaa and Jason Belmonte burst onto the bowling scene, we have seen the emergence of two-handed bowlers act as a catalyst for rejuvenating interest in our sport. Much enthusiasm and energy has been infused with many youth bowlers adapting or starting as two-handers. And, it is not surprising due to the rev rates produced and the success of many elite two-handers. Five of the top 15 earners on the PBA Tour in 2017—including number one Jason Belmonte and number three Jesper Svennson—were two-handers. In 2018, five of the top 12 are two-handed.
As a coach, I have worked with nearly 50 two-handers and spent an inordinate amount of time analyzing two-handed biomechanics in my career. Two-handers establish a trunk position more naturally which enables shoulder abduction in the upswing and shoulder adduction in the downswing. We can view body position movement to facilitate shoulder abduction in the upswing and shoulder adduction in the downswing in this approach sequence of Osku Palermaa that I photographed in Spain several years ago.
Osku Palermaa approach sequence
In the third frame of the sequence, Palermaa’s torso has rotated, preparing the upswing for shoulder abduction. One of the major focal points for my teaching of two-handers is elbow alignment in the swing that ensures shoulder alignment at the top of the swing. This is similar to my recommendation of shoulder alignment with the elbow outside of the ball-side hip in one-handers. You can see this well in the fifth frame. With this body position and an upswing that is abducted, the downswing will be adducted into the body and under the head into the release position as long as the head remains outside of the body. The position of the upper body ensures the downswing shoulder adduction is in the direction of the lane and intended target lines.
Osku Palermaa and Shawn Maldonado (Photos courtesy of PBA LLC)
An upswing that produces shoulder abduction is a solution for you to have a freer swing and to produce more power because your swing will most likely naturally increase in height as the range of motion of the shoulder joint is 3 to 3.6 times larger. Moreover, a shoulder abducted upswing is significantly healthier and will allow you to bowl without pain while reducing risk of a shoulder injury, since this shoulder movement is more bowler-friendly over time.
By focusing on biomechanics and anatomy, we are sure to understand the cause and effect sequences associated with how the body works. This enhances performance while reducing the likelihood of injury. If you want to learn more about a biomechanical approach to the physical game, I encourage you to enroll in my Biomechanical Efficiency Model course. This course is based on thousands of hours of research, as well as my experience implementing this model with bowlers.