What throwers need to know about variable weight training

Faster. Stronger. Higher. Further.

If you’re a track and field athlete or coach, you’re chasing one or more of these goals. But how do you get there? What systems do you use? What will work for you? With new online training programs popping up for sale each day, who can you trust?

While there’s diversity in implementation and terminology, there’s one thing many top track and field coaches around the globe can agree on--you need variable weight throwing in your plan. Whether you throw the shot put, discus, hammer or javelin, you can benefit from throwing heavy and light implements in a systematic way throughout the year.

Variable weight training growth

General concepts about variable weight training have been around for decades, but grew steadily throughout the NCAA system thanks to a number of track legends, including former Soviet national coach Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk. Concepts like “special strength” and a deliberate and systematic categorization of exercises became increasingly popular throughout the NCAA. The Bondarchuk camp would argue that it’s not the squat, deadlift or bench press that most directly correlates to throwing performance, but instead very specific exercises and throwing development utilizing both very heavy and very light implements.

In addition to Bondarchuk’s research and writing, it comes as no surprise that his athletes consistently proved variable weight training to be hugely successful. Martin Bingisser, Swiss national hammer throw champion, became a major proponent for the style of training after being coached by Bondarchuk post-collegiately. Today, his website, www.hmmrmedia.com, is rich with resources for coaches and athletes around the world, like his recent GAINcast with legendary coach Vern Gambetta where they discuss structuring training.

Developing a system

Regardless of the brand of implement you use, coaches need to tailor a plan for the individual athlete. Like any quality plan, variable weight training requires consistency, organization, accuracy and a plan. Even then, after the plan is constructed, coaches need to shift based on results in a trial and error process for each athlete.

When you lay out your plan, be sure to consider:

Age: Consider not only the athlete’s age and goals, but also their training age. The training age factors in how long the athlete has been training and what types of weight they’ve handled in the past. That said, variable weight training is not just for advanced throwers. Beginners can especially benefit from light implements to develop their technique, whereas more advanced athletes may find more benefits from the special strength development from heavy throwing.

Needs and skill level: Teach the basics with very light implements, low intensity and a lot of high quality reps. Add weight only as the athlete improves in skill and can execute proper technique with the heavier implement.

Technique: Athletes can gain strength, speed and improve technique by throwing both heavy and light implements. Once an athlete becomes intermediate or advanced, he or she may be able to “feel” new aspects of the throw with either a light or heavy implement.

Attitude: Tread lightly if the athlete can't perform quality technique with a particular implement. Struggle can be good. Too much struggle can discourage both athletes and coaches. This is where coaching crosses over from science into art. 

Metrics: Smart systems find what stimulates results for any given athlete. To identify results, you need data to analyze. Write down training personal bests with different implements, conduct mock competitions in the fall with heavy or light implements and keep records from year to year.

Make it your own: Be creative and have fun. Try new things. Start a shared google doc with each athlete to track training. Make a record board for different implement weights.  It’s OK if you haven’t kept quality records in the past. You can always start today and then stick with it. If you’re an NCAA coach, the fall is a great time to start anew. 

A word of caution

After you’ve established your plan, it’s important to identify what kinds of implements you’ll use. And here lies a nagging problem for coaches: many equipment manufacturers often offer heavy and light implements, but in inconsistent dimensions and materials.

For example, if an athlete typically throws a 16 pound, 127mm shot put in competition, but wants to train with a 14 pound shot, it can be difficult to find that weight in the same competition diameter. Often the athlete would drop to throw the 14 pound shot but at a diameter more like 115mm. This may seem insignificant at first, but consider how the diameter change adds several new variables to the throw, like how the shot put fits in the athlete's hand and neck and how the implement releases off the fingers on the final push and flick of the wrist and hand.

In a sport decided by centimeters consistency is key.

If you train with an implement that’s a different diameter than you compete with, you can expect:

  • Textures, grip and feel to vary.
  • To waste a number of throws during the adjustment to the new diameter. 
  • Overall different experience than what the athlete will have in competition.

Bottom line? First, think through your plan. Second, invest in a line of variable weight implements that don’t differ in diameter.

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